“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).” – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
It’s a bit of a downer of an epigraph, but those are the opening lines of Nabokov’s memoir, which was released in its final version in 1967, the year we join Don and Megan Draper at the start of Mad Men’s sixth season premiere. We first see them basking on a beach on their tropical Hawaiian vacation, but all that sun doesn’t make the mood any less dark.
This was quite the morbid episode. Everyone appeared to be contemplating either their own personal quietus or someone else’s. Mad Men has dealt with mortality in the past both directly – in the deaths of Lane, Anna, Pete Campbell’s father, Grandpa Gene, and Mrs. Blankenship, among others – and obliquely with its museum storeroom of thematic subtext, visual metaphor, and motifs. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze long into the elevator shaft, the elevator shaft also gazes into you. (And anyone who watched L.A. Law can attest that an elevator shaft is a potent symbol for death in TV drama.) Season 5 was larded with premonitions and memento mori. The grim reaper seemed to be hanging out in the corridors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, killing nothing but time, scythe over his shoulder and a tumbler of scotch in his bony hand. It was clear early in the season, though, that someone’s secretary had scheduled them for an appointment in Samarra. That person turned out to be the office Charlie Brown, poor bemused Lane.
With the double-length “The Doorway,” Matthew Weiner also doubles down on the death. It’s everywhere: The episode begins with a scream and a point-of-view shot from someone having a heart attack. That near-death experience belongs, we learn, to the Drapers’ doorman, who collapses one evening just like turning off a light switch. He’s ultimately spared but Roger’s mother isn’t so lucky, hitting a less surprising death at age 91. In Hawaii, Don engages a GI in a conversation burdened by the knowledge that the young man may not be making it back to his new wife, and he returns from the vacation with a pitch practically draped in a funereal shawl: the powerful image of an abandoned set of clothes on the shore and footprints heading into the sea, a concept too death-obsessed for the good folks at Sheraton Hotels. Finally, Roger’s shoe-shine man kicks the bucket he’d been sitting on, bequeathing Roger his kit and finally creaking open the emotional valve in the charming bastard’s heart. Death is omnipresent, even among the bright colors and burning Tiki torches of Hawaii. There’s a thick black thread running through this episode’s tapestry.
That Nabokov quote implies that existence is palindromic, a glint of life sandwiched in between two chasms of oblivion. For all intents and purposes, the entrance is the same as the exit and, in Hawaiian terms, you can say “aloha” regardless of whether you’re coming or going. There’s a lot of symmetry to Mad Men: This episode’s grand reveal of Don sleeping with Arnold Rosen’s wife felt like a mirror to the series premiere’s sly surprise of Don returning to the heretofore unseen Betty after beginning the day with an affair. Was there ever any chance of quelling Don’s restlessness?
NEXT: The Drapers get lei’d…