(S P O I L E R S)
In which Don Draper is the greatest ad-man ever and his big strong brain will find a way to lead the sheep into the slaughterhouse…
It’s all about the back of Jon Hamm’s head, isn’t it? Of course, the iconic Mad Men logo is Hamm in silhouette, languidly reclining on a couch, cigarette perched between two fingers. But it’s notable that the first shot of the series tracks left from a bar full of happy hour revelers and comes to rest on a tight reading of the back of Don Draper’s head. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it sets the tone for the entire episode and the entire show. Happiness surrounds Don, but he’s an enigma, an imposing shadow.
And when we’re finally introduced to Don in full, he embarks upon a conversation with Sam the busboy which serves as a microcosm of the show’s (and the character’s) obsessions and preoccupations. Sam admits to smoking Old Gold cigarettes out of a habit that began when he received free cartons during his army days, and both men agree that their love of smoking trumps the cancer claims in Reader’s Digest and other media outlets. Habit, nostalgia, self-interest: it’s like the outline for the Don Draper playbook. When Don asks the bartender for a refill of his drink by enjoining him to “Do this again. Old Fashioned”, it’s the grace note of the tightly constructed conversation that Matt Weiner has crafted in his script. After all, “Do it again. Old Fashioned” could serve as Don’s catch phrase throughout the entire run of the show. Even the ingredients of his favorite libation, a combination of the sweet and sour, prefigure the dichotomy of his life, one where even the exalted moments aren’t far removed from ones of abject misery.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why Mad Men’s pilot is regarded as one of the best of the television pantheon. Just as that opening scene sets up so much of the show’s greater trajectory, so too do the events of the plot establish most of the major character relationships and complex dynamics in an easily digestible, yet still stimulating manner. Don is John Galt and Cary Grant rolled into one, the smoldering ideal of American success and sex appeal, but also a man fraught with self-doubt who seeks solace in his independent-minded illustrator girlfriend. Peggy’s first day at Sterling Cooper sets her up as audience surrogate, a canny move by Weiner that allows us to join her in gawking at the rampant sexism and cruelty that are part and parcel of the SC DNA and the early ‘60s (which is still slightly shocking upon first viewing.) Pete is almost superhumanly weaselly throughout, yet his more vulnerable side is still revealed near the end. Joan slyly subverts male expectations of dominance by playing up her sexpot image, while manipulating her way into a state of limited power that is the envy of her female co-workers. Roger Sterling is Roger Sterling; his second line, spoken to a mildly disheveled Don is “You look like $100. Long night?” (Pete will later repeat this joke to Don in a botched attempt at smarmy flattery.) It wouldn’t be until Season 2 that the great John Slattery would start to be given the chance to showcase his deadpan comedic chops on a regular basis, but even the small bits that are revealed in Season 1 are (as Roger’s eventual vanity autobiography would deem them) gold. And the whole episode plays out in such a breezy manner that it’s over before you even know it. As the camera pans out on the dreamy suburban tableau of Don sitting at the bedside of his children while an adoring Betty looks on (the irony of his double life simmering below the surface), you get the feeling like this could be an adaptation of a John Cheever short story commentary on the American Dream. Indeed, Cheever is a major source of inspiration for the show…but that’s a conversation for a child’s birthday party to come.
And then there are Don’s moments of revelation, the most obvious one of which comes during his train wreck of a meeting with Lee Garner squared and the Lucky Strike team, when in a moment of panic he comes up with the knockout blow of “It’s toasted/Happiness is saying whatever you’re doing is okay” (with its stock revelatory background music, it’s also one of the few heavy handed moments in this episode, which reminds the viewer that this is indeed a pilot.) Three times in the episode’s 48-minute runtime, Don experiences slow motion epiphanies: once in the opening scene (when he scans the bar and its happy, smoking patrons), once when he’s lying down on his office couch (and he sees the fly trapped in the fluorescent light ceiling panel and hears distant battlefield explosions, both of which serve as metaphorical indicators of what lurks inside him), and finally at the conclusion of the Lucky Strike meeting. Matt Weiner was well-schooled in moments like this from his time as a writer on The Sopranos. The central conceit of that show, the dramatic tension that pulled viewers in tight, was the struggle inside Tony Soprano between revelation and change, and a deeply ingrained set of destructive habits. And sans the firearms and waste management scams, we’re back in that territory again in Mad Men, dashing Don both a vice-ridden captain of industry and existential truth seeker. But just like so many of Tony’s revelations were fleeting in their potency, so too will Don set out on a long road in which his greatest moments of redemption are followed by descents into the Inferno (a journey which would be taken to wrenching extremes in the Dante-inspired sixth season.)
Teaching this episode was fairly easy, as most of the students glommed onto the archetypical characters and plot mechanics. And, of course, they hated Pete Campbell. Most people do when they first watch the show, and the first season presents the rivalry between Pete and Don as one of its major through lines. What’s fascinating is how Weiner and company subvert everything that we think about such a battle of wills. It can’t be a mistake that studly Jon Hamm was cast as Don and the much more effete Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell. Their wildly divergent physicalities already set up the audience to root for the broad-shouldered savant and to jeer the snivelly backstabber. But even in this first episode, there are signs that we’re being played. Handsome Don is also cracking around the edges, and the final revelation that he’s married and living a seemingly idyllic life in Ossining show that, while Pete sleeps with Peggy the night before his wedding, Don has constructed a split life wholesale. Before his last minute Lucky Strike save, marketing genius Don has no clue how to proceed. Pete’s appropriation of Dr. Guttman’s report on the Freudian death wish is jeered by the Garners and scoffed at by Don, but Pete is actually ahead of his time in prefiguring Madison Avenue’s eventual embrace of psychoanalytics (this moment of savviness would recur throughout the season and the run of the show, but here it’s the first indication that Pete Campbell has something going for him.) And just like Don, we’re introduced to Pete with a shot of the back of his head, gazing to the right. At episode’s end, both men try to pick up women who won’t have them, their bruised egos forced to retreat to a Betty and Peggy.
ALWAYS BE CLOSING
In what might be the defining scene of the pilot (and possibly the show), Don meets with Rachel Menken in an attempt to salvage their damaged business relationship (which is splintered by that most Don-like of lines “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this.”). Even in his state of apology, Don still tries to gain the upper hand on Rachel by asking her why she’s not married, why she wouldn’t want to enjoy a family instead of the headaches that come with fighting people like him (as in many excerpts from the Don Draper Book of Seduction, it’s part cruel power play, part suave flirtation). When she tells him that she’s never been in love, he shoots back with one of the defining Don axioms:
“By love you mean big lightning bolts to the heart, where you can't eat and you can't work, and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me...to sell nylons. 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, 'cause there isn't one.”
It’s a moment of personal triumph for Don, and you get the feeling that he’s trotted out this line before. But it’s also utterly hollow, a lie to trump all lies. The characters of Mad Men are always in closing mode (indeed, when Pete arrives at Peggy’s door one scene later, he reassures her roommate that this is the first time today that he’s not trying to sell something), but here it’s made quite evident that master pitchman Don is also always trying to close on himself. Repeat the macho bravado enough times and it becomes true. And the glib nihilism of his tack also serves as inadvertent commentary on the Mad Men worshippers who focus on the show’s studied cool to the exclusion of its soul-searing drama.
But Rachel is smart enough to fight back and puncture Don’s bravado, retorting:
“I don’t know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place. To be disconnected. To see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.”
As she says this, the camera cuts twice to the same close-up of Don that portrayed his ineffable cool a moment before. But this time, he’s clearly shaken. He maintains his focused stare, but his eyes are mildly glassy, his mouth subtly quivers, and his only reaction is to deny it and quickly ask for another drink. It’s a wonderful moment of acting by Jon Hamm, who’s never received full credit for the grace and range he brings to the table in playing Don (making your hay concurrent to Bryan Cranston’s run as Walter White will do that to you.) Being a handsome leading man playing a handsome emotional cipher doesn’t often provide the showy tics and mannerisms that sometimes pass for ACTING(!), but Hamm’s run throughout six plus seasons is filled with so many fantastic, small character moments like this (see also the moment when Don tells the Garners that happiness is saying “whatever you’re doing is okay. You’re okay.” The slow deflation and blank despair on his face as he says those words is a great counterbalance to his overt victory.) And as we see time and time again in Mad Men, this emotional distance and restraint eventually pays off in moments that on the surface seem fairly pedestrian, but in actuality resound with the power of a gunfight (see most of Season 4’s classic “The Suitcase.”)
This exchange also establishes the growing bond between Don and Rachel, two outsiders stuck in a world of insiders. And it offers the first hint of how out of the mainstream Don really is. He’s married to the idealized blonde Betty, the Grace Kelly to his Cary Grant, and yet his romantic longings are directed toward brunette beat girl Midge and raven-haired Jewish girl Rachel. It would take him awhile to admit it to himself, but Don only has eyes for the outsiders, the counter cultural ladies. This leaning would continue throughout the show, as he would come to romance the flighty and idealistic Susan Farrell and to marry the young and vibrant Megan. His only other major romance with a blonde involved the fourth season sojourn with Dr. Faye, and her profound psychological understanding of him caused him to firebomb the whole thing by running away to Megan. And, of course, there’s the monstrous Bobbie Barrett in Season 2, which was akin to an extended run of Don making love to himself. But more on her later.
NOW LAUGHING FRIENDS DERIDE, TEARS I CANNOT HIDE
A huge part of Mad Men’s charm rests in the deftly cultivated soundtrack that Matt Weiner employs. David Carbonara has composed the incidental score for all 83 episodes (and counting), and perhaps it’s indicative of the power of his work and how seamlessly it blends into the fabric of the show that he continues to be so underrated. But Weiner and his crew also have a keen ear for the right pieces of source music, period melodies that complement the story in ways both fascinating and tricky. Take the title of this episode. In so many ways, this song is the perfect summation of the show’s themes. The high toned bullshit machine that is Sterling Cooper operates by figuratively blowing smoke in people’s faces. The main company crisis of the pilot is the encroaching government regulation of cigarette advertising (more conflict between habit, nostalgia, and self –interest and harsh reality). And the song’s lyrics, which reflect the elation, heartache, blindness, and tragedy of love and love lost, cement the melancholy foundation upon which much of the show rests (this is especially true in the heart-rending vocals of The Platters, who released their version of this standard less than a year before the events of Mad Men’s pilot.)
And yet, the song itself never appears in the episode. Weiner shows the hand he really wants to play by bookending the pilot with Don Cherry’s “Band of Gold” and Vic Damone and Percy Faith’s “The Street Where You Live.” Both songs are the prototypical love ballads that we now associate with the era. Cherry croons about marriage and true love trumping any desire for foreign lands or exotic adventures. Damone and Faith capture the giddy rush of walking by the house of your beloved. Both stand in contrast to what makes Don tick, the restlessness that drives him away from happiness, the riven personality that eventually drives everyone away from him.
TALES FROM THE CLASSROOM
There isn’t a great deal of stories to tell about using “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in the academic setting. It served as a nice entry point to the show for the students. Most of the girls swooned over Don. Most of the guys swooned over Don. Every year I taught the Mad Men unit, I had at least one group of young dudes who would react to Don’s burns of Pete (and anyone else…but especially Pete) with a resounding “Ooohhhhhhhh!” In the moment, was frustrating; I was a little disappointed that they seemingly weren’t getting the point. In retrospect, it’s a pretty amusing bit of business, and a sign that they were actually engaged with the show. Hey, in the heat of the pedagogical moment, you can sometimes lose perspective.
As the years went on, more and more of the girls hated Peggy’s first turn. Which sort of puzzled me. I figured that they would sympathize with her plight, but a good deal of them just thought she was ugly. (Dowdy, maybe, but ugly? Ladies, if you’re reading this, please don’t kill me. I know that it wasn’t all of you. And that some of you came around to Elizabeth Moss’s charms.)
The pilot episode coincided with our reading of the first few chapters of The Great Gatsby, which made the comparative analysis for the weekly essay pretty easy. Or so I thought. In the intro to this unit, I warned everyone that analytical similarities had to be, by nature, deeper than surface level. So no “Don and Gatsby are both wealthy, powerful dudes” as the final word on the subject. Nonetheless, I still received a smattering of essays that proudly trumpeted this base comparison. Because Sophomores. Oh well, we had to start somewhere. I was quite proud of the students who delved into the similarities between Peggy and Nick Carraway, and between Joan and Jordan Baker. Much credit to those intrepid authors for going a few steps beyond the minimum. Although, come to think of it, I probably also heavily hinted about the Peggy/Nick connection. But hey, let’s not reduce credit where it’s due.
(I’m suddenly realizing that the tone of my writing has inadvertently captured the essence of my time teaching Sophomores: long stretches of academic analysis, punctuated by intervals of dry humor that’s sprinkled with 21st century youth slang. My dear, departed Sophomores: you’ve affected me more than you knew. Or you’ve just warped my writing. We’ll see how that develops in the essays to come.
And just in case you were wondering, I’d probably give myself an 18/20 on this essay. A lot of good ideas, but a bit shambolic in places. )