Mad Men Series Premiere Recap: It’s Toasted

Mad Men

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Mad Men

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Courtesy of AMC

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” starts with a definition of “Mad Men.” The white-on-black title screen tells us the term was coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.

After a pause it adds, “They coined it.”

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” not only creates a world, sets the gears of a story in motion, and introduces us to the show’s hero, adman Donald Draper (Jon Hamm)—it tells us that everything on-screen is about control.

Control of money. Control of power. Control of information. Control of the image.

The tale is told in accordance with the rules of the society in which it takes place. Screenwriter and series creator Matthew Weiner and director Alan Taylor are controlling storytellers. They dole out facts about the ad agency Sterling Cooper and its employees on their own timetable. Even though we get to observe intensely private moments, we’re always on the outside looking in. Our peeks behind the curtain are not comforting. They confirm that the powerful decide what we see, how we see it, and what that glimpse will cost us.

The portrait of Don is the best example of the way Mad Men reveals itself. He’s one of the most powerful characters on the show, but we can’t access his interior. We gather from the shot of his Purple Heart and the sound of bombs bursting as he drifts into a nap that he’s a veteran, but we don’t know why it’s important that we know this. When we get to the end of the episode and learn that Don has a wife and children and a house in Ossining, New York, it’s a surprise, based on his behavior. But even though we surmise that Don must not be satisfied at home—otherwise, why would he have a mistress?—his warm smile at his as-yet-unnamed wife and kids confounds that assumption. Who is Donald Draper? We don’t know yet. When will we find out? When the show is ready to tell us. The details aren’t filled in, but are slowly unveiled.

We learn a bit about the show’s central location, Sterling Cooper, a small but respected ad agency whose fortunes are built mainly around one client, Lucky Strike cigarettes. We also get a sense of the society that surrounds Madison Avenue: an upper-middle-class to wealthy social sphere, vigorous and arrogant, with domestic satellites throughout Manhattan and the tristate area. It is a world ruled by straight white men who are comfortable giving orders to black men and to women (in the workplace and in the domestic sphere) and who admit outsiders selectively, and only for profit. These men are complacent about being on top. They like for things to be done a certain way, and they explain what, exactly, that way is, in language that leaves no room for challenge.

There are hints of disquiet and dissatisfaction, mainly in scenes with the Jewish department store manager Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff ), whose wealth gives her the power to rattle Don’s sexist assumptions; and Don’s bohemian girlfriend, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), who digs Don’s magnetism and creativity but seems unimpressed by his status. And there are moments here and there that make easy jokes about antiquated technology and attitudes, such as when office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) describes an IBM Selectric typewriter as “simple enough for a woman to use.”

But for the most part, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” denies us the sorts of comforting anchors that many period stories provide. There are no characters who represent the twenty-first-century, college-educated, bourgeois American’s perspectives on race, feminism, economic inequality, or anything else.

The new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), exemplifies the episode’s storytelling approach. It places viewers on the outside. Most TV pilots have a character like Peggy: an audience surrogate who gives other characters an excuse to deliver exposition. But not many go so far out of their way to make the “surrogate” character an emblem of what it means to be relegated to the outer boroughs of the American Dream. Peggy’s presence reminds us that while Don feels somewhat detached, even alienated, from the world he seems to rule, this is but another example of Don’s privilege. Peggy doesn’t just feel like an outsider, she is one: a woman in a man’s business.

Peggy arrives from the outside, knowing only that this is her new workplace. It’s a white-collar cattle pen, with boxy desks and featureless columns and walls largely devoid of art. Secretaries type away under rectangular light panels. Switchboard operators connect the firm to the outside world. As Joan, the boss of the secretarial pool, takes Peggy (and us) on a tour, she describes a male-supremacist workspace, and a job that’s equal parts nanny, maid, mother, and concubine to men who act like bosses even when they aren’t. She also lays out what she considers an ideal future. She says if Peggy, who currently lives in Brooklyn, makes the right moves, within a year she’ll be in the city “with the rest of us,” and if she’s really smart, she’ll be out in the country and not have to work at all.

Also: She needs to show more leg.

Joan’s not just telling Peggy how to do her job. She’s telling Peggy how she’s expected to present herself to men, appeal to men, and live her life in service to men, while pursuing dreams that were defined by a male-dominated society, with a mighty assist from fantasy-enablers like Don.

The most unnerving moments in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” make it seem as though being a woman on Madison Avenue circa 1960 was to feel constantly scrutinized, rated, and otherwise dehumanized by men. The junior accounts man, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who’s about to get married but ends up wheedling his way into Peggy’s bed at the end of “Smoke,” presumes that Peggy is a concubine or a concubine-in-training. He says he’s looking forward to taking first crack at the female entertainer at his bachelor party because “it’s rumored that she took down more sailors than the USS Arizona.” In the scene where Pete peals, “Ready to sweet-talk some retail Jews?” he refers to Peggy as Don’s “little friend” and asks her if she’s “Amish or something.” (“I’m from Brooklyn,” she replies.)

At Joan’s urging, Peggy visits a gynecologist. He lights up a cigarette, tells her to relax, and thumps her belly as if testing the ripeness of a watermelon. As we hear him ask Peggy if she’s there to get on the Pill, we’re looking at a close-up of his hand sliding into a latex glove—an image redolent of an older form of birth control and a different method of penetration. The doctor shockingly betrays Joan’s confidence, mock-worries that once Peggy gets on the Pill she’ll become a “strumpet,” and warns her not to turn into “the town pump” to “get your money’s worth.” A couple of minutes into this already uncomfortable scene, there’s a cut to a wide shot of the doctor leaning into Peggy as she turns her head in the direction of the camera. The new vantage point makes it look as if Peggy is in the preferred birth-giving position, circa 1960. Supine, subservient, helpless.

“I really am a very responsible girl,” Peggy says, in a faraway voice.

Everywhere you look, men are making jokes about “having” women, as they might have lunch or drinks. Whether the women want to be had is immaterial. It’s all part of a script that men and women know by heart. At Pete’s bachelor party, a woman coiffed like Marilyn Monroe slinks onstage in a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes dress, removing a black glove to organ music. The entire setting is theatrical, and not merely because it is a cabaret. The waitresses and the performer are playacting a certain ideal of femininity. The men are playacting the rituals of moneyed urban masculinity. At one end of the table sits the closeted gay art director Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) playacting the straight young tomcat on the prowl. “Do you have a girlfriend, Salvatore?” Pete asks him. “Come on, I’m Italian,” he says, an ad-libbed nonanswer that leaves the evening’s script undisturbed.

A lot of the dialogue in “Smoke” conflates sex and ownership, women and property. Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) shows up at Pete’s party with employees from a nearby Automat; “You press a button and they come out,” says another of Pete’s coworkers, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis). When Don takes umbrage at Pete’s treatment of Peggy and cautions him to watch his mouth, Pete assumes that Don and Peggy are sleeping together. It’s not true, but we’re given to understand that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility: In this world, dominance and control are masculine, compassion and surrender are feminine, and that’s just how it is.

Although the dialogue sketches the characters in brisk strokes, it’s never purely functional. It returns again and again to control, and what it means to be “in control,” and how it feels to be controlled by someone else, and how words and images can be deployed to control how people perceive themselves, and the world.

Consider the agency’s condescension to Rachel Menken. It’s about controlling a story and an image. Rachel wants to change the store’s image because its narrative has grown stale. Don is pitching a campaign based on Sterling Cooper’s preconceived notions of what Menken’s Department Store is, and (to their mind) always will be. When Rachel balks, Don tries to shut her down by invoking her father. Rachel parries by telling Don and his colleagues that her father no longer runs the store because they just had their lowest sales year—a fact that proves the old story and image aren’t working. Pete senses that the agency is losing control of the meeting’s narrative and rides to what he thinks is Don’s rescue. Lighting Rachel’s cigarette, he asks why she came to Sterling Cooper when there are “dozens of other agencies better suited to your needs,” code for “firms that employ Jews.” Translation: We aren’t here to change the story or the image, lady, and if that’s what you want, you’d better ask someone else to give it to you.

“If I wanted some man who was from the same village as my father to manage our accounts, I would have stayed where I was,” Rachel says. Her unflappability would be impressive even if she weren’t the only woman in the room. But the Sterling Cooper boys keep pushing for the store to use coupons until Rachel says that she doesn’t want them, she wants something besides coupons, she wants “your people, Mr. Draper”—the gentiles.

Rachel calls Don on his BS, but rather than listen to her and bend to suit her needs, Don gets his back up. Rachel has punctured Don’s sense of entitlement, and it stings because he’s not used to that. Senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) cautions the room against getting “emotional”—a gendered adjective that in this case seems meant to control Don, by intimating that his behavior is unmanly. It doesn’t work because Don is in aggrieved mode, ridiculing Rachel’s notion of enticing strangers to visit a store for aspirational reasons. He is offended by the idea of taking the very illusion upon which American capitalism, an institution run by WASP industrialists, was founded, and applying it to a campaign for a Jewish-owned store whose clientele consists mainly of immigrants and their descendants. “I’m not gonna let a woman talk to me like this. This meeting is over,” Don says, and storms out.

He and Rachel find common ground during an amends-making dinner. She senses that Don feels like an outsider, too, and says there was a silver lining to that meeting: the chance to hear “all the things I always assumed people were thinking.” Their conversation is charged with sexual possibility, but Don’s presumptions dampen it. His end of the conversation is meant to jam Rachel into an ill-fitting narrative that other women, Joan especially, wear with pride. Don asks her why she isn’t married, which presumes that her life as a single professional is a way station on the road to marriage and motherhood. “If I weren’t a woman I would be allowed to ask you the same questions, and if I weren’t a woman, I wouldn’t have to choose between putting on an apron and the thrill of making my father’s store what I always thought it should be,” she replies. (This is another moment where “Smoke” condescends to the past.)

The Lucky Strike meeting is also about how language can shape perception and self-perception, and give a person or a company permission to do as it pleases. Lucky Strike honcho Lee Garner Sr. (John Cullum) says the company is about to get sued for false health claims. Roger, a master diplomat, blames “media manipulation” for the industry’s troubles. Lee gripes about government regulators. His son, Lee Jr. (Darren Pettie), moans that they might as well be living in Russia. They’re both miffed that they can’t do business exactly the way they want to. They’re the most entitled people in an episode filled with entitled people. They crave language that will cripple constraints, erase them, wipe them out like the Native Americans, who, Lee Garner Sr. insists, “gave us America, for shit’s sake.”

So Don comes up with “Lucky Strike: It’s Toasted.” Don’s speech justifying the slogan is the most powerful moment in “Smoke.” It reframes all of the screenplay’s control issues as variants of Freud’s “death wish,” which Sterling Cooper’s researcher, Gretta (Gordana Rasovich), outlined in a report that Don threw away and Pete snuck into his office to steal. Don says that all advertising is based on one thing: happiness. In the context of “Smoke,” happiness means the ability to do as you please, without worrying about other people’s expectations, opinions, rules, or laws. Don tells the Lucky Strike gang that happiness is not the past; happiness is the future: a promise of something better than whatever you’ve got right now. Happiness is defined here as finding a way to give yourself permission to do whatever you’re inclined to do anyway.

The “Smoke” of the episode title is not just tobacco smoke; it is a wreath that obscures the inevitable facts of change, of loss or absence of control, of decline, of death. Smoke is the hair dye, the makeup, the camera face, the good side. It is the slogan, 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.

Is Don smoke? Is he mirrors? What is his story? How did he get to be so persuasive?

The first time we see him, we’re looking at the back of his head. Don is introduced with a camera move that tracks from screen right to screen left through a crowded, smoky bar, then pushes in to find him sitting alone in a red booth: a broad-shouldered man in a dark suit. Subsequent shots reveal a circa-1960 “dreamboat” type along the lines of Rock Hudson or Kirk Douglas. His hair looks Brylcreemed. There’s an empty glass in front of him. He’s scribbling notes: Brand name. Freedom. Conversion. Lucky Strike. Old Gold. He stays seated as he interviews a busboy (Henry Afro-Bradley) about his smoking habits. We never see Don from head to toe in this scene, only in close-up. How tall is he? What kind of shoes is he wearing? Does he carry a briefcase?

We don’t know.

In the next scene, he’s introduced in a slightly blurry profile close-up, knocking on Midge’s door. When Midge opens the door, the camera stays on that angle, so that for the second time in “Smoke,” we’re looking at the back of Don’s head. Finally, there’s a cut to a wide shot of Don entering Midge’s apartment. It’s the first time that we see all of him. The glimpse lasts a few seconds, and then again we’re looking at the back of his head. We see his face briefly as he crosses Midge’s threshold, then he closes the door, shutting us out. Inside the apartment, the camera gives us a long look at Midge’s face, but Don remains a foreground blur, seen mostly from the back. When we finally get our first glimpse of Don from head to toe, it’s in the same frame with Midge, who is also pictured in totality; in the next scene, they’re both naked (under sheets), and Don immediately gets up and starts putting his clothes (his work uniform) back on.

In the bar scene, we learned nothing about Don except that he’s probably in advertising and that he’s concerned about how to sell cigarettes at a time when the government is cracking down on the tobacco industry. In the scene with Midge, the talk is mainly about work (she’s an illustrator, and they seem bonded by their creativity), with fuzzy detours into their relationship. Throughout the rest of the episode, it’s work, work, work and words, words, words. Don chooses his words carefully, to sell pitches to clients and his image to colleagues. He rarely reveals more than he wants to.

Is Don as selfish, cold, and reactionary as he seems?

His scenes with Rachel suggest otherwise. And his final scene with Peggy very nearly confirms it.

Peggy thanks her new boss for sticking up for her with Pete Campbell, and nervously places her hand on top of his. What little we’ve learned about Peggy makes us think that this is anathema to her. She’s only doing it because it’s the kind of thing that Joan advised her to do.

Descriptions of Don’s previous relationships with secretaries suggest that his removal of Peggy’s hand is also a break from tradition.

“First of all, Peggy,” he says, “I’m your boss, not your boyfriend. Second of all, if you ever let Pete Campbell go through my trash again you won’t be able to find a job selling sandwiches in Penn Station.”

Peggy apologizes for letting Pete in, then assures Don that she’s “not that kind of girl.”

Don’s boss mask falls—but only for an instant.

“Of course,” he says. “Go home, put your curlers in. Get a fresh start tomorrow.”

Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Mad Men Series Premiere Recap: It’s Toasted