Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mad Men Season 1, Episode 1: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes


When Mad Men debuted on AMC on July 19, 2007, it did so without me.  I was vaguely aware of the show as an experiment in developing TV shows outside of the normal channels (if you pardon the pun) and became more aware of it as it wracked up awards at the expense of shows that I was already invested in.  By 2013, AMC was now home to three blockbuster, water cooler shows and I was starting to doubt some of my viewing choices.  I raced through all of Breaking Bad so that I could catch up in time for the series final episodes.  That accomplished, I thought I should give another of the channel's original programming a try and so I watched the pilot for Mad Men - "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Many months later, I cannot count the number of times I've seen that particular episode, nor rewatched the entire series.  To say I'm addicted to Mad Men is to grossly understate just how obsessed I am with every aspect of the program.  From the theme music to the writing, the acting to the set decoration, the editing to the cultural reminders, I literally cannot get enough of this show.  I hound my family endlessly to watch it and thus far just my daughter has agreed, reluctantly I'm sure at first, but after that first episode, she's found herself plowing through the series almost as ravenously as I did.

I'm am certainly not alone in my feelings about the show as any quick Google search will show you dozens upon dozens of writers and bloggers writing passionately about the show.  I've read them all.  Sepinwall, Vulture, Slate, Basket of Kisses, Grantland and way too many more to mention here.  I've listened to endless hours of podcasts and dissected every quote, plot point, music choice, historical reference and more.  So what is it about Mad Men that makes us all so nutty?

For me, it's a combination of really superb writing (not every line, every scene, but in every episode there is that moment that makes you want to doff your fedora to a well-crafted set of words), some painfully honest acting (not to be confused with just painful acting - I'm looking at you, Trudy!) and nostalgia.  Not nostalgia for the 60s which, while encompassing my first decade on the planet, does not have a romantic tug on my memories.  Nostalgia as in a sentimental longing for an idealized vision of the past.  A way to experience the era in a new way, in a very different place and through the eyes of different characters.
From the opening scene, you are transported back in time, for better or worse.  While the early episodes hit you over the head with the "look how things have changed" message (with a shocking lack of subtlety), it's still true that the world of 1960 looks and feels vastly different from the world of today.  It's hard for me to relate to New York City and the men (and to a lesser degree the women) of Madison Avenue in 1960.  I had my first birthday that year, clear across the country in the former citrus groves that were turned into the San Fernando Valley.  I don't remember men wearing hats nor dressing so nattily.  And in a weird way, I don't remember women being "girls" either, or feeling their options and future were limited by their sex.  While in school I took home ec (cooking and sewing) - and did quite poorly - I don't recall thinking that meant I was going to have to grow up to be a homemaker anymore than I thought that the boys taking shop would have to grow up to be mechanics. 

But most of the men and women in Mad Men are from a different era than me and have certain expectations formed from that time and place.  Men are supposed to be strong and successful, women are the needy damsels in distress who shouldn't tire themselves by thinking too hard.  Women are searching for that "band of gold" that labels her as her husband's property and solidifies her station in life.  Men want wealth, success and recognition in the workplace.  Yet while these are the main stereotypes trotted out, the ideas are turned akimbo.  Note how the sentiment of longing for marriage is sung by a man, who claims not to want material things but just to settle down.  Similarly, the first woman we are introduced to, Midge, is not an air-headed Suzy Homemaker, but a strong-willed unmarried bohemian artist.

Things are - and are not - as we expect them, making for a dizzying ride.  Let's begin.

Season 1, Episode 1: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

That first scene introduces us to the show's centerpiece, Donald Draper, the ad man trying to come up with a pitch for the firm's largest and most important client - Lucky Strike cigarettes. The first line of dialogue is, "Finished, sir?" If we want to plumb the depths of every utterance for subtext (and why not), that question is not just about his drink (an Old Fashioned, the very name of which has enough subtext for a treatise) but about Don himself.  He looks drawn, ragged, and is intently scribbling on a napkin in a smoke-filled bar where he is being served a succession of libations.  We later find out that he's very worried that his well of ideas is bone dry and that he is "over and they're finally gonna know it."  It is his career he worries may be finished.  He may be finished.

Don engages Sam the busboy in conversation about the wonders of tobacco in an attempt to jar some idea out of his brain, and you can tell he's reaching here as he gets a wee bit too excited at Sam's "I love smoking."  They joke about how the Surgeon General's report that smoking is dangerous has the Reader's Digest readers all worried, but they're not about to stop smoking.  Not only won't they quit, Sam doesn't think anyone could talk him out of switching his favorite brand.  But that's Don's job, to find the right words to get you to do what you wouldn't otherwise do.

After this brainstorming session, Don goes to see his girlfriend Midge.  She's an artist, a bit of a Bohemian.  She thinks he is there for a late night booty call (did it even have a name back then?) only to find that his request to bounce some ideas off of her isn't an in-artfully phrased sexual innuendo. He actually wants her help with the account. But she knows him well, and knows that he's had difficulties like this in the past and came up with a solution and will again.  She mocks his Superman image before it even seeps into our consciousness - Don Draper will not fail.  He will come up with a brilliant pitch to save the day and everyone will live happily ever after (until they die of lung cancer or emphysema).

The next scene gives us the quintessential frat boy stereotype with a trio of young ad men gawking at and tossing vague innuendos towards a young lady on the elevator, Don's new secretary Peggy Olson.  What we now easily identify as sexual harassment, hostile work environment, or just general douche-baggery, is then supposedly the norm. The men run the gamut from quasi-rapey (Ken) to guilty by association (Paul), but they clearly establish the vast chasm between men and women in the workforce - what is expected of each and what is allowed by each.  As Ken Cosgrove says, "You got to let them know what kind of guy you are.  Then they'll know what kind of girl to be." 

The view of women as mere sex objects continues throughout, with nearly everyone encouraging the newly-hired Peggy to show some skin.  Not just the men, but the women in the office, especially the women, explain to Peggy that a shorter skirt, a cinched waist, and a sexy scarf are what will get her what she really wants. And what any girl wants in 1960 is to find a husband.  So pervasive is this concept that Peggy herself goes in for a move on Don by the end of the day, assuming that this is the role she is supposed to play, and she seems startled that he rejects her (little does she know just how full his dance card is).  But Peggy is not the only woman we see dealing with the blatant sexism of the time.

Potential Cooper client Rachel Menken is dismissed because she's not a man, and their paid researcher Dr. Guttman's femininity is under attack (Sal calls her their man in research) for being a nontraditional woman in a man's field.  Office manager Joan Holloway tells Peggy that with any luck she'll be barefoot and pregnant and living in the country in a couple years.  In the office, women answers phones, fetch aspirin and fill drinks; outside, they are prey, repelling unwanted attention while trading on their looks for free drinks. Rachel is asked point blank why she's not married.  Would Don ask an attractive, smart man the same thing?  Of course, not.  She acknowledges the double standard, but Don doesn't. 

Don is the head of creative at Sterling Cooper, a small Madison Avenue ad agency.  We get that he is highly regarded by partner Roger Sterling who jokes around with him when he comes into the office on the day of the big pitch.  They have a comfortable rapport and even when, later, Don loses his cool with the client, Roger does not get mad at Don but asks him if he could mend fences.  At first, we the audience don't see what Roger sees.  The Don we see is nervous and insecure when he's talking with his girlfriend, bullying and arrogant in the first client meeting we observe, and unprepared at the big client meeting the episode has set up.

That Lucky Strike meeting was a great big failure at the start. Don had nothing prepared.  Don, fumbled and stalled, hemmed and hawed, flipped pages and "uh'd" his way through a rambling set up with no pay off in sight.   If Pete hadn't done or said something in that meeting, Don was halfway down the side of the building, free falling.  A full 35 agonizing seconds go by as Don flails while the clients look on, until Pete speaks up and presents Dr. Gutman's research and builds a pitch around it. The idea of cigarette smoking as fulfilling a secret death wish, linking smoking with danger and risk-taking, a precursor to the Marlborough man image of the tough guy smoker.

The time that Pete's pitch gave him, along with the adrenaline spike from the anger it likely roused in him, with the added incentive of the client about to walk out the door, finally gave Don the chance to save the day as Midge predicted. He recognized the opportunity presented by the fact that they could no longer extol the health virtues of cigarettes.  There was a level playing field and they had the chance to give Lucky Strike an edge over the competitor.

They would sell the idea that, while every other brand was poisonous, like the Reader's Digest warned, there's was wholesome, "it's toasted."  Take the same product, call it something different, voila instant re-branding.  What you are selling is the idea that it's okay for you to continue what you're already doing.  You smoke Lucky's, good for you.  They're not bad for you, they're toasted.  At first the client isn't sure they understand the approach, but Don explains it.

The job of an ad man, he tells them, is to sell happiness. Which leads to this great quote that is as much about life is it is on the business.  "Advertising|is based on one thing: happiness.  And you know what happiness is? Happiness|is the smell of a new car.  It's freedom from fear.  It's a billboard|on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing it's okay.  You are okay."

Having saved the day with the Lucky Strike account, Roger asks Don if he can patch things up with Rachel Menken.  So Don agrees to have drinks with Rachel and try to be his charming self this time around.  He apologizes for treating her badly, blames it at first on the pressure he was under then admits that is no excuse.  But Rachel is quick to forgive Don and you can see the physical attraction between them two.  Don may have a girlfriend, but he is sending very strong sexual vibes to Rachel and she is picking them up and letting him know they are not unwelcome.  It's doubtful a less handsome man could get away with the things Don said at that first meeting, but Don doesn't have to worry about that.  He's charmed her.

Their discussion of love is another significant moment as it tells us quite a bit about Don.  He is quick to dismiss the idea of marrying for love, actually pretty dismissive of the notion of love at all.  He tells her, smugly, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."  He then goes on, all macho individualist, how you are born alone and you die alone and should live like there's no tomorrow.   It's all very cynical and disconnected and yet so over the top that it's hard to believe he actually believes what he's saying.

Don's brilliant "It's Toasted" slogan (which, in reality, was an actual ad earlier in the century) gave us our first vision into the great Don Draper mystique.  But that should not distract from the fact that our first full day with Don Draper showed him insulting and alienating a new, prospective client (Rachel Menken) and nearly crashing and burning in front of the firm's largest existing client (Lee Garner of Lucky Strike).  This is our hero?  This is the miracle man?  Heck, he couldn't even properly button his shirt without help!

Peggy is an unknown quantity, clearly put off by the leering men in the elevator and the unctuous Pete at her desk.  She seems demure when we first meet her, dressing like she's starting a job in the Vatican and not on Madison Avenue.  We are at times embarrassed and irate at her treatment at the office and everyone judging her on her gender and relative sex appeal.  Yet, by the evening's end, after the failed moved on her boss, she has sex with the tipsy future groom of the lucky future Mrs. Pete Campbell.  Is she a victim of the times or is she a woman finding herself and exerting her own sexuality?  Did she make that choice or did she feel compelled by convention to sleep with him?

At the end of the episode, the big reveal is that Don, with the girlfriend and the not-so-subtly seductive drinks with Ms. Menken, is actually married to a beautiful woman with a bunch of (okay, two) little kids.  He has what the guy at the beginning sang about - this woman wearing his band of gold.  And yet, that clearly isn't enough for Don who had earlier in the episode suggested getting married to girlfriend Midge and later pointedly asked Rachel why she hadn't taken the plunge.  He claims love is a fiction, devised by creative admen to sell products.  Is that what he really believes?  Does he love this wife, did he ever?  Is love real?  What is happiness?  Is it attainable?  It's hard to tell with all that smoke in your eyes. 


While the overt sexism is what jolts at first viewing, what I am most startled by upon subsequent viewings is the nervousness of Don at the Lucky Strike meeting.  He is fumbling for words, his hands flipping pages looking for divine inspiration as he sputters and struggles to say something, anything, to placate the client.  This is not Superman, this is a scared child who is practically frozen in place.  He is unprepared and at a loss.

If it seems incredible that no one could tell that Salvatore Romano was gay, remember how in the 1960's women just loved Liberace, whose flamboyance they dismissed as charming, and how Rock Hudson was then one of the biggest screen heartthrobs.  Closets were plentiful and crowded back then and it was the very rare exception that anyone voluntarily exited one.

Roger asks Don "have we ever hired any Jews" to which Don responds, "Not on my watch."  Roger responds, "very funny" so we're left wondering if Don is anti-Semitic or just kidding.  Being Jewish was not something that was widely accepted by the mainstream - look at how many Jewish actors changed their names and hid their heritage back then (Edward G. Robinson, Leslie Howard, Danny Kaye, John Garfield, Tony Curtis).  The notion of Jewish writers working for the Jewish firms may seems dated now, but it was the norm once.  It's all about networking and working where you feel comfortable and accepted.

While Roger had to go all the way to the mail room to find a Jew, I doubt he would have found a black employee anywhere at Sterling Cooper in 1960.  Besides the elevator operator and Sam the waiter, we didn't see any blacks in any of the scenes.

Did you notice the sound of bombs exploding when Don drifted off to sleep on the couch? That and the not-too-subtle shot of him with the Purple Heart are there to let you know he served.

Don was using a "chest expander" when he was in his office.  It had two meta coils set between two wooden handles that you pulled across your chest and the tension was supposed to build up your muscles.

The song that serves as the episode's title, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, was written in the 30s but later became a hit for the Platters in 1959.  The lyrics, about a man crying over a lost love, were written by Jerome Kern for the musical Show Boat but he had too many songs and this one was cut.  Ten years later, it was resurrected for the musical Roberta and was sung by a Donald Draper type: a 6'2" former high school footballer whose heart has been broken:
My love has flown away
I am without my love
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide...
No fewer than three separate people tell Peggy to show off some leg at the office. Not very subtle. 

The photograph that Pete looks at when he's talking to his fiancée is not of the woman who later plays the part of Trudy. 

"Band of Gold" by Don Cherry.
"Shangri-La" by Robert Maxwell and His Orchestra
"Caravan" by Gordon Jenkins
"On the Street Where You Live" by Vic Damone

Lack of subtlety winner: Peggy's doctor smoking
Lack of subtlety runner up: "So we're supposed to believe that people are all living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite?" - Salvatore Romano 
Oh, life was so quaint back then: Don's comment about there not being a magical copying machine, Joan referring to an electric typewriter as potentially intimidating, Reader's Digest was ubiquitous and impactful, Richard Nixon was described as a "young, handsome Navy hero."  Would anyone today say, something looks complicated "but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use."


Midge: I know I slept a lot better, knowing doctors smoke.

Don: All I have left is a crush-proof box and "four out of five dead people smoke your brand."

Don: Next time you see me, there will be a bunch of young executives picking meat off my ribs.

Don: We should get married.
Midge: You think I'd make a good ex-wife?

Ken:  You got to let them know what kind of guy you are.  Then they'll know what kind of girl to be.

Joan (to Peggy):  In a couple of years, with the right moves, you'll be in the city with the rest of us.
Of course, if you really make the right moves, you'll be out in the country, and you won't be going to work at all.

Joan (to Peggy): Go home, take a paper bag, cut some eyeholes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.

Don (to Pete): I bet the whole world looks like one great brassiere strap just waiting to be snapped.

Don (to Pete):  Keep it up, and even if you do get my job, you'll never run this place.  You'll die in that corner office, a mid-level executive with a little bit of hair who women go home with out of pity.  Want to know why? Because no one will like you.

Rachel Menken: You were expecting me to be a man.  My father was too.

Dr. Emerson: Even in our modern times, easy women don't find husbands.

Don: I'm not gonna let a woman talk to me like this.

Pete: A man like you I'd follow into combat blindfolded, and I wouldn't be the first. Am I right, buddy? Don: Let's take it a little slower.  I don't want to wake up pregnant.

Roger:  I don’t think I have to tell you what you just witnessed here.

Don: Advertising is based on one thing. Happiness. And you know you know what happiness is?  Happiness is the smell of a new car.  It's freedom from fear.  It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is okay.  You are okay.

Don: It's not like there's some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.

Don: Fear stimulates my imagination.

Don: Oh, you mean love.  You mean the big lightning bolt to the heart, where you can't eat and you can't work and you just run off and get married and make babies.  The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist.  What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons. 

Don: You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget.  I'm living like there's no tomorrow because there isn't one.

Rachel: I don't think I realized it until this moment but it must be hard being a man, too.... I don't know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There is something about you that tells me you know it too.

Pete: Actually, for the first time today, I'm not selling anything.

Whore References:

Dr. Emerson mentions hoping that putting Peggy on the pill won't turn her into a strumpet or "that kind of girl" or "the town pump."

Don calls Roger a whore for wanting the Menken account (worth $3 million).

Peggy says she hopes Don doesn't think she's "that kind of girl."

Spoilery observations (don't read unless you're caught up on the series)

The song playing over the beginning image is "Band of Gold" in which the male singer croons that he's never wanted "wealth untold" just a simple band of gold that says "you are mine."  Seven seasons later Don does not care about his money and is still looking for love.

Joan tells Peggy that "he may act like he wants a secretary but most of the time what they're really looking for is something between a mother and a waitress."  This comes back around in Ep. 7.08 when Don falls for a stranger that happens to be a mother and a waitress.

Don won't shake Pete's hand joking  they should take things slow - he doesn't want to wake up pregnant.  Of course, by the end of the season we find out that Peggy's decision not to take things slow with Pete ended up with her becoming pregnant.

"Readers Digest says it'll kill you."  "Four out of five dead people smoke your brand."  It takes ten years, but this all ties up when one of the show's main chain smokers develops lung cancer.

Joan instructs Peggy on her job and how to get what (she thinks) Peggy really wants from this job - a husband.  By the series end, both are working women who put their careers first.  In fact, Joan goes so far as to pick her business over love.  Peggy spends the entire decade focusing on her career and it is only in the last episode where she finds love.


  1. I have stumbled onto your recaps here through google, and I really love your writing style. I'm starting to go through the seasons with the AMC replays on Sunday mornings so I'll be reading your recaps as I go along.

    You hit on the biggest thing that stuck in my mind from this episode which was Don's apparent lack of skill and polish at delivering a pitch. It made me wonder just how long he had been with the firm at this point? He's got Betty, the house and the kids so it must be a few years, but some of his dialogue with the other guys "I love to deliver", or some such nonsense, made it sound like he was still relatively new.

    1. It was surprising to me too. I'm guessing he'd been at Sterling Cooper for maybe 5 years by then.