Having just returned from a Hawaiian holiday vacation with wife Megan, Don Draper is in the midst of what is his first boardroom meeting pitch of the new season of Mad Men. It’s for a Hawaiian resort advertisement, and his one-liner for the pitch reads, “Hawaii, the jumping-off point,” picturing a man’s left-behind clothes and other belongings on the beach sand. The idea, Don says, is that having just got off the plane, the person is able to begin a wholly new experience, being whoever he wants to be while on vacation. However, the pitch begins to fall apart because Don’s clients get the feeling that the image of the left behind clothes is a tragic depiction. It’s as if something bad happened to the guy–where’d he go? Did he walk out into the ocean so as to not come back? “It’s a little morbid,” says the hotel rep. “Well, heaven’s a little morbid. How do you get there? Something terrible has to happen,” Don retorts. “Doesn’t it make you think of suicide,” one of the clients worries. “Of course! That’s why it’s great!” quips one of the underlings.
Later, the standard shot of the back of Don Draper’s head staring out the office window is accompanied by the sound of the ocean. Looming over the whole pitch’s debacle is that Don’s already had a bit of a Chopin moment. Apparently, last season’s elevator shaft is this season’s Pacific ocean. And so in that boardroom scene I describe above–a scene of characteristically dreadful, dark humor–one thing remains clear as we orient ourselves to a new season with new facial hair, colorful attire, and other time-shifting transitions: these mad men are still inching toward the jumping-off point of the high rise ledge overlooking Madison Avenue.
All of the regulars make at least an appearance in this season’s jumping-off point. Pete thinks himself as important as ever; Joan’s being gawked at by her partners at a magazine photo shoot; Peggy, sometimes to her chagrin and sometimes not, is becoming more and more like Don; Megan is increasingly not reliant on Don or living in his dark shadow–instead, she’s making it in television; and Betty?–well, she’s seemingly as unlikeable as ever (cut the woman some slack, Mr. Weiner!).
But the focus of this two hour premiere–perhaps even more so than Don–is Roger Sterling. As such, the episode–though most assuredly continuing its ominous feel–has several light moments. Pontificating on the psych chair, or telling an elderly woman in a wheel chair to “wheel on over” to make the speech she insists on at his mother’s funeral is pure Roger. At his shrink’s mention of his “feeling lost,” Roger shoots back quickly, “I don’t feel lost–I don’t feel anything!” Roger’s somewhat aware of his madness; he’s the one to mention to Don after his goofed pitch that they spent 25 years selling death for Lucky Strike. Perhaps he doesn’t feel anything because he doesn’t care. He responds nonchalantly to the news of his mother’s death, and he’s not too concerned about spending time with his daughter because, at bottom, he doesn’t really care about them as much as he cares about himself. Yet, his humorous, cold brazenness can only take so much trauma. Ironically, Roger has his breakdown when he discovers the death of someone who he barely knows, but who spent his time providing Roger with service. So it’s not just that it’s all catching up to Roger–though perhaps and hopefully so–it’s more likely that Roger felt something for someone who he cared about. It’s just too bad that he seems to only care for the person who unquestioningly provides him with a paid service.
Elsewhere, when discussing the ethics of watching Mad Men, I noted that the show, like many a false advertisement, is like an enticing drink that doesn’t go down smoothly. The nature of Weiner’s creation is evident at the beginning of every episode during the credit sequence. But while Mad Men plays up the allure of charismatic deceit and total personal “freedom,” it hammers home the maddening effects so loudly, that some critics are bothered by the metaphor-heavy noise (I’m not one of them–this is sharp narrative, in my view). It’s death made to look sexy, but in such a way that we’re made aware of the false identity that’s been put on: Don Draper is still Dick Whitman, and we know it. So when Don is reading Dante on the beach, while we have a close-up shot of Megan’s washboard stomach tanning, we know these mad men’s seeming Hawaii is really a dark wood.
Don gets it, too. He makes a wish to get back on the straight path. But to this point, particularly when the anxiety is unbearable, the wood is just too damned appealing.