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'Mad Men:' The doorway, Don Draper, Dante, Zippos

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in "Mad Men" Season

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in "Mad Men" Season 6, Episode 2: "The Doorway." (Credit: AMC)

"Man Men" returns and with it, questions, thoughts, observations, and a few hundred blog posts attempting to define The Meaning of It All.  And with your forbearance, here's mine. Let's start at the very beginning of Sunday's "The Doorway" because -- in a series where nothing is ever wasted -- that is where you were meant to begin.

And in the meantime, this quick note -- I'll spend most of this post talking about Don, and not that Peggy, Betty or Roger didn't have equally important moments but -- to be blunt -- I gotta get some other stuff done.

The scream: And then, "Oh my God, my God . . ." In which series creator Matthew Weiner interjects a determinedly religious overtone to the season opener though one with an ironic twist, for what you are hearing is Meg's reaction to the "death" of Jonesy, the doorman, who of course will be saved by newcomer Doc Arnold Rosen. That sets up the entire internal reverie that Don goes through this episode: What comes after death and, in fact, is MY death approaching? And if so, how can I change or should I change? But what you -- the viewer -- doesn't know and that Don does is that he is already cheating on Megs -- back to his old habits -- knowing full well that this has set this marriage on the path to doom as well. You know this only by watching the very last scene, of course, in which Don's latest paramour -- the doctor's wife,Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) whom he sees upon entering a dark doorway -- wonders if he's read "The Inferno." (I should add, Don is not only wrecking his own marriage -- but Rosen's . . . He's an equal opportunity wrecker.)


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Ah yes. "The Inferno:" Dante's allegory of the human soul, which opens with some of the most famous lines in all of literature, "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood . . ." The idea of Don on a beach, reading "The Inferno" is the stuff of comedy -- a divine comedy (sorry, couldn't help myself) -- but there he sits . . . Don of course is the one alone in a dark wood, the "valley of evil . . ."

Since Weiner introduced the idea of an allegory to the mix here, what comes next? Pfc. Class Dinkins, at the bar, drunk, in need of a best man at his forthcoming wedding and Don will do.

He's back from Vietnam, and offers Don this singularly great line, "they offered me R and R in Honolulu. Did anyone notice this is the same place?" (Naturally, conflated Vietnam -- hell - with Hawaii -- paradise.) Then, he goes on to convince Don: "I believe in what goes around comes around. One day I'll be the veteran [Don] in paradise. I'll be the man who talks to strangers."

I could go on and on about the meaning of this remarkable scene, but we haven't got all day, have we? Instead, I'll make this brief: The drunken serviceman is Don, an earlier version of Don, on an earlier stage of his life when he was in fact Dick Whitman -- long before he co-opted the identity of Don Draper. The full force of this realization doesn't strike Don until midway though the episode when he discovers the Zippo lighter he has is actually Dinkins.

For Don, the idea of a switched Zippo is only a short step away from switched dog tags. He is not Don Draper, but Dick Whitman -- who is "dead," but then so is Draper. With that cold realization, Don finds himself very much alone on this life's journey. He is in the dark wood, a place as forlorn and remote as hell itself . . . For him, and really, for the rest of this series, the question becomes for Don, as it was for Pfc. Dinkins: How to get to "paradise?"

The Zippo lighter:  Let's tarry a little longer with the Zippo. How did Lt. Don Draper -- the real Lt. Don Draper -- die? From a Zippo lighter. Remember that scene? The mortar round has ended, and both Whitman and Draper relax to have a smoke. But gasoline is everywhere (a Whitman mistake) and the explosion occurs . . . Draper is burned beyond recognition, and Don, er, Dick, has his new identity. So the lighter of course represents a multitude of things for Don  and us --  a light, as in symbolic; a new identity; a lie; the beginning of this particular journey; and of course most of all, it represents death.  

The Ad: I'm jumping way ahead here to that great scene in which Don unveils his ad for the Royal Hawaiian, to the befuddlement of the client who correctly deduces it as a man committing suicide. What happened to the man in the (empty) suit? Washed out to sea perhaps? Or was he perhaps Don himself, without bearing and without identity? Remember, "The Doorway" sets up an important question for Don: How can you locate your true self if your true self doesn't actually exist, or Dante-like, exists in some peculiar stage of limbo, halfway between paradise and hell?

Obviously, Hawaii was also the "jumping off point" for GI's headed to Saigon, and this ad is presented to the Royal Hawaiian exactly at the outset of the worst year of the war, and one of the worst years in American history, something neither they or Don could yet know.

Because "Mad Men" is always so rich with parallels -- all the better to infuse depth and meaning -- parallel this ad with Peggy's, at her new agency. As you recall, she quickly has to change the ad because the client makes the wild leap that consumers will somehow associate it with the grisly practice of GI's cutting off the ears of dead VCs (yes, this did happen in some instances). The tagline, "lend me your ears" has to go.

In this sense, both Peggy and Don are confronting Vietnam, because the war is being refracted through their work.

Roger and doorways: Another beauty in which Roger talks to a shrink -- who looks suspiciously like Matt Weiner; an inside joke, no doubt -- about life's peculiar journey. It's a series of doors -- gates -- that you go through; no better yet, a series of pennies you bend down to pick up on the way to "you-know-where . . ." Doors refers I would imagine to portals, while Dante has positioned a famous sign above one of the most famous portals of them all: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here . . ."

Roger, like Jonesy, has gone through the door of death, too -- died and returned. He is seeking meaning to the journey and so far finds none though in contrast to Don, is at least seeking. Of course, the complexity of the quest for Don was made clear earlier in this episode -- how can you find the meaning of your life if you are not who you say you are, and who you are already died years earlier?

Don and the photo session: Just another great scene in a great series about identity and so much else. Just be who you are, the photographer commands Don. And then, the Zippo lighter as he lights another cigarette . . . Sure, Don, just be who you are.

Don and Rosen. Ah yes, another doctor who looks like Matt Weiner. Is there a pattern here? Rosen presents to Don something that Don has never really had before -- perspective and especially perspective on life and death. Rosen and Don digging out skis so the former can make his way to a patient in the middle of a snowstorm. There's something comical about the scene, and there is supposed to be something comical about it, but Rosen -- however briefly -- ties what he does for a living to what Don does. For Don, that presents -- however dim it may be -- a glimmer in the dark wood.

Finally, and I really must be moving along after this, let’s talk about doors. We've already played with their allegorical nature in this post, or at least Roger has, but keep in mind the meaning of doors in "Mad Men." Poor Lane Pryce hung himself from one last season. Poor Jonesy, who opens doors, died and came back to life in this season premiere episode. Caroline comes through one to tell Roger about the death of his mother; Roger finally breaks down and cries, when one is closed behind him.  Everything happens behind doors -- even sometimes when walking through them: Betty tears her jacket on one when she leaves the flop house on St. Mark's Place. Doors open and close throughout this episode and in just about every scene. They are a dominant image and metaphor in "Mad Men," and like Roger's trail of pennies, will lead us all somewhere when "Mad Men" finally wraps. I would argue however that we, and possibly even Matt, still don't know where the final door will lead.

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