“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
Season One, Episode One
[As part of getting in the groove for the second season premiere in late July, figured that CTV’s decision to air Mad Men’s first season in Canada this summer is as good an excuse as any to revisit this fantastic summer series. (For those who don’t know, AMC (A U.S. Cable network) aired the series last summer). I’ll only get so far before the second season premieres on AMC, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.]
When the Emmy nominations roll around in July, one thing is for certain: the Mad Men pilot will be responsible for many nominations, although not for the people we see on screen (who have more showcases later in the series run) but rather the people who created the look and feel of the series.
This is not to say that “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is a poor episode for any of the series’ actors, as I’d argue it’s a great showcase for almost all of them, but this is a pilot that’s all about setting: in time, in place, and to a certain extent within the psychological mind frame of these people. Although Freud gets a bum review from the people that matter in the episode, psychology largely serves as a way of orienting us to the way these people think and why they think that way.
What the episode does is create this setting, the smoke-filled and complicated sixties where tobacco is only recently a bad habit, where African Americans perform only the most menial of service-based tasks, and where women are never executives or able to act like them. We watch the characters weave in and out of these concepts: those who enter into them with a naive world view, those who have become inhabited by them for the sake of fitting into this world in which they seem uncomfortable, and those who are them.
On these levels, Matthew Weiner and Alan Taylor and their team have created a masterpiece.
There’s a lot of things to like about “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” so let’s get the bad out of the way first: although it is necessary to establish that times have changed since 1960, there is a difference between ironic references (The knowing wink with the mentions of the “magical copy machine” was perhaps a bit over the top, but let’s go with the nod to Richard Nixon) and the fact that everyone and their mother’s cat is smoking a cigarette in this pilot. While I know this might technically be true to life, or close to it, by the end of the episode it felt like we were being assaulted with the setting. It’s the one piece of 60s theming that feels overdone, like we aren’t actually inhabiting this world but living in Hollywood’s backlot version where every element is turned up to 11.
But this is but one complaint in a series that, for the most part, does its job just fine. As noted, a lot of the episode is about framing each of the show’s various points of view within a psychological framework, and there are clearly plenty to choose from. Even within purely secondary characters, we have Joan (The woman who knows how to play the game), Salvatore (The creative director who seems at times uncomfortable and at times far too eager playing the game), and Rachel (Who wants to play in the game regardless of the stereotype against her). That’s a lot of ground to cover in a pilot.
Admittedly, a great deal of my appreciation for these characters and their role in this short episode is my knowledge of how each character grows as the series moves along. I know where each of those journeys takes them, so seeing little hints at that here was one of those signs of a series with purpose: often, pilots tend to display untapped potential, rather than the perfect mix of setting and slight nods to what might be to come.
That stands out most, of course, for the show’s three leads (or closest approximations therein) as introduced in the pilot. Don Draper, in particular, gets a whole lot more foreshadowing here than I remembered: I remember considering him quite an enigma last time around, which is still true even having seen the entirety of the first season. But there’s little hints here, if you watch closely: things he picks up, moments where people read him. Rachel’s analysis of Don is quite spot-on, almost precociously so, but at the end of the day he’s a fascinating case study. I love his trip to his mistress, Midge, mainly because he is actually there to discuss his tobacco account: he doesn’t use her only for sex, but as an outlet for something.
It’s necessary for us to be introduced to this part of Don’s life first, if only due to the cheap effect of being more sympathetic to his adultery. We learn why he does it before we learn that he’s doing it, an association that is much more acceptable to our sensibilities. His way of dealing with this life that he often has to pull out of his ass is to find solace in the big city, to create a double life for himself. I remember being initially shocked by the reveal that he is married with children in the suburbs, but there is meaning there now that was missing before (I hate to keep just saying that, but consider it a polite push to keep you watching if you haven’t done so).
Watching Peggy is similarly enlightening, although I’d argue that her journey is perhaps the least complicated heading into the pilot. Really, that’s the point: she has lived an uncomplicated life before coming to Sterling Cooper, and yet suddenly all of this mess (The chauvinism, the expectations, the smoking, the Pete Campbells) has landed into her life. She is rudderless, relying on Joan to show her the way, and it is clear from the start that this is a bit of a poor strategy.
Elisabeth Moss does great work with the character here, which is sometimes difficult to notice when we consider that the whole point of the character is their supportive role to the eponymous individuals. Although the character steps out more in the future, so Moss’ lead actress status does become more clear, here part of the charm is how she is fading into the background, hoping not to stand out while being told to (numerous times, especially about her poor legs). That she makes the decision to invite Peter into her apartment is a reflection not necessarily of her character but her character’s susceptibility to her setting, and to the expectations placed before her; plus, you know, she’s human, something to keep in mind for all characters.
This is especially the case for Peter Campbell, the young up-and-coming account executive who will do anything to succeed and anything to avoid letting marrying up get in his way of playing the game in all of it’s different forms. I think that the pilot is most unfair to Pete, to be honest – I’m not claiming he’s not a dirtbag in a lot of different ways, but at this stage he really is just a dishonest, report-stealing, manipulative pig of a man. As the series progresses, and we get more of his narrative, he becomes less of a poster boy for all that was wrong with the 1960s mentality he represents and more of an actual human being; this episode was about establishing that for Don, as opposed to Pete, and it shows.
But we have to keep in mind Don and Rachel’s discussion at the bar, a bit of a nice reminder for the rest of the series: this is a show that is heavy on symbolism, both in terms of its period setting and in terms of the fact that this is an ad agency in a time where (as Don explains to the Lucky Strike folks) they’re selling nothing as everything. Much as love is just a creation to Don, these characters are following rules or guidelines that are just fabrications of any part of their culture; if anything, we have the perfect birds-eye view into the show because our distance from the time period helps us pick up on it.
And this is only after a single week, and without an important part of the story: we get to meet Betty Draper next week, and delve further into this crazy world.
- The one thing, without revealing anything, that I definitely never noticed on my first viewing was Draper’s purple heart. It’s not a huge thing, but certainly something I missed the first time through.
- For those interested in getting ahead of the game, Season One comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 1st – I’ll probably end up picking it up just out of support, and because I’ll get antsy to finish rewatching the whole thing before the premiere.
- Anyone else watching for the first time? Or the second? Or is the Venn Diagram of my readers, random readers, Canadians, and Mad Men viewers too limiting?