Has there ever been a more destined pairing than Don Draper and Dante on the beach? The appearance of Florentine poet Dante Alighieri’s most celebrated work “Inferno” in Mad Men’s season six premiere was enough to induce sighs and swells from medieval scholars (who rarely see their man on the small screen.) Don Draper, sprawled out on a towel on Waikiki Beach, read the first line of Canto One before ending his torment.
At least, he tried to read “Inferno.”
But now that Dante’s in the picture, it’s possible that the show’s creator Matthew Weiner may be using “Inferno” as a blueprint. After all, he’s been ticking off sins since season one, circle by circle, providing a checklist of damnation straight from 1308.
Dante’s “Inferno” is a poet’s midlife journey to the depths of hell, depicting nine circles of sin—lust, gluttony, greed, among others —before beginning his quest up to paradise. “The Divine Comedy” isn’t exactly a laughable matter, and indeed, its presence on a Hawaiian vacation is highly unrealistic. “Paradiso,” the third and most mystical part of the epic poem, would make great reading for sipping frozen Mai Tais in the sand. But Inferno? Inferno was written for pain: for Washington during debt crises and the New York Subway in July. Reading Dante in Hawaii reeks of self-flagellation, the sort critics are telling us we’re likely to see throughout the season.
With Dante, too, comes dreaded theological questions, the ones about the death, the afterlife and where it all goes from here. “The hop off point,” Don calls it. They’re the perfect questions for the penultimate season.
Until now, religion and redemption were issues that only Peggy explored (before deciding she wanted to “live in sin,” to use the term favored by her devout Catholic mother.) This season, it seems, Don is poised for a conversion of sorts, or at least reflection.
“I had an experience,” Don begins when he returns from his Waikiki vacation. “I don’t know how to put it into words.”
Amazingly, though, Dante does. Don has never shown much interest in religion, but he’s reading what some call the pinnacle of Catholic and Italian literature, a work that razes the hierarchy of church politics, while meditating on spiritual truth.
Still, Dante and Don are worlds apart. Dante, unlike Don, was a mystic in pain, in deep search for truth in politically- fraught Florence. He had a mentor, Virgil, guiding him through “Inferno”; Don has Roger Sterling on a couch, cursing the path’s “many doors.” Dante had his muse Beatrice guiding him to Paradise. Don has a new mistress who gave him “Inferno” for a vacation with his wife.
But Don, while lying on bed with his newest Francesca (See Canto 5!), admits he needs to stop “doing this.”
The presence of “The Divine Comedy” opens doors to self-awareness that “Mad Men” has yet to explore. And if we doubt that Don isn’t looking to Dante for a little guidance, he tells us: “Heaven is a little morbid. How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen”
Dante would ‘Amen’ to that.