One of the great things about Mad Men is its depth – with multiple layers of life, culture, and storytelling vying for attention in every episode.
In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to Don Draper – the tall, dark and handsome young Madison Avenue ad man who isn’t yet secure in his professional position but appears extremely comfortable in his masculinity. After work one night, we see Don visiting Midge, a beautiful, quirky, free-spirited artist in the Village, where he seeks help on his ad campaign and enjoys casual sex.
At the office the next day, we see him insult wealthy potential client Rachel Mencken during a client meeting and rebuke her after the meeting with, “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me that way.” Later, pressured by Roger to apologize to her because her business is worth so much money, Don attempts to charm her by inviting her to a posh restaurant where he tells her that he was wrong, and that he’s “not really as bad as all that.” Interestingly, she takes control of the conversation through her penetrating truthfulness, and at one point she keenly observes that he is someone who understands “what it’s like to feel out of place.” This comment both rattles and interests him. By the end of the episode, Don travels late at night to his picturesque suburban house, where his sweet little children sleep and his beautiful but overly trusting wife, Betty, welcomes him with open arms.
Both marital infidelity and the denigration of women are major themes. On the elevator ride up to work in the morning, Peggy is surrounded by a group of young ad men from the agency who talk about her in her presence. In Don’s office, Pete spots Peggy and says to Don, “Who’s your little friend?” He goes on to look her up and down, assesses her appearance in a way that obviously humiliates her, and suggests to her how to dress differently. Later, on the phone from his office, Pete reassures his bride-to-be, Trudy, “Of course I love you. I’m giving up my life to be with you, aren’t I?” During his bachelor party that evening, Pete tries to feel up a young woman at the strip club and gets rejected. After the party, he goes over to Peggy’s apartment seriously drunk and knocks on her door. Despite all the insults she has taken from him that day, she feels flattered and invites him in for sex.
We also see how American men in 1960 shared a sense of entitlement and defined their masculinity partly by their sexual conquests. Pete sees Don as the alpha male of the office and decides to sleep with Peggy, “the new girl,” partly in an attempt to get her before Don does and partly in an attempt to get her before his wedding that weekend. And far from resenting men’s crass treatment, Peggy seems to accept the idea of women defining themselves according to what men want. After Joan suggests to Peggy that she go home and put a paper bag over her head, punch eye holes, and then study her naked body in the mirror to assess her strengths and weaknesses, Peggy eagerly thanks her for her help. Soon Peggy begins to show her legs more at the office by dressing differently, gets birth control protection, and makes herself available to Don, although Don’s not interested.
Another theme of this episode is the contrast of romantic myths vs. harsh realities – in marriage, in love, and in smoking. Marriage is romanticized by and for women and touted as the way to become happy. The first song of the episode contains the lyrics, “I’ve never wanted wealth untold/ my life has one design/ a simple little band of gold/ to prove that you are mine.” This contrasts sharply with Ken’s description of Pete’s marriage as an anchor around his neck.
Don confronts Rachel by asking her why she never got married and asserts that she would be happier that way. He also tells Midge, jokingly, that he and she should get married, since she lets him come and go as he pleases and she has her own business – suggesting that Don sees actual marriage as less desirable. Moreover, in reality, neither Midge, Rachel, Joan, nor Peggy are married, and although half of them buy into the dream of marriage, all of them seem relatively happy in their single lives, at least for the moment. By contrast, Betty, who appears very happily married, is in reality being played for a fool as Don sleeps around behind her back.
Similarly, love is shown to be highly romanticized in the closing song, “On the Street Where You Live,” which dramatizes the excitement of walking down the street in front of the house of a love interest. Yet the reality is, as Don articulates, most of the men in this episode seem to believe that love is an illusory concept invented for women to get them to buy things. Meanwhile, the men in this episode are preoccupied with sexual conquest, not love.
Finally, smoking is romanticized by advertisers and smokers alike. As Don explains, “It’s toasted” is just another way that advertisers find of helping the public buy into the dream of having a great life, feeling that they’re okay, and experiencing happiness through the product they advertise. Of course, the harsh reality in 1960 is that smoking has recently been determined to cause cancer.
Against this relatively static cultural backdrop, the story of Don Draper and his creative mind provides a dynamic counterpoint. Don’s success can be traced to his nonconformist personality wrapped in the outer appearance of conformity – with his classic handsome looks, his beautiful home and family, and his relatively calm, confident demeanor hiding an extremely independent thinker who relies for success on his creative process above all.
To fit in socially, Don acts the part of a man of his times and spouts then-current clichés. But being creative, he’s influenced by Rachel’s incisive remarks as well as Midge’s artistic approach to life. His creative thought process in developing advertising ideas is driven by truth-seeking – an unusual approach for the time.
Since he recognizes that truths exist everywhere, not just in his social class, he crosses gender, racial, and socioeconomic lines in pursuit of some kernel of truth about why people smoke and how to get them to switch brands. For example, when he interviews Sam, the African American waiter at the bar, he shows respect for Sam’s opinions and experiences concerning smoking in a way that is totally contrary to the bigoted social norms of the time. Today we might assume that Don is open to all types mostly because there’s money in advertising to all types, but in America in 1960, that wasn’t the way people, even in advertising, were supposed to behave or think. And with Midge, he pleads for her help in developing an advertising concept, according her what appears to be equal respect as a creative thinker even though she’s a woman.
How does Don get away with bucking these cultural norms? First, he lives a double life, exhibiting lots of conformity on the surface and nurturing his creative process under the radar. Second, thanks to Roger’s recognition of his value to the agency, Don is dubbed a “creative genius.” This role allows him to basically do a lot of whatever he wants during the work day, just as long as he keeps coming up with great advertising concepts.
What’s most interesting to me about this episode, though, is that it illustrates through Don at least four habits of creative thinkers. First, they gather and consider lots of ideas, primarily by asking a lot of questions. Second, they respect their mind’s unique needs and ways of working, allowing the mind to float or disengage from the creative project consciously so that unconscious processes can take place. Third, they know the creative process cannot be rushed, so they wait as long as it takes for a sudden insight or inspiration rather than trying to force a quick resolution and settle for a less-than-inspired result. And fourth, they seek a new angle on a topic rather than following conventional perceptions or “right-answer” thinking.
We first see Don brainstorming about the subject of smoking as he jots down his ideas on a cocktail napkin while observing the people at the bar. To gather more information, he interviews Sam, the waiter, and later Midge, his artist-girlfriend about why people smoke and what might make them switch brands. Further, he listens carefully to the answers as well as to the comments of everyone who speaks to him on the subject, regardless of the social status or IQ of the person speaking.
Second, when Don tries to come up with an ad concept for Lucky Strike at work, we see him stare off and then begin to distract himself with an exercise gizmo and other items. After Sal walks in to show Don his own ad artwork, which Don rejects, Don starts drinking alcohol, reclines on his couch, and gazes at the ceiling, watching a fly crawl across a light panel until he drifts off to sleep. That night he has an honest conversation with Midge about his fears of being displaced at the agency. That plus their sexual encounter helps Don relax both body and mind, and since body and mind are connected, it’s all part of the creative process for him. What may appear to less creative thinkers as goofing off is, in many cases, behavior that’s conducive to creative thinking.
Third, Don refuses to rush his creative thought process, even though he misses the deadline and can’t produce an ad campaign on cue for the Lucky Strike meeting. Long before the meeting begins, German-speaking psychologist Dr. Greta Guttmann presents him with what she considers a conclusive report based on her survey, supporting the idea that people who smoke have a death wish, and that this fact can be utilized in an ad campaign. Although this concept seems logical to her, it doesn’t meet Don’s criteria for a good ad and he forcefully rejects her contribution. For Don, an ad not only has to identify a truth (e.g., cigarette smoking causes cancer), but it has to be a truth that helps the public feel happy and accepted.
Sitting down to the meeting, Don knows he doesn’t have a good ad idea to propose, and yet he keeps stalling as much as possible, hoping that he’ll suddenly intuit a concept in the moment. When that doesn’t happen, Pete steps in and recommends Dr. Guttmann’s work. Not only does this anger Don, but the concept upsets Lee Garner, Sr., and he rejects it as well. On the other hand, this little scene buys Don a few more minutes to come up with a better idea.
And fourth, creative thinkers seek new angles from which to view things. For Don, a thought voiced by Lee Garner Jr., the lunkhead son of the Lucky Strike owner about all cigarette companies being in the same boat, suddenly kick-starts his creative process because it inspires a new way of viewing the problem of advertising their toxic product. With this new perspective, Don initiates the questioning process all over again and gathers information from Lee Garner, Sr. until he hears the word toasted. Recognizing the toasting process as a true aspect of cigarettes that is pleasant and non-threatening, that makes people feel good about themselves, and that evokes feelings of happiness, he repeats that term, recasts it in a new context, and presents it right back to Lee Garner Sr. as the basis for his ad campaign.
Mad Men episodes are some of the great literature of our time, so richly layered that it would be difficult to fully grasp in just one or two viewings. In fact, there are probably several other stories and perspectives about the pilot episode not even suggested in this essay. Therefore, purchasing Mad Men DVDs to watch repeatedly is an intelligent investment for fans who want to mine the full extent of this exceptional writing and acting.
Mad Men Season 7 will resume on AMC in spring 2015. Until then, why not re-watch earlier episodes on DVD?[amazon asin=B000YABIQ6,B001A5HBJC,B001GCUER0&template=iframe image]