Unlike many pilots, where we dive headlong into action, meeting a spate of characters before the opening credits, Mad Men‘s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” asks us to sit down and get to know its main character, Don Draper. We spend the pilot’s first six minutes with Don (Jon Hamm), not in the heat of battle on Madison Avenue, but in a quiet moment, alone in a bar. He scribbles thoughtfully on a napkin, mulling an idea. He launches an impromptu focus group of one with a waiter. He wants to know what motivates this guy–the average working man–to smoke the brand of cigarettes he smokes. (This brief encounter also gives us taste of 1960s culture vis-a-vis race, but more on that later.)
Mad Man chooses as its point of departure a critical juncture in Don’s career. It seems the public has caught on, thanks in part to Reader’s Digest, that cigarettes are bad for you. With Lucky Strike as a major client, nervous about this turning tide, Don has to step up his game, all while defending himself from a younger talent pool nipping at his impeccably polished heels. Although he’s on top of the advertising world, this one account could threaten his whole career.
Don seeks solace in the arms of a pretty young artist living in an urban studio apartment. The artist, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), gives us our first taste of how this primarily female writing team will draw women. She’s smart, makes her own living, and isn’t interested in committment.
Our first departure from Don’s story is to the first-day-on-the-job story of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the new secretary at the firm. (In a workplace pilot, it’s always somebody’s first day.) Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, who I prefer to think of as “Our Mrs. Reynolds”) shows Peggy around, giving her and the audience the lay of the land.
The job of this pilot is to set the tone, to paint a picture of the business world as it functioned in 1960. It’s a man’s world of course. “Most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress,” sings Joan. While women may be taking a step forward by working and using birth control, most of them are defined in relationship to the men in their lives. Peggy goes to see her gynecologist on her lunch break, providing further context for a woman’s place in society… though scheduling a gyno exam on one’s first day of work just seems masochistic. It’s worse when the doctor says stuff like, “Easy women don’t find husbands.”
The writers miss no chance to wring laughs from the time period, referring to a typewriter and rotary dial phone as technology, for example. The signs of the times extend in more serious social issues, as well, including smoking , sexism, and anti-Semitism.
Key players in Don’s professional world are Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Salvatore (Bryan Batt). Representing the younger generation are Ken (Aaron Staton), who’s just an asshole plain and simple, and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) who tells his fiance “I’m giving up my life to be with you.”
There really is too much sexism to begin to document in one post. You could watch this pilot 5 times and still find new things to roll your eyes at. It’s enlightening to see Don chastise Pete for his disrespect of Peggy when he himself just introduced her as “the new girl,” sans name. Yet, somehow we know that these women are going to reveal a hidden strength.
Don has his most contentious run-in of the episode with a client who is not only a woman but Jewish — not a demographic with which he is used to working. The owner of a department store, this shrewd businesswoman throws Don further off his game. She reappears later in the episode with a message-of-show type speech.
The show continuously hints at people’s hidden depths; that’s kind of the theme of the episode. When a psychologist explains to the ad men that people tend to naturally act in ways contrary to their own best interests (as with smoking), her report provides the spark for the episode’s climactic conflict.
At the very end, twists are revealed about several of the characters, some more unexpected than others. And we don’t feel too bad for the wounded tobacco industry. There are enough cigarettes being smoked on this show to keep them in business even in 2012.
Mad Men returns on AMC on March 25.