In the first few seconds of “The Doorway,” the two-hour episode that kicks off the sixth season of “Mad Men” at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC, Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) stands over a body in the foyer of her Manhattan apartment building as a cardiologist works to revive the victim of an apparent heart attack. It is the beginning of a superb season premiere in which death and dying (and dyeing), in all its forms, rattles around Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce like an exceptionally tailored Grim Reaper.
From the beginning of the previous season, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was dealing with the passage of time, including the second arrival of his 40th birthday and the hellhound of youth culture snapping away at him. When Megan played the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” as an example of where the world was going, Don barely made it through half the song’s backwards loops and “Tibetan Book of the Dead”-inspired lyrics before angrily taking the needle off the record. Now, in “The Doorway,” Don is stuck in a world he does not like or understand, unable to relate to the current wave of hipsters occupying SCDP like Michael Ginsberg (Ben Shapiro) and Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), and watching the past he kept at arm’s length slipping away from him.
Meanwhile, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is growing up and becoming more distant from Betty (January Jones), who sublimates her desire for a more traditional mother-daughter relationship with Sally by trying to play mother to one of her daughter’s rebellious friends. An extended sequence in which Betty explores a squatter’s residence in Greenwich Village in search of the girl serves as a commentary on the underbelly of the counterculture and New York City’s 1970s-era spiral into decay and insolvency. In the process, Betty faces some truths coming from unlikely places and undergoes a significant transformation.
And as New York City slowly dies, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) faces his own mortality. He is now in therapy, cracking wise on the couch and making half-hearted attempts to confront his psyche when a family tragedy tests whether any of this analysis is making an impact.
“The Doorway” works like all great “Mad Men” premieres by forcing viewers to pay close attention. Faithful viewers will look for clues about timeline, the state of relations in the Draper household, the psychic tug-o-war between Don Draper and Dick Whitman and how Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) is making her way outside the SCDP corporate umbrella. Suffice to say, series creator Matthew Weiner offers the faint hint of answers while continuing to build mystery surrounding Don Draper, one of the great anti-heroes of modern television. Death might be all around in the new episode of “Mad Men,” but this series continues to crackle with creativity and life.
— George Lang