“What did you see when you died?”
This is Don’s question, yelled drunkenly to his doorman as his coworkers try to hurry him into the elevator. Mysteriously opening the episode, the doorman’s brief death is what welcomes Don back to snowy New York after spending Christmas in Hawaii – reading Dante’s Inferno and silently taking in the sights, of course, as only Don Draper can.
The episode oscillates between hot and cold, or perhaps more aptly searing and chilling. Opening scenes in Hawaii lavisciously pan Megan’s tan flesh, fire-jugglers and smoking joints always in the background. Interiors are full of warmth and Christmas cheer (Betty and Henry’s house finally feels like a home, instead of the imposing mansion feel of last season), contrasted only by windows showing bleak skies of grey snow. Margaret talks of refridgeration, characters allude to California, Don’s tan clashes with the white walls of the office. It’s a sensory experience, as Don describes his vacation – the office is bright and cluttered, with a new floor and new faces (and new facial hair; Roger rolls around in fur and remorse at his mother’s funeral; the house in the Village that Betty visits feels desolate. Roger and Don both speak of “experiences” in the episode, and that’s what the premiere is. It’s a “shock” coming back to this Manhattan, catching up with old storylines and understanding new ones.
But is this really a jumping off point? Roger points out that “experiences are nothing,” that even though doors open they eventually close you back in. The reappearance of the Carousel Kodack slide indicates a cyclical pattern. Even seeing Don at the bar in Hawaii mirrors Don in the season 5 finale – a silent figure across the bar, their friend approaching Don with a personal inquiry. Many introductory shots of characters feature some sort of reflection in the background – in Roger’s therapy session, a bust, in Peggy’s apartment, JFK (in Megan’s public life, her character’s persona).
To a point the doubling in the episode matches a sense of déjà vu. Here’s a new eager account man, trying to usurp Ken and Pete for Don and Roger’s approval. Here’s Sally and Betty fighting. Here’s Peggy doing her best Don Draper impression. Here’s a clash between the revolutionary youth and the corporate, suburban adults. Here’s Don having an affair (with Linda Cardellini!!). Things have slightly changed, but not quite. It’s a question Don has dealt with throughout the series – how do you almost die, but then start over and keep living? Ultimately, the characters are their true selves no matter what year it is, or what the circumstances are. Will brown hair change Betty and her dark sense of humour (that rape reference!)?
“Heaven is a little morbid,” Don admits in a sales pitch. Notes of suicide still remain from last season, as his clients immediately pick up drowning motifs in Don’s interpretation of paradise – although, despite immersing himself in the Inferno, he doesn’t see it. I was affected by the doctor’s mention of anxiety, because that’s what I felt while watching – we are coming to the end of the series (Mad Men is set to run for another season, but who knows what tricks Matthew Weiner has up his sleeve), and in terms of time 1967 marks an enormous shift in American culture. In other words, the white light has begun to show. Get ready to shed your skin.