My favorite brand of Mad Men is the one where everything turns to shit, then Don Draper and company snap their fingers all cool-like and make something out of the chaos. The epitome of this is “Shut The Door, Have A Seat,” in which the characters realize they are about to be trapped into a business arrangement none of them likes, so they simply reinvent the universe around themselves. These stories usually take on the feel of a good caper or heist film, and the show, which can be so internal and slow-moving (both meant in a loving fashion), often sparks to life when this happens. I don’t want the series to turn into a riff on White Collar set in the ‘60s, but I still enjoy when Don and pals come up with a scheme so ridiculous that you know they’re just bound to pull it off. Staving off disaster is what these guys do, and there’s plenty of disaster to be staved off.
“For Immediate Release” does the typical thing for an episode of this type by making everything seem pretty dark before the dawn. This could feel clichéd, I guess, but it somehow doesn’t because we’ve gotten somewhat used to the agency having its way when it comes to business dealings. It also helps that the episode compounds the bad news: First, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce loses Jaguar because Don can barely stand to look Herb in the face. Then, the company loses its business with Vick Chemical because Pete bumps into his father-in-law in a whorehouse. What looked like a successful initial public offering at $11 per share just a few days ago now looks like it’s completely fallen apart. And as Don sits in a hotel bar in Detroit, talking to Ted Chaough and realizing that with two smaller agencies in the mix at Chevy, both are destined to lose, it’s tempting to think that all is lost, that Ted might steal what sounds like a great pitch from Don somehow.
That’s what a more conventional show would do, and it’s where the season would establish the main conflict: with SCDP digging itself out of the hole it put itself in by everybody but Roger (who gets the big victory for once) being an idiot. Instead, “For Immediate Release,” scripted by Matthew Weiner alone and directed smashingly by Jennifer Getzinger, takes a sidestep. If the first third of this season has had a flaw—and I don’t think it’s been as tight or propulsive as earlier seasons by this point—you could make a good case that the action has just gotten too spread out. By having to check in on SCDP and Megan’s career and Betty’s life and everything going on at Peggy’s new office, the show sometimes can feel as if it’s serving many different masters. (This is to say nothing of all of the time spent on Don’s latest affair, which feels particularly poorly built as a story point.)
“For Immediate Release” contrives at least a partial solution to this issue. Don, who’s always looking for an escape hatch, who’s always packing his parachute to leave behind the current plane, even if it’s not headed earthward, finds himself musing about how the game is rigged against a small agency like his own or like Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Where others might decide that, hey, that means it’s just time to buckle down and work even harder, Don decides to change the arena the game is being played on. If he’s not going to be taken seriously until he works at a big enough agency to impress the big companies, well, he’s just going to turn his current agency into a big one, no matter what it takes. If the public offering is no longer on the table, then, that means he’s going to have to find some other agency to work with or merge with. And sitting right there next to him at the bar is a partner in an agency that just might be ideal. Never mind that neither Ted nor Don has seemed all that similar or likely to work well together in the past. Don simply sees a problem, the most likely solution to said problem sitting next to him, and an escape hatch all at the same time. Then he plunges on through without another look.
While this may seem sort of fun and charming in the moment—and, believe me, it’s damned dashing when he’s running the idea by Ted, then reluctantly roping everybody else into it—it can seem vaguely monstrous whenever other people are forced to clean up after him. Last season, when “The Other Woman” aired, Don going to Joan’s apartment to tell her she didn’t have to sleep with Herb was played at least vaguely heroically. The show has also treated Don getting one over on Herb the times we’ve seen the character this season at least somewhat triumphantly. But what if you were the woman who had to sleep with that man, who had to put up with him for a night? And what if that relationship were dissolved almost as quickly as it had been formed because some jackass you worked with found the guy a pain to deal with?
What’s fascinating about “For Immediate Release” is how often people just aren’t happy to see Don. This is the guy who’s supposed to be our hero—or at least our protagonist—and he’s like a horror movie villain, particularly for Peggy, who had already moved on to a new thing, a new life, only to find that her old life came and forcibly merged with her new one, then made her write a press release about it. Joan tells off Don for taking a horrible decision that she, nonetheless, made with the long-term benefit of her son and herself in mind and throwing that decision away almost callously. The others who work at SCDP see Don as a sort of spoiled man-child, going out of his way to mess up their lives, then acting like it was all a big plan when things work out because of work Roger did. (“You’re just Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine!” Pete cries, and it might be the most accurate description of Don in a while.) Don’s a rich, callous jerk much of the time. He can afford to do stupid things, to take big chances, where someone like Pete or Joan, counting on that extra capitalization to secure their future, simply cannot.
I’ve found the season’s interest in returning to the events of “The Other Woman” highly curious. Now, I quite liked “The Other Woman,” but it’s decidedly an episode one can’t think about too much before the cracks in the foundation start to show. It’s an episode where the writers so obviously came up with an endpoint, then forced the characters to reach it, and I think it works in spite of itself, because the actors are so good, because the emotions they convey are so potent. If I would have placed a bet after season five, I would have said that the series would ignore the events of that episode as much as it possibly could, perhaps giving it a glancing notice in episode directly featuring Jaguar but no more. There are plenty of plots that the show has seemingly buried out back, only to resurface a couple of times to remind us of the old zombie emotions lurching about from said incidents.
But season six has gone back to the “Other Woman” well a few times in its first half. It certainly hasn’t dominated the proceedings or anything, but it’s often been present, as if Weiner and his writers want it nagging away at the back of our minds, what all of these people did to attain a measure of financial independence. Indeed, the show has taken the sheer preposterousness of the episode and tried to make a virtue out of it. This was such an unusual and strange occurrence in the lives of these people, it seems to say, and you’d better believe they’d be haunted by it, even at this late date.
What everybody remembers about “The Other Woman,” however, is the Joan plot and whether they found it believable that she would prostitute herself or believable that the men in the office (save Don) would seem to be at least slightly okay with that. What we forget is that the flipside of that episode was Peggy winning her freedom from the place that had defined her young professional life, finding an exit strategy that Don might have been proud of, just as the culture at SCDP seemed terminally rotten. In “For Immediate Release,” Mad Men essentially reverses both story decisions. Don makes the decision to ditch Jaguar on his own, then sticks with it when everybody else is calling him out for the impetuousness and immaturity of what he’s done. (Joan’s lashing out at him, in particular, is stellar and seems designed to retroactively make some of her actions in “The Other Woman” make slightly more sense.) Is that enough to save SCDP’s soul? Probably not. To do that, the agency needs the show’s closest thing to a good, pure character in Peggy Olson. And so just as Joan’s choice is invalidated by the actions of an unthinking, unfeeling man, the actions of that same man invalidate Peggy’s choice just as easily. And he lets his wife call him Superman!
The season also seems to be building in even more Pete Campbell than usual (though every season seems to be doing this before seemingly losing track of the guy for its back half). That’s a useful thing to do at this point, because his life circumstances are at least somewhat similar to what Don’s were at the beginning of the series, but he’s also increasingly trapped by his own stupid decisions. When he sees his father-in-law at the “party house,” leaving a bedroom with “a 200-pound Negro prostitute” (Pete certainly doesn’t have Don’s way with words), he takes Ken’s advice and says nothing. It’s mutually assured destruction! It’s why the Soviet’s will never drop the bomb.
What Pete always fails to account for is that he’s not Don Draper. He’s not married to a pushover of a woman who will take several seasons to find her spine. Instead, he’s married to the increasingly independent Trudy, who’s completely uninterested in how her disinterest in him has seemed to make him want her more than ever. He doesn’t have the Draper charm or charisma. He lets slights affect him too much, unable to simply bounce back and reinvent himself at every turn. Think back to that trip to California the two characters took in season two: Don wandered off with a bunch of young romantic types, while Pete stayed and diligently works. Pete tries so hard to win your favor; Don just assumes you’ll hand it over.
Thus, Pete misses that there’s no mutually assured destruction here. If he tells on his father-in-law, so what? He gets in trouble with his wife? Once Trudy’s dad sees his son-in-law at a brothel, however, it’s a whole other story. That’s the husband of his beloved baby girl, the father of his beloved granddaughter. He doesn’t see a mutual superpower, and he never will, because Pete is incapable of projecting himself into the type. What Pete’s father-in-law sees is a puny nobody, someone who deserves to be wiped off the map. Pete goes to Trudy to whine, and he tells her that her father has left him no choice. Yet, Trudy says, Pete has always had a choice. He’s had many choices. He just keeps making the wrong ones, digging his own grave, and his shamelessness lacks the company of Don’s Teflon exterior, his ability to bounce back from grave defeats with a new plan that sounds just crazy enough to work, then never ask anybody if it’s what they might want.
Around the episode’s midpoint, Don gets onto the elevator with Dr. Arnold Rosen, who says he’s just quit his job at the hospital because he had the kid, and he had the heart, but he couldn’t get anyone to approve the transplant. Now the kid is dead, and the glory of the first heart transplant is going to go to some doctor in Houston, who was able to pull it all together. Arnold shakes his head about how he’s done with this business, with trying to save lives despite a board that keeps getting in the way, and Don offers him some of that Don advice that would have come off as sage in earlier seasons but now seems increasingly naïve. There’s no such thing as fate, Don says. You make your own opportunities. And that’s maybe true for someone like Don, a man gifted with prodigious talent and even better luck, a brain in a jar that every corporation in America would love to patent. He can swing from vine to vine without a worry or care, because he has the looks and the charm and the money to do so. Don has the luxury of being able to take chances, but once you’re in a position of such power and privilege, it’s all too easy to forget that not everybody else has that luxury like you do. There are men who make their own destinies, like Don, and there are men who wish to make their own destinies but keep losing hold of the vines, like Pete.
And then there’s everybody else, forced to live in the same world as these men and watch as they continually shake up the board and rewrite the rules to their own advantage. The more men like Don shake that board, the more those around him question why he gets to hold the board in the first place. Welcome to 1968.
- Peggy and Ted Chaough make with their weird sexual chemistry and kiss. Peggy at first seems a bit taken aback by it—she’s never been the type to sleep with the boss, not since early season one—but then when she’s making out with Abe in their new apartment, she’s picturing Ted and… ewww.
- Speaking of that new apartment, it’s almost comically bad, like a depiction of a rundown old housing unit that might have popped up in an episode of a Norman Lear sitcom where Bea Arthur kept trying to insist to all who would listen that it was probably okay, because she was trying to convince herself it was okay for her child to live in it.
- Despite liking Megan quite a bit, I have to admit that I’m not terribly interested in the travails of a second Draper marriage, though it was nice having Julia Ormond back. It was fun to see her shoot down Roger—then immediately hang up on him—while listening to her daughter and son-in-law have sex.
- The dinner between the Drapers and the Rennicks is just about the greatest thing in the world. I love the intense, heightened awkwardness of it, then the way that “Peaches” plunges forward with her story about how their dog had puppies. Jon Hamm’s bewildered smile is perfection. “I love puppies,” he says, and I’m waiting for the GIF. (There’s already one of Pete falling down the stairs but not this yet. Come on, Internet!)
- Don is kept from Sylvia, incidentally, because her son has come home from college to celebrate Mother’s Day with her. When Arnold comes down looking for wrapping paper, Megan’s mom suggests that he take the flowers Megan got her as a gift for Sylvia “from” her son. “Thanks a lot, mom,” says Megan. (This really was a funny episode for being so fundamentally dark.)
- We get to know Ted’s partner Frank Gleason a bit, only to learn that he has pancreatic cancer, which is why he’s so tired of drawing rocket ships for the proposed Chevy campaign. (Also, two questions: Did you notice Ted’s pitch to Don featured no rockets whatsoever, and thus, might he be lying about his pitch? Secondly, which car do you think the agencies are pitching for?)
- Hey, it’s 1968!: Peggy and Abe are so glad Johnson will be out, and they’ll have another president. Maybe even Eugene McCarthy! And if not him, then at least Kennedy. “I just love Bobby Kennedy,” says Peggy, and I was waiting for some period-appropriate song to start spinning on the soundtrack, because the foreshadowing was straight out of that NBC miniseries The ‘60s. (Never mind the fact that Peggy would love RFK. The only reason to have that scene is to make us internally imagine the thudding strings of doom.)
- The list of drinks that Bert Cooper wants sound like a leftover Grampa Simpson joke from that Simpsons spec you know Weiner has locked up in his desk drawer at home.
- Next week’s episode is the seventh of the season, traditionally the one where the show has taken some chances with its structure. Well, last season, that got bumped to the eighth episode, “Lady Lazarus,” because of the way the two-hour première played with the scheduling, so it’s possible the May 19 episode will be the risk-taker. Either way, we should be in for some good Mad Men in the next two weeks.
- Next week on Mad Men: Bert reads something in a note and has to sit down.