Tis the season for disappointing premieres it would appear. In recent weeks, Doctor Who brought us a good, action orientated episode but it definitely felt lacking in the science and villain areas while Game of Thrones returned with a good episode that seemed unusually unfocused. This week it was the turn of AMC’s Mad Men to deliver an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience. Unlike, Game of Thrones, which didn’t make the most of its valuable screen time in the premiere, Mad Men really just seemed to have too much time to fill.
A lot of what happened in The Doorway felt like meaningless distractions and catch up. One by one we were reintroduced to the characters and their lives. Megan Draper is now a television sensation on a daytime soap, happily signing autographs and gleefully relating scenes where she pushes men down stairs. Bert continues to shuffle around the offices. Joan is as buxom as ever. Pete is still as cocky as ever and trying to be everyone’s best friend. They have some new employees, as one might have expected, and a second floor. Harry Crane is clearly becoming weary of how he’s treated in the office as he climbs the stairs amidst a photo shoot and tells them to keep it down. Peggy is as brash and cold as she ever has been. Sally has a new friend. Betty has a disturbing new found sense of humour and Roger is in therapy. All interesting little facts but really it all just seems like a distraction. Perhaps Matthew Weiner was intentionally trying to lull us into a deep sleep just so that we could be shook awake.
Honestly, the entire gist of this episode could be captured by watching the first twenty minutes and the last ten. That might be a little facetious but in terms of plot there wasn’t really much going on. Enough to fill a single episode but not a two hour premiere. Sally’s friend confides in Betty about not getting into Juilliard and then promptly runs away. Betty heads off to find her, doesn’t find her and dyes her hair. There might be something in there about Betty letting go and accepting herself or realising just how well off she now is but it was really hard to care about those scenes because I had only just met Sally’s friend two scenes ago. Even then she was rude and disrespectful to Betty, who was only being helpful, so the character wasn’t particularly likeable or relatable. It feels like that storyline was meant to be more profound but it just fell flat.
Another major storyline involved the death of Roger’s mother. I don’t believe we ever met her but it was a progressive step in Roger’s increasing irrelevancy within the company and even in life. His family and friends are leaving him, he doesn’t really have any clients at the firm anymore and between two ex-wives and financing his son-in-law’s schemes his money is probably dwindling too. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Roger was revealed to be bankrupt this season given that he spent most of last season shelling out money to Harry and Peggy. However, Roger’s story this year seems to be, like Don, more existential. He is directionless and without purpose, much the same as this episode.
In fact, Roger’s story ran parallel to Don’s in these episodes. In therapy, Roger says that life is a bunch of bridges and doors and windows which people go through and expect to be changed. But at the end they look back and all they see are the doorways and nothing has changed. Roger hasn’t changed much from the beginning of the show. This episode basically displayed just how much Don hasn’t changed or has reverted since the efforts he made in season 5. He is still deeply conflicted about who he is, he still gets drunk and throws up at important events and, spoiler, he is still cheating on his wife.
Do I really need to put a spoiler before I declare that Don is cheating anymore? Don has been cheating with women since the beginning of the series and it was more surprising last season when he was exclusive. It would have been a biggest shock in this opening episode to find out that Don wasn’t having an affair. I guess that Don was feeling lonely with Megan always being away. Roger warned him last season to go home and remind her that there was a routine but it’s Don that needs the routine more than anything. It certainly isn’t a creative thing. Don did some of his best work last year when he was with Megan, although in fairness it was undermined by pimping out Joan. The creative concepts in this episode weren’t his best but they were interesting. Everyone else was just able to see what he couldn’t: it was about death. For Don, death will be a release from anxiety and the pressure of constantly being someone else.
Though it had some interesting themes and the structure of the episode felt very artistic, most of the episode felt dull and didn’t engage with the viewer. It was two hours of build up to a rather disappointing twist. I don’t mind that it was a very theme heavy episode. Weiner has done thematically heavy episodes before but they have always come out smoother and have been more interesting.
This episode set up good foundations for the rest of the season but it didn’t really satisfy my appetite for Mad Men. Season 5 had a two hour premiere and it was a stronger, more focused episode than The Doorway, even though Betty didn’t even appear until the third episode. It was like going into a restaurant and ordering something which sounds amazing but when you get it and taste it, it is bland and unfulfilling. That said, both Doctor Who and Game of Thrones improved with their second episodes The Rings of Akhaten and Dark Wings, Dark Words respectively. Both were more focused and polished experiences. Perhaps Don Draper and co. can follow suit.