Mad Men S1E1: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

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

By Colin Hart

9.1 / 10

The central premise of Mad Men‘s pilot is simple: a day in the life of a Manhattan ad-man in 1960. We follow the main character as he wines and dines wealthy clients, prepares an ad campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes and then has sex with his beatnik mistress. All in a day’s work.

But that would be selling Mad Men short. This is a series that transcends its subject matter, and descriptions rarely do it justice. It wants nothing more than to examine the complex nature of humanity through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.

One of those infinitesimal lives belongs to Donald Draper, who just so happens to be the most interesting man in the world. He’s not just an advertising executive; he’s a way of life. Women want him, and men want to be him. The perfect TV character.

The goal of the pilot is to sell us on Don’s lavish lifestyle. Thanks to actor Jon Hamm’s effortless charisma, this is accomplished tenfold within the first five minutes. The series as a whole, however, wants to delve deep into what makes him who he is. It’s no secret that despite existing on opposite ends of the storyline spectrum, Mad Men is the 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? Series creator Matthew Weiner has large ambitions for his leading man.

Where so many others fail, Mad Men succeeds by existing in a setting that is entirely authentic. It’s the rare period drama lacking both pretension and cheap nostalgia. Take the cinematography, for example: even though the visuals are meticulously framed to Wes Anderson levels of craftsmanship, nothing about the era is glamorized. The sights, the sounds, the smells — this is America as real as can be remembered. Or researched.

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

The racism is subtle, but it’s there, right out in the open. The sexism, on the other hand, is rampant. And encouraged. Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss), during her first day on the job as Don’s new secretary, experiences the era’s disgusting misogyny firsthand from a sneering account executive named Peter Campbell, the biggest bastard of them all.

In what may be the episode’s only misstep, Peggy gives in and sleeps with Pete later that night. It’s a questionable move, for sure.

It initially took me several viewings to fully appreciate the pilot, 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. What more could you ask for?

When Don finally arrives home at the end of the episode, it comes as quite a shock. None of his actions throughout the day would suggest that he also has a wife, kids and cozy family life waiting for him when he gets home. Then again, Mad Men is always subverting expectations. Even though it lacks traditional TV action, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a thoughtful and introspective start to one of the greatest shows in television history.

Mergers & Acquisitions
  • Other characters that make a lasting impression: Peggy Olson, the wide-eyed secretary whose first day at Sterling Cooper helps introduce us to the firm; Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks), the hourglass femme fatale who resembles a Renaissance painting; and Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser), the privileged up-and-comer who is already the character you love to hate (à la Joffrey Baratheon).
  • Don checks off all the antihero boxes, including quiet moments of introspection. Mad Men loves its symbolism. Even though the image of a fly buzzing inside a ceiling light may be more transfixing to Don than to us, 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.
  • 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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