Friday, February 5, 2010

Smoke Gets in OUR Eyes--Back to Season One

Mad Men, Season One, Episode One, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"

I've decided, in this hiatus between Seasons Three and Four, to watch Seasons One and Two again and see what they look like from this vantage point--knowing what we now know. And, it's so interesting. I'll periodically file reports from the land of the earlier seasons.

The pilot, fittingly enough, dives right into an early '60s controversy with its focus on the attempts of cigarette companies and their "mad men" to blow smoke in the eyes of a public that was finally being informed of the negative consequences of smoking. Roger, Don, and their cohorts are introduced to us as image crafters, manipulators, and--to put Don's more positive spin on their work--happiness purveyors. As he tells his colleagues and the Lucky Strikes execs: "Advertising is based on one thing--happiness. . . . It's a billboard screaming on the side of a road that whatever you're doing is okay. You're okay." But, we're not to be fooled. They all know that this is B.S. At one point in the meeting with the cigarette execs, Roger disingenuously blames "manipulation of the mass media" for the public's "impression" that cigarettes are the cause of some fatal diseases. Garner--of Lucky Strikes--barks, "Manipulation of the media--that's what I pay you for."

But what couldn't be clear when we viewed the pilot as our first ever "Mad Men" episode--but is now from a distance of thirty-eight additional episodes--is the extent to which Matt Weiner and Company were also blowing smoke in our eyes, presenting mere images as characters, images that would gradually be peeled away over the course of three seasons to allow insight into what have turned out to be characters of incredible and fascinating substance. I am not in the least bit being critical of Weiner and his colleagues when I claim they've been blowing smoke too. I think it's genius. We get to participate in the construction of these characters out of images in ways that are much more meaningful than in your run-of-the-mill show. While it's probably obvious to anyone, even in this first episode, that Sal is gay (Woman they pick up at the strip club: "I love this place. It's hot, loud, and full of men." Sal: "I know what you mean."), the trajectory of the other characters is so less clear. Joan is glorying in her role as the Marilyn-shaped sex object who functions as the madam of the office, sending Peggy off to the gynecologist for the new birth control pill, the better to perform her job. Peggy--mousy and insecure--obliges, having sex with the soon-to-be-wed Pete her first day on the job. She's so surprised to discover that he wants her. Her "me?" after his clumsy seduction is sad now that I know the outcome. I could never have predicted what feminist role models the illusions of Joan and Peggy were masking.

And Don: we aren't even let in on the fact that Don has a wife and children until the very end of the episode. He sleeps at Midge's apartment, flirts with Rachel, never mentions or hears mention of his family. What a surprise it must have been the first time watching to see him walk into that house to a beautiful, smiling, warm-looking Betty. As Julie wrote in a comment here recently, Don really is a dick in this season. But, wait--we aren't to find out about Dick for a number of episodes yet. And Betty? Warm and smiling? How many times in my posts on third season episodes did I refer to her as "cold?" So much is to be revealed about the two of them too. The only one who has pretty much stayed the same is Pete. When he knocks on Peggy's apartment door after his bachelor party and drunkenly says to her, "You must think I'm a creep," I said, "Yep." And three seasons later, I still say "Yep" to that. Oh, well, there has to be some anchor here in this realm of illusion. Or maybe the pulling back of the image that is Pete is what we have in store in Season Four.


  1. I don't think Peggy has sex with Pete that first time only to "oblige." I think she's attracted to him. There's an episode later when they go at each other in his office after he seduces her with some strange and to me completely unsexy fantasy. They're somehow well suited, at least sexually. Though, yes, he's so creepy this is hard to accept so maybe it's that her motivations are unclear. It's hard to say if Peggy decides she's going to play around now that she has a big job in the city, or if she already has a "past." There's another episode much later in season 2 when she sleeps with this college kid, and she clearly just wants to get some sex and get out of there. Seems a bit ahead of its time (maybe late 60s or early 70s is more historically likely?) yet an interesting feminist portrait of a woman's sexual desire without any accompanying desire for a relationship.

  2. I think you're probably right, Julie, that Peggy is attracted to Pete. I just find him to be so completely unappealing that I have a hard time fathoming it. I do, though, still think that in her perhaps complicated motivation there is an element of surprise at being desired and a wish to fit in to her new context. The question of whether she has a "past" already is an interesting one. I remember that episode with the college kid. She seems a bit ahead of her time to me as well. But, Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, so perhaps it's not as off as we think. If Betty serves in part to illustrate Friedan's "problem with no name," perhaps Peggy's sexual expression represents Brown's followers.