The series premiere of Mad Men aired on AMC on July 19, 2007. This is worth pointing out for a few reasons. One, because it kicked off a surge in quality television that is still going strong today, to the degree that there are now more good shows than any reasonable person can keep up with, and oddly enough, might have resulted in this show getting lost in the shuffle it if had premiered today. Two, because prior to this episode of television, I knew AMC mostly as a network that ran the Kickboxer movies in six-hour blocks, and a few years later it would have both Mad Men and Breaking Bad on its roster.
And three, because it means that the show premiered exactly 10 years ago today. Many words have been written about the show in many places (a number of them by me, here), so rather than focus on its legacy as a whole, what I decided to do was go back and watch the premiere again, a decade later, to see what it was like to watch it with my now all-knowing eyes. Short version? Weird and good. Long version?
I’m glad you asked.
1. The episode, and series, opens with Don at a bar, struggling to come up with an angle for his Lucky Strike pitch in the wake of the crackdown on false health claims. He strikes up a conversation with a black employee in a hunt for inspiration. When the employee’s white boss interrupts them, Don shoos him away. The takeaway here, at first glance, is that Don Draper is a good guy, not like those other prejudiced men of the era. And that takeaway is bolstered by his defense of Peggy later in the episode, which we will discuss in a bit because I will never pass up an opportunity to bring up an interaction that made Pete Campbell sad. Don Draper, solid dude.
But also, not so much. Later in the episode he storms out of a meeting after declaring “I’m not gonna let a woman talk to me like this,” and he is kind of mean to Peggy when she goes to thank him for defending her. The point is, the first episode introduced us to the two sides of Don: the fair, open one who doesn’t like to see people in power use their status to demean those around them, and the thin-skinned jerk who will turn on someone quickly and cruelly almost without warning. It became kind of a theme as the series went on, especially in his relationship with Peggy. (See, him mentoring her as she rose from secretary to advertising bigwig, but see also, him shouting things like “That’s what the money is for!” at her.) Don Draper, complicated dude. And we don’t even know the half of it at this point, either.
Speaking of themes of the show, here’s a screencap that sums up the era nicely.
2. The show wasted very little time in setting the scene in 1960. The meat of the plot is about advertising cigarettes. Everyone is drinking in their office all day. The sexism is running rampant, in the office (Ken Cosgrove is a real creep in this episode), and even extending to the OB/GYN that Joan recommends to Peggy and may or may not be sleeping with. (She is.) There is anti-Semitism both in private and out in the open. At one point Roger Sterling tries to sell Don on helping a promising war hero politician get elected and then we find out he’s talking about Richard Nixon.
It was a different time. I think that’s the point they’re trying to make.
3. Our introduction to the world of Sterling Cooper is mostly guided by our introduction to one Peggy Olson, a new secretary at the office. Man, it is weird seeing wide-eyed newbie Peggy again after seeing her grow throughout the series. It is also weird to see her first interaction with Joan, in which Joan advises her to take off her clothes and put a paper bag with eye holes in it over her head to make an honest assessment of her physical strengths and weaknesses. Both of them came so far over the course of the series, in part because of their own personal growth and in part because of the dramatic social change that took place in the decade. Things happened in the 1960s. Perhaps you’ve heard about it.
4. I suppose I could and should elaborate on Peggy’s growth over the series and how she served as the audience’s entry point into the show more than Don ever did, and maybe how Peggy was one of the great TV characters of the past decade, because both of those things are very important and should not be glossed over in any decent discussion of the show’s legacy. But I could also just say all that by posting these two pictures.
That was way easier.
5. In non-tobacco business, hey, it’s Rachel Menken, noted department store owner and female Jewish person. Guess how things go for her when she meets with Don, Pete, and Roger. Here’s a hint: Not great! This is the meeting I was talking about that Don stormed out of after yelling about how a WOMAN was SPEAKING to him. It is also the first time Roger has to ask Don to go fix something, which happens kind of a lot throughout the series, often over drinks and punctuated with some of the best dialogue on television. God, I miss seeing these two guys talk to each other. Even when they’re being asses.
(There’s actually not too much Roger in the premiere. He just kind of pops into Don’s office here and there to see how things are going. He’s still Roger, 100 percent, but we haven’t even scratched the surface after the first hour. This is one of many things that has almost pulled me into committing to a full rewatch after watching the first episode. Slippery slope, nostalgia.)
The more important aspect of Rachel’s appearance on the show comes during Don’s apology dinner, when Rachel forgives him. Rachel is the first person on the show to pick up that something is off about Don. Her exact words had to do with him knowing the feeling of being “out of place,” which would prove to be dead-on once we discovered the whole Dick Whitman ruse.
6. Hey look, it’s Kristen Schaal! I forgot about that.
7. Pete Campbell is such an awful little weasel in the premiere. When we first meet him he’s 26 and preparing to marry Trudy, but also planning his bachelor party and getting way too handsy with a woman he meets there and stealing a tobacco report out of Don’s trash and being really rude and terrible to Peggy when he first meets her. This is all actually a little refreshing because a) I had forgotten how much fun it is to hate Pete Campbell with the white hot fury of a blowtorch, and b) it leads to our first instance of Don being mean to him, which culminates with a speech about how if Pete didn’t change his attitude he would end up as a sad balding man who never rises above middle management. I started whooping like a member of the Arsenio audience when I saw it again. I could watch bad things happen to Pete Campbell every day of my life, up to and including him getting eaten by a bear.
8. Another first: Don saves the day at the Lucky Strike meeting with a last-minute brilliant pitch. Mad Men was one of the pioneers in television’s recent “very talented and charismatic jerk” trend, and this is our first glimpse of Don being extremely good at his job. And it comes after about half an hour of him struggling and having an existential crisis about it all, which manifests itself in two ways we would see repeat over and over: one, him running into the arms of a woman he bares his soul to, as much in a mother-child way as a sexual partner way, which is a whole thing we’ll learn about later; two, him lashing out at people. Don has issues. We get our introduction to that here. Although I doubt any of us guessed at that time that part of those issues stemmed from a horse kicking someone to death. Maybe you did. I don’t know. Maybe you’re just really good at guessing.
Either way, it sure is fun to hear Don Draper nail a pitch.
9. Oh, Sal.
10. As the episode winds down, we see Don leaving the office and the city. Up until this point, we had only seen Don in the office, in his lovermom’s apartment, and at a flirty dinner with Rachel. So, where was he goiSURPRISE Don has a wife and kids in the suburbs. Hi, Betty. Pleasure to meet you. Sort of?
I remember watching this at the time and being a little blown away. It feels a little gimmick-y watching it now, a decade later, but I don’t know how much of that is the unavoidable influence the show has had on television since then. It spawned so many imitators — both cheap and worthy — that it’s hard to look back now and remember that this show was breaking new ground. It’s not that no show had ever done a surprise twist like this at the end of its premiere. That definitely happened before. It was the way this show did it, though, and the way it further painted Don as a character up to his handsome face in contradictions. As I’ve said, the whole thing is a little strange, watching these introductions and twists knowing everything we know now. It’s almost like being able to see the future. And that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, because I like knowing Lane Pryce will eventually call Pete a “grimy little pimp” and then punch him in the face. That was fun for me.
Crap. I’m definitely going to rewatch Mad Men now, aren’t I?