Mad Men recap (‘The Doorway’): Don & Roger get Jewish advice

Yes, I know. I should have posted Monday. Tuesday at the latest. But don’t be so hard on me. Matt Weiner and Scott Hornbacher needed a double episode for the premier of Season 6 (“The Doorway”). Getting going takes time.

The truth is, for most of the two hours, I wasn’t sure that your favorite Jewish-themed Mad Men recap would have much to say this week. Last season, you’ll recall, we spent a bunch of time talking about Abe, Peggy’s live-in Jewish beau, and Michael Ginsberg, the Jewy Jewish copywriter who came to work for the advertising firm formerly known as Sterling Cooper.

[SHAMELESS PLUG: Check out our recent interview with Ben Feldman, the actor who plays Ginsberg. OK, back to the program.]

Abe and Ginsberg got very little screen time — so there isn’t much to say on those fronts other than to note that both of them are now sporting long hair and mustaches. And that both of them look ridiculous doing so. Oh, there was the revelation that Ginsberg knows nothing about ham (such a good boy, we knew he was just trying to fit in last season when he claimed to love the clams at Howard Johnson). Abe, on the other hand, loves ham. No, that’s not a lewd reference to Peggy — I mean actual ham.

So not much to say about Abe and Ginsberg. The premier was mostly about establishing Roger’s exploding angst about mortality and death, and Don’s similar troubles regarding his lack of identity, sense of self, of purpose. Lucky for us… each of them turns to a tribesman for answers. Roger has his shrink (OK, we don’t know for sure that he’s Jewish, but come on) and Don has Arnold Rosen, neighbor and surgeon. In both cases, the Jews end up providing the sought-after insights. Whether it helps any… well, check back at the end of the season. [[READMORE]]

We first see Roger on the couch. “Oh God, Doc, what is it all about? Help me!” Roger is joking, of course. But, of course, he isn’t. He just doesn’t know it yet. After his play for a laugh, Roger glides into a rumination on life being a series of doors (name of episode alert) — you think going through them will change you in some way, but in the end the experiences have no impact as you meander all the while to the inevitable.

“You sound afraid.”

“More like irritated.”

Denial.

Next, Roger heads to the office — and soon learns that his mother has died from a stroke. His secretary bursts into tears, but he takes it in stride. After all, she’s 91.

Still in denial.

But that fear the shrink talks about starts to bubble up, hence the childish blow up and walkout at the memorial gathering, followed by touching/manipulative encounters with first ex-wife and daughter. Roger is primed to face the reality of his sense of loss, and the fear of death that is plaguing him. The trigger comes with more sad news from his secretary — this time, it’s his shoeshine guy who has died. Now the roles are reversed — for the secretary, it’s no big deal. But when she leaves, Roger breaks down and sobs.

Don’s episode arc revolves around Arnold, the neighbor/surgeon. The punchline, which comes in the very last scene (big spoiler alert) is that Don is sleeping with the good Jewish doctor’s Italian Catholic wife.

This doesn’t seem to be like the time when Don seduced Bobby Barrett, the shiksa wife of the Don Rickles-like Jimmy Barrett. Don disdained the comedian. He seems to be truly respectful, even a bit in awe, of his friend the surgeon’s ability to hold life and death in his hands every day.

We first see them on the elevator.

“I guess I don’t say Merry Christmas to you,” Don jokes.

“Save that for Sylvia,” Rosen retorts. A funny enough comeback on the surface, but if he only knew the deeper truth. Or maybe he does, at least on some subconscious level. He might not know Don is sleeping with his wife, but he certainly understands the Don Draper magic. We see it in his face as he watches Don lecture his work team about the trivialization of the word love.

“We want that electric jolt to the body,” Don declares. “We want eros. It’s like a drug. It’s not domestic. What’s the difference between a husband knocking on the door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts.”

Dr. Rosen, meet Don Draper. Sailor. And the surgeon knows it (even if he doesn’t know it).

A few minutes later he quips to Don: “If I looked like you and talked like that, I wouldn’t even have had to gone to medical school.”

“Please,” Don responds, “don’t compare what I do to what you do.”

“I’m not,” Rosen says. “It was, just, part of me was hoping that head was empty.”

Near the end of the episode, just before the big reveal, Don returns to this issue of the doctor holding life and death in his hands, and how different that is from what he does every day at the ad agency.

But Rosen explains, “Guys like us, that’s why we get paid… You get paid to think about things they don’t want to think about, and I get paid not to think about them.”

The unifying principle, Rosen says, is that “people will do anything to relieve their anxiety.”

Remember that earlier scene, with the photographer who comes to the office to take shots of the execs. He says to Don during his shoot, “I want you to be yourself.” We can see from Don’s face, the question shakes him, because in the deepest sense he doesn’t know who he is. Well, Rosen has the answer: Don is a fixer. He may draw a blank looking in the mirror, but that same lack of true inner self is what makes him so good in a crisis. (No surprise, as Ted says, so is Peggy, Don’s protege.)

The doc is right about that — whatever Don’s personal limitations, he delivers the goods at work. But I’ve wondered if the changing times were going to ultimately leave him in the dust.

To quote myself: The next creative frontier will belong to the folks who voted for JFK and rooted for Ali, not Nixon and Liston. It will belong to those who embrace edgy and dark, and can wrap their heads around America’s rapidly changing cultural and demographic landscapes. If you’re confused — even more than that, unsettled — by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, you’re in trouble.

Remember Faye Miller’s advice about how to sell Lucky Strike once the government has declared cigarettes a killer? Embrace the dark reality — because Americans are ready to embrace the death wish side of themselves.

No way, Don said.

Well, now, Don’s coming around. This week, for a hotel resort in Hawaii, he pitches the image of a man’s office clothes on the beach, with footprints leading to the ocean. “Hawaii: The Jumping off point.” The folks from the hotel don’t like it — could be interpreted as the man committed suicide by swimming, like the implied ending of “A Star is Born.” Don is surprised by the interpretation, but embraces the possibility and proceeds to defend it. No, the clients say, too morbid.

After they leave, Don gets a reprimand from Roger, not so different than the one still-stuck-in-the-1950s-Don gave to Faye Miller.

“We sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike,” Roger says. “You know how we did it? We ignored it.”

True. But that was then. Don is right, even if the clients don’t see it yet. To be fair to them, Don doesn’t quite see it yet either.

“Did that make you think of suicide?” Don asks his illustrator.

“Of Course, that what’s so great about it.”

Yes, Don’s adapting without fully realizing it. He’s that good.

As for Roger, he might be dishing outdated advice — but he’s on the money about himself. For 25 years he lived it up off of selling Lucky Strike, ignoring his own mortality along the way.

But Lucky Strike cut him loose. He’s been revelling since then on fumes. And now there’s no more denying the fate that awaits him.

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