Don Draper is dead. The man we see in Mad Men’s season-six opener might look like him, but he’s not Don Draper. At least that’s what the two-hour premiere, titled “The Doorway,” is all about. The episode opens in sultry Hawaii, with Megan (Jessica Paré) and Don’s (Jon Hamm) torsos radiating vivid color and light against a cool blue Pacific Ocean, and a voiceover line about a man who’s lost his way. Ostensibly, this is a business trip, but the couple also engages in some determined pleasure-seeking. There’s a clear reference to Don’s current book of choice: a translation of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first section of his medieval epic poem, The Divine Comedy, about one man’s allegorical journey through the afterlife. But the most peculiar thing that happens in Hawaii is a spectral encounter between Don and a young American GI about to be married.
If all this sounds like heady stuff, it’s also what makes “The Doorway” an excellent reintroduction to the series. Mad Men premieres tend to work like narrative sleights of hand, reshuffling central ideas and themes—always represented by Don—into fresh arrangements after a break in the show’s chronological flow. Starting each season like this might be off-putting to some viewers, but the pleasure of Mad Men has always come from the tension between its cultural context and its peripheral course of forward movement.
Last season offered us some of the show’s most confident flourishes of character development and thematic exploration, giving the feeling that Matt Weiner and his team of writers hit a creative stride not unlike the Beatles did circa 1966. A year ago, the discontents and ambitions at the center of Don’s character took a stark turn halfway through “Zou Bisou Bisou,” signaled in that moment by his beaming smile. Key episodes like “Mystery Date,” “Far Away Places,” and “Lady Lazarus” were imaginative dramatizations of Don’s slowly fracturing psyche, modulating from vulnerable to violent, broken to ravenous. If the idea of Megan as muse was conceived in the Tomorrowland of Los Angeles, the reality of her pursuit of her own creative aspirations, separate from Don’s, forced him to confront his own gaping desires of the present. He was thrown back onto himself. In the world of Mad Men, happiness is never a destination; it’s a stop on the way to somewhere else.
One of season five’s key through lines showed us how Don’s defining drives and appetites became so intense they were no longer containable in one character. By the end of the season, his attributes were transposed onto the people surrounding him, infusing some, such as Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), with new life and compelling others, such as Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Lane (Jared Harris, toward self-destruction. So when the nubile young woman propositions a companionless Don in the bar in the final scene of last season, her question (“Are you alone?”) isn’t just a narrative cue, but something like a final detonation.
Don’s Hawaiian “experience,” as he calls it, is so intense and unsettling that it creates a noticeable breach in his disposition, which is developed throughout “The Doorway.” At one point in the episode there’s an especially grim evocation of what Don would look like in a coffin. When he returns to a now bustling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he’s both wistful and oddly sociable; the junior copywriters and Joan take moments to comment on his glow. Perhaps the most telling clue that this is a different Don, however, is his rant about a set of Dow Oven Cleaner ads featuring the word “love” in the tagline. Where the former Don could turn lacerating cynicism into sentimental currency, this man is offended by his junior copywriters’ trivialization of the word; he wants “love” to be charged with 10,000 volts of electricity.
A preoccupation with the threshold between life, death, and rebirth is everywhere in “The Doorway,” expressed artfully as an encroaching, bewildering winter coldness and through the visual contrast of reds against blues during the Christmas of 1967. The death of a family member causes Roger (John Slattery) to confront his own feelings about mortality. After a very awkward eulogy, he and his daughter, Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), have a serious discussion about family legacy in which she raises the possibility of investing in refrigeration technology with her husband. In another storyline, Betty (January Jones) is troubled by her acquaintance with a talented young woman who reminds her of her younger, brighter years as a model. When this girl goes missing, Betty, wrapped in blue tones, pursues her to no avail through a derelict inner-city building inhabited by homeless young people who scrounge for sustenance like creatures in its hellish, freezing darkness.
Elsewhere, the episode explores the question of whether death is something to laugh about. At Cutler Gleason and Chaough, Peggy shines in a creative crisis set off when a stand-up comic’s appearance on The Tonight Show stirs up controversy with a gruesome joke about American GIs in Vietnam and severed ears, causing Koss headphones’ brass to doubt a planned Super Bowl television ad that turns on the humorous use of the phrase “lend me your ears.” In a therapy-session scene loaded with subtext, Roger is frustrated when a joke he makes about the meaning of life fails to get a laugh. Though these scenes effectively introduce the idea of comedy into the show’s historical framework as an increasingly relevant, even transgressive cultural presence, the actual humor feels a bit strained and intellectualized.
“The Doorway” closes with a powerful scene showing Don in a familiar post-coital repose. The difference here, though, is a shot of his aquamarine eyes transfixed on the bedroom ceiling, anxiety heaving silently behind them. As always, there’s no predicting where all of this is headed, but if one last reference to The Divine Comedy is any sign, this season’s journey toward the final act of Mad Men’s American epic promises to be its most challenging and rewarding.