Greatest TV Pilots: Mad Men’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” a smooth, deceptively dark blend of style and substance

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Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Matthew Weiner
Original Air Date: July 19th, 2007

Definition displayed before the episode:

“MAD MEN. A term coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.”

With a stunning title sequence that features a man’s silhouette plummeting past skyscrapers adorned with advertisements, the pilot episode of Mad Men opens with an exacting acknowledgement of the commercialized happiness that America bought into after World War II. Creator Matthew Weiner delivers a spellbindingly stylish microcosm inhabited by driven people who are unwittingly entrenched in layers of systematic oppression. Putting all of its aesthetic charms aside, Mad Men breaks ground by examining how we resist or embrace change through uncertain and often ugly choices.

Appraising an America on the precipice of social revolution, the series premiere swirls around the seemingly enviable life of dapper Don Draper (Jon Hamm). A persuasive New York advertising executive at the top of his game, Draper is at a nexus of power built upon white male privilege. The pressure on both men and women to achieve what society deems as successful for them is crushing. Affairs and insecurities are kept out of sight- not to be openly recognized except to shame the weak. Total ostracisation from society is palpable with the slightest of missteps. Making it a hard watch is the fact that these refined, pedigreed people and the glamorous places they inhabit are as troubling as they are entrancing. The painstakingly lavish attention to period detail certainly draws the audience in but the shiny veneer only thinly disguises how carefully these characters have to walk on eggshells in order to prevent their polished realities from collapsing under the weight of unspoken feelings. So well-packaged is the distracting artifice of the show that it’s easy to forget that what characters can’t reveal or aren’t capable of articulating truly makes them historically and emotionally resonant. Their misdeeds are not beyond reproach just because of the era but their confusion, silence and desperation are more understandable given that they were born into a patriarchy that threatens to obliterate anyone who poses a threat to it.

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“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” addresses the gamut of issues that Mad Men continues to come back to time and time again. The rampant and blatant prejudices of the mid-twentieth century are used to shockingly convey how far society has come but a good deal of the show also stresses the consequences of self or society imposed isolation. At work Draper eloquently extrapolates on the basic needs that drive everyday people to buy products but his personal motivations remain largely unknown as he interacts with people. His slick, confident and steely demeanor projects a facade of perfection but little of his true self brushes up against life. Just as Don sells products to the public, he sells the best version of himself to his co-workers and family. The real Don is deeply buried, dormant- someone who came from too much pain to share it with others. Draper’s lies have lives of their own and reveal a monstrous, shallow shell of the American Dream- having everything a man is supposed to want but finding no reason to cherish or respect it except as an obligation. He shows no trace of guilt while cheating on his wife. It is simply part of his day and a part of a routine that helps him cope. Is there a real man behind the mask who knows what he needs to be fulfilled? Or is his thirst for power and sex unquenchable? Hamm is restrained but finely conveys the undeniable cracks in Draper’s masculine armor by adding slight inflections to a normally unwavering voice and subtle winces when caught off guard.

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The ensemble cast is brimming with memorable characters embodied by undeniably talented actors. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) barely registers as Don’s boss with his ultra casual demeanor but his deadpan quips are razor sharp enough to steal scenes. Within moments of the audience being introduced to go-getter Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Draper’s disdain for his greedy ambition is immediately apparent. We don’t see too many shades of grey when it comes to young Pete- just that he is overly eager to please, keen to mimic the bad behavior of the successful and usurp absolutely any power that seems remotely up for grabs. The repulsion that Pete’s presence is able to illicit in such a short time is a testament to Kartheiser’s considerable ability. The circuitous bad decision-making and unlikeability of many of the characters are what keep the story fresh amid points of interest in history that we can see coming from a mile away.

Ken Cosgrove, Paul Kinsey and Harry Crane establish themselves as a trio of laughing hyenas who mostly take their high-powered lives for granted as they snark about relationships or work. The suffocating, congratulatory male camaraderie in this episode is celebrated and cemented by Pete’s traditional bachelor party at a strip club where expectations to reaffirm virility with one another run high. Far more intriguing than them is advertising artist Salvatore Romano, whose homosexuality has to be denied and overlooked in order for him to remain amongst an elite workplace. For Salvatore passing for straight means making lusty and derogatory comments about women that “real” men would make. The posturing of everyone trying to fit into a mold of normalcy to uphold boundaries and suppress desires is as sickening as it is fascinating. Carrying along the plot are brisk pacing and upbeat music which stand in direct contradiction to the sad pretenses of communication that make encounters almost completely devoid of profound connection.

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The intimidation of women is pervasive during these first intertwining stories but is particularly disturbing when Pete thinks he’s entitled to take whatever he desires and as Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) introduces an innocent Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) to the secretarial pool. Peggy’s demanding new job entails sacrificing everything to be at the beck and call of the ad men. Joan reinforces that women are rightly subjected to a deep scrutiny of how pleasing they are to a man’s eye and should treat beauty as one of the most important aspects of their employment. Joan’s body is gazed upon as a perfectly managed example of how a woman working under men and designed for their consumption should look. She revels in the management of herself for men and takes pride in getting attention from it. Nearly everyone that Peggy meets is concerned for her welfare because she doesn’t dress sexily enough. Most of Joan’s power lies in appearance and how tightly she controls the women who work in the office but her wisdom from the get-go is sadly based on subservience. However naive and aiming to please men Peggy appears to be in this episode, the wide-eyed curiosity that’s briefly glimpsed in Olsen here leaves her poised to upend the expectations of what a woman can accomplish.

When Rachel Menken seeks to have the same quality advertising for her family’s jewelry store that any other business in the upper echelons of corporate America would want, Don’s firm Sterling Cooper is unprepared. Menken goes up against anti-semitism as she tries to deal with a workplace that’s used to Jewish people working completely separately from Manhattan’s upper crust. On top of that Don spews hateful ignorance about a woman’s place when faced with brashness and honesty from the opposite sex. He rears up in cynical nastiness to her positivity about love, scoffing that “…What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” The constant reassertion of male superiority betrays how afraid everyone is about stepping out of the roles that keep their lives navigable. Rachel is the first woman we see that challenges Don to be more than who he is expected to be and is a bright, transformative spot in an otherwise bleak prognosis for how spiritual growth could develop during the series.

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Mad Men establishes itself as an extremely self-aware series that doesn’t judge its characters but neutrally presents them in a constant struggle against the flaws they’ve inherited from a society that’s just beginning to be recognized as a work in progress. They are twisted up in a world of unequal footing, barely cognizant of the inane rules that entrap them but are tangibly facing rapid developments that will irrevocably alter them whether they want them to or not.

– Lane Scarberry

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

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