Death trickles throughout the season six premiere of “Mad Men.” For one, there’s a wake: the death of Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) elderly mother. There’s also a freak accident that causes Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) doorman to lose consciousness and technically die for a matter of minutes before surging back to life. “What did you see, Jonesy?” a drunken Don slurs days later, hoisted between the arms of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). “When you died — what did you see?”

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The Doorway
Sundays at 9 p.m.

AMC


Passageways — doors, elevators, windows, hallways — have been recurring narrative and framing mechanisms for “Mad Men” since the beginning. In this premiere — pointedly titled “The Doorway” — Roger tells his therapist, “You realize that’s all there are: doors, and windows, and bridges and gates. And they all open the same way. And they all close behind you … You’re just going in a straight line to you know where.”

There’s that shadow of death again, lurking in the corners of passageways. For Don and Roger, death never lingers too far behind — it’s a formative facet of both characters. Sometimes it sneaks up unexpectedly, like when Don pitches his grand “jumping off point” campaign to SCDP’s latest high-profile account, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. To Don, the sketch of abandoned clothes and footprints at the seaside represents shedding skin, becoming someone new, just as he did when he made the transformation from Dick Whitman to Don Draper. To the client — and everyone, really — it looks like a suicide scene.

“Mad Men” has always excelled in giving great meaning to objects and imagery, sometimes getting a little too assertive in its explanations (last season, we probably didn’t need someone to tell Don that it’s not his tooth that’s rotten to understand the symbolic weight of an abscessed tooth). In “The Doorway,” the imagery is a bit more delicate. An abandoned violin becomes Betty’s desire for something that makes her special, something that uplifts her from the mundane life Sally’s perceptive-yet-naive (Sally: “She thinks she’s 25 because she uses tampons”) friend Sandy points to with disgust. Don accidentally takes the lighter of a soldier he meets in Hawaii, which drums up all sorts of weighted memories of his time in Korea.

Plenty of callbacks to “Mad Men” ’s early years come up in “The Doorway,” some subtle, like the Kodak Carousel Don and Megan use to show their neighbors pictures of their Hawaii getaway — the time machine. But nostalgia shouldn’t be mistaken as stasis: Though Roger insists in his doorway soliloquy that nothing really changes as life goes on, if he were to step back and view things from where we do, he’d see that’s far from the case. The most noticeable change comes in the form of Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). To say she’s a Don 2.0 would be unfair to the strength and depth of the character, but it’s hard not to think of her former boss when she effortlessly convinces a client she’s right and he’s wrong and takes a well aimed verbal punch at her copywriting underlings.

Last season, the clash of the generations (the Dons and Rogers vs. the Megans and Janes and Freddys) picked up speed. Now, it’s in full acceleration. The copywriters have shaggy hair and style that suggest the imminence of the 1970s, making clean-cut Don look almost like a foreigner in his own office, which has been rearranged by photographers shooting publicity stills for the company, much to Don’s annoyance. He’s back to his philandering ways, sleeping with his new doctor friend’s wife despite his picture-perfect life with Megan. Roger, too, tries to hold onto the life he knows despite the shifting tides around him.

Meanwhile, the people around them are going, well, through “The Doorway,” into 1968.

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