Mad Men Season 1: The Ultimate Guide

Want a crisp and refreshing guide to Mad Men’s intoxicating debut season? You've come to the right place, my friends. 

Kick back and dive in below for an ultimate guide to Mad Men Season 1, starting with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Mad Men's pilot episode and in my view is in contention for the best drama pilot of all time. Much like with the "best TV show of all time" argument, I go back and forth with The Sopranos, but that's a topic for another time. 

tvgeekarmy's Mad Men album on Photobucket

Mad Men Season 1: The Ultimate Guide. Here we go. 

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Mad Men’s pilot episode, is an exquisitely executed introduction that sets up everything to come. Even as an enormous amount of information and detail are thrown at us, it all goes down smooth as silk (or as a properly prepared Old Fashioned, perhaps?) as we delve into the marvelously original and painstakingly detailed world of Don Draper, the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, and New York City in March 1960.

Don is a Master of the Universe, the creative genius that can and will save the day using his moxie and towering ego and craftiness. Yet by the time we arrive home with him at the end of the hour (and find him to have a beautiful wife and two kids only then!) there’s sufficient mystery, vulnerability, and questions about this mad man that we can’t wait to find out what happens next.

“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” – Don to Midge

In Which We Meet…

  • Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – The entire story rests on this dapper gentleman's shoulders, and it can’t be stated enough how (seemingly) effortlessly and well Hamm pulls off Mad Men’s lead role.
  • Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt) – Don’s Village-dwelling, freewheeling girlfriend, er, mistress.
  • Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) – Fresh out of Miss Deaver’s secretarial school, she becomes Don’s newest “new girl.” Drinking game you can play during this episode: take a goodly chug every time someone tells Peggy that she could stand to show a little more leg at the office.
  • Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) – Sterling Cooper’s office manager, she rates as the highest ranking woman at the firm.
  • Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) – (Smug) copywriter and part of the junior execs gang at Sterling Cooper.
  • Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) – Fresh-faced accounts man who loves to turn on the charm (or “charm,” depending) with the ladies. Also one of the junior execs gang.
  • Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) – Media buyer and one of the junior execs crew as well (so don’t let his bow tie and glasses fool you).
  • Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) – Sterling Cooper’s art director, he spends a lot of time talking about how much he’s into the ladies. It’s possible in fact that he doth protest a bit too much. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) – Another accounts man on the rise and one of the junior execs gang, he’s fiercely ambitious and, let’s face it, a little slimy around the edges.
  • Roger Sterling (John Slattery) – A silver fox and silver-tongued partner of the firm (his name is on the building, as he likes to tell people), Roger always seems to get the funniest lines each episode (and Slattery delivers the hell out of them every time).
  • Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) – Runs Menken’s department store and seems to have alternatively wary and admiring eyes for our man Don.
  • Hildy (Julie McNiven) – Pete Campbell’s long suffering secretary.
  • Lee Garner, Sr. (John Cullum) – An older Southern gentleman who runs Lucky Strike, a massively important “anchor client” for Sterling Cooper.
  • Lee Garner, Jr. (Darren Pettie) – Poppa Lee’s son and heir, he differs from his father in fundamental ways that become important over time.
  • Betty Draper (January Jones) – Don’s wife and mother to Bobby and Sally, she’s lonely and bored and isolated in the seemingly idyllic suburban town of Ossining, New York.
  • “You gotta let ‘em know what kind of guy you are, then they’ll know what kind of girl to be.” – Ken Cosgrove

    mad men

    Don Draper

    Don and Midge

    Don shows up at Midge’s apartment late at night, and from what we can tell they are romantically involved, though it's something of an open relationship. Don is worried about his pitch for a cigarette campaign and looks to Midge for help. While he eventually leaves her apartment uninspired, it's obvious that he admires her intelligence as much as her other attributes.

    In retrospect, it's striking to not only learn that the first woman that we meet who is romantically tangled with Don is a mistress of sorts (and not wife Betty, who we only meet later), but that he sought her out as opposed to looking to his wife for consoling and advice. This is a pattern that we’ll see repeated throughout Season One. Don seeks out Midge again after he gets a surprise bonus from Bert Cooper in "The Hobo Code," and later rushes over to Rachel Menken's apartment in “Long Weekend” when he thinks his true identity is on the verge of being blown by Pete Campbell. And as we’ll also see, Don is attracted to strong and independent women outside of his marriage.

    Don and Rachel

    Don reveals much about himself, perhaps unintentionally, when he meets with Rachel Menken in a swanky Manhattan lounge. It’s easy to overlook this scene as it comes just moments after the epic and iconic board room scene with Lucky Strike, but it tells us a tremendous amount about Don’s philosophy and how he wants to be seen by others.

    Don and Rachel did not get along very well during their initial introduction at Sterling Cooper. All bluster and ego at first blush, Don did not take well to being told that his ideas weren’t well received, and especially by a woman (and a Jewish one at that). After the triumph with the Garners and Lucky Strike, Roger Sterling smartly dispatches Don to have a kiss-and-make-up get together offsite while his Creative Director is on a hot streak.

    Therefore, when they meet again we see a Don who is suave and charming as ever, yet does not feel the need to sweet talk his potential client. And he’s certainly not trying to seduce Rachel – at least at this moment in time. Instead we get a Don who transitions from glib to surprisingly revealing, though it takes a fellow outsider as sharp and perceptive as Rachel to pick up on it.

    After Don probes her as to the reason why she would choose to forego marriage in order to work in a world of men, Rachel admits that she has never been in love. And it’s here where we get a taste of the unvarnished Don Draper… as constructed and deployed by his true identity, Dick Whitman. Don dismisses the very idea of love – likening it to a sales pitch to sell nylons – and ends his little monologue on a note of nihilism that is core to his character: “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.”

    This might be Don Draper’s motto in the early going of Mad Men, or at least the one that Dick Whitman invented for Don Draper painstakingly constructed his new persona. The Don Draper who believes statements like this is invincible because he is constantly running away from what is real, in particular his feelings. Don is invincible and sedated and in almost all ways alone. The Don Draper who we see on the dark side of the moon of 1965 – during a Season Four that sees him battling alcoholism and despair as a divorced dad – is the guy who keeps waking up tomorrow after living like there wasn’t one for too many years.

    Peggy Olson

    Peggy and Joan

    When Joan shows Peggy around the office on her first day of work, we learn a lot about both characters. Peggy is as bright eyed and bushy tailed as they come, a fresh graduate of Miss Deaver's Secretarial School. She therefore soaks up all of Joan's worldly wisdom, which comes in the form of things that would rarely if ever be discussed in a modern office.

    For example, Peggy is advised to "evaluate" all of her physical assets with an eye toward how best to show them off at the office. Joan very clearly clues Peggy into her view of a “career path” for women at Sterling Cooper: bide your time and snag the right man with the prospect of one day ending up out in the suburbs, married, and without the need to commute to work each day.

    In a DVD commentary track that accompanies the episode, Mad Men creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner describes Joan as a “courtesan” introducing Peggy to the harem-like world of Sterling Cooper. But as we'll see, Peggy discovers an alternative path for herself, one in which she begins to work and compete with the men of the office on an equal footing.

    Peggy and Don

    Don is the opposite of the boss that offers his new secretary a warm introduction followed by a lengthy and detailed orientation. In fact, when the two meet for the first time he barely acknowledges her, and he only really picks up on the fact that she works for him after she wakes him up from a nap on his office couch.

    Peggy is a sponge, and attempts to do everything that she is told (or believes she is told), which includes offering herself to Don romantically at the end of her first day (ironically, she could have been his office “dessert,” the very term that she uses miserably as all of the men in the office leer at her during her early weeks at the firm).

    Don takes a hard line, reprimanding her for allowing Pete to steal a market research report out of his trash and advising her that their relationship is to be strictly professional. Don can be quite demanding and stern at the office, but he also lives by a set of rules – in his view at the least – of what is right and wrong.

    Pete Campbell

    Pete and Don

    It’s clear from the jump that Don is not a fan of Pete Campbell. There are a number of reasons as we’ll come to find out, but overall Don resents his belief in the fact that Pete has been handed everything without working for it while Don himself is a self-made man. Of course, Don offers many other clues, such as disdaining the fact that Pete treats Peggy crassly from the moment he meets her.

    In fact, in what qualifies as an Official Don Draper Power Move, he rips Pete apart, prognosticating that his current path will lead him into a dead end middle management job and attract only the kinds of women who end up taking pity on him. As we’ll see, Don’s ego and bravado in playing the role of Don Draper allow him to often steamroll others around him to his will.

    Pete and Peggy

    It’s pretty extraordinary that Pete's and Peggy’s relationship changes greatly over the course of this episode, and that’s just the beginning of a journey that we’ve now witnessed over the course of four seasons.

    When they first meet in Don’s office, he takes more than a moment to creepily assess her feminine charms, prompting new boss Don to apologize on Pete's behalf for his frat house charms. That very night, after Pete’s clumsy and overly aggressive moves are rejected by at least one Automat girl at his bachelor party, he mysteriously (see more on this ahead) shows up at Peggy’s apartment because he had to see her. A strange and engaging and romantic moment lingers, and then she invites him in.

    “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” – Don

    mad men

    Psychology

    Research

    Don’s mistrust of research and psychology is central to the episode. He chooses to ignore the findings of Sterling Cooper's research consultant with regard to society's unconscious motivations for smoking: in short, a “death wish.” It’s a concept that Don knows will be D.O.A. if presented to Lucky Strike and additionally he does not believe it.

    Over time we learn the reason comes from a distrust of trained professionals probing his core motivations and beliefs. The truth, as we'll come to find out in forthcoming episodes, is that Don’s deepest fear is of having his true identity, Dick Whitman, revealed. This dynamic will be at play in many things that happen throughout the series – from Betty heading to therapy in Season One to Faye Miller’s findings as a research consultant in Season Four.

    The Art of Advertising

    Lucky Strike

    The first half of the episode builds up to a critical meeting with Lucky Strike. Heading into the meeting, we know that Don has been scrambling mightily to come up with something to help calm the Lucky Strike executives’ nerves about combating creeping “health claims” related to smoking, but as yet he’s come up with zilch.

    At the meeting, Roger queues up Don… and he has nothing. Pete jumps into the vacuum and fumbles badly (proving for Don and for us that when in doubt, sometimes doing nothing is best – which would match Francine’s advise to a newly pregnant and frazzled Betty in Season Two), offering up the “death wish” claim that came out of research.

    It’s very rare that we see Don ruffled and without a clear idea of what to do when it comes to matters professional in Season One, so it’s a treat to see him so at a lack for words here, only to be seized by supreme inspiration after Pete unintentionally takes a bullet for him as his death wish pitch figuratively dies.

    The figure who can be thought of as Don Draper, Master of the Universe, swoops in and saves the day with a truly wizard-like pitch in which he convinces both the Garners and the audience that he has the one and only idea that will win the hearts and minds of the Lucky Strike consumer (this of course is intentionally ironic in that while we cheer Don’s victory wholeheartedly, it’s a victory that supports the tobacco industry and smoking, not the most popular of ideas generally speaking these days!).

    Don is able to redefine the entire conversation, along with Lucky Strike’s advertising strategy, by pivoting the sales pitch from one in which Lucky Strike convinces you that smoking is healthy (or at least not deadly) to why its product is better than the other cigarettes available. It’s a classic conversation-shift that allows Lucky Strike to persuade on its own terms. In short: it's toasted.

    As Don reels in the Garners, he moves on to reveal his philosophy about advertising (it’s based on one thing: happiness). This is how Don Draper, the construct as conjured into being by Dick Whitman, chooses to see the world. And it also sheds light on the coming decade, one in which the United States looks relentlessly forward as societal and technological and political forces accelerate.

    In the meantime though, Don gets his big win, which is more than enough reason for drinks and celebrating to ensue in Don’s office.

    History

    Cigarettes

    This is a time when cigarette smoking is the norm and things like warning labels, No Smoking signs, and fines for smoking in public parks are unheard of. However, it’s clear that change is on the horizon, and Don and Sterling Cooper have been tasked with holding off those changes – on behalf of Lucky Strike and American Tobacco – as long as possible.

    Social Issues

    The role of gender

    Men and women in 1960 – even in a progressive city like New York – have very different roles than they do today. When Peggy arrives at Sterling Cooper for her first day, the men generally treat her like a piece of fresh meat (save Don himself, importantly) while the women, and chiefly Joan, fully expect her to use her working hours and career with as a means to find an upwardly mobile man.

    All the positions of power are filled by men while the women serve as secretaries and switchboard operators. Joan as office manager is the highest ranking woman, but even she is treated as mainly an underling in the Sterling Cooper operation.

    Race and class

    From the first scene, when Don has a conversation with an African American busboy named Sam about cigarettes, we’re clued into the very different place that people of color have at this time, particularly relative to the white men who hold positions of power. On a DVD commentary track, Mathew Weiner notes that these “parallel universes” are one of Mad Men’s main themes.

    Technology

    Typewriters

    It’s hilarious from the standpoint of our modern day perspective to hear Joan caution Peggy about not being intimidated by all of the high technology in the office as she waves to an ancient-looking IBM typewriter and a delightfully quaint rotary telephone.

    Religion

    Not on my watch

    It’s easy to see that the positions of power at Sterling Cooper are occupied by white men. But very quickly we learn that they are all Christian as well. Don is defensive when Roger asks if any Jewish people are employed by the firm. That is one of a number of casually racist or anti-Semitic moments that we’ll see throughout the episode. Of course, Sterling Cooper is happy to cash checks that come from Menken's, a "Jewish department store," and later the firm goes after the Israeli Tourism Bureau in “Babylon.”

    Politics

    Consider the product

    1960 is many years off yet from being what we popularly think of as “the ‘60s” today. In fact, Dwight D. Eisenhower is still president as the series opens as John Kennedy and, after the Republican primary season concludes, Richard Nixon compete to succeed him. As it so often does, Mad Men flips our expectations when we hear Roger tell Don about a youthful and good looking Navy hero. We’re supposed to think about John Kennedy here all the way, but Roger is talking about Nixon instead.

    Politics plays a role throughout the series, though Matthew Weiner and company are very careful to make this a story about three-dimensional characters who are affected by politics and culture, as opposed to the other way around.

    Moments of Hilarity

    Not so fast

    David Cohen, a last minute addition to the Menken’s meeting due solely to the fact that he’s Jewish, lunges for the Bloody Mary pitcher just after things go up in flames and Don storms out of the room. He then sees Roger looking at him unhappily, and puts it back down. Go ahead David, we want to say. Pour yourself a drink. What’s Roger going to do, fire you?

    The meeting that coughs together…

    When Lee Garner, Jr. coughs during the Lucky Strike meeting, everyone else coughs as well in the completely transparent gesture to not make it seem like smoking – which everyone around the table is doing – actually makes you cough.

    Iconic Sights

  • The series opens on a shot in which we see Don Draper’s back. Matthew Weiner notes in a DVD commentary that director Alan Taylor is “obsessed with the back of peoples’ heads.” Who is this guy, we wonder? And really much of the series is concerned with answering the question: who is Don Draper?
  • From the top of the Sterling Cooper building (a fictional location in the Madison Avenue of 1960) we look down and see the army of worker ants and classic automobiles and taxis down below as a jazz riff swings away.
  • We get our first sight of the picturesque Draper home in Ossining (replete with red door!) only at the very end of the episode. It’s not a surprise that Don has nice digs, but obviously it’s a bit of a shock to see that Don is in fact married and has a pair of children at home to boot. We know now that this is a guy with a lot going on, and that we’ve only yet begun to scratch the surface.
  • Director Alan Taylor notes in a DVD commentary that Mad Men's opening credits sequence attempts to capture a mood of existential unease.
  • Production Notes

  • “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is unique in that it was filmed in New York City, whereas every other episode has been shot in Los Angeles.
  • While the Sterling Cooper office design is period specific – as is just about every set and prop used on the show – it is designed to be accessible enough for a modern audience that it looks and feels like an office that could still be in use today.
  • Elisabeth Moss, brilliant throughout as Peggy Olson, was the first actor cast for the show.
  • Many of the gorgeous and striking exterior shots that we see were done in such a way so as to avoid things that would look anachronistic for the 1960 setting of the episode.
  • The “It’s Your Wedding Night” pamphlet that Peggy reads when Dr. Emerson enters the examination room is a reproduction of real health care literature of the period.
  • Every actor on Mad Men, no matter how famous coming in, had to audition for his or her role.
  • Both the opening scene of the episode, in which Don inquires about the smoking habits of Sam the bus boy, and the scene in which Don meets Rachel to ostensibly kiss up and make nice, are filmed at the Lennox Lounge in New York City’s Harlem.
  • Speaking of locations, Midge’s apartment and Peggy’s apartment were shot down the hall from each other in a midtown Manhattan apartment building (and Peggy’s apartment – in which we only get a peek in from the door – is actually a broom closet!).
  • “It’s toasted” is a real cigarette advertising slogan that predates the era that Mad Men takes place in.
  • The train that we see Don taking home at the end of the episode is not a train at all – it’s a simply a piece of Plexiglas that we see Don sitting behind.
  • “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” – Don

    Questions and Tidbits

  • There’s a lot of debate about the significance of Don looking up at the ceiling in his office and seeing a fly trapped within the fluorescent lights. It can represent the fact that Don Draper inhabits a deeply detailed and rich world that looks and feel as real as any show has on television (and at a remarkably modest production budget to boot). Or it might be symbolic of Don being “trapped” within his position in society, a “man in a gray flannel suit” amongst countless others, or more specifically that he is trapped in the artificial persona of Don Draper, waiting to be caught and found out for who he really is.
  • Remarkably, the entire pilot episode takes place over the course of about 24 hours. If nothing else, we can see that Don packs a lot into a day, including romantic relations with his mistress, storming out of a meeting with a potential client, working in a “new girl” on his desk, sparring with a junior executive on the accounts team, saving the entire firm with a brilliant and bold advertising strategy with a key client, fending off the flirtations of the new girl, flirting over drinks with a new love interest, and finally arriving back at his enormous suburban home to kiss his wife and two children good night. All in a Don Draper day!
  • The picture of the woman Pete Campbell glances at lovingly is not of Allison Brie, who plays Trudy Campbell. The role had not yet been cast at the time of the filming of the pilot episode.
  • If only to prove out how ubiquitous smoking is in the world of this show, Dr. Emerson’s cigarette blazes away throughout Peggy’s examination.
  • We learn that Don’s secretary who predated Peggy is named Eleanor and that she was fired, though we never learn exactly why.
  • Even though we only meet Betty Draper for a brief moment in the pilot and spend most of our time with Don in Manhattan and at Sterling Cooper, Joan’s initial advice/career guidance to Peggy is ironic as we’ll soon see how unhappy and even imprisoned Betty and the other housewives in Ossining feel.
  • With each passing season, all the major characters evolve in different ways. It’s one of the things that makes Mad Men consistently feel fresh and surprising and organic. No one seems more different between the standpoint of Seasons One and Four (or 1960 to 1965 in story terms) though than Peggy. She’s a greenhorn in this episode, fresh out of secretarial school and eager to make it in the Big City.
  • It’s incredible to see Midge in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and to see her role in Don’s life circa 1960 from the perspective of knowing what happens to her seasons and years later (in story terms) at the tail end of Season Four. In the ironically titled “Blowing Smoke.” Midge’s free spiritedness and live-in-the-moment lifestyle tragically descends into a prison of heroin addiction. But back in Season One and 1960, we can enjoy her for who she is at that time.
  • One of the enduring mysteries of Mad Men is how Pete Campbell knew how to find Peggy Olson’s apartment. It’s after his bachelor party, and it’s the night of Peggy’s first day working at Sterling Cooper. He tells her that he had to see her, and she lets him in. One theory proposes that Peggy and Pete had actually known each other well before the beginning of the series and simply pretended not to recognize one another at the office. However, it doesn’t seem likely that we’re going to get more insight on this, and we’ll simply have to assume that Pete used his knowledge that Peggy lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to circumnavigate his way to her house. Or, perhaps he simply used Kurt’s Season Two method of finding her apartment: neighbors.
  • Interested in more? Check out A Mad Men Mixer over on Amazon right about now. 

     

    By Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader"

    About the author

    Eric is the publisher and revered leader of TV Geek Army… at least in his own mind. TV Geek Army is a place for serious TV reviews and news for serious fans of great television. Contact: eric-[at]-tvgeekarmy.com 

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