April 11, 2013

STALEY: Why I Like Men

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If last year’s Season Premiere of Mad Men Season Five taught us anything, it was not to look at a season’s first episode to guess what the remaining twelve episodes would be about. The premiere opened up with a civil rights occupation in Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s lobby, setting the attitude for a season’s conversation on race, but with the hiring of a black secretary (Dawn Chambers) for Don and the release of an “equal opportunity employer” ad, that conversation quieted quickly. However, the mind I’ve always trusted to bring me what I believe to be the greatest show of our generation, Matthew Weiner, has promised that the 90-minute premiere, “The Doorway,” is “really constructed like a film” and will “foreshadow the rest of the season.” I believe it. The episode brought in many new themes and created new motifs for each character that Weiner couldn’t possibly introduce then run away from.

We’ll start with Don, of course.  We open up the episode to find him looser, tanner and attune to the times (the episode begins with the end of 1967). In Hawaii, he and Megan smoke a joint. When he returns to SCDP, he writes off the ad artist smoking a joint in the office and says, “smells like creativity” before going on to say of an advertisement containing a pair of square newlyweds, “anything matrimonial feels Paleolithic [these days].” Afterwards, he gives a speech on his notions of love — “love is like a drug. It’s not domestic, it’s electric” — that sounds like an echo of the “free love” mentality that dominated the preceding summer. By the end of the episode, we find that Don’s love is hardly matrimonial, domestic or reserved for Megan.

For a show in which almost every line is a comment on the sixties, the characters and the times often mirror each other’s motions. Timothy Leary claimed that the renaissance of the sixties was motivated by Socrates’ motto “Know Thyself”. Likewise, Don seems to be beginning a period of inner exploration. After Roger’s LSD trips last season, it’s Don’s turn to look in. While being photographed for office promotion, Don looks confused and glances at a lighter he snagged from a GI in Hawaii that reads: “In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag”. Don pauses, loses his thought then the photographer requests Don to pose and says, “I want you to be yourself.” The screen goes black and Don’s purpose for the season is stated. With his waning job performance and fantasy of shedding his suit and responsibilities so that he can begin “jumping off” (as displayed in his ad for Royal Hawaiian Hotel), Don seems to either have a sneaking death wish or a dream of dropping out.

Another character speaks fondly of jumping off — the show’s loveable jester, Roger Sterling. This episode, Roger goes to therapy, loses his mother and throws a fit at the lavish funeral, further proving himself to be the grown-up Anson Hunter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy”. During the funeral, he declares, “This is my funeral!” a statement that, depending on your interpretation either acknowledges his love for his mother or foreshadows his downfall. In one of his analysis sessions, he says that “he has this ‘invisible parachute’” that allows him to drop off; he foresees that “[what he is] going to be doing from now on is losing everything.” Several minutes after he tells his analyst “I don’t feel anything”, he breaks down and cries at the sight of his late shoe shiner’s shine kit. Whether he’s feeling a memento mori or loss, Roger’s season will be defined by death.

And then there’s the show’s third primary character: history. After returning from his Back Street Girl downstairs, Don picks up the New York Times with a headline, “World Bids Adieu To a Violent Year; City Gets Snowfall.” If closely examined, the paper also has an article on presidential hopeful and segregationist Governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace (noting both the year’s racial unrest and contentious election) next to an article commenting on the US-backed South Vietnamese Government (acknowledging the war and the resulting anti-war movement). Weiner will have to couple these four themes with the death of MLK Jr. and RFK; the Chicago ’68 Democratic National Convention; the Tet Offensive; and the year in which album sales peaked as the musical stage was set for Woodstock.

Weiner has a lot on his hands historically, but it is clear that he has begun to articulate the show’s conclusion. The episode features three utterances of the notion that ‘bad things produce good outcomes.’ Don’s rival (and I predict Peggy’s future love interest) Ted Chaough tells Peggy, “It always takes a crisis to sell work this good”; Don says, “Death has to happen for you to go to Heaven”; and a Heart Surgeon remarks, “people will do anything to get rid of anxiety.” Given that the season takes place in 1968, a notoriously ‘bad year’ for America, these statements could portend the show’s characters descent into anxiety, relief-seeking, work or consumption. Instead, I think it ties into Roger’s doorway analogy. Roger claims that life is just a bunch of doors or bridges leading to the same obstacles that came before. All the characters and America’s optimistic youth believe that the bad will produce the good, change will occur, oppressions will end, but in a show that is about change, Weiner seems to be arguing that at the decade’s end, at the series’ near-end, not much has changed, not much does.

Original Author: Henry Staley