As the third season of acclaimed US TV drama Mad Men gets underway in the States, I’ve decided to go back over the first season on DVD, to see if what is now one of my favourite shows ever looks different on a second viewing. This piece will combine impressions of the first episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, with consideration of how the show has grown from its origins. (Contains spoilers for the first episode, and general discussion of subsequent ones.)
On its debut, Mad Men seemed extremely committed to proving the old maxim that “the past is a different country; they do things differently there.” The world of 1960s America, as seen from the New York advertising industry, seems impossibly remote, and is made to look and feel so. One of the most well-known aspects of the show is its poised elegance, not only in set and costume design, but also in the composition and editing of its shots (particularly the office sequences, which owe a lot to The Apartment). There is a deliberate sense of distancing from the characters and the period they live in, at first holding up the 60s as a polished façade, then delving beneath the surface.
The first we see of Don Draper, Madison Avenue adman and the closest thing we’ll have in the series to a hero, is the back of his head as he leans back in his chair – a deliberate mirror of the last shot of the opening credits sequence. There’s a deliberate opacity to this introduction: we know no more about him than the black waiter he chats with about preferred brands of cigarettes, or the other patrons at the bar (all also smoking) who he studies in slow motion. His job is getting into people’s heads and working out what they want, but we already get the sense that he himself is a closed book.
The flipside of this polish is a fascination with the clothes, the lifestyle (drinking in the office!), and the sexual adventures of the privileged few in this era of unprecedented prosperity. But the series is just as interested in showing how the not-so-privileged fare. We follow Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) on her first day as a secretary, and witness her dealing with the rampant sexism of the young creatives, and the sly put-downs of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the immaculately poised queen of the typing pool.
It’s a tough ride for Peggy. A recurring motif is her seeing another secretary crying in the ladies’ toilets; by the end of the day she is no longer visibly upset at this. Indeed, there are hints of the inner steeliness she will have to develop to make it in this world. (Not to spoil anything, but Peggy’s journey is one of the most fascinating parts of the show.) From an appointment with a doctor (smoking, of course) to provide her with the contraceptive pill, to a highly charged encounter with newly-married creative Pete Campbell, she seems to be breaking free of the gender roles that are presented as omnipresent.
And on that note … oh, Pete Campbell. I don’t think I’ve ever loved and loathed a fictional character so much at the same time. Any actor can get a decent amount of acclaim by playing a psychopathic bad guy, dripping charisma and chewing scenery. To me, it takes real bravery to abandon all pretences of vanity and play your character (as Vincent Kartheiser does brilliantly) as a complete douchebag.
The excellently slimy Campbell is a man who tries to walk the walk, but constantly fails. From the frequent mentions of his moneyed origins, to the slightly-too-tight bright blue suits he wears, subtle details give him away as (quite literally) a boy in men’s clothing. His efforts to outflank Draper at a crucial presentation to the top brass of Lucky Strike cigarettes are weaselly, but almost understandable, when earlier in the episode we see alpha-male Don brush off his pathetically eager attempts at friendship.
Here we have the essential dynamics of the season, and maybe even the series; the man who is supposed to have it all, yet feels empty; the woman who wants more than to be a pretty face at a typewriter; and the boy-turned-man who finds the traditional masculine roles much tougher than they appear.
And yet, and yet … there is a lot about Mad Men’s first episode that feels rough and unformed, especially in contrast to what will come later. Don, Peggy and Pete are pretty much perfectly formed right out of the gate, but it’s surprising on a second watch how much of the supporting cast is barely sketched in. The creatives and account managers – Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, and Paul Kinsey – are an indistinguishable bunch of rowdy schoolboys, and Joan at this point is just a stylish/bitchy female, with little hint of the depths her character will acquire. The same goes for Don’s boss Roger Sterling (Jon Slattery), and even Don’s wife Betty (January Jones) who only appears at the end of the episode.
If supporting characters are only sketched in during the pilot, the setting is laid on very thickly indeed. There are numerous instances of unsubtle period detail: Joan, showing Peggy her desk, which features a typewriter and speakerphone, remarks “Try not to be intimidated by all this new technology”. Don, while confronting Pete over stolen material in the pitch meeting, wisecracks, “It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.” Couple this with the numerous shots of people smoking in wildly inappropriate numbers and situations, and Mad Men starts off almost desperate to assure its viewers of the gulf between the past and today.
However, this clumsiness quickly fades as the series progresses, and the characters and setting become deeper. An apt comparison to this progression would be The Wire. For all its groundbreaking qualities, the first episode features a lot of cop-show clichés; the untouchable crime lord, the maverick cop looking to bring him down, the ball-busting superior, etc. But from these stock elements and exposition, it builds a cohesive world that will sustain all the inventive directions that David Simon et al will take it over five seasons.
Mad Men came to screens with buzz around its creator Matthew Weiner, a former writer on The Sopranos, and the setting and subject matter. But buzz will only get you so far. Mad Men’s first episode is an extremely assured and confident debut that may not have every detail of the series intact, but embarks on a journey that will use the medium of serial television to its full potential. Two series later, I’m more than happy to be along for the ride.