Mad Men: Season One: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

When it was first announced last spring that Netflix would be adding Mad Men to their streaming video catalog, I was ecstatic. I haven’t seen many of the episodes since they originally aired and I’ve been too lazy to check if AMC ever gets around to rerunning them. My goal here is to watch each episode and compile a written analysis of stray thoughts and observations of each one. My primary intentions are to analyze the characters based on the confines of the episode and what has come before. However, I’m sure at times I will jump ahead seeing as I know what comes next for these characters.

The series pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” originally aired on July 19, 2007. Judging from a calendar shown in the episode, it takes place sometime in March 1960. We are introduced to the three main characters, at least for this episode, Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, and Peter Campbell and how they experience American society and culture in the 1960s.

The series opens with a title card that provides us with a bit of exposition and some tongue-in-cheek humor. In the episode, no character ever refers to themselves as being a “mad men,” which is probably a good thing. Plus, this also allows us to jump right into the story without the need to explain it later on.

The first images of the series show us a crowded barroom with the majority being a young and lively crowd. The camera slowly pans to a table occupied by Don Draper, who sits alone and appears anxious as he scribbles notes on a cocktail napkin. Don’s age is never brought up, but I always assumed he was in his mid-to-late thirties when the series began. Seeing him alone at the table while the younger crowd socializes around him creates an invisible barrier between them.

This entire first scene is intoxicating and it gives us a first glimpse into the inner workings of Don Draper’s mind. At this point, we know nothing about him. An African-American busboy then approaches the table and Don notices that he smokes Old Gold brand cigarettes. He then begins to ask him why he smokes Old Gold as opposed to Lucky Strike, a company he represents and is desperately trying to work on a new campaign for.

Before the busboy really gets a chance to answer his question, the two are interrupted by the bartender, a white man, who asks Don if this man is bothering him as he is known to get chatty. There is a quick moment where the busboy has an expression on his face where he wants to say something back to the bartender, but backs down. The series briefly acknowledges the fact that African-Americans were viewed as nothing more than “the help” but then quickly steps away when Don tells the bartender they are just engaging in conversation and rudders it back to the topic of tobacco.

One thing this series does well is that the characters truly live in the moment and are not phased by the social norms of the time. Unlike the viewer, the characters are unaware of upcoming significant historical events, such as the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve all seen shows where someone may hint at what’s to happen next historically with a remark like, “You know, one day, we’ll rise up against this oppression.” Although, in one scene Don does sarcastically mention a “magical paper copying machine” as if it were impossible and straight from a science fiction movie.

Don soon learns the busboy began smoking Old Gold because it was given to him in the service for free. Don is curious if he could ever persuade him into switching brands. When he discovers that the busboy is loyal to his brand out of habit he comes up with an interesting scenario to change the conversation:

“Let’s say tomorrow a tobacco weevil comes and eats every last Old Gold on the planet.”

The busboy is hesitant to answer but then agrees he would have to switch brands, because after all, “I love smoking.” Don finds that response intriguing and begins to write it down on the napkin. As he’s doing so, the busboy chimes in that his wife hates his habit and references a Reader’s Digest article on the health effects of smoking and that, “Ladies love their magazines.” The two laugh and Don takes notice that every person in the room has a cigarette in their hand.

Social changes are a recurring theme not only in this episode, but for the series as a whole. The producers picked an interesting time to start their story, right around the time tobacco companies were not allowed to advertise their product as being a safer alternative to another brand. New ideas are being introduced to their world and Don struggles to quickly adapt. When a research report is done on negative health effects smoking has on the body, Don quickly discards the report as nonsense. Peter Campbell later discovers the report while snooping through Don’s trash and attempts to use the information to his advantage during a meeting with Lucky Strike. Peter makes a compelling argument, but the rest of the room disagrees. The only person who seems mildly intrigued is Lee Garner, Jr., the son of Lucky Strike owner, but when he notices the rest of the room is offended by the claim he quickly backs down from allowing Peter’s argument to go further.

Smoking and the negative effects it has on health is an issue that is presented to us repeatedly throughout the episode. A reference is even made several times about that Reader’s Digest article by various characters. Despite these claims, virtually every scene in the episode shows someone smoking. Characters smoke in the workplace, including the doctor Peggy visits later on. It’s a strange counterpoint to modern times, where smoking is banned from almost all indoor establishments. Long removed are the days of a smoking-section at a restaurant. Seeing an ash tray littered with old cigarettes on a restaurant table is almost a relic of the past.

After that first scene, Don exits the bar and shows up at Midge’s apartment. The scene purposely goes out of the way to not address if the two are in a serious relationship or not. By the end of the first hour, we learn that Don is married with children, but up until that revelation nothing is mentioned of it. He appears to be in love with Midge, even suggests they should get married. However, an impression is left that Midge doesn’t see herself as being held back by marriage. She is a strong, independent woman who runs her own business as an illustrator. It seems this is why Don may be attracted to her. He appears to be easily taken by powerful woman, such as Rachel Menken, a Jewish client who owns a department store and is even quick to take Peggy Olsen under his wings when she exhibits signs of rising above the other women at the office.

In the long run, I never really cared for the character of Midge. Even in this episode, she is the least engaging out of the characters we are introduced to. With each of her appearances during the first season, it becomes evident that their relationship is doomed. Here, she serves as a late-night soundboard for Don, who is still concerned over the Lucky Strike campaign and also worried about being replaced by younger executives. At one point he references a young guy who always comes by his office and checks to see where he should set up his plants. It’s assumed he was referring to Pete Campbell, who is constantly popping by Don’s office unannounced.

The next morning, we get an outside view of the building Sterling-Cooper occupies. In future episodes, I cannot recall any instances of seeing exterior shots of the building. It is here where we first meet Peggy Olsen and to a lesser extent, Kenneth Cosgrove, Harry Crane, and Paul Kinsey. The four share an elevator together and it is suggested that Ken had made a sexual advance toward her in the next scene. Ken responds to his ragtag team of friends, “You gotta show them what kind of guy you are so they’ll know what kind of girl to be.”

The portrayal of woman viewed as only objects of sexual desire continues when we meet Joan Holloway. We learn that it is Peggy’s first day and Joan is giving her a tour of the office. References are made to Peggy’s outfit, which is fairly modest compared to the way other women are dressed. Joan suggests to Peggy that she shouldn’t be ashamed to show off a little leg. Peggy appears to be bothered by these remarks but holds back any personal thoughts and feelings. There is even one scene where Joan suggests to Peggy that she should go home at night, cut two holes in a paper bag, put it over her head, take a look at herself, and evaluate her strengths and weaknesses… and be honest about it. Peggy’s response, “I always try to be honest.”

I had a friend tell me once that she was never able to get into the show because of the way it portrayed women and that it was too chauvinistic. Almost every scene involving Peggy comes across this way. Although shocking, it is an unfortunate reflection of the time. Sadly, Peggy succumbs to the world that is presented to her, but only out of fear and because it is what is expected of her. In later episodes, she will rise out of this, but it is going to be a long path.

The relationship between Joan and Peggy is a strange one. The two share some type of friendship, but only in the workplace. Joan views herself as being above the rest of the woman at Sterling-Cooper and she even mentions to Peggy, “Hopefully if you follow my lead you can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made here.” Joan realizes she has climbed the corporate ladder as high as she possibly could and adds, “Of course, if you really make the right moves, you’ll be in the country and won’t have to work at all,” referring to securing a husband.

Office technology is even presented as a barrier to women. Joan describes the objects as being invented by a man but made simple enough for most women to understand. Peggy also proudly announces that she is a recent graduate of a secretarial college, but no one in the office seems to care of appreciate her accomplishments, especially Pete. The two share an interesting exchange in Don’s office where he remarks, “It wouldn’t be a sin to see your legs.”

Following is what I found to be the most uncomfortable scene in the episode but also one of the most pivotal for Peggy. To Joan’s suggestion, she visits a local OB/GYN to be prescribed birth control pills. The doctor makes several sly references to the type of woman that Joan is, but does not get into any specific details. The scene opens with Peggy reading a pamphlet geared towards woman and what to expect on their wedding night. I’ve always assumed that Peggy was still a virgin at this moment and the uncomfortable expression on her face when the doctor is examining her confirms that.

The doctor immediately notices that she isn’t married from her chart and the lack of ring on her finger. As he’s preparing for the examination he adds, “In modern times, easy women don’t find husbands.” He completes the examination, begins scribbling on a prescription pad, and says aloud, “I’m going to write you a prescription for Enivid. They are $11 a month. Don’t think you can now go and become the town pump just to get your money’s worth.”

Around this time, Pete Campbel and Don Draper are en route to a meeting with a potential Jewish client, Menken department stores. Earlier in the episode, partner Roger Sterling is worried because he is unaware of his company has any Jewish employees on their payroll. His thoughts are that this would make them appear more attractive to the new client. Don makes a joke about visiting a local deli to see if he can find someone. Somehow, Roger finds a Jewish employee all the way in the mail room and Don mistakes him to be client as opposed to the female in the room, Rachel Menken. Their first interaction doesn’t end too well. Rachel is appalled at the idea of coupons to drum up new business and Don eventually storms out of the meeting proclaiming, “I don’t have to take this from a woman! This meeting is over!”

Don is pressured to salvage the relationship and dinner plans are set for later that night between Rachel and Don. The meeting is more of a personal inquisition into each others lives than one on a business level. Don asks Rachel how come she has never married and her response is that she’s never been in love. Don being Don, begins to describe love the best way he knows how- in advertising-like metaphors. According to Don, love is like being struck by a lightning bolt and it gives you this sudden desire to get married and make babies. It becomes obvious there is an attraction between the two, but Rachel ends the meeting and tells him that she’ll see him on Monday morning.

Compared to Midge, the character of Rachel is someone more fitting to Don’s world. They are both heavily engrossed in their business and are both successful at what they do. Midge appears to be just scraping by and is happy that she landed an assignment which should keep her busy for a few months illustrating greeting card for the newly invented Grandmother’s Day. It’s also hinted that Don looks for a challenge in the women he chooses to pursue. Sure, he could easily take Peggy Olsen to bed or any of the girls from the Sterling-Cooper steno pool, but as he tells Pete, “The advertising world is small… sleep with any of these girls and that world will be even smaller.”

Quick Takes:

Peggy succumbs twice (to her dismay) to how Joan suggests she should act. The first instance is inside Don’s office after he shoos Pete away. She approaches Don and places his hand on hers. Don removes Peggy’s hand from his and mentions that he’s her boss and not her boyfriend. I gathered she didn’t want to end up like Eleanor, Don’s previous secretary who is mentioned by a group of girls who work the switchboard. It is never clearly stated as to what happened between Don and Eleanor, but most likely nothing and that is probably why Joan got rid of her.

The second occurrence involves a drunk Pete visiting Peggy’s home after his bachelor party at The Slipper, a strip club most of the guys attended after work. Peggy ultimately accepts Pete into her apartment, but it is apparent she isn’t entirely sure if she should go through with this. She most likely recalls her interactions with Joan earlier that day and her trip to OB/GYN. She even goes as far to warn her roommate that she is going to bed as she takes Pete by the hand and leads him inside.

The board room meeting with the guys from Lucky Strike was also interesting and kept with the recurring theme regarding the dangers of smoking. At one point, Lee Garner Sr. refuses to believe that smoking has any negative effects on the health of the human body. The rest of the guys in the room, all who are smoking, begin to cough. Don and Pete initially fail to captivate their attention but Don miraculously comes up with a new slogan, “It’s Toasted!” that wins back their trust.

Sterling Cooper’s art director, Salvator Romono, has his own take on the Lucky Strike campaign. He believes that we should just “Relax” and accompanies this slogan with a drawing of a shirtless man laying down on a hammock. He tells Don that the model was one of his neighbors. Don seems to like the idea but adds that they should also include a sexy lady in there as well. Future episodes will confirm that Sal has homosexual tendencies, but the pilot only alludes to this. Later on at Pete’s bachelor party, a group of girls say they love going to strip clubs because there are so many men around. Sal tells them, “I know what you mean.”

The final scene, where Don drives home to Ossining to be with his family is unlike other moments in the episode. It was obviously done for shock value. Throughout the episode we are expected to relate with Don Draper. He comes to Peggy’s rescue by shooing Pete away from her in his office and even manages to miraculously salvage Sterling-Cooper’s relationships with Lucky Strike and Menken. His budding relationship with Rachel even seems forgivable because what he has with Midge appears to be deteriorating. Then, we are dropped the bombshell that Don Draper is married and has two children.

As a viewer, it didn’t bother me that Pete showed up on Peggy’s days before his wedding as his character was already presented in a slimy manner. Don, on the other hand, was being painted as the story’s hero. A seemingly flawless character who comes in and saves the day in the third act. The interesting thing about Mad Men is that all their characters are true-to-life. Everyone has their flaws, makes mistakes and we either pay for them or there are no repercussions at all. The same goes for Don Draper. He is great at what he does. He has an uncanny ability of being able to read people, but yet he cannot grasp his own identity.

When I first saw this episode four years ago, I thought it would be difficult to go into the second episode knowing the type of person Don was revealed as. Pete and Peggy’s hookup didn’t quite bother me as much because I ultimately assumed the two would get together. But Don? I remember wondering how are they going to make this character likable now? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see if how redeems himself on episode two, “Ladies Room.”


Make it Happen, Cap’n

Comic books were a major player in my formative years. Believe it or not, there was a time when they were widely available, even in liquor stores. I remember staring at the various titles scattered on a spinner rack while my dad picked up a thirty pack and scratched lottery tickets at the checkout counter. I was just learning how to read at this point, so the story and dialogue really meant little to me. Instead, I was more fascinated by the artwork. Sometimes, I would get lost staring at a cover for what seemed like an eternity before I would even open to the first page. The artwork of Marvel titles like Spiderman and The Uncanny X-Men always left me feeling awestruck. As I began to learn how to read, these were the first two titles I found myself gravitating towards.

It was through the occasional appearance in issues of Spiderman that I became acquainted with Captain America. I recognized the red, white, and blue costume from seeing his title on the newsstand in years past, but never really knew or understand his back story. An abominable direct-to-video film based on the character released in the early 1990s attempted to fill in the blanks, but even at a young age I recognized how atrocious it really was. Also, the film pretty much killed any small interest I may have had in the character. Besides, it was also around that same time Tim Burton was pumping out Batman films and I was also a little preoccupied with a Dick Tracy obsession.

My interest in comic books began to wane over the next several years. They slowly began to disappear from magazine racks. Even the specialty comic book shops that had come into existence were fading out. The only comic book shop in my town shut down after federal agents raided the place on the account of the store’s owner being a huge pedophile. To this day, it still creeps me out knowing that I used to spend countless hours hanging out there after school freely talking about men clothed in colorful, form-fitting spandex outfits.

Then, for a long period of time, my life lacked epic-scaled stories until someone got the idea to resurrect the superhero genre and adapt them for the big screen. The first film that really stood out was X-Men, released in 2000 and just a few months after my high school graduation. I remember thinking I was too old for this type of movie, but purchased a ticket anyways. Although I felt it didn’t truly capture the tone of the source material it was based on, it was still an overall solid movie. It also opened the floodgates to a decade of virtually every popular comic book property and some not so popular (Elektra anyone?) being adapted for the silver screen.

Some of these films worked but most did not. For every decent super hero adaption like X-Men, we had the laughable Catwoman, two poorly imagined Punisher films, and a Ghost Rider that was dead on arrival. It also didn’t help that virtually everyone of these films follows the same basic formula: origin story in the first act, the menacing threat in the second act, and then the quick defeat of the big bad in the third act. By the time Captain America: The First Avenger was announced, it felt like some operator fell asleep at the assembly line that rolls out these movies.

Despite my growing disinterest in comic book movies, I still check them all out in hopes that Dark Knight-style lightning will strike twice. So far, it hasn’t happened, but I like to think we are getting close to that day. After reading a few favorable reviews, I walked into Captain America with high expectations. With a majority of of the story set in the 1940s, I was intrigued by the period piece aspect of the film. I also found this worked well with X-Men: First Class, which took place in the early ’60s.

Overall, I found Captain America to be quite enjoyable. However, in the confines of the movie I didn’t really feel the Red Skull character worked well as a villain. A comic book story always works when there is a dynamic relationship between the hero and the villain. Think of the stories between Professor X and Magneto. They once worked side-by-side but a changing force drives them to become adversaries. Here it just seems like a cat-and-mouse chase with Captain America eventually catching up to Red Skull and defeating him. I don’t expect Captain America and the Red Skull to sit down and have a cup of tea, but some a mid-story interrogation scene involving the two could have created a tense relationship between the two giving Red Skull more depth as a character and allowing him to be a more formidable opponent.

Also, the film was quick to take Captain America into the present. I understand he is expected to lead The Avengers in 2012, but they could have kept him in the ’40s for a few stand-alone movies. This doesn’t allow Steve Rogers enough time to become Captain America, the icon. It would have been a nice touch to jump back and see more Captain America stories set during World War II and save his inevitable thawing for the opening of The Avengers.

Finally, I’m curious to see how Captain America will hold up over time as the movie suddenly ends with Steve Rogers confused and bewildered in the middle of modern day New York City. To me, it all depends on how the character is handled in The Avengers and any following sequels. But if it doesn’t work, they can always just go back and reboot it, right?