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April 7, 2013

'Mad Men' Returns, Heavier than Ever

(Continued)

We find Don Draper and his wife, Megan (Jon Hamm and Jessica Pare), in pre-Christmas bliss on the beach at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which is Don's new ad account. Their bliss is not uneasy or tense; they are free, by comparison, of the same ennui the writer Joan Didion once experienced at that same hotel beachfront, also in the late '60s, when she wrote: "We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of getting a divorce."

Don's beach reading is Dante's "The Inferno." (Well of course it is, when really he ought to be reading Didion.) Sitting at the bar during one of his insomniac brooding sessions, he converses, at first unwillingly, with an Army private on R&R from Vietnam, and from that point forward, the entire cast might as well be wearing skeleton leotards and chanting booga-booga for two hours.

In this episode (titled "The Doorway") we find these Silent Generation (and older) characters impulsively discarding otherwise meaningful objects — a Zippo lighter; a violin; a jar of water from the Jordan River — that might let death or disappointment in while their children and second spouses and younger colleagues blithely transition to the future.

Imagine a rerun of Norman Lear's "All in Family," roughly contemporaneous in 1971, slowed down so much that one 30-minute episode took 10 hours to watch, almost to the point of immobility. Put Don Draper in Archie Bunker's chair. Let the Meatheads and Glorias and Ediths and Jeffersons swirl around him, come and go, a constant and nagging reminder of how his world is no longer his. The gurgling toilet would elongate into an atonal funeral dirge. It's the same show.

By which I mean the characters have entered a new circle of "Mad Men's" inferno: Roger Sterling (John Slattery), now couch-prone in sessions of psychoanalysis — finally — is dealt some grief of his own; Betty (January Jones) ventures into the cold mayhem of the East Village on a hunt for a teen runaway, encountering a tenement full of hippies who regard her with utter contempt. (Someone please write Betty into the next staging of "Hair.")

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