Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mad Men: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1.1)

So much of Mad Men is about the tease, something you breathe in like a lit cigarette, full of overwhelming pleasure but still detached and mysterious. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, you don't get a total picture of these characters and their individual quirks, instead just a rough sketch of people living lives of dissatisfaction. It's all about those corners of ourselves that we keep hidden, the expressions we make when people aren't looking, and the fears and self-doubts that we experience in our quietest moments. Even as a man, successful and attractive and right at the top of the food chain, there's still a disconnect from everybody around you, running from the truth but unknowing of the destination in which you're headed.

The first shot we get of Don Draper is a slow pan into his back, hunched over at a bar, furiously scribbling ideas and concepts on a napkin and seeking inspiration for an ad campaign that has left him blocked. He's alone and distant, but willing to talk to others and explore human desire in order to understand the world around him. There's also this real push-and-pull with him. He adores women and dreams of a future with his girlfriend Midge, but is initially repulsed by the confident, outspoken woman he views as having invaded his sanctum of work. But Rachel Menken, a pioneering Jewish businesswoman, is also a curiosity to him, a work dinner suddenly becoming deeper and more intimate, two people talking about their wants and needs.

Jon Hamm is one of those instant stars. He has the good looks of a 'golden age of Hollywood' icon, and an engagingly haunted quality to him as a performer. He so easily conveys a man with a past, something that suits the role so perfectly. Don is somebody boxed in and trapped, both by his history, as well as the world he occupies in 1960. It's no coincidence that he's almost mesmerized by the sight of a fly trapped in the ceiling light. But it's that final twist ending that further punctuates his drifting, Don revealed as an old-fashioned family man, with the perfect house and garden, the beautiful wife and two young children.

Matthew Weiner's script is pitched in such a way that the pilot entirely reverses expectations of society and family and the past. While it's no surprise to see perfect suburbia getting slowly chipped away at over the course of a TV pilot, here we get the same thing only in reverse: setting up a man unsure of his own identity and casually moving through life with fears and a variety of different women, and only after all of that has set in is it then revealed the identity he perpetuates long-term. This isn't the American Dream, as much as everybody in the Mad Men universe thinks it is.

It's a general theme that feeds heavily into the Sterling Cooper mission of the week, cigarette company Lucky Strike in desperate need of a sexy advertising campaign to distract away from the doom-leaden warnings suddenly aimed at cigarettes themselves. The story quickly becomes about the desire for things that are bad for you, and the secrets we keep from greater society. It's something that's still resonant today. People still smoke, despite knowing how awful it is for you. And then there's the overarching metaphor, so many of the show's characters doing things despite knowing how wrong they are, trying to find themselves in the process.

Elisabeth Moss' wide-eyed Peggy Olson is used as our avenue into the Mad Men world, joining the agency as a secretary and instantly aware of what's expected of a woman in the workplace. She's subjected to perverse comments, sleazy glances and horrible advice by office queen bee Joan, who effectively tells her to use her sexuality as a tool to win over the boys. But Peggy's young and naive as a person, trying to find her way in life, horribly coming on to Don in a moment of embarrassing self-discovery, Peggy only doing what she presumes needs to be done.

It's something similar to Vincent Kartheiser's instantly-gross Pete Campbell, a horrifying frat boy caricature more lascivious and sleazy than any of the other males in the office, and that takes some doing. He too is trying to find himself and his own identity, becoming this 'idea' of what a man should be and how he should wield his power. There's unsurprisingly something desperately pathetic about him, too, getting married in days yet being sexually confrontational with random women at his bachelor party and turning to the office new girl for an easy lay. He and Peggy wind up sleeping together, two individuals unsure of how to be, but calmly doing what they think they need to do in order to fulfill their traditional gender roles. It's gorgeous storytelling.

Matthew Weiner's script suffers from little pilot-itis, but still has fun with the "Haha! Look how weird we were!" vibe, particularly during Peggy's gynecological scene and her initial introduction to the 'complicated' typewriter. Generally, though, this is a spectacular opening to the series. It's funny to see how much of the show feels so familiar, despite certain characters being a little 'off' compared to what they would eventually become, especially the lingering shots of characters sitting or sleeping, or the prevalence of death and anxiety as concepts. This is masterful television, an introduction to a world like no other. A

Notables

- Aww, Salvatore. Poor closeted Salvatore, getting his kicks whatever way he can. This week he proudly shows off his latest sketch, a half-naked man lounging with a cigarette. His neighbor posed for it, naturally.

- A death wish is as powerful a drive as sexual reproduction or physical sustenance. I love that. I can't remember if psychology-lady ever comes back. She was fun, even with the German for Dummies accent.

- That's so not Alison Brie in that photograph of Pete's fiancee! Where's my Alison Brie, show??!!

Quotage

Don: We should get married.
Midge: You think I'd make a good ex-wife?

Pete: Of course I love you. I'm giving up my life to be with you, aren't I?

Joan: He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress. And the rest of the time, well...

Cleo: I love this place. It's hot, loud and filled with men.
Salvatore: I know what you mean.

Don: So that's it. You won't get married because you find business to be a thrill.
Rachel: That... and I've never been in love.
Don: She won't get married because she's never been in love. I think I wrote that to sell nylons.
Rachel: For a lot of people, love isn't just a slogan.
Don: When you mean love, you mean a big lightning bolt 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.

Credits
Guest stars
Remy Auberjonois (Dr. Emerson); Darren Pettie (Lee Garner, Jr.); Rosemarie DeWitt (Midge Daniels); John Cullum (Lee Garner, Sr.); John Slattery (Roger Sterling)
Writer Matthew Weiner Director Alan Taylor

3 comments:

  1. Cool to see you rewiew another show (well, the beginning of a show you've already covered)...especially since I just got Mad Men seasons 1-5 in a sale recently. Still haven't watched but I'm looking forward to seeing one of the most well received shows in recent memory anyway...

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  2. That's so great that you picked the show up! It's seriously the best thing around, bar none, heh. I'm only reviewing season one for now, though. Crazy amount of work, even considering it's just thirteen episodes per year.

    Oh, and I picked up Felicity season one recently. I haven't watched it yet and I'm not sure if I'll review it, but your reviews peaked my interest.

    Thanks, tvfan.

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  3. Are you paying over $5 for each pack of cigs? I buy all my cigs from Duty Free Depot and I'm saving over 50%.

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