Doors, Death and Betrayal

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“What does it all MEAN?”

Thoughts on the first three episodes of Mad Men season 6

It takes a shoeshine kit to finally bring Roger Sterling to tears. This after his mother’s funeral which is punctuated by the presence of an ex-wife’s new husband, Don’s drunken vomiting and a big ask from his daughter—a loan for a business venture. The shot is framed with only Sterling’s cotton white head visible as his face is buried in his hands. His body is positioned, not in a centered close-up, but to the side of the frame while in the center of he shot is the closed door to his sun-drenched office.

Doors, as Sterling frames them earlier in therapy, seem like opportunity. They appear throughout life waiting to be entered but when you walk through them, you find they only lead to more doors. In fact, Sterling is a character who chases his desires to a fault only to be disappointed but we must ask ourselves if this might have something to do with the fact that his doorways are far larger and more easily accessible than the doorways of everyone else. His existential dilemma may likely stem from a scene in an earlier season in which he references his tendency to point out the fact that it’s his name on the side of the building. “But I didn’t put it there,” he says, “I inherited it.”

Of course, Sterling is only now joining Don in the world of self-validation. As Matthew Weiner has said in the season preview, Don seems drawn to death for the potential of rebirth. In fact, Don has proven a character constantly looking for rebirth, but what makes the current portrayal different is the obsession with death itself. This is reflected in his work for the Hawaii resort, but, I think, more significantly in his drunken curiosity regarding the near-death of the doorman and later in the conversation he has with his surgeon neighbor. Again, doors play a crucial role. It’s as the elevator doors are closing that he asks the doorman what it was like. It’s at the back door where he and the neighbor have their somber conversation about what it’s like to hold another man’s life in your hands; all the while, Don studying the door frame as if to step out into the snow would be to step into another world. Though obsessed, he’s scared.

This leaves the business of Don’s affair with the surgeon’s wife, which at first glance seems an act of suicide considering they are only a few floors from Megan. But I think we can understand this relationship as an attempt to inhabit the closeness to death about which he is so curious (we also saw him reading his lover’s copy of Dante’s Inferno); but is sex as far as he’s willing to venture? Laying in bed with her, he says something like “this only happens here,” and points to his head. Later when he and the surgeon’s wife find themselves alone at dinner there is an overload. He has seen her and Megan together, and she’s told him that she likes Megan; little does he know, Megan has shared the intimate secret of her miscarriage with her before even telling Don. All this leads to what appears to be an establishment that the relationship can only exist on the surface. When it gets real, it only distracts from the fantasy.

Faithfulness also comes into play with Campbell who, unlike Don has been definitively busted and must contend with a far more determined wife. He is a character who we can expect to turn his failure in marriage into open hostility to all those unlucky enough to encounter him. Meanwhile, we can only hope to see more of Trudy. The show needs a wife with some conviction.

Far outside the betrayal of marriage, we have Peggy who we see facing difficulty with her staff as she summons the demanding perfectionism she learned from Don. The difference between them is her compassion for those working beneath her. Though she is disappointed with their work, she is equally distressed as the messenger of their failure and immediately identifies with them (“I had your job once, I know what it’s like). This later transforms into a subconscious sort of guilt. How could she make such a huge mistake as to share confidential information from her old firm with her boss? I think this is plea and symptom of Peggy’s deep need for approval. I predict we will see just how far this need goes when this slip up forces her into an inevitable confrontation with Don and the old gang.

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