Welcome to TV.com's Great Mad Men Re-Watch, where we encourage you to pour yourself a virgin Old Fashioned, fire up a candy cigarette, and reacquaint yourselves with the best show on TV (in my humble opinion). We’ll be revisiting three episodes of Mad Men at a time, twice a week, until the Season 5 premiere on March 25. Let's get started!
Season 1, Episode 1: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Everything we needed to know about Mad Men was laid out in the first fifteen minutes: Don Draper, ladies man and advertising savant, can sell you anything, including himself. But in this case, he’s selling Lucky Strike cigarettes, which the world now knows can kill you. It’s not by accident that Matthew Weiner chose that particular product at that particular time. The date is March 1960. The boom years of the 1950s are over, and America is about to endure a long series of increasingly rude awakenings.
I’d forgotten that before we even get to meet Betty, we first meet Midge, Don’s artist mistress who lives down in the village, and treats him more like a visiting alien from planet Madison Ave. than a romantic equal. At the office the next morning, we meet the main players at Sterling Cooper. Pete Campbell, the weaselly and ambitious accounts executive coos to his fiancee over the phone, trying to ignore the taunts of the rest of the Sterling Cooper boys’ club: babyfaced Ken Cosgrove and nebbish Harry Crane, pipe-puffing intellectual Paul Kinsey and obviously gay art director Salvatore Romano. It’s shocking, still, to hear the casual antisemitism and taunts of sexual harassment that tumble so effortlessly from their mouths.
And then there’s Joan Holloway, with measurements so iconic, they should be recorded by the Library of Congress. Holloway is both an icon of female empowerment and its mortal enemy, keeping other women in the typing pool in their subservient place while using everything God has given her—and it’s quite a bit—to advance her own particular needs. New-hire Peggy gets shown around the office for the first time, and instantly catches the eye of Campbell. On Joan’s recommendation, Peggy visits a sleazy Dr. Emerson, who examines her and prescribes contraceptive pills, all the while warning her not to be a “harlot.”
Rachel Menken is a Jewish department store heiress who wants Sterling Cooper to elevate the eponymous Menken’s to the level of a Chanel boutique, earning snickers in response from the team. Menken is less than thrilled with their ideas to offer coupons to housewives, and storms out of the meeting dissatisfied. A meeting with Lucky Strike’s Lee Garners is going south quick (Pete tries to sell them on America’s subconscious “death wish”), until Don has the brilliant idea to focus on one, simple aspect of their process: toasting. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” Don says, in the first of many transfixing speeches to come on the art of selling. “And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on a side of a road that screams whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”
“It’s Toasted” becomes Lucky Strike's new campaign slogan.
After Pete’s bachelor party, he show’s up at Peggy’s door, and she lets him in. It’s the booty call that will set Peggy’s Season 1 arc in motion.
It’s not until the last three minutes of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” that we finally glimpse Don’s “real” life. Betty, in her suburban bed, blissfully unaware that her husband is juggling several mistresses. Don takes a moment to tuck in his two kids, and Betty pops in to enjoy this image of domestic bliss. It’s the final image of the Mad Men pilot, and what better way to illustrate just what a house of cards the notion of “happiness”—that all-important factor in advertising—really is.
A then-unknown Kristen Schaal plays a telephone operator who suggests to Peggy that she “has great legs. I bet Mr. Draper would like them if he could see them.”
Fantastically assured debut episode of a show that will raise the bar for TV dramas.
Season 1, Episode 2: “Ladies Room”
We get an earful of Roger Sterling, Don’s hard-drinking, hard-philandering, wisecracking boss, at the top of this episode, as the two men and their wives dine together. Demanding a second martini while waiting for the wine list, Sterling starts to probe into Don’s background—a topic Don shies away from. In the powder room, Betty’s hands tremble and she needs help from Roger’s wife Mona to reapply her lipstick. Betty presses him more about the topic later, in bed, but Don is good at squirming out of the subject.
At work the next day, they are brainstorming how to sell Right Guard, the first aerosol deodorant. Since the technology seems so space-aged, they go with an astronaut theme in the print ads. Don thinks it’s a stupid idea, and says it’s women who will ultimately buy the product for the men in their lives. So... "what do women want?" It becomes a question he’ll ask repeatedly throughout the episode.
Elder partner Bert Cooper corners Don to recruit him for the Nixon election campaign, for which Sterling Cooper has been hired. “Make no mistake: We know better what Dick Nixon needs better than Dick Nixon,” he says. Don finally relents, but admits during the conversation that he doesn’t vote. (You’re getting careless, Don. Or should I say... Dick.)
A minor car accident leads Betty into therapy, against the wishes of Don, who feels like therapy is a scam branch of medicine. At the end of the episode, the therapist tells Don he spent a “very interesting hour” with Betty, who suffers from anxiety.
Peggy starts to heed Kristen Schaal’s advice, and dresses a little sexier for work. She and Joan are taken to lunch by Ken, Dale, and Harry, after which Ken tries to squeeze her butt and asks if she’s single. Later in the office, Paul (who earlier gave Peggy a tour of the whole place, including a fantastic Rod Serling impression outside Pete’s door) kisses her. He takes her surprise and reluctance to mean she’s already carrying on with Don. "Why is it that every time a man takes you out to lunch, you are the dessert?" she asks an unsympathetic Joan, who tells her she’s “nothing special” and should “enjoy the attention while you can.”
Every time they enter the ladies room, a different secretary is sobbing inconsolably.
Through the frosted office glass, you see one of the copy guys has turned a can of aerosol deodorant into a flame thrower. No mention is ever made of it.
Slow but assured pacing continues to lay the groundwork for a fascinating period workplace drama. The attention to historical details both small and large is superb. Peggy’s meaty arc already has its hooks in me again, as if for the very first time. Roger begins his ascension to eternal awesomeness. Don verbally bitch-slaps Pete for the first time, and it hurts so good.
Season 1, Episode 3: “Marriage of Figaro”
By now, even the dimmest bulb realizes that Don is hiding something about his past. This episode begins on a commuter train, when an old army buddy recognizes Don, but keeps referring to him as “Dick Whitman.” It throws Don. Fishy. Very fishy.
Pete returns from his honeymoon to find “an Oriental family” and chickens occupying his office. Oh, you guys. Such pranksters. That opens things up for a series of racist jokes about Asian people. (“At least someone will be working in there.” “They haven’t finished my laundry!” etc.) Pete makes sure to let Peggy know that now that he’s married, their dalliance never happened. She is understanding about it.
Don has been very preoccupied by a new Volskwagen Beetle ad that features a photo of the car and the word “Lemon.” (What the copy beneath actually said was that VW’s standards are so exacting, 1 out of 50 cars on their assembly line is deemed a lemon and not put out for sale.) The ad, a real one, is largely recognized as having been a game-changer, moving advertising from sincerity into an age of irony and irreverence. "Love it or hate it, the fact is, we've been talking about it for the last 15 minutes," Don admits.
Rachel Mencken returns, only to call out the team for never having visited her store. Don apologizes, and it’s clear there’s some mutual attraction between the two. He meets her at the store, where she gifts him cufflinks, and later brings him to her favorite part of the store. Lingerie? Appliances? Nope, German Shepherds, which she keeps locked in cages, and which patrol the store at night. They exchange a first kiss, and Don quickly admits he’s married. Rachel feels like an idiot for opening her heart to him. She demands someone else be put on the account.
Then begins Sally’s Birthday Party From Hell. I had completely forgotten about this sequence, probably having blocked it out of my mind for my own sanity. It begins sweetly enough, with Betty asking Don to build Sally’s "P-L-A-Y-H-O-U-S-E." But like any item you might bring home from IKEA, building it is enough to drive one to alcoholism, and Don starts pounding the beers pretty hard. (Actually, he’s probably drinking because he’s frustrated that he’s trapped in a suburban house with Betty and their two kids, and not banging the hell out of Rachel, after hours on a Goldilocks bed in a department store.) Then the guests arrive, and start pounding Betty’s mint juleps (which are basically straight bourbon with some leaves in them; don’t let the sweet name fool you), chain smoking, and sh*t-talking Helen Bishop, the sweet, pretty divorcee who moved in down the street (and who also happens to be present at the party). Then one dad smacks another dad’s son, and the other dad has no problem with it and threatens to smack around his kid some more. The kids play “house,” during which they say things like, “You’re sleeping on the couch tonight!” and “Don’t speak to me in that tone of voice!” (Too on the nose? Perhaps. Still, I had never noticed them saying that until the Great Mad Men Re-Watch. Thanks, Re-Watch!) Don stumbles around drunkenly with a Super 8 and finally drives off drunk to fetch the birthday cake. He parks next to railroad tracks and never returns. Later that night, he shows up with a fully-grown Golden Retriever for Sally.
It ends with Betty going, "I don't even know what to say,” and I’m left being reminded of just how bleak this show can get.
The bedding department of Menken’s is abandoned, and arranged to look like the setting from "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." It’s attended to by a heavy woman asleep in a chair.
The birthday party that dominates the last third of the episode detracts from office politics and shenanigans, of which I cannot get enough of this early in the game.
QUESTIONS FOR RE-WATCHERS:
... When's the last time you saw these episodes?
... Are they better, worse, or about the same as how you remember them?
... Did you notice anything you didn't see the first time around?
... What's your favorite line of dialogue so far?
... Are there characters you gravitate to now who didn't make an initial impression?