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).
The Zippo is more than just a lighter that belongs to a man that will probably be dead soon. It’s also a haunting reminder of the death of Don Draper. As you recall, it was a Zippo that cost the original Don Draper his life (in Korea, the original Draper’s Zippo led to a gas explosion, which is how Dick Whitman would become this Don Draper). It’s obviously a reminder, too, that Don Draper is a fraud, a message hammered home when Draper asks the photographer, “What do you want,” and the photographer responds, “I want you to be yourself.” (More on this later)
This one is clearly the most obvious clue: Everyone else recognizes the ad as depicting a man killing himself. It’s only Don who can’t see it, though it is clearly in his subconscious. When the client suggests that the it looks like a man has died, Don says, “Maybe he did. And he went to Heaven. Maybe that’s what this feels like.” Paradise Lost, again.
Rewatching the episode in light of what I knew about the ad that Draper had created, the scene above — where Don is standing at the window, the sounds of ocean waves crashing in his head — I immediately thought of, “The Jumping Off Point,” then I thought of this:
A man leaping from a skyscraper to his death in the hopes of returning to Paradise.
Recall, too, as Roger points out above that the association that the image conjures is of the movie A Star is Born, about a couple in love, only the woman’s career is ascending as the man’s career is on its way down, leading him to walk out into the ocean and kill himself. Note the similarities with Don and Megan. Why did Draper get sh*tfaced and throw up at the funeral of Roger’s Mom? Because he was despondent over the fact that Megan had gotten a bigger part in her soap opera. Her career is headed up. Don’s is headed down.
The Take Home Message — Ultimately, the grand sum of the episode’s symbolism seems to be pointing toward the death of Don Draper, but NOT a physical death, but the death of the Don Draper’s identity. I think by the end of the series (if not sooner), Don Draper will die, but there will be a rebirth of Dick Whitman. “I just want you to be yourself,” said the photographer. Note in the pitch for the suicide ad that Draper also says it’s about a man who “sheds his skin.” I think Draper wants to shed his fraudulent identity. He wants to start all over. In Paradise (or Hawaii. Or Korea), not as Draper, but as a reborn Dick Whitman. The man he was. That’s his death. His clean slate. His paradise. That, I think, is Matthew Weiner’s end-goal for the Don Draper arc in Mad Men.
A couple of random thoughts:
1) The song playing at the bar in Hawaii was “O Tanenbaum,” which was based on a tragic love song about a faithful fir tree and a faithless lover: Don Draper.
2) I know this is overreaching, but go with me here just for fun: The name of Don’s new lover, played by Linda Cardalenni, is Sylvia. Who do you think of when you think 1960’s Sylvias? Sylvia Plath, of course, who killed herself by sticking her head in an oven. What was the product that Don was pitching earlier in the episode in that conversation about love? Oven cleaner. I’M JUST SAYIN’.