AMC’s Mad Men, during its Emmy-winning seven-season run, established a reputation for itself as a show unafraid of taking creative chances. The series jumped forward in time with abandon, often chose silence instead of explanations, and did its best to keep viewers guessing as to the 1960s hijinks of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his fellow advertising executives. But one of its boldest swerves came at the very end of the pilot, a short sequence that proves seismic for the series, or at least our understanding of its lead protagonist.
We’ve followed Don for a full 24 hours of his life, from a frustrated brainstorming session at a Manhattan bar to a late-night rendezvous at the apartment of his bohemian lover Midge (Rosemary DeWitt) to the offices of Sterling Cooper. We’ve watched him change his shirt and meet his new secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and spar with his obnoxious office rival Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). We’ve watched him both flounder and soar in different meetings with different clients, coming up with a brilliant ad strategy for Lucky Strike Cigarettes and use his charms to win back the Jewish department store manager (Maggie Siff) he’d alienated earlier that day.
We’ve gotten what feels like a full picture of this suave and debonair man-about-town, as his day ends. And then it turns out that the sumbitch is a married father of two.
Don Draper’s wordless return from the city to his suburban home ends with him greeting his dozing wife Betty (January Jones) and then going into his children’s bedroom: As creator Matthew Weiner writes in the pilot script, “Don has a hand on each of their heads as they sleep. He looks up to the doorway where Betty now leans in her peignoir, smiling at the scene of domestic bliss.”
Pilots are all about introductions, about establishing character dynamics and letting us get to know these TV-attractive people and their worlds. Sure, plenty of pilots end with some sort of twist, or promise for the future: At the end of the Friends pilot, for example, Ross (David Schwimmer) gets up the nerve to ask Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) if he can perhaps ask her out sometime. The Lost pilot ends with the surviving castaways looking around this mysterious island, Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) being the one to say it out loud: “Guys — where are we?”
What the Mad Men pilot does is tell you that Don Draper, the man you just met, isn’t the man you thought. It doesn’t happen in a cutesy way or with a subtle tease. Instead, it’s a confrontation. To what degree you feel slapped by it likely depends on a number of factors (including whether or not you have strong feelings about adultery). Whether you’re horrified or intrigued by the discovery that this clever handsome man has a lot of secrets he’s keeping, you certainly remember that ending: Don with his kids, Betty watching them. It’s a painterly tableau — a stunning portrait of the perfect American family — and we know it’s a lie.
And that’s even without the depth of backstory we’ll soon learn about the characters involved, most especially Betty, whose external beauty covers up some deeply rooted ugliness. Betty wasn’t ever a fan favorite character, but her childlike pettiness and deeply buried rage and frustration made her one of the most complicated and fascinating female characters from this era of television, and these final moments of the pilot contain so much about why that is. On the surface, this scene is the life Betty thought she had. But even before she got confirmation of Don’s affairs, even before their eventual divorce, she knew that something was wrong. The kind of knowledge that you might never speak out loud, but still warps you from within.
That’s the sort of insight one only gets after seven seasons of a series, of course. Mad Men had to trust that its viewers would go along for the ride. It’s a bold maneuver, the choice to end the Mad Men pilot this way, especially given that its path to TV immortality didn’t begin on the surest footing: After getting rejected by HBO, it was AMC’s first pilot, and getting a greenlight to series was not a certainty.
But the gambit worked, if only because it didn’t just introduce us to what kind of man Don Draper was — it introduced us to what kind of show this was. One that in some ways, even 15 years later, hasn’t been topped.
Mad Men is streaming now on AMC+ and Freevee.