Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Pete Campbell… (Michael Yarish / AMC )
In the category of “high-class problems,” having a show whose return is anticipated so feverishly that it’s inevitably going to be something of a letdown is pretty near the top of the list, but that’s the cross that Matt Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” has to bear after Sunday’s slow-moving, two-hour-plus season premiere, "The Doorway."
Things almost always get off to a slow start on this show, as if Weiner knows our brains might explode if too much happens right out of the gate, but even by those standards “The Doorway” was, until the last few minutes, a notably and, I think, willfully uneventful episode.
Think about it: Most of "The Doorway" takes place in 1967, and not much happens, but as soon as the new year arrives things at last get interesting. In the wee small hours of 1968, the show finally reveals the answer we’ve been waiting for since the end of last season: Yes, Don is cheating again, and not only that but he’s doing it with Lindsay Weir.
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Considering what lies ahead in the next few months alone – the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Tet Offensive, President Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, the occupation of Columbia University – it makes sense the year would begin with such a bombshell. It’s a premonition of what’s to come, while the rest of the episode plays like the calm before the storm. With its jarring juxtaposition of the mundane and the cataclysmic, the headline on the front page of Don’s New York Times -- “World bids adieu to violent year; city gets snowfall” – summarizes the atmospheric, uneasy calm of "The Doorway."
Given what we know of Don, not to mention humanity in general, the revelation that he’s stepping out on the lovely Megan is not all that surprising (I believe it was Confucius who said “cheats with you, cheats on you”). And yet it is surprising, especially since he still seems very much in love with Megan (and who wouldn’t be? She makes fondue!). Not only that, but he’s sleeping with the wife of Dr. Rosen, a guy he genuinely seems to like. For a minute there, it looked like Don might have found a friend, but no. More likely he’s found a future enemy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Aside from the opening narration from Dante’s “Inferno,” Don doesn’t speak a word for the first eight minutes of the episode. There’s a hazy, dreamlike quality to these scenes, one that seems to parallel Don’s own detached state of mind. He’s reached a jumping-off point, as he later puts it in his failed pitch, but where he’s coming from and where he’s going are not so clear.
We’ve seen this before on “Mad Men”; put Don in the sun for a few minutes and suddenly he’s transformed (maybe he’s just got a really bad case of seasonal affective disorder?). But there’s something especially inscrutable about the origins of Don’s latest identity crisis. Let’s try to puzzle it out for a minute, shall we? Don’s encounter with the young soldier in Hawaii obviously conjures up memories of his own identity switch which, as any self-respecting “Mad Men” scholar knows, was made possible when the man formerly known as Dick Whitman accidentally dropped his Zippo in a puddle of gasoline.
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So naturally, Don is spooked when he discovers that he’s accidentally taken the wrong lighter back with him to cold, gloomy New York. There’s a sense that Don has in a way been possessed by the spirit of the soldier in Hawaii, who says he’s a believer in “what goes around comes around.” The repeated references to the first heart transplant, which took place in December 1967, heighten the sense that some kind of identity switch has taken place – or at least that Don feels like it has.
His malaise only worsens once he learns that Roger’s mother has died. At her funeral, he borrows a page from the Roger Sterling playbook and upchucks in the corner. It’s unclear whether Don’s been drinking all morning, or whether his nausea was induced by the inevitable thoughts of his own mother’s death. Most likely it’s both.
Anyway, it’s all very cryptic and foreboding , but I don’t actually know how intriguing it really is once you get past all the oblique symbolism. Part of it is that seeing him sneaking around with yet another woman isn’t quite as novel as it was in Season 3, but it’s also that at this point Don Draper’s compulsion to use sex as a means of escape is far less interesting than just about everything else on this show.