“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 7/19/2007)
In which it’s toasted
(Available on Netflix.)
Who is this man?
Many of the greatest series in TV history have first scenes that lay out succinctly the conflicts that these shows will explore. Prim and proper girl walks into a working-class bar. A group of police officers gathers in the early morning to hear the many issues they will confront that day—and that series. A frontier lawman fights back those who would lynch his prisoner and simply does it himself, because that would make it legal. These are the conflicts and questions those shows want you to engage with, the worlds you’re invited to enter and ponder. The first scene is so important to a story like this. It not only sets the scene, but it suggests an entrypoint to something that is complex and organic and alive. Here isn’t just where we begin; here is where we enter.
With that in mind, the first scene of Mad Men sets up the two questions that the series will wrestle with for seven seasons: Why do we want what we want? Who is this man? Both questions receive superficial answers in the scene. Sam the waiter smokes Old Gold cigarettes because they were what he was given during the war. If the world were suddenly deprived of his brand, he could probably find another, but for now, he’s content with what he has. He just loves smoking. For the latter question, we learn that this man is Don Draper, a genius ad man in 1960 New York City. He’s struggling with the question of how to sell cigarettes in a world where he can no longer tout their health benefits and where the public is slowly awakening to their legitimate health risks. But neither of those answers wholly satisfies. Why we want what we want is one of those questions that offers up more questions the further down you dig. And Don Draper will always be an enigma, even to himself.
It’s worth pointing out here that Don Draper is white—and played by the very attractive and generally excellent Jon Hamm—while Sam is black. Indeed, we’ll never see Sam again. He’s simply another window into this world. When Don engages him in conversation, a fellow restaurant employee comes to ask if Sam is bothering Don, and Sam seems at all times a little taken aback by what Don is doing. To modern eyes, it’s almost tempting to read this as Don Draper being ahead of the times, as being less weighed down by racial prejudices that others around him subscribe to, but his comments about Jewish people later in the episode will disabuse us of this notion. No, what we’re seeing is Don Draper’s creative process for the first of many times. What we’re also seeing is the show sneaking in another question and theme under our noses but one that will take many episodes—and in some cases, many seasons—to understand: What is privilege? Who gets to have it? Why? And how do those who don’t have privilege wrest it away from those who do? And what happens when that happens? That’s the central question of American politics of the ‘60s. It’s also where most stories set in the era begin. Mad Men is already letting us know it’s different by pushing this all the way to the margins.
The most common complaint I’ve heard leveled against this series—well, the second most common after “it’s just a soap opera,” which is wrongheaded and something we’ll deal with in the weeks to come—is that the story of a bunch of rich white people in the 1960s isn’t terribly interesting, not when there are civil rights marches and women storming the workplace and young people breaking down the walls of what’s considered “proper” behavior. It’s a view I’m at least somewhat sympathetic to. The world doesn’t necessarily need more spins on the stuff John Cheever was writing about in this era, when there were so many other stories to tell. But what makes Mad Men invaluable, I think, is that it’s not just talking about that era from the point-of-view of a period when we can sense all of the conflict and change on the horizon. It’s also, secretly, talking about our era. In placing a remove between us and the screen, in setting this in the comfortable past, the series is able to deconstruct our own lives, to show us how the relationship between the haves and have nots, between races, and especially between the genders haven’t really changed all that much beneath our veneers of political correctness. Mad Men is a series about how the social upheaval of axe hitting trunk feels to those at the very top of the tree. And that’s something that has never changed for as long as humans have been building societies and class systems.
Truth be told, on this swing through “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” I was surprised by how there’s some clunky stuff here and there. The “Hey, look, it’s 1960!” moments, which the show mercifully ironed out of its DNA by season two, are rampant, and for a series known for its subtlety, that’s a quality that’s in unfortunately short supply here. Sure, this is subtle compared to 90 percent of TV, but we still get five or six little moments that are meant to clue us in that, say, Sal is a closeted homosexual, invisible to Don but much more visible to those of us who’ve spent our lives in an era where such signposts are far more common in fiction. Or take, for instance, the “big reveal” at episode’s end that Don has a wife, which is foreshadowed and teased so much that when that moment finally arrives, it doesn’t have the power it’s meant to as a twist for the episode’s end.
It’s also fascinating to watch this pilot, having seen everything that followed, and see all of the elements that were evidently going to be a part of the show, until they just weren’t. Take, for instance, Midge, who’s ultimately less of a presence in the series than you’d expect, given the fact that Rosemarie DeWitt is cast in that role. (Those of you going through this series for the first time: Don’t worry. These are only the most minor of spoilers.) Or take Dr. Greta Guttman, whose psychological knowledge and research seems as if it might play into the story of advertising in the ‘60s, which was all about using this sort of knowledge to gain a toehold in the consumer’s imagination, until she proves utterly insignificant to what’s going forward. From the switchboard operators to the woman in Pete’s photo of his fiancée who is decidedly not Alison Brie, this is a pilot full of evolutionary dead ends, things that get a lot of play within the episode, then turn out to not be that important in the grand scheme of things.
And yet “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” unquestionably works. Even with those quibbles about some of the storytelling and the pilot’s over-obviousness, there’s a wonderful, moving core here, about a man who seems to have it all yet also keeps deflecting the attempts of anyone—including the audience—to get to know him. Even in this episode, it’s apparent that the greatest possible product Don Draper is selling is Don Draper himself, and it’s a spell he—along with pilot writer/creator Matthew Weiner and director Alan Taylor—weaves over the audience as well. In that moment when it seems like he might not land the Lucky Strike account because he can’t think of the right pitch, the series establishes a bit of cinematic grammar it will use again and again. Somebody says something, and the audience is looking at Don. There’s a flicker of recognition in his eyes, the camera begins to push in on him, and then we can almost see the gears turning, the moment when he figures out exactly what somebody else wants. From that flicker grows something like “It’s toasted,” the slogan that is a fundamental misdirect, the ball moving under another cup while you’re looking at something else. Keeping you from finding that ball is Don Draper’s job, and he does it masterfully.
Of course, as tempting as it is to talk about this series as the story of Don Draper, 20th century man, there’s so much more to it. (I will make the caveat here that I think what the show has done with Don is not just one of the greatest explorations of a single character in TV history but also an amazing deconstruction of the white male antihero type. So I can get distracted, even if the character work on this show is solid all the way down the line.) The pilot also introduces us to the whole wide world of the Sterling Cooper ad agency, from Peggy Olson, a fresh-faced secretary who’s uncertain of her place in the office and tries (and fails) to get Don to fall for her, to Pete Campbell, an obsequious, whiny guy who wants nothing more than to be Don and is steadily realizing that will simply never be the case. The moment when Don lays out for Pete what his future is going to be, concluding with “because no one likes you,” is at once hilarious—because that’s the guy Pete is—and kind of devastating—because that’s the guy Pete is. That’s the sort of writing this show does so well.
The series’ care and attention to detail extends beyond even this intricate character work. Obviously, the look of the show is spectacular (and there are tiny things about the pilot that are different from the visual style of the show going forward, as the former was shot in New York and the rest of the series in Los Angeles), but I’m impressed by how carefully Weiner and Taylor evoke the buzzing hive of activity that is Sterling Cooper while keeping everything clear. When evoking the office environment, they rarely push too hard, which makes the episode’s failings of over-obviousness elsewhere that much more difficult to understand. Joan Holloway—sort of the queen bee of this environment—is our guide, but the show also stuffs in a legion of pals for Pete, a group of fellow young businessman types who can help the series portray the casual and understood sexism of the era. Everybody in the series world simply assumes that Peggy’s role within the office is one thing and one thing only—including her. Where a show set even 10 years later might show us a Peggy walking into that office expecting to get a much better job than secretary (as Mary Richards does in the 1970-set Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot), Peggy and everyone around her mostly expect her to be there to find a husband and move out to the country where she won’t have to work.
Mad Men is always a series where the gleaming surface is at odds with the withered core, where the cool and stylish look of the show stand in marked contrast to what the series is actually trying to say. (I’ve always thought the series has been at least slightly successful because it can simply be watched as a piece of escapism by mostly paying attention to the surfaces, even if I find that experience not a terribly rich way to approach the show.) But I think it’s telling that it’s Pete who gets the most unvarnished, nakedly emotional moment here. Rebuffed in his attempts to be a great pitchman by Lucky Strike and rebuffed in his attempts to be a lothario by the girl from the automat, Pete goes to Peggy’s apartment to sleep with her. In that moment, what he really wants is not to be alone, and maybe the pretty new girl at work will see something worth responding to in that naked need to feel close to somebody. Pete spends this episode being the punching bag, but he gets the most honest moment in the whole episode. Perhaps that’s because he’s the character least capable of being all surface. He knows, deep down, that he can’t project that, and maybe he’s better off for it. After all, he’s the one who gets to go to bed with the girl as the episode ends.
But why does he want what he wants? Is it simply about finding a companion for the night? Or is it something more, some connection between the two he can’t shake? It’s telling that the episode pivots from him to Don, making his long journey home to Ossining, back to a wife whose existence he hasn’t uttered a word of all episode long, and two children he gives the appearance of doting on. We’ve seen this man in the city, all confidence and swagger, and now we see him at home, where he puts on a different guise, that of the doting husband and father. This doesn’t really work as a twist, I don’t think, but it works beautifully as an indication that Don Draper is just a series of images, a man who projects whatever you want to see out into the world. Who is this man? He’s never whom he appears to be.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s reviews of the first season of Mad Men. We’ve been talking about doing these for almost two years now, and I’m happy to finally be at it. If you’ve seen beyond this season and want to read about future episodes, Noel Murray, Keith Phipps, Brandon Nowalk, and I have covered all of the other seasons to have aired. If you’ve never seen the show and are trying to stay spoiler free, I’ll be doing a special section for those who are all caught up after the stray observations every week, similar to how I handled the spoiler question in my Sopranos reviews. Thus, these reviews will remain sans spoilers. And I’ll be doing grades, because we’ve graded every other season of the show, so why not?
- I didn’t get to work him in above, but John Slattery has an instant sense of just who Roger Sterling is, even if Weiner’s script doesn’t quite have him down yet. The Roger we’ll come to know in later seasons will evolve as season one goes along.
- As Betty Draper, January Jones’ role in this episode is mostly to look pretty, which she does very well. (There’s more to her than that, newbies. Don’t you worry.)
- Speaking of Pete’s fake fiancée in that picture frame, I really don’t think that’s Kiernan “the Ship” Shipka in that bed at episode’s end. I guess we’ll have to wait for the first appearance of the real Sally Draper.
- Hey, it’s 1960, and we are going to remind you of that often: Roger talks about a young, handsome Navy hero running for president, then says it’s Dick Nixon. The series gets a little bit too much delight from puncturing our expectations of the period in this first season, but this gag isn’t a bad one, since it subtly indicates which side of history these guys are on.
- Christina Hendricks is another actor who simply owns her role, even though that’s not quite the Joan we’ll come to know and love (though I think she’s probably closer to the mark than Roger). Her instruction to Peggy to put a bag over her head and evaluate her flaws is horrifying, but Hendricks finds the note of genuine tender advice in it.
- We also meet a young woman named Rachel Menken, owner of the biggest Jewish department store in Manhattan and someone who wants to expand out of that niche market. Her scene with Don about how love isn’t real is a terrific puncturing of our expectations on both sides of the coin, as well as our expectations of how romantic relationships on TV are supposed to work.
- Before this series ever aired, the script for the pilot had taken on a bit of a mythic allure in the TV writing community for Weiner’s intricate descriptions of the world of 1960 New York City. Obviously, that translated on screen.
- If you would like to read my thoughts on the show from when nobody was paying me to do this and realize that I have no original thoughts ever, you can read my old reviews of season one as it happened at my old personal TV criticism blog.
Sterling’s Spoiler Gold (don’t read beyond here if you haven’t seen the whole series):
- Obviously the most amazing transformation from this episode to the show’s present is Peggy, who’s now the head copywriter at Sterling, Cooper, & Partners, since Don was placed on leave. But I’m also impressed by Ken Cosgrove, who was kind of a hound in this episode and is now mostly a devoted family man and responsible guy. Also, he got shot in the face that one time, which made me feel bad for often describing Mad Men as a show where people don’t get shot in the face.
- No sign of Bertram Cooper in this episode, but you just know he’s puttering around the office somewhere, muttering to himself.
- Pete gets Peggy pregnant here. At the time, I thought that was the dumbest part of the season. I’m intrigued to see how it plays out now, knowing how well the show handled the fallout.
Next week: The series gets started with a visit to the “Ladies Room.”