Mad Men S1E1: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

Directed by Alan Taylor   |   Written by Matthew Weiner   |   48 min

“On the Street Where You Live”

By Colin Hart

9.1 / 10

A day in the life of a 1960s Manhattan advertising executive shouldn’t be exciting. Our main character visits with his girlfriend, berates his coworker and goes out to dinner, all while preparing for a big sales pitch with Lucky Strike cigarettes. Sounds like a bit of a whogivesafuck, right?

Nevertheless, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a perfect way to begin one of the most stylish and esteemed shows in television history. Though Mad Men is largely Matthew Weiner’s brainchild, the series is truly a collaborative effort. From the actors all the way down to the key grips, this pilot is a masterclass in presentation.

If David Chase and David Simon revolutionized TV by incorporating cinematic direction and intricate plotting, Matthew Weiner emphasized the importance of costuming and set design.

The colors are warm, bright and welcoming. Where other period pieces have so often failed, Mad Men succeeds in making its setting entirely authentic. The sights, the sounds, the smells — this is America circa 1960, as real as can be remembered. Or researched.

Matthew Weiner has really done his homework. “It’s toasted!” was a real Lucky Strike ad slogan. Office sexism really was that repulsive. Women with bodies like Joan Holloway’s really did exist. Every detail is precise, and Mad Men pulls off the rare trick of being a period piece lacking both cheap nostalgia and pretension.

Mad Men isn’t a trip down memory lane; it’s a look in the mirror.

Like I said before, a day in the life of a Manhattan advertising executive doesn’t sound like interesting TV. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” manages to break convention largely due to the extreme charisma of the advertising executive in question. Our leading man, Donald Draper (played by Jon Hamm), is as suave and succulent as they cum. Women want him and men want to be him.

Don is a direct descendant of Tony Soprano and Jimmy McNulty — the heir to the throne of captivating and introspective masculine antiheroes.

And much like The Sopranos and The Wire, Mad Men decides to take a slow burn approach that is stately and elegant rather than pulpy and action-packed. The pilot episode wants to sell us on Don Draper and his lavish lifestyle, but Mad Men as a whole wants to examine the complex nature of his humanity.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” serves as a perfect introduction to the world of Mad Men. The opening scene — both a business conversation and a dizzying sign o’ the times — is an instant hook, similar to Deadwood’s lynch mob intro. The characters, whom we will get to know better as the season progresses, already appear striking and fully-formed. And the ending is a poignant revelation that adds additional layers of depth to Don’s complicated character.

I remember it initially took me a while to even like Mad Men. I felt that nothing much had happened in the pilot, and the ensuing episodes became even more of a slog. Upon rewatch, however, it’s easy to see the series was as good as ever from the very start. Like all things Mad Men, the forming of the story takes time. But the potential for greatness is evident right from the get-go.

This is not a pilot episode looking to announce itself with some sort of grand statement. Like Mad Men itself, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is perfectly content with being deliberate and routine. It’s filled with great humor, too. Matthew Weiner is not aiming for a 10/10 here; all he wants is a rock-solid 9.1. This ambitious lack of ambition earns him every inch of the grade.

Mergers & Acquisitions
  • Of the non-Don characters who make a lasting impression are: Peggy Olson, the wide-eyed secretary whose first day at the office provides a perfect substitute for the audience; Joan Holloway, the hourglass femme fatale who resembles a Renaissance painting; and Peter Campbell, the sniveling ass-kissing up-and-comer who is gonna be the character you love to hate.
  • Questionable move: Peggy and Pete having sex after he shows up drunk at her apartment (after his bachelor party). The only encounter they had prior to this was when Pete made several sexist remarks about her in the office. Weiner strikes again.
  • The ending is a bit of a misdirect, but perfectly in line with Mad Men’s examination of individualist isolation. Nothing about Don’s actions throughout the day would lead you to believe that he has a wife and kids and cozy family life waiting for him when he gets home.
  • Don checks off all the antihero boxes, including quiet moments of introspection. Mad Men loves its symbolism, and the image of a fly buzzing inside a ceiling light may be more transfixing to Don than to us. However, it’s still a good representation of Don’s internal struggle amidst the bright lights of big business.
  • 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 thought. Thank God I was wrong.
  • Spoiler, though maybe not really: Sterling Cooper art director, the flamboyant Salvatore Romano, is definitely gay. His remarks are not too subtle upon rewatch.
  • People were buying cigarettes before Freud was born.
  • You’ll die in that corner office: a mid-level executive with a little bit of hair who women go home with out of pity. Want to know why? Because no one will like you.
  • 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.

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