“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and awoke to find myself in a dark wood, alone…”
When last we saw Don, he was still recovering from the suicide of his business partner Lane Pryce, and finding his way after the departure of Peggy Olson for a rival agency. He spent the first year of his marriage seemingly committed to his second wife Megan, but we were left with the impression as the season ended that 1967 would see the end of his fidelity. And after a period of near failure, his advertising agency is finally beginning to assert itself as a player on Madison Avenue, following the firm’s securing an account with Jaguar.
But what can we make of Don’s dipping into Dante? The answer comes at the end of the season opener, “The Doorway,” when we discover that Don has been having an affair with Sylvia, the wife of his neighbor, the heart surgeon Dr. Arnold Rosen. “Did you read my Dante?” she asks, during their New Year’s Eve rendezvous. We understand from their dialogue that Don wants their affair to end, but he, of course, sought her out.
“The Doorway” is chiefly concerned with mortality, which you might expect from an episode that begins with the first lines of “The Divine Comedy.” Dante, in exile, writes of a supernatural encounter with the ghost of the classical poet Virgil, who then takes him on the beginning of a journey through Hell, Purgatory and, and eventually, Heaven. It is there that he will be reunited with his love Beatrice, and come face to face with God.
As Don puts down his book on the beach, he notices his watch has stopped. Time has seemingly come to a standstill in paradise. But time is chiefly what Don and his coworkers are obsessed with. It is New Year, after all, the one time of life when we have no choice but to note its passage. There is Jonesy, the doorman for Don’s apartment building, who had a heart attack shortly before their trip and was saved by Dr. Rosen. There is Roger, who has to deal with the death of his mother after a long life. But time and mortality haunt Don, to the point where he can’t sleep and drinks so much that he vomits at the Sterling funeral, during a speech about what Mrs. Sterling’s life meant.
These intimations of death have clearly gotten to Don (or is he still thinking about Lane’s death?) when he pitches an ad campaign using his Hawaii trip – and inadvertently leaves the impression of someone killing themselves. This references the very first episode of “Mad Men,” when Don struggled to come up with an ad campaign for Lucky Strike, knowing the product causes cancer. Roger comments on this:
“We sold actual death for 28 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it.”
In that first episode six years ago, Don said that advertising is a sign saying whatever you’re doing is okay. That’s perhaps what is being said throughout the episode – why do we take vacations to paradise? Why do we drink? Why do we worship? Because we know we will die, but as Dr. Rosen observes at episode’s end – “People do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” They want the sign by the side of the road assuring them that all is well.
Don’s choice of reading material also reminds us of an earlier moment in the series. Don sent a copy of “Notes In the Middle of an Emergency” to Anna Draper, the wife of his dead namesake in season two. This was at a moment when Don began to grasp the loneliness of his double life, and the ethereal quality of his success. This time, however, it is a woman who has given him poetry.
Dante’s work – our jumping off point – begins with a journey through Hell. John Ciardi, who translated “The Divine Comedy” says that the souls who find themselves in Dante’s Hell insisted upon it. “One must deliberately exclude himself from grace by hardening his heart against it. Hell is what the damned have actively and insistently wished for.” It is a hallmark of “Mad Men” that Don never stays happy for very long, that he seems insistent on melancholy. As Peggy told him last year, at the moment of the Jaguar triumph, he never seems to appreciate the good moments in life.
There is also a spiritual subtext to “The Doorway,” much more vivid than is usually the case for “Mad Men.” (I continue to be amazed at how many times the characters refer to Jesus, and not just as a profanity.) For example, after his mother’s funeral, Roger feels moved to give his daughter a jar filled with water from the Jordan River. His father procured it on a business trip, and it baptized not only Roger but his daughter.
Peggy Olson deals with a work crisis while unable to get hold of her boss. We learn, through her end of a phone conversation with a pastor, that he seems to be on some sort of “religious retreat.” When he returns, he informs Peggy that his wife thinks he works too much. We also notice that Teddy is not the same character we were introduced to in the fourth season – a scheming, frustrated second-fiddle to Don Draper. He looks somehow content in a way that Don never seems, and that Peggy can’t seem to find either.
When Don meets Sylvia later, the camera pans across the bedroom to reveal a plastic mockup of a human heart – and a cross. And what day is it? Of course, it’s Sunday.
But where the Inferno begins on Holy Thursday in the year 1300, “The Doorway” takes place in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1967. “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year,” is the headline in The New York Times when Don returns to his apartment. What neither he nor anybody else can know is that they are about to enter the bloodiest year of the 1960s, the most turbulent, and the most dispiriting. The Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the riots, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the hints of absolute disorder are right around the corner. But the future always looks bright on the first day of the year.
Jules Whitcover, in his book, “The Year The Dream Died,” tells us that 1968 was a nightmare. “It was the year when the sensitivities and nerve ends of millions of Americans were assaulted almost beyond bearing,” he writes, “and the hopes of other millions were buried beneath a wave of violence, deception and collective trauma unmatched in any previous January through December in the nation’s memory.”
Essentially 1968 was a paradox. After less than a decade of expanding civil rights, loosening social attitudes, and unprecedented prosperity and technical innovation, American society descended into chaos, leaving one with the impression that things were not moving toward a social utopia. Where Don Draper’s generation may have felt a self-satisfaction at the pace of liberal American democracy, the younger, more radical left felt democratic pretensions were a sham, and American consumerism a dead end. !968 offered a clash of these sentiments, and many others. Instead of paradise, many were moved to remark, “This country is going to hell.”
Perhaps “Mad Men” – and the journey of Don Draper – is “The Divine Comedy” in reverse. Don begins in the 1960s in Paradise. “Who couldn’t be happy with all this?” he asks Roger over a drink in his office in the show’s second episode. But he loses his marriage at the same moment he must build a firm from nothing. The season he spent building it, and rebuilding his life, could function as a kind of purgatory. But as Don sits on the beach reading Dante, we wonder if he’s learned anything from his journey.
Dante’s Hell was not a metaphor to him, just as any man’s suffering is not an entertainment. But as the sign above the gates of Hell reminded the poet, what makes Hell hellish is its never-ending absence of hope. It remains to be seen what awaits Don Draper in the new year.
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