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Dear TV: 'Mad Men' Season Six: Episode 1, Post 2

Rhapsody in Beige


Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the first installment here.

Dear TV, I’m coming to experience "Mad Men" the way January Jones must feel wearing Betty’s face: dull and caked and flooded with light. The jawline’s off and the show’s shadows are overexposed.

Phil, I agree that Weiner is aware of how deafeningly loud “The Doorways”'s Death Theme was in this episode. I didn’t think it was particularly compelling, but I am persuaded—given the headphone ad—that the show is experimenting with volume. Both Death and the Exposed-Transplanted-Heart Themes drown out your much more interesting account of "Mad Men" as “artificial document about artifice,” and I rewatched the premiere with your attention to the visual in mind. What I noticed bolsters your point, I think: The episode is playing with lighting, lightning, and lighters, and visually, the series’ hard modern edges have slurried into something thick and grainy. For the premiere at least, the show abandoned the blacks and whites of the opening credits to take up the barely visible impression of footprints against sand. Everything’s muted, and the characters in this episode want to fade more than they want to die. As for the premiere’s many paradises and utopias, they add up to a kind of flat floodlit beige, which—among other things—offers a freedom or even a reprieve from the absent shadows of absent mothers.

I’ll begin, as the episode does, with light. As Phil notes, we start from the perspective of a dying man, but there’s something unexpected about this near-death perspective: Doc Rosen isn’t backlit by intense white light; he’s gently and clearly lit, with little contrast between his face and the lights behind him. This same lack of contrast between figure and ground carries through to Hawaii, where Megan’s stomach almost perfectly matches the sand behind it. The camera shifts to Don, whose chest fades into the sand as well. The camera lingers on slight differences in hue: Megan can’t tan too much; Don is tan. These aren’t the saturated colors of California, the sharp shadows of the house in Ossining, the Hopper-esque New York City bars, or—barring two scenes—the blinding whites of Roger Sterling’s office. (Remember when he joked that his hair made him disappear?)

Instead, things blend and start to feel worryingly interchangeable: lighters, daughters, Roger’s disappointed women, even Roger himself. The actor playing PFC Dinkins is a dead ringer for a young John Slattery, and as if to drive this unlikely parallel home, Roger remarks later that he enjoyed his time at Pearl Harbor and can still smell the gardenias. While some of these doublings are productive, their profusion might have felt less arbitrary if the show had respected its earlier arcs (and there’s time—perhaps it will). But the premiere felt like an exercise in ennui, a showcase of the uninteresting problems of uninteresting people. Don’s fantasy about slipping out of his skin stopped being compelling some time ago, and with the onslaught of new characters we don’t know or care about, the cast is starting to feel like a set of paper dolls. (There’s Joan, propped on the stairs.)

It’s not unusual for Matthew Weiner to bury a lot of changes between seasons, and it often works beautifully, but this particular leap elided many of the most interesting questions posed in season 5. We ended that season unusually involved in Pete’s point of view and concerned about his marriage; now, to the extent that we saw him at all, he’s back to his usual self. If we looked forward to seeing Peggy develop her quiet determination, nervousness, and competence in a workplace uncomplicated by Don’s mentorship, we instead encounter a brash, powerful Don Jr. If we were left shaken by Lane’s suicide, no one now seems troubled by it—if his death comes up again, I suspect it will be a device to further develop Don’s guilt over Lane’s and Don’s half-brother Adam’s deaths.

Not that we have access to Don, of course; he’s so closed off he’s almost mute. The camera has dipped in and out of Don’s head through the seasons, but season 6 begins with an unusually distant third-person, and so much precious screen time is spent on one new character almost dying and another getting a camera and skis. As for Betty and her wonderful bird-shooting particularity and exquisite rage, she has inexplicably became a wooden woman-child, reappearing here as a slightly sociopathic matron who has aged some fifteen years, although Joan, considerably older than Betty, remains gloriously unchanged.

Perhaps this season is less concerned with continuity and plot than in trafficking in symbols. “Who cares?” Bert Cooper said when Don’s big secret was revealed in the first season, and in retrospect, that may have been an important lesson for viewers: We’re not meant to put too much stock in the events of SCDP, or in history, or in the characters’ particular pasts. Instead we get thematic tides, constellations of events and objects at particular poetic moments; the show is more symphonic poem than novel. Nothing builds. “They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where,” Roger says, and if many critics have found that psychotherapeutic rhapsody of Roger’s useful as an expository map of the season’s concerns, so is his outburst. “I don’t feel anything,” he says, and we sympathize, as neither do we.

In this more orchestral sense, the premiere’s oddest symbolic pairing is Sandy and Don. Both initially committed to difficult but conventional paths to success, they both fail, and now they’re both hungry for another way—for paradise in Don’s case or utopia in Sandy’s. “People are just naturally democratic if you give them a chance,” Sandy says to Betty just before she vanishes like the figure in Don’s ad, leaving her violin behind like a discarded suit. And her description of the East Village—which in no way resembles Betty’s experience of the same—does resemble Don’s description of Hawaii: “It’s not just a different place. You are different,” Don says, “You don’t miss anything. You’re not homesick. It puts you in this state: The air and the water are all the same temperature as your body.” Ever nostalgic for pasts he never had while building futures he doesn’t want, Don just wants to eliminate the disjunct between himself and his environment—he wants to be room temperature. He wants to disappear.

Unfortunately, Don’s been a high-contrast silhouette for so long that people just keep shooting him that way. “You’re backlit, so even with the tan you look like you haven’t slept,” the photographer called in to take PR shots for SCDP says to him as a makeup artist daubs his face with powder. Light gets scarier: The Carousel focuses all its light on Don’s failed American dreams and an image, taken unawares, of the “paleolithic matrimony” he participated in and has privately discarded. He can flee the spotlight, but he keeps showing up on the walls.

Still, the light that troubles Don most isn’t a light at all, it’s a lighter.

I sometimes forget that Dick Whitman killed Donald Draper and that the triggering event wasn’t enemy fire, it was embarrassment. (Draper points out to Whitman that he pissed himself from fear, and Whitman, mortified, looks down and drops his lighter.) Draper’s dread of Dinkins’s lighter makes all kinds of sense. So does his fear of embarrassment: The last time Don had an involuntary bodily function, he quite literally blew himself up. That he vomits in this episode and hardly notices or cares is astonishing—almost as astonishing as Mona’s remark about him to Roger: “The man never tires of embarrassing himself.” Has this ever been true of reserved, elegant, restrained Don? Is there a new Don we haven’t seen? Has he really changed that much?

It’s a deeply infantilizing moment in any case, and it points to the second of the quieter themes I noticed, namely, the profusion of dead or displaced mothers and the long shadows mothers leave.

“I can’t imagine it getting any darker than this,” Pauline says at the beginning of the episode after Betty gets a ticket for reckless driving. “My mother’s dead,” says Sandy, deadpan, and Sally, Betty, and Sandy laugh—Pauline remains unamused. It’s a bleak scene, off-kilter, and things get darker still when Betty later coquettishly offers to hold Sandy down so Henry can rape her. Sandy is sitting in the dark when Betty finds her. Betty misunderstands Sandy’s anxiety over her future as sorrow at losing her mother. It turns out Sandy pities her mother, who represents the future she wants to escape. “My feet are already in wet cement,” she says, foreshadowing the sandy footprints of Don’s ad. Betty efforts at surrogate motherhood fail, and she finally takes a different tack. “I’m not your mother,” she offers, as proof of her honesty, a phrase she repeats later. “I’m not her mother” comes to serve as a kind of legitimating phrase she uses on the boys in the East Village.

Moms plague Don too. Ginsberg tackles him the minute he comes back from Hawaii. “During your travels, did you notice if the stewardesses would let a mother hold a baby on her lap the whole ride?” he asks. I don’t know how to connect motherhood to the new office culture, but there’s something infantile about this iteration of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (and it’s not just the “reefer”). The halls are white and cluttered and ugly, and every visible surface is covered or papered in a kindergartenish splatter of cutouts of snowflakes and snowmen on the walls. It looks like a floor of refrigerator art.

Mothers come up constantly outside SCDP too. “My mom makes great goulash,” says one of the kids in the EastVillage as Betty helps him cook. At Roger’s mother’s funeral, Cosgrove nosily asks Pete and Don whether their mothers are alive. Don walks away and proceeds to regress back into infancy over the course of the amazing Hazel Tinsley’s speech on maternal love. Not to be outdone, Roger throws a childish tantrum and kicks everyone out. “My mother loved me in some completely pointless way,” he tells his therapist later, “and it’s gone.” And Megan’s character Corinne murders “Derek’s mother” by pushing her down the stairs. The mother is a stuntman in drag.

I can’t figure out what all these mothers and non-mothers and dead mothers add up to. The Freudian answer to death? The first “doorway”? Immaturity? Growth? Revelation? Abandonment? I don’t know, but it seems like what Roger had—and he only realizes this once he’s lost it—is the psychological safety net Sandy and Don are desperately trying not to need. Moms cast deep shadows in “Mad Men” and Betty’s dark new hair seems right; Weiner has long been dyeing her mothering black. Still, no mom is worse than none at all, and the womb imagery seems clear enough. I’ll stop there, with Sandy and Don wishing for a world you can wade into naked, where the temperature of everything is your temperature and the deepest impression the world can make on you, or you on it, is a footprint “so sharp you can see it.”

Lending my ears,