Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (season 1, episode 1)

Mad Men - "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (season 1, episode 1)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Most days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on July 19, 2007/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Alan Taylor): Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems to be a certain type of postwar man, late fifties/early sixties vintage - the bachelor who doesn't allow domesticity to soften his edges, the sort of fellow Hugh Hefner had in mind when he founded Playboy seven years earlier ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" takes place in March 1960). Don is successful but no millionaire, intelligent but not stultified, sturdy without being a total square. He's good at his job - advertising useless or even deadly products to America's booming middle class - but harbors no illusions. In one scene, his eyes aglow, he delivers soothing Americanisms to Lucky Strike magnates (John Cullum, Darren Pettiel), worried their business will be undone by health concerns: "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 reassurance that whatever you're doing...is okay. You're okay." The latent cynicism in the consumerist lullaby receives full expression later, as Don attempts to woo potential client Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), a Jewish woman who tells him she never married because she never fell in love. Smirking, he recites (as if by heart): "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. ... You're born alone and you die alone and the world just drops a bunch of rules on you to make you forget, but I never forget." So that's Don, casually drinking and smoking his way through nightclubs and restaurants, his corner office, and his free-spirited mistress Midge Daniels' (Rosemarie DeWitt's) apartment, where he spends the night. A modern man with a Purple Heart in his desk drawer and a baffling Freudian report in his trash can, riding high on the racial and sexual advantages afforded him, wise to the hustle without dreaming of defying it, free of the cozy sentimentality that stereotyped the fifties in 2007, when Mad Men premiered.

Of course...it's not actually that simple. At episode's end, Don takes the commuter rail back to his quiet home and we close on a Douglas Sirk-worthy tableau of Don Draper, steady husband and father, hovering over his two sleeping children, lovely wife Betty (January Jones) in the doorway. Throughout the episodes we've met many other characters enduring their own identity crises, most notably the loathsome Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a young adman with his ambitious eye set on Don's office (when it isn't surveying every woman in sight, even though Pete is on the eve of his marriage). Another conflicted character is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Don's new receptionist, nervously listening as her confident, arch supervisor Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) gives her the lay of the land. Pete's and Peggy's epidose arcs mark Mad Men as a series premiere: one is a smug scoundrel living his last day as a bachelor, the other a mousy Brooklyn girl surviving her first day in the jungle of Sterling Cooper, where the women are catty and the men are all wolves. Little surprise then that these two go to bed near the end of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," a simpering Pete allowing a suddenly assured Peggy to lead him into her bedroom. There's no question, though, that Don is our star, in terms of screentime and perspective. Yet as Vic Damone's "On the Street Where You Live" kicks in under the end credits, we realize we don't actually know him at all.

My Response:
This is the third time I've watched this particular episode, more than I've seen any other (in fact, I've never seen most episodes of Mad Men even once). Just by cultural osmosis - and what bits and pieces I have seen - I am aware of a small sliver to come. Even without that foreknowledge, the show itself relies on a certain amount of expected wisdom. Already by 2007, the world of the series comes wrapped in five decades' hindsight. The year 1960 may have looked one way to its inhabitants but to us it's a time capsule both charming and jarring. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" makes the most of this distance, frequently in a heavyhanded manner that can be grating (especially on first viewing). Some gags never cease to feel obvious, as when the tobacco execs assert that their product is healthy before every single person at the conference table breaks into a hacking cough. Another bit, more clever but still rather arch, has Don's boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) enthusiastically promoting a presidential campaign: "Consider the product: he's young, handsome, naval hero...honestly it shouldn't be too difficult to convince America Dick Nixon is a winner!" Cute (cue drumroll, cymbal crash). Elsewhere the social mores are emphasized. Don reassures a bartender that his elderly black employee is not bothering him. A cocktail of casual sexism and antisemitism nearly derails a profitable account. And when Peggy visits a staggeringly condescending gynecologist, cigarette perched between his lips as he spreads her legs, he reassures her that he's "not judgemental" before cautioning her against becoming a "strumpet." Least subtly of all, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) broadcasts his closeted sexuality with every line and gesture, even grousing at one point, "So we're supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite? That's ridiculous."

Mad Men's historical context walks a fine line, several in fact. Episode writer and series creator Matt Weiner wants to draw our attention to the unique qualities of 1960 but also transcend the trappings of a period piece (one detail in an upcoming episode - a fly trapped in a light fixture - was designed specifically to do just that). Weiner wants to entertain us with the fashions and sentiments of a bygone era (remember the much-hyped Mad Men costume parties of ten years ago?) while also critiquing prejudices and power imbalances taken for granted in these WASPy male enclaves. I expect the show will grow in confidence and ability as it continues and truthfully, it doesn't stumble too badly in this premiere. For the most part, Mad Men is already an alluring, engaging piece of work, elegantly drawing us into its world, offering characters we enjoy spending time with even as we're given enough distance to recognize their flaws. My fascination with the evolution of twentieth-century American society, especially as it unfolded in the sixties, has long made me curious to watch Mad Men, although a skepticism borne of hype and the story's smug milieu also triggered initial weariness. Had I watched more television - any television, really - in the past decade, this would have been at the top of my watchlist. At long last, I'm taking the leap.

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