Band of Gold: Some Themes from the Mad Men Pilot [St. Jane Archives]

Three Characters, Three Ways To Feel Helpless

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” lays out most of the key themes from Mad Men in a self-contained short story that sets up the seven-season struggle for several characters. And while it’s protagonist Don Draper’s episode, Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell serve as the two balances on either side of his scale, showing us that every character in this drama is in danger of getting swallowed whole by a pervasive societal ideology.

Peggy gives us a protagonistic lens for the difficulties of fiercely enforced sexism in the workplace, particularly as she interacts with Joan. At this point in the series, Joan operates on fully internalized sexism and becomes another guardian of the status quo, rewarded with a slice of authority for her efforts. It’s interesting to contrast this Joan with the character she eventually becomes. But while Joan develops as a character later, it’s Peggy who is a true co-protagonist in the story, as we see her journey parallel with Don’s.

Meanwhile, Pete provides insight into the emptiness of the classic economic dream from a young man’s perspective, rather than Don’s place of confidence and (performed) authority. Most of us hate Pete in this episode and rightfully so – but there’s at least a couple of shots where we get to look into his eyes and see beyond the ruthless ambition. We see a character who’s deathly afraid of dealing with himself when he isn’t playing the role society expects of him.

But it’s Don who dominates this episode and Don who delivers two explicit speeches about the nature of his own internal fears. The episode opens with Don’s near-harassment of Sam, the waiter who smokes Old Gold cigarettes instead of Lucky Strike. Note the musical decision here; – “Band of Gold” by Don Cherry and Ray Conniff – we’ll get back to it later.

(By the way, has anybody noticed the similarity of the opening of this song to Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”? It always surprises me when Don Cherry’s voice kicks in instead of Anka’s). 

A Free Serving of Love With Every Purchase

Don Draper notices Sam is smoking the Old Gold band and asks him why he chooses them. “They gave ’em to us in the service,” Sam says. “A carton a week for free.”

Don asks, “So you’re used to them, is that it?”

“Yeah. They’re a habit.” But then Sam betrays this casual assessment less than a minute later by telling Don, “I love my Old Golds.” Don sees the hints of a tagline when Sam uses the word again. “I love smoking.”

Love is an important word here and it comes back around during Draper’s patch-up meeting with Rachel Menken toward the end of the episode.

It’s through Rachel that Mad Men expresses yet another level of misogyny and sexism that women face. While Peggy is just starting out in her career, Rachel is at the top of hers – a capable businesswoman with authority. But even when she’s meeting with people who allegedly need her business, she’s faced with skepticism and confusion at her career choices. This is evidenced when Don asks her why she’d rather not just get married and thus opt-out of the business world, seen as a way-station for women waiting for their own version of victory. After a pointed, but brief rebuke, Rachel admits that the opportunity to marry hasn’t come her way, as she’s never been in love. Once again, Don is skeptical. He seems to think a woman as smart as Rachel wouldn’t buy into the romanticized concept of love. She shoots back, “For a lot of people, love isn’t just a slogan.”

Don doubles down. “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist,” he snaps. “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

It’s here that Don explicitly states the philosophy he will grapple with for seven seasons – what I perceive to be a familiar nihilism we’re pervasively confronted with in our modern economy. And a nihilism related to the Freudian philosophy he runs away from when it’s presented earlier in the episode by German researcher Greta Guttman. The “Death Wish” that humans harbor and which will bypass the cigarette health warnings coming out of the woodwork. We can debate whether the Death Wish is real, whether it’s innate, or whether it’s triggered by society, but the reason it seems to offend Don as an advertiser (and why it offends tobacco tycoon Lee Garner), is because it’s dangerously honest about the world we live in. That honesty is mirrored in Don’s soliloquy to Rachel.

The Fast and the Furious: Death Drive

It’s this insight into the starkness of his own philosophy that lands Don the Lucky Strike account after nearly flaming out on it. Following discussion and rejection of the Death Wish, garishly presented by Pete Campbell, Don gives Lee Garner and Lee Garner Jr. a peek behind the curtain of advertising’s ultimate purpose: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”

To Don, advertising is a welcome lie – a distraction from the harsh truth that “there is no tomorrow.” A distraction from the “death wish” he doesn’t want to parade in front of customers. But Don’s personal curse is being cognizant of this perception  – which makes this a very good starting point to his story. It’s where things start to unravel in his narrative. Because, while he may have casually bandied about that philosophy of love being used to sell nylons before, we saw that he truly came to know advertising’s purpose in that conference room with Lucky Strike. And that means he can no longer turn away from the Death Wish, the very dangerous concept of Ego Death, and the fear that he may never find a love that’s pure.

Don thinks of himself as a great ad man and he prides himself as someone who doesn’t gullibly swallow a pitch. I’d venture Don thinks it’s this perceived immunity that makes him good at his job. So while Rachel still believes in something like love, Don, troubled background that he has, denies the concept and reduces it to a sales pitch, as he does when he hears Sam the Waiter state that he loves his Old Golds. For Don, love is at its strongest when it describes a habit. Something we start doing as a distraction from the more difficult search for “true” love – which, at this point, Don suspects doesn’t exist. Sam says his brand loyalty started as a habit that eventually turned into love.

At the end of that first scene, Don Cherry’s rendition of “Band of Gold” swells to give us some parallel discussion of the commitment that’s being discussed here. Because, we realize, Sam is wedded to his brand of cigarettes. What Don is ultimately trying to do in convincing people to jump ship becomes tantamount to promoting divorce, which contributes to the difficult of the Lucky Strike pitch But, in another way, this version of Don is a fierce defendant of a much larger union – the commitment between the consumer and the delusion. It’s one social construct existing within the universe of another. And that subtext comes back to us when we get that first twist of Don Draper as a family man, capable of showing tender affection for the children he doesn’t reference all episode. Wedding bands are an important symbol in Mad Men and we’ll eventually see the impact they have on characters long after those symbols are plucked off their fingers.

Other Stuff About This Episode

The Theme Song – “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2

Ramble Jon Krohn was born May 27, 1976 in Eugene, Oregon and was raised in Columbus, Ohio, before eventually making his way out to Philadelphia. It was in 2002 that he released the album Deadringer under his stage name, RJD2. And it was sometime in 2006 or 2007 that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner heard RJD2’s instrumental backing for “A Beautiful Mine” on NPR’s Marketplace.

It’s this song that initiates viewers into Mad Men and it’s one of the few songs that didn’t actually exist in the 50’s/60’s time period covered by the series (one of the most notable examples is the use of The Decemberists’ “The Infanta” in season 2). This may be the retrospective bias of the show working on me, but “Beautiful Mine” really does seem to fit the series – it’s ominous and sleek, with a hint of creeping modernity.

Listening to other songs from RJD2’s catalog, you’ll find that this kind of timeless-yet-modern sound is present throughout. Mr. Krohn is very effective at somewhat unsettling you, while still making you aspire to be the most alluring version of yourself. That’s a theme that’s very pervasive in Mad Men.

The Title – “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters

I think this actually happens several times throughout the series – the episode title is named after a famous song, but that actual song isn’t represented in the episode’s soundtrack, leaving it as a background fact buried within the show’s context. Of course, for an episode featuring tobacco clients, I suppose the title couldn’t be passed up.

Oh, but there’s also the fact that the lyrics mash right up with the themes of the episode:

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside cannot be denied
They said “someday you’ll find all who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire,
You must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.”

I’m putting The Platters’ version here, because a) Wikipedia says it’s the “best-known” version and b) it came out in 1958, right around when this episode takes place. However, the origin of the song is a 1933 musical, called Roberta

Freud and the “Death Drive”

Psychology and Mad Men are deeply linked. Also, I haven’t taken a psychology course since high school, so I’m ill-equipped to go in depth here. But you can read more about the concept of the death drive here. I also did a quick YouTube search and found this Khan Academy which goes into the Death Drive (or Thanatos) and its related concepts, the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle. The additional themes discussed in this freshman-level philosophy lecture also come up throughout the Mad Men series.

What are the Lucky Strikes of the world up to these days anyway?

One of the things I enjoy most about Mad Men is seeing the mid-century representations of industries that are still around – and just as obsessed over public reputation – today. Some trivia: By the late 1950’s, Lucky Strike was not a family-owned tobacco business – it was owned by the American Tobacco Company, which eventually was absorbed into British American Tobacco, one of today’s tobacco multinationals.

A lot of us have read the news on this one – how less kids smoke, how there’s all this regulatory pushback against cigarettes. You can theoretically go a whole day in a modern city without smelling cigarette smoke, something that seems impossible in the world of Mad Men. But something I’ve learned during my stint here as a suburban media analyst is that the tobacco industry is still pretty strong, particularly in overseas markets. So I’ll conclude with some factoids about tobacco:

  • As recently as 2010, tobacco-related cancers were rising in  Delhi, India, according to government figures, which observed a total of 17,176 news cases of cancer – common cancers for men included lung cancer, tongue cancer, and mouth cancers. As of January 2016, Godfrey Phillips India, a subsidiary of Philip Morris International, is the world’s best performing tobacco stock, according to Bloomberg.
  • Philip Morris International saw net income of $1.25 billion in the fourth quarter of 2015, after $6.39 billion in sales. This was actually seen as something of a disappointment by the Wall Street community. PMI’s the non-US multinational that got spun out from Altria Group, formerly known as Philip Morris. Altria functions in the US – and it actually saw income rise – also making $1.25 billion in the fourth quarter. Sales in the US rose 2.6 percent to $4.01 billion.
  • Since smoking is slightly less cool with the kids these days, Altria is said to be focusing a little bit more on chewing tobacco like Skoal, in addition to that amusing vaping craze. But promoting chewing tobacco in the name of safer options seems a little bit odd, since the National Cancer Institute in no uncertain terms says that smokeless tobacco causes cancer. 

“What the hell, Phil? I thought this was a Mad Men review.”

Okay, yeah, my bad. This will probably happen every now and then as I come across an industry represented in the show that I still find fascinating.

On the one hand, I’m sorry for soapboxing at you. If you smoke, it’s really not my business. We’re still friends. But I do think modern viewers of the show have the impression that companies like the fictionalized “Lucky Strike” have modernized into more responsible coprorate citizens. But I think Matthew Weiner and the other creators of Mad Men actually use the irony of contrasting the decades to show us just how little things have changed overall.

Or, hey, maybe they wanted to cash in on some sweet sweet British American Tobacco stock. Because some viewers of the show ended up craving Luckies, apparently. After the show’s premier, sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes soared, boosting brand sales to 33 million packets in 2012 – about 10 million more packets than sales in 2007.

Smoke in our eyes, indeed.