Vapor Trail

How ‘Mad Men’ Made Smoking Glamorous—Then Deadly

Betty and Don’s cigarette smoking was once supremely seductive. Then came Betty’s shock cancer diagnosis, and suddenly cigarettes have become a symbol of ‘Mad Men’s’ own death.

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Since the very beginning, Mad Men has won over audiences with its glamorization of taboos: the sex, the drinking, and—most controversial of all—the smoking.

But on Sunday night the show’s most glamorous accessory took on the death-drag it has in our own modern imagination: Betty Draper has cancer, and not long to live.

Cigarettes have always been an alluring fixture in the chain-smoking advertising agency’s offices, whether pressed between Joan’s pillowy lips or dangling from Don’s hand (as in the show’s opening sequence).

And they’ve retained their allure off Madison Avenue, too: think Betty ashing her lipstick-stained cigarette with a manicured finger at her kitchen table, or puffing away while shooting her neighbor’s pigeons.

It’s always fun to see such contemporary taboos play out on screen reconfigured as unthinking pleasures, particularly in a period show that attempts to show just how vigorously people used to smoke and drink at the office and at home. Never has a TV show made me want to smoke more.

Even the sight of a pre-pubescent Sally Draper lighting up in the bathroom, just like mom and dad, brings on cravings.

In Season 6 Betty offered her teenage daughter a cigarette as a reward for getting glowing remarks during an overnight visit to Miss Porter’s boarding school. (Nevermind that Sally was smoking and drinking all night in the dorms.)

“I bet your father’s given you beer,” Betty says.

“My father’s never given me anything,” Sally answers, a sad attempt to bond with her mother by bad-mouthing Don.

Fast forward to Betty’s fatal lung cancer diagnosis on Sunday night and her heartbreaking goodbye note to Sally, complete with burial instructions (classic Betty, attending to her looks even when faced with death) and a rare appreciation of her daughter for marching “to the beat of your own drum.”

As with many of the series’ final episodes, the decision to kill off Betty with lung cancer was rather on-the-nose. For a show in which so little actually happens, it’s clear Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, is rushing to tie up loose ends, like Betty and Sally’s fraught relationship, which has led to some soap-operatic plot twists.

We knew someone was going to die in these final episodes, and the fraught, discontented, ill-fated Betty, still in her 30s, had to suffer the health consequences of chain-smoking that everyone else on Mad Men has managed to avoid. Roger had a heart attack earlier in the series and he still puffs away with impunity.

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But not Betty, whose diagnosis is confirmed not by the doctor but by her husband Henry, having just received ‘the news.’ When she reaches for a pack of cigarettes in the car, he angrily snatches them and tosses them in the back.

We see her disease-clogged lungs on an X-ray; a desperate Henry breaking down when he visits Sally at school; Sally devastated and covering her ears when Henry tells her about the diagnosis.

Suddenly cigarettes, and their awful consequences, are softening some of the characters’ edges—most of all Betty’s. Her instinct is to protect her children and not let them know she’s sick. Lying may not be the best solution, but it comes from the kind of ‘good place’ not often overtly seen with Betty.

The link between smoking and cancer has always lurked in the background of the show. In the pilot, “Smoke Gets in Their Eyes,” Don has to think of a clever way to sell Lucky Strikes after the 1960 Reader’s Digest report linking cigarettes and cancer. The client isn’t pleased when Pete suggests they work society’s “death wish” into a new campaign slogan.

But Don saves the day with a pitch emphasizing how Lucky Strikes are made: “Everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes are toasted.” All cigarettes are toasted, of course, but consumers don’t know that. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” Don tells the client.

Happiness is “the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear.” And all Lucky Strike smokers need is “a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s ok.”

Four seasons later, timed with the release of the first Surgeon General’s report in 1964 warning that “Cigarette smoke is causally related to lung cancer,” Don attempts to save Sterling Cooper Draper Price from bankruptcy by writing a manifesto in the New York Times, “Why I Quit Smoking.”

The screed runs as a full-page ad for SCDP, which has “ended” its relationship with Lucky Strike because it no longer wants to sell a deadly product. Everyone at the office continues to light up, but Don has publicly aligned SCDP with the good guys.

Don of course spends many episodes chasing his own pitches, searching for some truth in his lies.

He justifies his failures by running away from them, which is exactly where Sunday night’s episode leaves him: at a bus stop, having given away his car to a young con man, advising him to run away and reinvent himself. (Sound familiar?) Meanwhile, refusing treatment for lung cancer, Betty is resigned to be a victim of America’s death wish.

But smoking in 1970 is still sexy. So when Don savored a cigarette while ordering around a model during a casting session for a fur campaign earlier this season, the haze of smoke and empowered, seductive look on his face momentarily convinced viewers that they were witnessing an entirely different kind of audition.

Similarly, the cigarette looked appealing, and supremely self-confident, dangling from Peggy’s mouth, too, as she strolled into McCann Erickson at the end of the Sunday before last’s episode.

Yet as much as audiences have been sold on the women, the smoking, the drinking, the fashion, and the nostalgia, ‘Mad Men’s’ dramatic core is its tension between fantasy and realism—between the sunny, sexy cigarette slogans and Peggy’s strutting fabulousness—and then, bam, Betty’s fatal cancer diagnosis.

And as we close in on the series finale, Betty’s diagnosis seems to be the apogee of the show’s relationship with smoking.

That slow-motion shot of the sauntering Peggy from two Sundays ago, one of the most memorable moments this season, will likely be the last time that we see a cigarette as emblematic of anything other than anxiety and death.

Cigarettes, and their celebration, were one of the vital accessories of Mad Men, the show’s perverse fuel. Now, stripped of their allure like those stripped of their status in the move from SCDP to McCann, they’ve come to signify the very literal death of the show.