As part of Complex Pop Culture's best-of-2013 coverage, staffers and contributing writers will pen short pieces on their favorite TV episodes of the year. The week-long series continues with associate editor Ross Scarano.
Everyone always dies. Follow any story long enough, even your own, even everyone you love, and the conclusion is always death. It's the only certain ending.
The sixth season premiere of Mad Men, entitled "The Doorway," obsessed over death for nearly two hours. It was a long, weird, disorienting journey, and one of TV's finest moments in 2013.
You never know where an episode or season of Mad Men will begin. Season six opened with an unusual shot: a first person POV, gazing from the floor to ceiling of an unfamiliar space. Megan screams. A man viewers have never seen performs CPR on the perspective of the dying person. It's Don, right? It must be Don.
The sound of a police siren washes into the static of surf reaching the beach. It creates a sound bridge that leads to a close-up of Megan's abdomen moving up and down as she breathes. Don reads from Dante's Inferno: "Midway in our life's journey I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood."
With the season over, we know now that the dying POV and wailing siren bleeding into the shot of Megan's belly foreshadows her miscarriage. Don's remark about going astray is the entire season leading up to his decision to tell the truth about his boyhood in the meeting with Hershey's and show his children the brothel he grew up in. He wasn't dying in the episode's cold opening, but he's damn curious about the doorman who was. It's all he thinks about. He says, "How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen." The terrible thing—Sally catching Don with his mistress, Sylvia—happens. Maybe Don will find heaven in the final season. He'll accept himself. Or he'll die.
The flip side of refrigeration, which figures in "The Doorway" as a possible investment for Roger, is rot and decay. Fruit spoils. The flesh becomes weird and sickly sweet. Then it bursts. Or it blackens and shrivels. Bodies are in a perpetual state of dying, of becoming meat. A lifeless body is what the butcher hangs from a hook.
Somehow all of "The Doorway" is about this without being explicit, and with ample room for crazy jokes—Bettie's "sexy" rape talk with Henry Francis, still the most eyebrow-raising TV dialogue in 2013—and unexpected stylistic decisions. Don is silent for the episode's first ten minutes. He finally speaks to a soldier taking leave in Hawaii to marry. The dialogue is some of the best Matthew Weiner has written: "One day I'll be the man who can't sleep and talks to strangers." Like the best dialogue, it is a more beautiful and impossible version of human speech.
All of Mad Men is more beautiful and impossible than life, even as it moves through the current of real, lived history. Rarely are your everyday encounters such pointed and poetic reminders that we are essentially unknowable to each other.
"I had an experience," Don tells his staff after coming back from Hawaii with death on the brain like water lodged in your inner ear. We all do, too, every time we watch Mad Men.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)