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'Mad Men' season premiere: Don Draper as Dante



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Updated: July 19, 2013 12:38PM

“Mad Men” fans are famous for parsing every line, every shot, every song choice — probing the smallest details for clues about what it all means.

Sunday’s season premiere of the AMC drama will keep them plenty busy. (SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you haven’t watched it.)

Packed with symbolism and cryptic, thought-provoking fodder, the sublime two-hour episode could be the subject of a college course. Topping the list of required reading: Don Draper’s peculiar choice for a beach book: Dante’s “Inferno.”

The episode is permeated with the first installment of the Italian poet’s “Divine Comedy,” a three-part allegorical journey through the afterlife. Don is a ‘60s version of Dante, trapped in the depths of hell, searching for his Virgil to guide him along the virtuous path that leads to eternal paradise.

A heavenly setting on Waikiki Beach is where we find Don sunbathing next to a bikini-clad Megan (with Diamond Head in the distance, doubling as the Mountain of Purgatory, perhaps?). He reads a line from Dante’s allegorical tale:

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood,” he says.

This opener dovetails with the season five finale, when a tempting female stranger in a dark bar asks Don that pivotal question: “Are you alone?”

We’re well aware by the surprising end of the premiere that Don is still very much alone, a lost soul in need of salvation. He’s embroiled in another affair, this time with a married neighbor -- a Dante fan who turned him onto “The Inferno.”

When his lover asks during pillow talk what he wants in the New Year, Don solemnly replies: “I want to stop doing this.”

You believe him, just as strongly as you believe he doesn’t know how.

People’s sins become the source of their punishment in Dante’s nine circles of hell. Don’s habitual infidelity is punitive. He keeps repeating the same mistakes, expecting -- but never getting -- a different result. Maybe Don really is a mad man in every sense of the word.

He’s also a man without an identity. Don Draper (formerly known as Dick Whitman) stole the persona of a dead soldier in Korea almost as seamlessly as he fills in as father of the bride on the beach in Hawaii. When a photographer snapping office shots back in New York tells Don to “just be yourself,” his perplexed look says it all: I don’t know how. Sins become the punishment.

More “Inferno” imagery can be seen in the weather. Dante’s ninth circle of hell, reserved for sinners who’ve committed acts of betrayal, isn’t a fiery furnace. It’s icy cold, like the snow blowing into Megan and Don’s apartment through an open patio door. Paper snowflakes plaster the walls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Dr. Rosen sets out on skis in a New Year’s Eve blizzard shortly before Don beds the man’s wife.

Am I reading too much into this? Maybe so. But it sure is fun to guess what’s going on in creator Matthew Weiner’s mind.

One thing we do know is Weiner picks his titles carefully. This episode is “The Doorway.” (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” reads Dante’s inscription on the scariest doorway of all, the gates of hell.)

Betty enters the dank doorway of a home full of squatters hoping to find her violin-playing houseguest, a young woman full of promise who reminds Betty of an earlier, unbroken version of herself. She exits the same doorway empty-handed, ripping her coat along the way.

Roger gives a speech about life being full of doors. “They all open the same way and they all close behind you,” he says, defeated.

It’s the Drapers’ doorman -- not Don, as we first think -- who nearly dies of a heart attack in the opening scene. Later, a drunken Don pleads with the man to tell him what he saw in the afterlife. “Hot tropical sunshine?” Don asks hopefully.

When Don crawls back in bed with Megan at the end of the episode, “Hawaiian Wedding Song” is playing. Elvis cruelly croons, “I will love you longer than forever, promise me that you will leave me never.”

The camera pans up to what looks like a constellation of stars, which happens to be the last word in “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” -- the three parts of “Divine Comedy.”

Don’s tired of living in hell. He wants to find heavenly paradise, the path to peace and happiness. But he’s stuck in a revolving door, with two seasons left to figure a way out.

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