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Mad Men, the Jewish Doctor, and Dante’s Inferno

The sixth season of Matthew Weiner’s hit AMC show begins

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Sunday night was the premiere of the sixth season of the hit AMC show Mad Men. If you didn’t watch it live or haven’t yet seen it on your DVR, Hulu, or the AMC website then for the love of all that’s good, stop reading this now or I am going to spoil everything for you.

There are plenty of good recaps out there, there are even recaps of the recaps, but given certain developments of the explosive season opener, I felt the show warranted a touch of Scroll. Enjoy!

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The season premiere begins with something we haven’t seen much of in the series: a subjective camera shot. We see the world through the eyes of someone on the floor looking up while being resuscitated. It’s a terrifying, disorienting point-of-view shot that ends with a dissolve. Next we’re on a beach in Hawaii with Don Draper, who, while eyeing his pulchritudinous bikini-clad wife Megan, cites a line in voiceover from Dante’s Inferno:

“Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

We’re back and Don’s happiness is fleeting. This is what makes the show so addictive. Season Five ends with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce turning a handsome profit, landing the Jaguar account, and cracking open a second floor of the office. It all comes at a terrible price–Joan’s dignity, Lane’s life. The abscess tooth that plagued Don through the Season Five finale might have been extracted, but the interior sting remains: by getting Megan cast in a commercial, he’s paved the way for his wife’s stardom, making him a disposable character, ambling off-set away from the lights.

Don and Megan are in Hawaii so Don can abuse conduct research for the Sheraton Hotel account, but it’s Megan buying the pot, being smothered by an effusive soap opera fan, dancing on stage at the luau, and initiating the sex. Don can only brood, read from the Divine Comedy, and try and fail at sleep. Through what feels like ten opening minutes, Don doesn’t utter a word other than that initial voiceover until he shuffles down to the hotel bar after Megan falls asleep and reluctantly befriends PFC Dinkins, a drunken GI on a R&R stint/bender/bachelor party/wedding getaway from Vietnam.

Dinkins utters the fatalist ramblings of a soldier doomed and Don politely indulges him. The viewer knows that when Don was at war in Korea, Don wrote his own death script–switching his own dogtags with the real Don Draper, who lies dead, and letting the world declare Dick Whitman dead. We also know this act of administrative suicide and reinvention didn’t spare Don much trouble even after he survived the war and came home. But he’s kind enough to keep his trap shut.

When Dinkins declares that being married will help keep him alive in Vietnam and give him some purpose, Don doesn’t spoil it for him. When Dinkins asks Don to hellraise with him a little, Don obliges. At sunrise, fatherless, twice-divorced Don gives away the bride at PFC Dinkins’ wedding on the beach. Megan having woken up alone, encounters the tender scene unfolding on the beach and, like a tourist, takes a picture. There are a lot of cameras in this episode and you can’t help but make the association between photography and the stealing of the soul as Megan snaps a photo of a tropical scene so inwardly heavy with context, but idyllic to the outsider.

Soon, Don finds himself back in wintry New York at the end of 1967, being subjected to a company photo shoot. When he’s told to be his natural pensive self, Don digs into his pocket to light a cigarette and finds Dinkins’ army lighter, switched with his own. The camera shoots the moment–Don’s momentary paralysis at the discovery, a camera-ready dolefulness bearing an outward resemblance to wisdom.

It’s on the return to New York that the fuzziness of the opening scene is resolved. The man on the floor is Don’s doorman Jonesy and his savior is Dr. Arnold Rosen, a fellow tenant, heart surgeon of much renown, and seemingly one of the few characters in the entirety of the series to whom Don is wholly reverential.

The episode title is “The Doorway,” but it would be awfully ham-fisted to limit considerations of the title to the doorman. The doorway as a symbol for a fulcrum point, fidelity and infidelity, the space between moral extremes, the interior and exterior, and life and death are all tallied throughout. Readers of The Inferno (and the high school companion Robert Frost) know that hell is not just heat (Hawaii, where poor PFR Dinkins envisions his own death as a very bloody 1968 fatefully approaches), but also ice (New York, where Jonesy has just been saved). In her new job, Peggy has gloriously pivoted from deputy to sheriff. Roger, despite his success, laments the fruitlessness of everything, feeling nothing when his mother dies at first, only to crater when he finds out that his shoeshine guy is also on permanent vacation.

Betty sways between the two poles–dutiful wife, disrespected mother–and takes leave of the comfort of suburban Rye to seek out a runaway in a grimy squatter house in the East Village. Having failed at her mission to find the girl and desperate for some kind of attention, she dyes her hair from blonde to black. The family reaction covers the spectrum between disgust and enchantment.

But the real meat of the premiere (for me) is Don and Arnold Rosen. Don’s eagerness for Rosen’s approval has the tenor of a teenage crush. Faithful to the theme, Don–whose company has the Leica account–gifts Rosen an expensive camera from the closet at the office. It fits. Don is fascinated with how Rosen is the gatekeeper between death and life and wants to see what Rosen sees.

Don may feel a deficit, but Rosen sees them both as the same person. Even near the episode’s end as Dr. Rosen is strapping on his winter skis to heroically battle his way to the hospital in the middle of a New Year’s Eve snowstorm (ostensibly to save someone’s life), Rosen sees no distinction:

“The whole life and death thing doesn’t bother me, never has. You get paid to think about things they don’t want to think about. I get paid to not think about them. People do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”

Matthew Weiner bothers to give Rosen a lot of texture for a brand new character, perhaps the most surprising detail is the fact that Rosen has a wife named Silvia who has adorned the Rosen household with crucifixes. American Jewish intermarriage was still in the single digits in the 1960s so if there is a theme of taboo or temptation to be divined from all this talk of doorways, it makes perfect sense that even as Rosen is skiing away to his emergency, Don is sneaking into Rosen’s apartment through the service entrance to sleep with Silvia.

It’s as startling moment as the end of the Mad Men pilot episode all those seasons back when Don, after carousing all day through the city with a young libertine, rides the train home to his beautiful house in Westchester where his beautiful wife–unseen and unknown to the viewer beforehand–awaits him. But this time, it’s the opposite direction. The episode arc here is all matrimony and then suddenly ends with infidelity. The negative of a photograph. Or the other side of the doorway.

Contrary to the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men–quoted in an earlier season by Paul Kinsey–1967 ends not with a whimper, but a bang.

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Great write-up!

Elke Summer says:

wow, I couldn’t have put it better myself!!

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Mad Men, the Jewish Doctor, and Dante’s Inferno

The sixth season of Matthew Weiner’s hit AMC show begins

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