Warning: Mad Men spoilers ahead!
Though the end of the semester, and all of the work that comes with it, is fast approaching, there is one thing that I can count on to instantly lift my spirits: Mad Men. There is nothing like a bunch of overworked, self-indulgent, philandering admen to help me get through anything. But the sixth season, which premiered on April 7, was anything but a raucous affair. The two-hour season premiere, titled “The Doorway,” immediately launched into a weighty, and undeniably depressing, introspection about death, particularly Don Draper’s. Sure, ponderings of his death have been thrown around since the beginning of the show, especially in the last season when he celebrated his 40th birthday (which, in the late 1960’s, was considered borderline elderly). But with the looming death of the series itself — the sixth season will be Mad Men’s second-to-last — Don’s tormented journey to self-discovery has now been put into overdrive.
“The Doorway” begins with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on an idyllic Hawaiian beach. In Hawaii, Don is rather modest: he is faithful to Megan, does not eat or drink too much and barely utters a word. It is his true paradise, where he is just free to be. This feeling of freeness permeates his thoughts when he returns to New York and resumes his own journey through nine circles of Hell: he lusts for his neighbor’s wife and greedily enjoys an affair with her behind an unsuspecting Megan’s back, gluttonously drinks until he gets sick and, of course, continues to lead a life of fraudulence, for his identity is a complete artifice, carefully constructed just like the advertisements he has crafted over his storied career. To Don, the only way out appears to be death, as his urge for the ultimate paradise soon turns into a desperate quest for heaven. Don goes so far as to implore his doorman to tell him if he saw heaven and what it was like when he was suffering from a heart attack, and even pitches an ad that evidently depicts a suicide to the Sheraton Hawaii.
Is death Don’s answer to happiness and freedom, or can he find another way to overcome his anxieties? Like everyone, Don vies for nothing else but to feel important and loved. But as we have seen before, he constantly goes about finding this in all the wrong ways, hurting more and more people and spiraling deeper into his personal Hell. This is, in large part, due to his tragic past. As the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan aptly put it, Don’s “life is like 50 country songs condensed into one long litany of rejection and pain.” Mad Men is punctuated with flashbacks of Don’s, or rather, Dick’s, painful past that continually reveal why he is the way he is.
In the third episode, “Collaborators,” we learn that, as a teenager, he lived in a rooming house-turned-whorehouse where he witnesses his pregnant stepmother sell herself, exacerbating his already major mommy issues. This solidifies the fact that Don does not just woo women to make him feel more masculine, as his colleagues often do, but also because, for him, the only way to relate to women are through sexual transactions. We see this readily through his relationship with Megan. Although Don stayed faithful to her throughout season five despite a rocky start to their marriage, this season, he simply reduces her to “good company,” like an escort.
But ultimately, it is Don who is commoditized. As the episode closes, we see him slumped in front of his mistress’ door as “Just a Gigolo” plays on. Don is not a victim of circumstance; he is simply perpetuating his circumstances. It is only when he chooses to break the cycle that he can find paradise. How he breaks the cycle, however, is something we’ll have to wait and see.
Original Author: Karina Parikh