I like to over-think television. It’s why I love shows like Breaking Bad, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men. There’s so much to overthink. Yes, while some believe that Matthew Weiner is very heavy-handed with his symbolism on Mad Men, I appreciate that at least there’s some symbolism in the show to chew over. It gives me an opportunity to overthink, to use that English lit minor to reduce a television show’s symoblism to 10 screenshots and a few blurbs. This week, the premiere of Mad Men offered a lot of opportunities for overthinking, specifically the Don Draper plotline and the many, many suggestions of death. How many? At least 10.
I’ve broken them down into bite size Internet chunks below. Let’s look at the layers, and in the end, my theory on where Don Draper’s arc is headed.
Don is reading Dante’s Inferno, a book about a about a man taking a tour to Hell, where the sinner will be punished in a way befitting his sin. For Draper, that may mean an eternity of abstinence, both from women and from drink. The name of the episode is also “The Doorway,” a reference perhaps to the doorway into the 9 circles of Hell that Don Draper is about to enter.
Don’s ticker has died. Literally, his watch no longer works. In Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart,” a watch symbolizes the passing of time, as well as the the narrator’s heart counting down the seconds until death.
In Lord of the Flies, the conch shell symbolized the birth, the decay, and finally the death of civilization on the island.
There are three specific references to Hawaii as “Paradise” in the episode (including the first, in the conversation above) and there’s certainly some angst within Don about leaving the “paradise.” Paradise Lost? About the ultimate sin and the fall of man. There’s certainly evidence throughout the episode to suggest as much, and you can’t bring in Dante unless you bring in John Milton, thereby expressing the contrasting opinions on Hell and its keeper, Satan.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that in an episode titled “The Doorway,” that it’s the doorman who died (at least briefly). His death in and of itself is not as significant, however, as Don’s drunken badgering of Jonesy. Don wants to know what it felt like to be dead. Why? Because that’s what Don thinks he wants: To be dead. But he’d like a second-hand opinion about the state of death from the doorman before he goes there. He asks Jonesy, “Was it like hot, tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Don wants to know if it’s like Paradise, a place he desperately he wants to return to. But it’s also a state: Don has fallen. He wants a return to purity, before the fall (more on this later).