After six and a half season, I’m pretty sure Mad Men has become my favorite show of all time. I knew I was going to revisit the entire series before the back half of the last season airs next spring, and thus, decided that if I was going to watch the entire series again, I might as well put a little more thought into it and write about it on the blog. These will not be as much recaps as little essays on the many thoughts I’ll have as I make my way through the show. In any case, from now until the spring of 2015, I’ll be writing about two episodes of Mad Men every week, with reviews going up, hopefully on time, each Monday and Wednesday night.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, like every television pilot, has two main jobs. The first one, is to paint an accurate portrayal of what the rest of the series will look like, and the kind of experience we’ll have if we keep watching. The second one, is just to be interesting enough as to make us want to watch more. Most shows try to reach the audience in their first episodes by presenting an intriguing premise, or an element of suspense that would make the viewers want to know what happens next. The pilots of Lost and Breaking Bad, for example, are fantastic at providing a story so exciting that you can’t help but want to tune in next week to see where the characters’ stories will go. Mad Men, however, was trying to hook viewers up in a different way. Creator Matthew Weiner’s most successful gig prior to the production of the series had been as part of the writing staff in The Sopranos, the revolutionary HBO series that gave television an unprecedented air of prestige.
Mad Men premiered right after the final season of The Sopranos, and thus, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” wants to prove that the show is a worthy successor to Tony Sopranos’s crown as the king of prestigious television. It’s a hard thing to prove in less than sixty minutes of television, but “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” makes a good enough job of at least giving viewers the feeling that, if they stick around, they might end up having a similar viewing experience to the one they had watching The Sopranos (or the other HBO shows that premiered after it). The great success of Mad Men‘s first season is that it actually ended up solidifying itself as the spiritual successor to The Sopranos, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just focus on the way we are introduced to the world of nineteen-sixties advertising, Sterling Cooper, and one man by the name of Don Draper.
In recent years, as television shows have become subject to enormous amount of critical praise, critics have compared them to novels. The great century for novels is, of course, the nineteenth century, and one of the trends that developed at that time (thanks to the Realist movement) was to make the first chapter, or paragraph, or sentence of a novel a micro-version of the entire novel’s themes. Think, for example, of Tolstoy’s opening sentence in Anna Karenina. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” summarizes pretty well the kind of questions he will explore in the book. Similarly, there has been a tendency in television shows to make a similar use out of their opening scenes. The best examples I can think of is are the story of Snotboogie in the opening moments of The Wire, and the hanging in the first scene of Deadwood. Mad Men has a similarly effective scene, and one that, having now seen more than six seasons of the show, seems even more impressive than it did back then.
The show opens with Don Draper (Jon Hamm), trying to come up with a new slogan for Lucky Strike. He has to present to the client the next day, and hasn’t been able to come up with anything yet. He is sitting in a restaurant as an old black waiter approaches his table. Don asks him a couple of questions in the hope that he’ll provide some inspiration for his work, and ends up discovering that the man is a smoker (albeit not a Lucky Strike smoker), and that he would be unlikely to change brands. A big part of advertising is persuading people into buying a product, which is why it is often regarding as a very cynical profession, but it is also about convincing people to try something new, or making them change their minds. The brilliance of the first scene of Mad Men is that it introduces us to the idea of change right away. Here is a young Don Draper talking to a man who couldn’t be more different than him. Don is young, handsome, and privileged. The old man is old and black. As the series goes on we will see how Don is easy to suggest people change many things about their lives, without him being open to the same possibilities, and how his stubbornness will make him fall down from the top of the world before the decade is over. The sixties were a decade of huge change for the United States (and the world), and Don is a classical man who will have to survive the change that is about to come. All of this is right there in the first scene, even if I we don’t realize it at first glance.
If the big theme of the show is the possibility of change, then it isn’t far from what seems to be the main theme of the first episode, which seems to be the same theme as that of the song that gives the title its name. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” the song is about a person that is blinded by strong feelings that color the way he looks at his partner before and after a breakup. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” the episode pulls a similar feat, playing with our first impressions of the characters, especially our first impression of Don Draper. Because Jon Hamm is incredibly charismatic (and incredibly handsome), we are introduced to Don as an incredibly cool dude. He is all of your favorite classic movie stars rolled into one. We see him as a mix between the strong and silent type, and a playful lover in his encounter with Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt). We see him be awesome at his job when he improvises a whole campaign for Lucky Strike at the lat minute (his “It’s toasted” pitch is still one of the show’s best). We are even introduced to the possibility of a screwball comedy battle-of-wits type scenario between him and jewish department store owner Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) before the rug is pulled from under us in the last minutes of the episode, when, after a long day at the office, Don goes home to his wife and kids. Our hero is also a son of a bitch.
A great case can be made, looking at the very first and last scenes in this episode, that the story of Mad Men is the battle for Don Draper’s soul, and the question of whether or not a flawed man can change his ways. As great as the series has been, a definitive answer to what the show’s most important theme is can not be made until the last episode has aired, because so much hinges on Don Draper’s fate. Before the show is over, the world will have changed. Will Don change too?
Also in this Episode:
We are introduced to a lot of supporting characters in this episode, but the most important are Peggy and Pete, who are also the most important characters for the show after Don. We immediately get the gist of what each of them is about. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is a mousy young secretary on her first day at Sterling Cooper. She not only serves as an excuse for the audience to have an introductory tour to the world of the agency, but as a way to see for us to see how backwards the state of gender politics was back in 1960. Meanwhile, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is a weasel-y young man who is about to get married and desperate to be the next Don Draper. Both characters are rejected and casually humiliated throughout the episode, so naturally, they end up hooking up. I will obviously be talking more about them in the future.
Some Random Notes:
- I’ve gotten used to it now, but back when I first watched this pilot, I was constantly distracted by how much drinking and smoking was going on.
- All of these actors look so young. Especially Jon Hamm and Vincent Kartheiser, who might as well be a baby.
- It’s interesting to see how characters change throughout the show’s run as the writing staff gives them more personality and discovers what to do with them. The best example of this is Ken Cosgrove, who is a douchebag in this episode, but will become one of the most likable characters later on in the show.
- That picture of Pete’s fiancée is obviously not a picture of Alison Brie, who would end up playing Trudy Campbell in future episodes.
- Did I misheard, or did Joan suggest that she, at one point, hooked up with Paul Kinsey?
- Mad Men sometimes gets a bad rap for being too on the nose. A good example of this is how incredibly obvious it is that Sal is gay, and how obvious and pathetic his attempts to hiding it are. Although I guess that is part of the point. I mean, things were different back when people thought Liberace was straight.
- I couldn’t find any proof on the internet, so I’m still wondering if Reader’s Digest actually named Bambi the book of the century.
- I’m pretty sure that is not Kiernan Shipka as Sally in the last scene of the show, but is the boy yet another Bobby Draper?
- Those Crazy Sixties: On its early days, Mad Men had a lot of silly winking jokes about how crazy and different the sixties were. Thankfully, the show started having fewer of them as it went on, but we get a lot of them in this episode including Joan’s line about “not being overwhelmed by all this technology” when presenting Peggy with a typewriter, the doctor smoking in his consultation room, Roger’s line about “handsome Dick Nixon”, and Don’s line about how there isn’t such as a thing as a magical machine that makes identical copies of things.