“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
The main premise of Mad Men‘s pilot episode is simple: a day in the life of a Manhattan ad-man in 1960. We follow him as he wines and dines wealthy clients, comes up with a genius campaign for a cigarette company and has sex with his bohemian mistress. All in a day’s work.
But that would be selling Mad Men short. This is a series that transcends its subject matter — a simple plot summary will rarely suffice. Mad Men wants nothing more than to examine the complex nature of humanity through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The fact that one of those infinitesimal lives belongs to Donald Draper is a fortunate coincidence.
Don Draper is the world’s most interesting man. He’s not just an advertising executive; he’s a way of life. Women want him, and men want to be him. In other words, the perfect TV character.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” wants to sell us on Don’s lavish lifestyle, and thanks to actor Jon Hamm’s effortless charisma, we’re instantly hooked from the very first scene. However, the series as a whole wants to delve deep into his complex psyche. In its ambitions and aspirations, Mad Men is the clear heir apparent to The Sopranos.
Who is Donald Draper? Or, more philosophically, why is Donald Draper? Why do any of us want the things we want? Can people change? Series creator Matthew Weiner has large intentions for his leading man.
If you’re not yet sold on Don’s personality, Weiner also places a big emphasis on the how the series looks. Where so many other TV shows have failed, Mad Men succeeds in crafting a colorful setting that is entirely authentic. It’s the rare period drama lacking both pretension and cheap nostalgia.
Take the cinematography, for instance. Nothing about the era is glamorized despite it being so beautiful to look at. Even when the employees at Sterling Cooper ad agency are being racist and sexist pigs, we can’t look away for fear of missing all the beautiful scenery. Mad Men isn’t a sentimental trip down memory lane; it’s a long hard look in the mirror.
The audience’s stand-in is Peggy Olson (played in a believably naïve manner by Elisabeth Moss) during her first day on the job as Don’s new secretary. Through her eyes, we see the office is a cesspool populated by several intimidating characters, from buxom head secretary Joan Holloway to baby-faced hotshot account exec Peter Campbell.
In what may be the episode’s only misstep, Peggy gives in to Pete’s advances and sleeps with him after his bachelor party. It’s a questionable decision, especially considering that Pete is easily the most reprehensible character we have the displeasure to meet.
At the end of the episode, we find out that Don isn’t all that great a guy either. But not in the way you’d expect. The triumphant final scene takes place at Don’s idyllic home, where his beautiful wife and sleeping kids await. Of course, nothing he’s done throughout the day suggested the existence of his cozy family life.
Once again, Mad Men‘s gorgeous visuals and relaxing atmosphere provide the perfect contrast to the storyline’s harsh reality. We’re no closer to solving the mystery of Don Draper’s identity than he is. The more that’s revealed, the less we know. And that’s what makes the series so addictive.
It initially took me several viewings to fully appreciate this episode, but I now view it as a near-perfect introduction to the world of Mad Men. The characters are fully-formed, the pacing is elegant and the overall tone is warm and welcoming.
Even though it lacks the traditional TV action of a pilot episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a thoughtful and introspective start to one of the greatest shows in television history.
MERGERS & ACQUISITIONS
- Mad Men loves its symbolism, and Don Draper has plenty of moments of quiet introspection. During the episode, he’s transfixed by the image of a fly buzzing inside a ceiling light and later hears the faint sounds of gunfire as he lays down for a power nap in his office.
- Art Director Salvatore Romano makes several double entendres throughout the hour that suggest he may be hiding something about himself.
- The opening title card, which features a definition of “Mad Men” (“a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue…They coined it”) is perhaps the only corny moment of the entire episode. “Oh, it’s going to be one of those types of shows,” I said to myself. Thank God I was wrong.
- “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was written by series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Alan Taylor.
- “People were buying cigarettes before Freud was born.”
- “You were expecting me to be a man. My father was, too.”
- “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like that!”
- “No. Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes’…is toasted.”
- “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”
One thought on “Mad Men S1E1: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes””
Reblogged this on Colin's Review and commented:
A new(ish) and slightly-edited version of my review of Mad Men’s pilot episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”