"Mad Men" is back, and I have a review of the season premiere coming up just as soon as I leave everything to the zoo...

"What are the events in life? It's like you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, 'What's on the other side of the door?' Then you open a few doors, and you say, 'I think I want to go over the bridge this time. I'm tired of doors.' Finally you go through one of these things, 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. Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they're supposed to change, you, change your direction. But it turns out that's not true. Turns out the experiences are nothing. They're just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket. You're just going in a straight line to You Know Where." -Roger Sterling

"The Doorway" makes its intentions plain long before Roger delivers the episode's thesis statement to his shrink. We open on what will later be revealed as Don's neighbor Dr. Rosen performing CPR on Jonesy the doorman, bringing him back from clinical death, which Jonesy will reluctantly admit he experienced as if going into a white light. We cut from Rosen in action to the sight of Megan's sweaty belly, and the sound of Don Draper's voice — the only time we'll hear it for several minutes (he speaks his first line of proper dialogue at the hotel bar) — reciting the opening lines of Dante's "The Inferno."

These are stories of men who experience the ways of death without actually dying — which has always been the story of the man we know as Don Draper.

Dick Whitman went to Korea, "died" and began life anew. He went through a door and came out as another person, with another name and another future. But no matter how much his circumstances have changed, there are some things he finds he can never change about himself. In the episode's final sequence, we see that he's been having an affair with Rosen's wife Sylvia, which has only renewed his self-loathing at his philandering ways. When Sylvia asks what he wants for the new year, Don says bluntly, "I want to stop doing this."

Like last year's premiere "The Doorway" has a clear delineation point between the hours — the photographer saying "I want you to be yourself" to Don, a man for whom that suggestion is more complicated than most — but feels even more of a piece than "A Little Kiss." (There's no equivalent to Lane's discovery of the wallet in the taxi.) All the stories flow from the first hour into the second, and almost all deal with characters who have gone through doors (at the end of 1967, the year The Doors hit it big) hoping to come out as someone new.

We spend a lot of time following Peggy in her new job with Teddy Chow-guh-guh, where she doesn't remotely resemble the timid girl she was when she first walked in the door of Don's office. She exited Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a new woman, and we see that that woman has become the female Don Draper. She has a healthier relationship with Abe — who seems to have made peace with having a girlfriend who's a tool of the establishment, and just goes along with her job and its demands — than Don's had with his wives, but she speaks to her subordinates exactly the way Don would ("If you can't tell the difference between which part's the idea and which part's the execution of the idea, I have no use for you"), makes them stay at work at all hours (shades of "The Suitcase"), and has even mastered how to calm down a nervous client, as well as how to bring a dead ad campaign back to life.(*)

(*) And when she resurrects the Koss ad, Ted's far more complimentary of her than Don would be. Until now, we'd only seen him as a gnat buzzing in the ear of SCDP, trying to one-up Don, but in his brief appearance here he's already vastly more sympathetic — like someone we might actually want Peggy to keep working for, rather than a placeholder boss while we wait for her to return to the fold.

Megan has a new role on a soap opera, and with it a new name. When she's out in public, strangers greet her as Corinne, not Megan, and Don can only stare at her and wonder who it is exactly that he married. Her success hasn't ended their relationship, but he's back to sleeping around on his wife, and again winds up watching a slide show — on a Kodak Carousel, I'm assuming — featuring photos of a life he feels like a bystander in.

Roger has gone through door after door over the years — new wife, new agency, new interest in psychedelic drugs, now a new haircut — while always finding he's the same man. (Like Jonesy, he even had his own near-death experience with his heart attack in season 1, and very quickly went back to the usual boozing, smoking and whoring around.) He goes to therapy, but more as a performance piece — despite the shrink's refusal to laugh at Roger's jokes — and suggests that the only true transformation we can achieve in life is when it ends. After his mother's wake, he tries to reach out to his daughter Margaret, but she only sees him as an open wallet, because that's how Roger has positioned himself for so long.

But in the world of "Mad Men," people are very much capable of change — as is society. Peggy is proof of the former, and Don's first visit of the season to the creative lounge is a comical reminder of the latter. Earlier, at the Royal Hawaiian bar, PFC Dinkins asks if Don is an astronaut; when he faces his creative team, still in his sleek suit and haircut, while they're in various states of late '60s shagginess, an astronaut is exactly what he seems like, and Stan and Ginsberg are a new alien race he's encountered and can't quite understand yet. (Remember when you couldn't tell the Sterling Cooper copywriters apart from the accounts men?) When Betty stands outside the St. Mark's Place flophouse as hippies walk by, she couldn't possibly look more matronly; even without the continued weight gain (more on that below), she seems decades removed, rather than just a few years, from the woman we saw go to Rome with Don.

And Betty has changed, even if it's not always in a way she would like. She still struggles with her weight, and still feels a general sense of dissatisfaction with her life, but the Francis family seems to have found some equilibrium; when the clan sits by the Christmas tree to watch Sally's friend Sandy play her violin, there's a sense of happiness and peace that we've rarely seen with either of Betty's families.

Sandy gives up that violin as part of her quest to run away from the life she thinks Betty is trapped in. When she first boasts to Betty of what she glimpsed on St. Mark's, she says, "And the kids are just living, and it's beautiful." She's in search — perhaps very naively, perhaps not — of a version of life she finds more authentic than the one she's experienced, and as characters go through "The Doorway," there are various talismans of authenticity — with different levels of meaning to different people — and situations where what's real and what only seems real can be easily confused.

We see, for instance, Don and Megan enjoying a feast at the Royal Hawaiian, where the emcee explains that the food is just like what you might find at an actual royal Hawaiian feast; the Drapers have gone all the way to paradise just to get a recreation of paradise. Later, Don enters his office to discover the furniture rearranged, because the photographer feels it looks better this way, and he's asked to "just do what you do." Don is in his office, but it's not quite his office, in poses we've seen him in before (lighting a cigarette, leaning on the desk), but it's all false.

Don tries to remember what's real and what isn't through the lighter he got in Korea, which is not only a reminder of the identity switch, but its cause, since he dropped the thing(**) and caused the fire that blew up the real Don. When he realizes that he accidentally switched lighters with PFC Dinkins — a man who had earlier talked of one day wanting to essentially take Don's identity, and yet who seems very likely to die in Vietnam before his tour's over — it completely unmoors Don. A wake for someone's mother would never be his ideal scene, given what we know about Dick Whitman's childhood, but having to attend it right after the lighter discovery turns him into a liquid, puking mess. 

(**) Or is the lighter he's had all these years the one that belonged to the real Draper? I've rewatched the explosion sequence from Nixon vs. Kennedy many times, and while Dick's lighter causes the fire, it's not clear whose he ends up with; we only see him take the real Don's dogtags. Dinkins' lighter has his name on it, but did Don's?  

After the wake, Roger gives Margaret one of his family's most prized heirlooms: a jar of water from the River Jordan that his father brought home to his mother. It's an attempt to bottle something very real and sacred, but decades later, it's just water in a jar to Margaret, who doesn't even bother to take it with her. Later, Roger receives the shoeshine kit of the late Georgio — a man no one else cared enough about to inquire when he stopped showing up to work (not that Roger himself cared, other than for the sake of his shoes), in much the same way Roger fears he'll instantly be forgotten when he goes through the final doorway. And as he holds the shoeshine brush in his hands — in a great, great moment for John Slattery — that's when he finally cries, as he considers all he's lost and all that he has yet to lose.

Even the hippies Betty encounters in her search for Sandy are seeking some kind of authenticity that's in its own way not real. They're trying to make goulash the way Danny's mother made it — with Betty standing in for everyone's mother for a few hours — but with the meager resources available to them in a squat with no electricity or running water. Betty doesn't find Sandy, and ultimately leaves the violin — a symbol of the talent Betty envies, but also of the life Sandy has run away from — behind, but she's inspired by the experience (and the flack she got from the lead hippie for her hair) to go brunette, which may not be her natural hair color, but which seems more real. (And given her struggles with her weight, Henry's comparison to Liz Taylor seems more apt in 1967 than the familiar Grace Kelly references.)

Though Don is back to sleeping around, he seems not entirely back on his game. When Stan asks for an early pitch on the Royal Hawaiian experience, Don admits, "I don't know how to put it into words," and when he gives two of the newer copywriters a lecture about what he wants their oven cleaner campaign to feel like, it just leaves them baffled. (Though he at least delivers the speech about Eros with conviction, so this may be a case like with Peggy's subordinates, where they just can't play at his level yet.) The campaign he comes up with for Sheraton ultimately confuses the issue, evoking death in a way he doesn't intend, while speaking very much to the themes of this episode and the usual struggles of Don Draper. It's an ad that makes perfect sense to Don, but would unsurprisingly signify death to anyone without his unique experiences. Dick Whitman shed his skin and became Don Draper, but to the small world that knew him, Dick Whitman died. Can you change without dying? Roger Sterling seems to think you can't, but Peggy and others suggest you can.

As we ponder change, and death, throughout "The Doorway," we see also that Don has come to really admire Dr. Rosen — or, at least, to feel tremendous guilt that he's cuckolding a good man whose work is so much more important than what Don does for a living. As a man who experienced death without dying, Don wonders what it's like for Rosen to hold actual lives in his hands, and stares at him (while standing in yet another doorway) with quiet awe as Rosen goes skiing through a blizzard to perform emergency surgery on New Year's Eve. The image of a man going cross-country skiing through the streets of Manhattan is a gorgeous, retro one, and a nice bookend to Don's journey through "The Doorway." He begins in the sizzling heat of paradise, reading "The Inferno," and ends it on a snowy New York night, frustrated to be frozen in the same old behavior, again and again.

All in all, a great start to season 6. Some of the scenes with Betty and the hippies felt awkward in that way "Mad Men" tends to get when it steps outside of our characters' usual social circle — where the research was obviously put into behavior and dialogue and atmosphere, but where it often (whether Midge's beatnik pals, or Paul with the Hare Krishnas) fees like a very close approximation of the thing, like the Royal Hawaiian feast or Don's rearranged office — but the rest of it was spot-on, thoughtful, moving and gorgeous in that "Mad Men" way. (Also, even though Passover is done with for the year, if the episode had only featured Peggy being great at her new job... dayeenu.) I'm so glad to have it back, and to have the opportunity to talk about it with you tonight and for the next 11 episodes.

Some other thoughts:

* Season 5 ended in April of 1967, while this one picks up around Christmastime of the same year. That's among the shorter between-season gaps the show has had (the one between seasons 2 and 3 is the shortest, I believe). It means that the show skipped over the Summer of Love (which several characters reference in dialogue), but has arrived just in time for the absolute insanity of 1968 (MLK, RFK, riots, Tet Offensive, the '68 Democratic National Convention, etc). The short gap also makes it seem like something other than sadism is behind Betty's continued weight issues. While a woman January Jones' age (not that Jones ever was as big as Betty) today could take off a lot of weight in that much time through modern diet and exercise, there weren't spin classes for Betty to go to; even jogging was only beginning to be accepted as an activity for non-athletes at this point.

* That second Super Bowl wound up being a lopsided contest between the Packers (who beat the Cowboys in the legendary Ice Bowl on December 31, 1967) and the Raiders. The Super Bowl wasn't the media monster it became later, but I found reports at the time that NBC and CBS were actually charging higher ad rates than they were getting for the respective league championship games. So the Koss ad was a big deal, even if we hadn't yet entered the era of people watching the game specifically for the commercials.

* Despite the death of Lane, the agency remains Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as seen on the doors when Don enters with Bob Benson, the disingenuous suck-up from accounts. (Note that Bob insists he gets two coffees for himself, and within moments, one is in Don's hands, the other in Pete's.)

* Also, one of the campaigns Don's people are working on is for a Dow oven cleaner. Looks like his bizarre speech from "Commissions and Fees" actually won over Ken's father-in-law.

* Sally now refers to her mother as "Betty" and calmly closes the door on her when she's on the phone. That's fantastic. (And, as teenage girl rebellion goes, still fairly mild.)

* Another sign Betty isn't who she used to be: once upon a time, she recoiled in disgust at realizing how quickly Don could think up a lie, where now she's the one surprising Sandy with the speed with which she invents a cover story.

* If I've done this properly, there should be a poll embedded below the review to let you vote for your favorite new hair (or facial hair) choice. Harry's new 'do certainly made me laugh the longest, but there are arguments to be made for all of them.

* A whole bunch of notable guest stars in this one, most of whom I'm expecting to see again throughout the season: Linda Cardellini as Sylvia, James Wolk as Bob Benson, veteran Canadian actor Brian Markinson (who inevitably guest stars on every show filmed in Vancouver) as Dr. Rosen, and Ray Abruzzo (Little Carmine from "The Sopranos") as Jonesy the doorman. (And as what I figure is a one-shot, Michael Bunin from "My Boys" as the photographer.) Also, while I know it is chronologically possible for a woman Cardellini's age to have a college-age son, particularly in 1967, I am nonetheless freaking the hell out about Lindsay Weir having a college-age son.

* More casting talk: I smiled when I saw the name of Kevin Rahm (who plays Teddy Chow-guh-guh) in the opening credits as a regular castmember (along with a promoted Ben "Ginsberg" Feldman), since that was a clear signal that the show would be spending a good amount of time at Peggy's new job. And because that office needs more bodies, Michael Gaston gets to reprise his role as Burt Peterson, who was briefly the head of accounts at the old Sterling Cooper; he replaced Duck after season 2 and was fired by the British in the season 3 premiere.

* I had heard rumblings of a Cardellini appearance, so when I saw this hula girl, I briefly did a double-take and wondered if it was her under a lot of makeup. Probably just my mind playing tricks on me, but I wonder if it was intentional, in the same way Don saw the Betty doppelganger during his LA trip in "The Jet Set."

* "She's just in the next room. Why don't you go in there and rape her. I'll hold her arms down." Sometimes, I can't decide if Weiner wants Betty to be off-putting, or just doesn't understand how she comes across. Either way, yikes, Betty.

* Since this episode began airing tonight, I have received about a half-dozen, "So who's the girl with the violin, anyway?" emails, IMs and texts from friends. Short version: she's just a friend of Sally's, whom we've never seen before, who's hanging out a lot with the Francis family because her mom just died. Not the most elegant set-up to a story, no.

* Joan only appears in one scene — and it's at least somewhat notable she doesn't go to the wake, given her history with Roger (her son just lost one of his grandmothers) — but it's a notable one, as much for what isn't said as for what is. Joan is busy posing on the fancy new SCDP staircase when Harry breezes past, frustrated by this disruption in his workday — and, I suspect, because Joan is now a partner who gets her portrait taken while he, the almighty head of the TV department, is not. It's a silent, fitting coda to the Joan/Harry story from "A Night to Remember," when it was clear to everyone but the people at Sterling Cooper how much better she was at Harry's job than he was.

* I laughed for a moment at the thought that Ken's question about the status of Pete's elderly, senile mother was a tip of the cap to "Mad Men" continuity nerds. But of course it was setting up the later question about Don's mom, which was the last thing an incredibly drunk Don needed to hear about on this day, in this mood and physical condition. (Roger on Don's vomit: "He was just saying what everyone else was thinking.")

* More attention to "Mad Men" continuity/genealogy: while Peggy is trying to reach Teddy on the spiritual retreat with his wife, she gets interrogated about how a woman with the name Olson wound be a Catholic, which I get asked about from time to time even though the show has explained it in the past.

* Peggy and Joan have never become the BFFs we might have hoped they would be, but it feels right that she and Stan seem much closer now that they no longer work together. He's learned to respect her, she no longer has to deal with his laziness and time-wasting, and both of them know what it's like to work for Don Draper. The two of them on a never-ending late night phone call warmed my heart, it did. And Stan may have evolved into the show's second-funniest character (intentionally, that is) after Roger; when Don asks if the Royal Hawaiian ad made him think of suicide, Stan cackles: "Of course. That's what's so great about it!" The man just doesn't care, and that's what makes him entertaining. 

* Pop culture then vs. now: Megan is surprised to realize people in Minnesota can see her soap, "To Have and To Hold."

* PFC Dinkins hears that married men have better odds of surviving combat, but Don knows that's not true, given that the real Don left Anna behind.

* Speaking of Anna, I was reminded of how Don used to send her books when we learned that it was Sylvia who gave him that copy of "The Inferno."

Finally, as a reminder: this is the only episode this year I'll be seeing in advance. Staying up late to write the reviews wound up being reasonably workable last year, but as usual, I make no promises. I may get all of them done before I crash, or I may decide I need to sleep on them and write the next day. Whatever happens, happens.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com