How the Mad Men Pilot Predicted the Final Episodes of the Series

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Photo: AMC

If you want to know how Mad Men will end, watch the pilot again. The end of this story was written in its opening chapter.

I’m not saying that as a prelude to trying to predict specific events in the finale. If the last seven seasons have proven anything, it’s that Mad Men is consistently smarter than people who fancy themselves smarter than Mad Men, always operating on three or four levels, the first of which — Fiction 101 symbolism — is just there to jump-start a consideration of what it’s doing on the deeper levels of psychology and narrative structure. But those are the levels I want to talk about here. Mad Men has always been a show about how individuals and nations move through time, acting and being acted upon, fighting against their conditioning or embracing it, taking two steps forward and one and a half steps back, often not realizing that they’ve made a different version of the same mistake again until they’ve settled into it and can’t undo it without trauma. Every character that has passed before the series’ empathetic but coolheaded lens has tried to write his or her own story, and discovered at one point or another that a large part of that story was already written in childhood; that it’s easier to amend or slightly revise than to rewrite from top to bottom. Even the seeming exceptions to this principle, such as the identity thief and smoke-and-mirrors master Don Draper, are not immune.

If you go back and revisit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from season one, the haze dissipates and you can see it all clearly. Almost every recent, climactic development was in some sense predicted there, as was every significant plot point throughout all seven seasons, for every major character. It’s a testament to the show’s sureness of vision that this rather long piece lists maybe 10 percent of them.

In season seven, the agency, which has reinvented itself several times in response to changes in the industry and American life, was absorbed and dismantled by a longtime competitor, McCann Erickson. It’s a development obliquely foretold in the pilot, in all the worry about what federal regulation of the tobacco industry would do to Sterling Cooper’s business, much of which came from a single client, Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The opening conversation in the show’s first scene is between a spelunking Don Draper and an African-American restaurant employee who says he loves to smoke and intends to keep doing it even as his wife is pressuring him to quit after reading about the dangers of cancer in a magazine. Don’s bohemian-artist-mistress Midge echoes this statement, name-checking Reader’s Digest.

Almost everyone on the show smokes in the early seasons, including Don’s wife Betty, who is introduced in the last scenes of the pilot (though we don’t see her light up until episode two). Betty has a cancer scare midway through the show’s run, and in the penultimate episode is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her second husband, Henry, who has warned her to quit in the past, sees her about to light up after a doctor’s visit and takes the cigarette away from her, furious. Don’s account-saving pitch in “Smoke” plays on notions presented by the firm’s Germanic head of research, citing Freud’s concept of a death wish (though not as clumsily as Pete did earlier). The death wish drives most of the characters on Mad Men (probably most humans on the Earth, really), and it’s expressed most poignantly through the fate of Betty, who dies of cancer she contracted from smoking a product that her husband helped Lucky Strike to sell.

As I’ve written on this site before, the entirety of Mad Men can be boiled down to two sentences: “Don’t do that thing, it’s bad for you,” followed by, “I’m doing it.” (To quote another cigarette-maker’s 1960s slogan, people would rather fight than switch.) That’s Don’s story, really — that, and running away from whatever your life currently is and starting again, a fantasy that lies at the heart of American identity. The heart of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is Don’s Hail Mary pitch that results in the meaningless but potent phrase “Lucky Strike: It’s Toasted.”

“Advertising is based on one thing,” Don says, “happiness.” Happiness is the thing Don and the other characters have theoretically been seeking throughout the run of the show.

But what is happiness, as defined by Don here? It’s not contentment based on recognizing hard realities and doing the hard work necessary to alter them. Happiness is not the past. Happiness is the future. The future, as defined by Don and by advertising and by American culture, is the life you can’t see but that you fantasize about. It’s What’s Next: a promise of something better than whatever you’ve got at the moment. (“Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee sings three times during the mid-season opener.)  

Don’s uncanny ability to exploit that wish is rooted in his damaged psychology, the result of losing his mother at birth and growing up in a horrendously Dickensian family during the Depression. He stole a man’s identity in Korea, and since then, he’s always been looking ahead to the next girlfriend, the next job, the next account, the next frontier.

He’s not the only person who lives this way. It’s a defining pattern that can be recognized in infinite variations throughout American life, not just at the personal level but at the level of commerce. Don’s agency keeps reinventing itself in name, moving to different buildings and even opening up an office in California, which is basically the promised land in American mythology: the place people go to invent or reinvent themselves, the place where Don marries Megan in season four, and where Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce establishes a satellite office. Go West, everyone.

“Do you know what happiness is?” Don asks the Lucky Strike guys rhetorically, then answers, “Happiness is a new car.” And a new car is where he’s going to end up in the last two episodes of season seven, leaving New York in a meandering journey that leads more or less West from New York. Watching “Smoke” again, you may realize that Don’s no-strings-on-me pose is exactly that. At dinner with Rachel, the great love whose offscreen death shatters him in season seven, Don dismisses love as a thing invented by guys like him to sell nylons, and mocks the idea of a “lightning bolt” that makes you unable to eat or work and inclined to just run off and get married and make babies. “You're born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow because there isn't one.” Don’s most embarrassing secret, maybe more than his identity theft, is that deep down, the craving for love and acceptance fuels many of his decisions, including seemingly cynical ones, and is responsible for many of his catastrophic errors in judgment. He keeps running away to find himself and find happiness, but he keeps ending up back where he started.

In season seven, Don becomes obsessed with a waitress whose backstory contains echoes of his own, and when it becomes clear that McCann views him as a human acquisition — a trophy that Jim Hobart has been after since season two — he flees to chase her. He’s looking once again, as he always has, toward an unwritten future because the chapter he’s in doesn’t satisfy him. Don’s impulsive romantic quest also seems to have been inspired by news that Rachel Mencken, the first extramarital dalliance on the show who seemed like more than a dalliance, got married, had kids, and died (a road not taken). Rachel was introduced in the pilot. As my friend Hunter Grayson observes, in “Smoke,” Joan tells Peggy that men say they want a secretary but what they really want is “something between a mother and a waitress,” which foreshadows the motherless Don, who’s had a number of odd interactions with waitresses throughout the show, chasing Diana, a waitress and mother who lost a child by driving West. (The West is where he suddenly decided to marry Megan, in “Tomorrowland,” which climaxes with a proposal at Disneyland, which bills itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”)

“It’s freedom from fear,” Don continues in the Lucky Strike pitch, and he certainly knows a thing or two about fear. Everybody does, but fear drives Don practically every second of every day, it seems. That’s why he always has that hounded, haunted look even when, or especially when, he’s being charming. (Later, Peggy will congratulate Don, saying she heard he was “amazing in the meeting.” “Fear stimulates my imagination,” he replies.)

“And a sign on the side of the road screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay,” Don concludes. “You are okay.”

“It’s toasted,” Lee Garner says. “I get it.”

I got it, too, watching “Smoke” again. And in discussing it with other fans of the show, it has become increasingly clear that the pilot has the ring of prophecy.

“Smoke” finds Pete Campbell about to get married to Trudy. Like a pathetic junior version of Don, he’s a guy for whom monogamy does not come naturally. Near the end of the hour, he shows up on Peggy’s doorstep, and they have an impulsive one-night stand. In subsequent episodes, the secretive glances between Peggy and Pete further confirm how conflicted he is. The next few episodes show him struggling to really commit to Trudy while worrying that his father is right and he’s doing meaningless work. In “Smoke,” Don foretells exactly where Pete will eventually end up, describing his situation in season seven almost perfectly: the only detail not accounted for is the divorce.

“Keep it up,” Don tells him, referring to his shoddy treatment of Peggy and condemning by extension the blatant abuse of women by men in the office, “and even if you do get my job, you’ll never run this place. You’ll die in that corner office, a mid-level executive with a little bit of hair that women go home with out of pity. Do you know why? Because no one will like you.” In season seven, Pete finally seems to get this. In the penultimate episode, he boldly takes a job with Learjet (a company he’d seemingly never heard of before) and woos Trudy back by demonstrating real contrition. He doesn’t just want to be liked. For once in his miserable life, he seems willing to do what it takes to be truly likable. He doesn’t want to be the guy Don envisioned in “Smoke.” He even counsels his own brother against stepping out on his wife.  

Later in the early run of Mad Men, Pete impregnates Peggy with a child, which she gives up for adoption. (“Let’s take it a little slower,” Don cautions Pete in “Smoke,” when the young man aggressively tries to buddy up with him, “I don’t want to wake up pregnant.”) Peggy and Pete’s child is referenced again in season seven, when Peggy is forced to babysit a child actress left stranded by her busy mom. Peggy’s workmate Stan intuits her secret as they discuss the unfair and repressive expectations placed on women, and the way that motherhood is enshrined as women’s highest possible calling. The first scene in “Smoke” that shows Peggy outside the workplace is the scene where she visits an ob-gyn to get birth control pills.

When the doctor warns Peggy that “easy women don’t find husbands, Peggy says, “I am a responsible girl,” and the doctor blatantly breaks confidence, saying, “I’m sure you’re not that kind of girl, but Joan …” In season four, Joan impulsively has unprotected sex with Roger and becomes the second major female character on Mad Men to have an out-of-wedlock child with a co-worker. Joan goes with her first husband in part because she’s been conditioned to seek the “respectable” life of a married housewife-mother who doesn’t work, but is unhappy being married to a man who once raped her on an office floor and whose military service increasingly seems like an excuse not to be around her. By the end of Mad Men, Joan has found a loving partner, Richard, and left the agency, taking half of her partner payout with her. She’s independently wealthy (and even more dependently wealthy via Richard, it seems), but whether she lives in New York or Los Angeles, she’ll never have to work again, and she has the chance to live the kind of life she laid out for Peggy during their first conversation at the office in “Smoke.”

The pilot also establishes the male-supremacist culture that will continue to oppress the show’s women even as they succeed at gaining more autonomy and influence. Peggy’s first scene is in an elevator being checked out by a group of male co-workers (“I really am enjoying the view here,” Ken says), and early on, Joan lays out a set of possible futures that all lead toward a comfortable life as a suburban housewife. The pilot is filled with uncomfortable moments where men treat women as prizes or meat, and the women just have to smile and pretend they’re all right with it, or turn it to their advantage like Joan (not so much a victory as it is a neutralizing tactic). When Paul Kinsey worries that it’s not good to talk that way about a new female employee the minute you meet her, Ken says, “It’s good to let them know what kind of man you are so that they can decide what kind of girl to be.”

In the back half of season seven, Joan and Peggy suffer through a meeting with McCann sexists that’s as packed with blatant sexual innuendo as some of the scenes in “Smoke.” The overt sexism and condescension Joan experiences at McCann leads her to threaten an EEOC lawsuit against the company and paves the way for her brinksmanship with Jim Hobart, and her eventual exit. Peggy Olson decides to switch rather than fight. After a brief spell of loitering in the rubble of the old office, she changes her mind, thanks to a weirdly charming almost-pep-talk by senior partner Roger Sterling, and marches into McCann with a Don Draper–like insouciance, smirking beneath sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, and carrying the cephalopod porn painting Roger passed down to her via the late Bert Cooper, the old firm’s co-founder.

The “Smoke” of the episode’s title is not just tobacco smoke. It is a wreath that obscures the inevitable facts of death, of decline, of change, and the equally stark reality that we all face when we look in a mirror. It is Blanche DuBois’s scarf draped over a naked light bulb to hide the blunt fact of age. It is the sunglasses that hide our eye bags that disclose our hangover or the bruises that reveal that we got beaten up, or that we think prevent us from being recognized. It is the hair dye, the makeup, the camera face, the good side. It is the homily, the maxim, the song lyric, the home-team motto, the billboard slogan that tells us who we are so that we don’t have to wonder, and reassures us that whoever we are and whatever we’re doing, we’re okay, or are going to be okay.

Happiness is an illusion. Contentment is real. To be content is to be okay. To be okay is to be alive and loved. That’s all there is.