I really enjoyed critiquing the most recent seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and it bums me out that I can’t find any currently running shows I feel compelled to write about. When season six of Mad Men showed up on Blu-ray Tuesday, I thought, “Wow, it would be great to revisit the show and write about it from the beginning with the wisdom of hindsight.” So I watched the first episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” with an eye toward analysis. Aaaand then I checked my RSS feed the next morning and discovered the Onion’s AV Club had the exact same idea. Great.
I still want to do this thing, but I’m painfully aware that somewhere a much capable and qualified media critic than myself is undertaking the same endeavor. I’m not going to read any of their breakdowns until I’m done with mine; if happen to be following theirs as well as mine, please be gentle and spare me from unflattering comparisons. I don’t know if my gossamer-like self-esteem could handle it.
Season One, Episode One: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
Mad Men‘s pilot is a pilot in the truest sense; it was filmed as a test, and the rest of Season One wasn’t greenlit for another year. As such, the episode doesn’t quite line up perfectly with the show that followed. The discrepancies are small, but little oddities do stand out here and there — though nothing quite so much as the photo of Pete Campbell’s fiancée, Trudy, who looks nothing at all like Alison Brie. By and large, however, the tenets established here define the show that would follow.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” wastes no time in establishing just about everything about its time period, its tone, and its topic. This is the early 1960s, and it looks the part: Everyone dresses smartly, mid-century decor mingles with vestiges of classical and Art Deco style, smoking and drinking are the norm. The one lingering question mark left by the opening moments is the identity of the strong-jawed ad man struggling for inspiration in an upper-class club filled with cigarette smoke — a fact not established until well into the second scene. But everything else is laid out in the open: Mad Men clearly takes place before the Civil Rights movement, as the unnamed (white) ad man tries to engage in conversation with a black waiter who seems reluctant to take the bait… understandably so, as the moment he mumbles a curt response he’s immediately chastised for being “chatty” by his (white) boss. The ad man doesn’t seem to care much about race or social standing here; all he wants to know is why his waiter smokes, and why the other man prefers Rolled Gold cigarettes over (for example) Lucky Strike. He doesn’t make a breakthrough with his work, but the two do come to a sort of simpatico lamenting the foibles of women.
Stymied, the ad man makes a sexy house call to lament his frustration over his current assignment (promoting Lucky Strikes amidst increasing government limitations on what claims tobacco companies are allowed to make regarding their respective products) to a sharp-eyed brunette with whom he clearly has an understanding. This paramour, Midge, finally reveals the ad man’s name — Don Draper — at around the episode’s five-minute mark, and as with all her dialogue it’s delivered with a remarkable amount of cynicism for such a supposedly innocent time. A commercial illustrator by trade — presumably she a professional associate of Don’s whose relationship with him drifted into other territory entirely — she’s currently sneering over the goopy sentiment she’s expected to dredge up to sell cards for a newly minted holiday called “Grandmother’s Day.” And as she wastes no time crawling into bed with Don, she’s quick to define herself as quite a nontraditional gal, recoiling from Don’s not-at-all-serious suggestion of turning their tryst into a greater commitment.
It quickly becomes clear that Don Draper, despite commanding the open, professional respect of everyone around him, suffers from a borderline case of Impostor Syndrome. There’s certainly reason for this, as it will turn out over the course of the first season, but for the pilot we can only presume his paranoia about his Lucky Strike mental block seems to be fueled entirely by the quiet, judgmental sarcasm of his boss, Roger Sterling, who clearly is passing the buck regarding an impossible situation for an essential client to his underling. Still, it’s interesting to see Don so unsettled and frustrated here, as the popular takeaway on the character tends to be that he’s smooth and self-confident and always in control. But underneath that veneer, we see, lies a deep insecurity that fuels each and every one of his self-destructive choices and actions. How could a handsome, decorated veteran with a high-power job and the adulation of his peers be so unsure of himself, you wonder? The show will explore his neuroses in due time.
Eventually, Don does prove the basis of his reputation by demonstrating a remarkable ability to improvise in a pinch. Despite walking into the Lucky Strike meeting with a blank sheathe of paper and nearly causing his clients to march in frustration from the room, empty-handed, he pulls a spark of inspiration from the ashes of failure. But in his heroic speech about the role of advertising and the need for comfort, his eyes begin to lose focus and you realize he’s not really talking about salesmanship in some grandiloquent style; he’s reassuring himself. “You are OK,” he muses, relaxing visibly for the first time all episode.
“We’re selling America! The Indians gave it to us, for shit’s sake.”
At last, 24 hours after his ordeal began in a smoke-filled lounge, Don goes home. And then, the plot twist: His life outside of work takes place in an idyllic suburb well beyond the bounds of Manhattan, where a beautiful young wife and two children wait for him. On top of all the other vices he’s demonstrated throughout the hour — borderline alcoholism, chain-smoking, sexism, hints of racism, arrogance — you realize his dalliance with Midge was adultery. In other words, he’s kind of scummy… and yet he makes a compelling main character, because beneath those failings he’s driven by uncertainty and fear, like everyone else. And he’s surrounded by people who embody his vices in much more pronounced or literal ways. Don Draper seems like a flawed man, but not an entirely bad one — certainly, we see, not as bad as he could be.
Whatever dramatic requirements Draper himself fails to carry, the setting in which he lives and struggles more than makes up for it. Mad Men perhaps overplays the alien nature of its time and place, with a few too many statements that rely on the viewer’s recognizing their dramatic irony (“It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things”) and the bad behavior of its cast seemingly exaggerated a step too far at times… but it is television, after all. Sometimes you need a bludgeon rather than a scalpel. As it is, an alarming number of people see Mad Men as glorifying excessive drinking, heavy smoking, patriarchal and patronizing attitudes toward anyone who isn’t a white male, and so forth; sometimes even a bludgeon doesn’t get the point across to an audience’s less-perceptive members.
But they’re all wrong. Mad Men is framed with a decidedly liberal, modern-day point of view. For example, ad firm Sterling-Cooper’s condescending missteps (and Don’s in particular) in attempting to court a client who turns out to be a Jewish woman are amusing in their utter insensitivity — their disaster of a meeting takes place at a table laden with elaborate shrimp cocktails — but the message is clear that Don is in the wrong. In the end, he’s forced to eat crow for storming out of the board room, but not because anyone thinks Rachel Menkin deserves the respect no one was willing to give her; rather, the company simply wants her $3 million advertising account (that’s $21 million in 2013 money, by the way). Rachel turns out to be the most perceptive character in the entire episode, the one person able to see through Don Draper’s façade and call him on his slick-talking ad man hucksterism. He impresses her, but not because he manages to make her feel overawed at his silver tongue; rather, she recognizes a kindred spirit in Don. They’re fellow outsiders struggling to blend in where they don’t belong.
From the very beginning, here, Mad Men centers on Don Draper. But he’s not actually the sexy, cool, unflappable power executive that the show’s ads and reputation suggest. He’s instead an uncertain stranger in over his head, who excels in advertising because the trade is about selling lies and images — something he does daily in both his personal and his professional life. And he’s very good at it, but as we see in his near burnout at the Lucky Strike meeting and when Rachel rattles his cage by calling his bluff, he’s not perfect. And as the series — and thus the 1960s — soldier on, Don finds himself struggling to keep up with the times. Can a man who lies to everyone in order to fit in keep up the façade through a decade of radical social upheaval? The pilot doesn’t quite ask this question, yet it certainly lays down the foundation for its exploration.
Meanwhile, the B plots that parallel Don’s personal story introduce the characters who will surround him in order to contrast his story and tell the tale of the times. Roger Sterling, his cordial yet ultimately aloof boss. Pete Campbell, the young executive who salivates as eagerly at the prospect of Don’s job as he does at his female coworkers. (The open contempt Don displays for Pete’s shameless bootlicking and presumptuous familiarity sets up an office rivalry that will fade over time, though it also permanently establishes Campbell as a pitiable, pitiful buffoon whose ascent up the corporate ladder — unlike Don’s — has nothing to do with others’ respect for him.) Joan Holloway, the office manager, a pre-Twiggy vision of female sexuality who lords over the women of the company’s steno pool and masks a frustrated, zero-tolerance pragmatism behind her pleasant demeanor. The lower-tier cast of Don’s underlings is ill-defined here, basically amounting to a gaggle of identical skirt chasers — with the exception of Sal, who clearly is a closeted homosexual perpetually on the brink of accidentally outing himself and who compensates by being the loudest, most sexist skirt chaser of them all.
And then there’s Peggy Olson, the wide-eyed newcomer to the office. While “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” largely follows Don Draper, Peggy serves as the real point-of-view character. Her introduction to the world of Sterling-Cooper gives viewers their own walkthrough of the office culture. It also gives viewers a chance to see the hostility and nastiness of the time and culture that Don — being a white male in a position of power — is largely oblivious to even as he perpetuates it. Her elevator ride to the office is accompanied by leering junior executives; Joan treats her as the latest in a long line of interchangeable cogs who use the steno pool as a temporary stopover en route to married life in the suburbs; her gynecologist subjects her to patronizing advice and instructions about birth control that seem as cold and insensitive as whatever metal instruments he uses to poke around in her nethers must be (she stares blankly at the calendar to detach herself from his probing, giving the doctor’s visit discomfiting rape overtones).
Peggy enjoys much less screen time than Don, but she’s definitely set up as the show’s most important secondary character. Not only is her point of view invaluable to the audience, but she’s the only one besides Don with any real nuance and mystery. She’s clearly torn between her uncertainty as the new girl longing to fit in and something more ambiguous, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what that ambiguity is. When Campbell — drunk after his own bachelor party, where his sexual advances to a party girl were spurned — shows up at her doorstep in the middle of the night, she takes him to bed. This, despite Pete’s humiliating treatment of her. It’s hard to say what draws Peggy to him, and honestly she may not even be sure herself besides he fact that both felt crushed and rejected by the events of the day and turn to one another for comfort. Peggy begins her long journey to becoming Don here, and Pete plays an essential role in that journey.
Intriguing characters, smart dialogue, and a gorgeously realized setting (with a twist ending, even) make “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” a strong start to a great show.