Please kill me: Life, rebirth and death in “Mad Men”

madmen advert

There are two Don Drapers in this painting and the one we see front and center is not what you’d call shocked to see his doppleganger. He’s annoyed. If only because he knows exactly what this other him is after, and he wants no part of it. To the Draper we k now, DD-2 is yesterday’s news. A pain in the ass. And yet he keeps coming back; the bad penny our Draper can’t ever kill off for good.

Right there in visual shorthand we can see the essence of the entire series: Birth, death, rebirth, reinvention, devolution, death, subsequent rebirth and on and on. The show’s central action — life and work in an advertising agency at the height of America’s modern era — plays out the theme in flashy, often hilarious metaphor. Products are invented, branded, then intertwined with the world’s shared subconscious. Only to be redesigned, rebranded and reinserted into the culture to do precisely the same thing as always, only for different reasons. Cigarettes that were once a sturdy symbol of American tradition awake one day as devil-may-care rebels. The utilitarian slide projector becomes a carousel jingling merrily through childhood, youth, love and family.

Meanwhile, the show’s central characters careen through the same renovations, only freighted with pesky existential quandaries. Who are we, really? What made us this way? Can we ever change? Does the past always determine the future, or can we determine our own identities and fates?

As Americans we believe wholeheartedly in both the possibility and redemptive power of personal reinvention. A cowboy can become a lawyer, and vice-versa. The daughter of junk-peddling, Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jews in Newark, NJ can reemerge in Santa Barbara, Calif. with a PhD in English literature, a prep school accent and a wee button nose. Or, as per “Mad Men,” a tragically  mistreated midwestern foot solider  named Dick Whitman can pull the dog tags off of a dead Lt. Don Draper and resurrect them both as a feverishly ambitious and naturally brilliant ad man in New York City.

As the series’ sixth season opened markers for the coming action clattered in all directions. Vacationing in Hawaii Draper met a vision of his younger self and accidentally traded their identical lighters. Roger Sterling, the feckless/unflappable  inheritor of the old Sterling, Cooper firm feels increasingly out of place in its new SCDP incarnation, then loses his mother and goes quickly berserk. “This is my funeral!” he howls minutes into her memorial service, by way of kicking all of his guests out of his mother’s palatially old-world apartment. For all his experimentation with LSD and psychotherapy, Roger exists entirely in the old world of inherited glory and power. He remains dry-eyed for his mother, but when his shoeshine man turns up dead the site of the man’s shine kit triggers a flood of tears.

Elsewhere, Draper’s ex Betty chases after her daughter’s runaway friend, a violin prodigy who sells her instrument to escape to the hippier climes of California. Unable to follow, the strawberry blonde Betty heads to the hairdresser and comes home with licorice black hair.

Even more tellingly, the doorman at the building where Draper lives with his new wife has only just survived a near-fatal heart attack; an event Don witnessed, much to his horror. Only now Jonesy is back at work, seemingly the same as always. Only Draper is convinced that he saw the man fade to black, briefly, in mid-infarction. Jonesy doesn’t want to talk about it, but a thoroughly lit Draper insists he tell all: What’d you see when you were dead? What was there? Jonesy grimaces. “I guess there was a light.” Just back from a dreamy vacation in Hawaii Draper persists. “Was it like hot, tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Jonesy won’t say, but when Draper presents a new ad concept to his clients at the Hawaiian resort where he’d vacationed the picture shows a businessman’s abandoned suit, shirt and shoes, his footsteps vanishing into the sea: “The Stepping Off Point,” reads the copy. The clients, sensing the suicidal implications of the image, aren’t pleased.