Mad Men Again – S01E01, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
June 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Half a year ago, I floated the idea of rewatching Mad Men, one of my favorite shows of all time, and writing capsule reviews for each episode with a couple of friends. It never happened, but a review of the series premiere that I wrote as a proof of concept has been sitting in the queue ever since. I figure, why not publish it? I miss you all and I’ll get this blog up and running again someday, just not today. Enjoy!
Why do people want what they want? What makes those wants into needs? Is it love, whether love of a person or love of an object, or is “love” just something that’s been made up to make us think that we need the things we want? This string of questions runs through all ninety-two episodes of the hit TV series Mad Men, which ran from 2007 to 2015 on AMC, but the pilot episode draws them into the spotlight like nothing else.
It’s no small task for me to review “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” even as part of a rewatch. Despite its position near the top of every critic’s “top ten” list of Mad Men episodes, it’s always lingered near the bottom for me, because I think Mad Men works best as a show where action is able to build on action for its characters. A beginning is difficult in that context but, then again, beginnings are always difficult, especially for long-running TV series. Broadly speaking, there are two options: go big, demonstrating for the audience the full spectrum of possibilities for the show, or go small, establishing the central action of show’s plot. Mad Men walks a narrow line between the two, shuffling through the public and private spaces within which the series will operate in the process of introducing Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and Pete Campbell as characters whose arcs will demarcate those of the series itself. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s not immediately clear who these characters are, not beyond their respective longings for things they want but don’t or can’t have.
In the way that we usually understand someone to want something, Don doesn’t really want anything. His moments of panic over the account with Lucky Strike aside, he has everything. Nonetheless, he’s always trying to find out what other people want—people with inner lives that aren’t all whiskey and sex—and this want of want is one that he’s perpetually unable to satisfy. We first see him, a faceless man given a face by a closeup, as he interrogates a black server at a bar about his preference for Old Gold cigarettes, ultimately inventing the tragedy of a tobacco blight to force poor Sam to choose a new brand to smoke. Throughout the series, Don has difficulty not reducing people to the products (or ideas) that he can sell to them, and that difficulty is established right here. Why isn’t Don asking himself why he smokes Lucky Strike? The answer is, he smokes Lucky Strike because they’re his account. That’s why it seems like news to him when Sam tells him, “I love smoking.” Don looks around the bar, as if in shock: everyone’s smoking! Is that why they all smoke, Don wonders, because they all love it? Judging from the disdain that he later exhibits for the word “love,” that’s probably not a question that he’s equipped to answer.
Being younger, and less burdened by a mysterious past, the wants to which Pete and Peggy give voice are simpler. They both seek to be accepted by the people they respect. For Peggy, this is complicated by a dearth of respectable people, at least in her professional life. Joan turns aside Peggy’s request for mentorship by downgrading herself from “Miss Holloway” to “Joan,” although she’s not shy about dishing out advice in later episodes. Pete undresses Peggy with his eyes, like a child given a new doll to terrorize. Even the switchboard operators take time out of their busy schedules to rib the new girl. Don spurns her advances, as gently as Don does anything with a woman, and then dresses her down for Pete’s actions because he didn’t seem to get it all out of his system with Pete. Finally, at home and listening to records, Peggy has another encounter with Pete, who’s so drunk that he looks soggy, and she’s flattered to hear that, not only did Pete want to see her, but he had to see her. At last! How can a Brooklyn girl from Miss Deaver’s Secretarial School say no to that?
Of course, Peggy doesn’t know (or care) that Pete’s also spent the entire episode getting rebuffed. Don, from whom Pete desperately needs something that he’s not getting, declines to go to Pete’s bachelor party, suggesting with a touch of cruelty that he’ll go “next time,” presumably after Pete’s impending marriage has failed. Before the disastrous meeting with Rachel Menken of Menken’s Department Store, Don fantasizes aloud of Pete growing lonely and bald as he ages, taking petty revenge for the fear of obsolescence that Don expressed to Midge early in the episode. After the meeting, Don refuses to shake hands with Pete, intimating in the process that Pete wants to be his paramour and not his partner. And that’s not even counting the time that Don yelled at Pete for the perfectly innocent act of digging through Don’s trash! At the Slipper Club for his long-awaited bachelor party, Pete tries and fails to manhandle a woman into being his date—a darker echo of Peggy’s hand on Don’s in the previous scene—and then he meets up with Peggy, both of them people who’ve been rejected and need to share in their feelings of powerlessness.
Counterbalancing the personal lives of these characters are the clients of Sterling Cooper, whose professional lives are those wants and needs writ large. Don spends the entire episode trying to figure out what Lucky Strike needs for its new campaign and, ultimately, discovers that it doesn’t matter. When you need something and have nothing, anything will do, so long as it doesn’t make you feel bad. That’s why “death wish” failed where “toasted” succeeded. Don’s speech to the Garners, where he lays that out, is unfocused and trite but still significant for being the first of many speeches in Mad Men about the relationship between marketing and happiness: “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’re okay.”
On the other hand, there’s Rachel Menken. Don doesn’t have a solution for her problems, not yet, but maybe that’s because she’s more like him than are the men who run Lucky Strike. Don dismisses her talk of love when he asks her about marriage by saying, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” but Rachel can still tell that he feels “out of place” and “disconnected,” a stranger peering through the proverbial window at how normal people are living their lives. What do both of them see, when they look inside? It’s telling that no one in this episode is shown to be enjoying a relationship of any intimacy with anyone else. Though they talk about it, neither Midge nor Rachel wants to get married, in both cases because it keeps them from pursuing the things they want, and Pete seems to dread his wedding to the point that he uses, “I’m getting married on Sunday,” as a pick-up line with Peggy. And it works, too!
All of these characters appear to be seeking a connection that they are lacking, even Don, which makes for a big surprise when he arrives home and has a wife and children waiting for him. If you weren’t spoiled by casting, you’d have spent the whole episode thinking that Don was a bachelor, which is how a single Jewish businesswoman could empathize with him. Turns out, he’s been married long enough to have two kids, which makes you ask instead, “What does Don Draper want, and why doesn’t he have it?” For better or for worse, the rest of the first season occupies itself with that question.