Re-watching Mad Men, S01E01: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Note: I’ve been very negligent to my poor blog. I don’t want to say that the Twilight idea is totally dead, but for now, I’m jerking it back to life with the defibrillator that is Don Draper.
Mad Men is a show that I go back to re-watch from the beginning a lot. I actually bought the first two seasons on iTunes almost two years ago, and before I put them on my external I’d watched some of the episodes nine or ten times, and all of them at least five or six. And every single time, the show seems more and more divorced from the content of the first episode. The actors are wooden as though the show’s original concept was simply an edgier version of an old movie, Peggy’s bangs are horrendous, and most of the dialogue screams too harshly about either what the characters are like or how much the culture has changed since 1960. Examples: Pete Campbell is douche and a brown-noser! Kinsey and Cosgrove are horn-dogs! Sal is gay! The stripper is a fatty! Things used to be cheaper—isn’t that funny? Sexism and racism abound! HA HA HA WEREN’T THINGS DIFFERENT THEN.
Pilots are hard to deal with on TV shows because they’re part of a continuum that is never seen in its entirety. Maybe it’s just easier to deal with when the title of the episode is the simple, pity-inducing “Pilot.” Keep in mind that a failure on Mad Men is still practically Emmy-grade. But when I watch this episode, I cease to wonder why people I’ve known have given up on the series after this first episode. It has that “Pilot” quality that all other pilots have. There are weird characters that sink without a trace (auf Wiedersehen, Dr. von Germanlady). A lot of the characters’ behavior seems very, well…out of character. For example, Don Draper is not only insecure, but he’s fishing for market research from the public, from a black man in the service industry for that matter. He normally doesn’t do that—and I’m thinking specifically of episodes in Season 3 when Pete wants to snag the “Negro market.” It’s possible that these little wrinkles in the fabric just have to do with the particular day in which they take place. Maybe it’s just that Draper is having an incredibly “off” day, but this sort of anxiety about something as simple as a pitch never resurfaces to my recollection. And after this one hiccup, he recovers, is revered as the hero of advertising that Midge makes him out to be in the beginning, and never falters like this again. He’s never out of ideas when he’s on stage. And Joan’s line about the typewriter being “easy enough for a woman” isn’t totally out of character, but it’s weird to see Joan pandering to Peggy’s girlish insecurities when normally she does not put up with that. Although, to be fair, we never see Joan show anyone like Peggy the ropes of Sterling-Coo the same way.
What’s odd about this episode to me is that the pilot episode of a TV show normally takes place when a major change takes place in the protagonists’ life. Buffy moves to Sunnydale, Agent Scully gets assigned to the X-files, Angela Chase ditches Sharon Cherski for Rayanne Graff and Ricki, or Lindsey Weir ditches Millie and the Mathletes for Desario and the burnouts. This isn’t always true of TV shows such as Big Love, in which the pilot serves to acclimate the audience to a certain way of life. Some shows have some of both: I think Dexter and Firefly are like this. These pilots demonstrate how Dexter goes through life as a serial killer and how Serenity’s crew leads its outlaw life, and though the Ice Truck Killer and Simon and River are catalysts to new plot points, they don’t mark such profound transitions as the dissolution of Angela and Sharon’s friendship. When all is said and done, I think Smoke Gets in Your Eyes seems more like this latter category—we see the status quo of 1960 Manhattan through Draper, but we also experience it anew through Peggy—but it isn’t as graceful an execution as I would come to expect from Don Draper & Co.
“If a girl’s going to shake it in my face, I want to be alone so I can do something about it.” Oh god, Sal. If your lines had continued in this vein, you would have been lynched in the middle of the office far before Season 3.
“Ready to go sweet-talk some retail Jews?” Mad Men reminds me that there wasn’t always a time when Bob Dylan could have gone by “Robert Zimmerman” if he wanted to, and that doesn’t make him a phony, Joni Mitchell.
“Advertising is a very small world, and when you do something like malign the reputation of a girl from the steno pool on her first day, you make it even smaller. Keep it up, and even if you do get my job, you’ll never run this place. You’ll die in that corner office a mid-level executive with a little bit of hair who women go home with out of pity. Wanna know why? Because no one will like you.” This always makes me laugh. The over-expository dialogue really serves the Pete-Don animosity. See also: “Let’s take it a little slower; I don’t want to wake up pregnant,” followed by Pete’s muttering “Fuck you”—a phrase that has never appeared since.
Remember when it was a “big reveal” that Don was actually married? Those were the salad days.
This hour’s Tao of Draper:
“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 because there isn’t one.”