‘Mad Men’ review: When worlds collide
After several weeks of simmering buildup and brooding contemplation, this week’s Mad Men finally fired on all cylinders and delivered a rush of major plot development so stirring even the characters could hardly stay upright. Pete’s glorious pratfall down the SDCP stairs mid-tantrum provided a perfect visual to accompany the flurry of impulsive decisions throughout the episode, as a new Madison Avenue power player triumphantly unveiled itself by way of a game-changing, Hail Mary merger. The AMC drama is perhaps best known for its quiet intensity, but “For Immediate Release” maintained a consistent, winking sense of urgency as each scene simply sang with the kind of outward emotion the show often has its characters keep under wraps. A fear of change both in and out of the office still haunts the world of Mad Men as its journey continues amidst the backdrop of a shifting American zeitgeist. With season six now full speed ahead in preparation for an uncertain future, the common human mistake of longing for what could have been is more poignantly hopeless than ever.
We open upon a clandestine meeting between Joan, Pete, Bert and a bespectacled banker. The agency is preparing to make its Wall Street debut and offer public stock options, but neither Don nor Roger are aware of these plans. Instead, Bert and Pete are hoping to negotiate a higher share price before informing their partners and the rest of the office. Pete is reveling in the potential fortune at the end of this deal, reminding a flustered Joan her stake in the company alone could be worth up to a million dollars if all goes well. My goodness, indeed.
The secretive nature of this subplot mirrors the behavior of other characters acting behind-the-scenes, as Roger engages crafty tactical maneuvers to land SCDP an opportunity to launch an eleventh-hour pitch to a coveted client. Cutie-pie Daisy, Roger’s latest squeeze, works at the airport’s first-class lounge and offers a heads up when a particularly marketable passenger crosses her path. Today’s mystery man turns out to be a promising Chevrolet exec on his way back to Detroit, and Daisy informs Roger just in time for him to snag a plane ticket of his own and the chance to woo his new pal all the way to Motor City. “Bring me a glass of water with an onion,” Roger tells Daisy as the men wait to board the flight. “And bring him a double Jim Beam.” These wise words mark the beginning of what could be a beautiful friendship for the agency, but Roger has no idea just how valuable, and badly needed, this account is about to become.
Pete had tried to make evening plans with Don to discuss the company’s new role in the stock market, but he got brushed off in favor of a business dinner with Herb, the company’s notoriously difficult Jaguar rep, instead. Don’s long history of general disgust with Herb and his obnoxious practices dates well before the two butted heads over the direction of SCDP’s ad work for the luxury car maker, when the slimeball propositioned Joan in last season’s landmark episode, “The Other Woman.” Despite the obvious working conflict, Roger insists Don join Herb and him for a meal to bury the hatchet and move forward, further advising both men to bring their wives and help create a buffer zone to assuage the inevitable tension. When Don tries to protest, citing his mother-in-law’s visit as a hopeful excuse, Roger perks up at the possibility of a date for himself and urges her to come along, too.
Unfortunately, Roger’s last-minute travel plans make him a no-show at dinner, much to the chagrin of Don, Herb and, most of all, Marie. Julia Ormond’s scene-stealing performance as Megan’s chic, unimpressed mother peaks when expressing Marie’s blatant disgust with her oafish companions. Her biting retorts and subsequent wine swilling offer hilarious commentary to supplement most of the viewers’ own inner monologues. As Herb’s dingbat wife chirps on and on, Marie’s obvious displeasure only increases as Megan sweetly tries to mask her mother’s French zingers to little avail. After all, eye rolls that epic usually transcend any language barrier. Don is equally grossed out, but his impatience reaches a fever pitch when the ladies excuse themselves to the powder room to let their men “discuss the business they came here to talk about.”
Herb makes another poor attempt at discretion when he suggests a young up-and-comer at his office take a look at Don’s work to make sure it aligns with the direction in which he’s hoping SCDP will take Jaguar. The undermining nature of Herb’s shamelessly selfish and insulting idea pushes Don over the edge and he fires Herb on the spot, ultimately severing all future ties with Jaguar altogether. The women return to the fuming aftermath and Megan asks Don if he’s okay. “Never felt better in my life,” he sneers smugly, before sauntering off to leave Herb and Peaches stunned and alone in the restaurant, her squeaky pleasantries only echoing further into the distance.
The loss of Jaguar creates a firestorm at SCDP, as Pete loses his temper the next morning and reams Don for potentially ruining their chances at landing public shareholders. Don is agape at the news of the company’s possible stock option and he joins Pete, Joan and an equally befuddled Ken in the conference room as the copywriters and secretaries leer from the sidelines. Pete’s jugular looks ripe to burst just as Roger breezes in with the news he’s been in Detroit since the day before and has closed a deal for the agency to pitch an idea for Chevy’s revolutionary new car model. An idea, of course, that doesn’t yet exist. Well, that shuts everyone up for at least a few seconds. Don begins to preen with I-told-you-so satisfaction, but gets shot down by Pete’s reminder this is just another lucky break in a long string of good fortune for Don.
Joan, meanwhile, doesn’t take the news of Jaguar’s dismissal well. While fighting back tears, she asks Don if she “went through all of that for nothing.” Don is dumbfounded. “Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?!” he scoffs, not realizing Joan had sacrificed her integrity for the good of the company while he debunked all her efforts over a relatively trivial ego bruising in comparison. Yes, Joan will always have her partnership, but her choice came at the ultimate price. For Don, and other men like him, nothing in life is valued high enough to make it worth more than their pride. “Just once,” Joan hisses, “I’d like to hear you say the word ‘we.’”
The copywriters scramble into Don’s office to put together a presentation for Chevy and catch up to the other agencies that have had months to prepare. This might not be what Joan had in mind, but the twinkle in Don’s eye shows the project has ignited a passion for his team’s work not seen in ages. Over at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Ted is reeling from the news of one partner’s cancer and the potential financial disaster his death could have on the company if the others are forced to buy out his share. Now, CGC’s own shot with Chevy holds the entire future of their agency at stake. Besides her looming work concerns, Peggy’s already uncomfortable at home after appeasing Abe’s desire to live in a more diverse neighborhood. She’s purchased an apartment on a street where vagrants use the front stoop as an outhouse and the paper-thin walls offer little privacy to compensate. To say the place is a fixer-upper is an understatement, and Abe’s universal futility as a handyman doesn’t help ease Peggy’s anxieties any more than the persistent wails of police sirens outside. “I don’t like change,” she announces, a perfectly timed declaration considering virtually everything is doing exactly that. A spontaneous kiss from Ted later sparks new possibilities in even Peggy’s mind, and none of them seem to include Abe, or advertising.
When Ted advises Peggy, “it’s one thing to want something, but it’s another to need it,” what he doesn’t mention is the subjective nature of what defines wanting and needing. At the beginning of the episode, the stockbroker had dug a little deeper by telling Pete, “it’s a common mistake not to ask questions when you want something because you’re afraid of the answers.” This notion illuminates a behavioral pattern that may or may not shape the core of human instinct, but absolutely lends itself to the discussion of motives. The communication failures and particular timing illustrated in each facet of the storyline help tie in the episode’s central theme of change and chance in the face of important decisions, as the overlapping series of events all build to a general inquiry regarding fate versus self-will. Dr. Rosen tells Don he’s quit his job after the death of another potential heart transplant patient. “Fate’s just not on my side,” he says, catching Don off guard. “I might not cut people open,” Don tells his friend. “But I don’t believe in fate. You make your own opportunities.”
The official disintegration of Pete and Trudy’s marriage drives this point even further, as Pete inadvertently gets SCDP dropped from another major client. His father-in-law is the head of Vicks Chemical, but an unfortunate run-in with Pete at a Manhattan brothel jeopardizes both their personal and working relationships. Both men are visibly mortified and understandably tight-lipped in their acknowledgment of one another, but Ken tells Pete he’s confident nothing will come from the incident. “That’s why I’m not afraid of the bomb,” he shrugs. “It’s mutually assured destruction.” That might be, but Vicks axes SCDP anyway just in time for Don and Roger to head to Detroit for the Chevy pitch. Pete tells Trudy the reason for her father’s drastic business decision, but his immature intentions can’t undo damage that’s already been done. “You’ve had plenty of choices, Peter,” Trudy says, before telling him to pack his things. While Pete is undoubtedly lamenting a litany of poor decisions on his part, it’s equally likely he’s also placing the bulk of the blame on fate’s wry sense of humor. Of all the whorehouses in New York City, his father-in-law just had to walk into that one.
In Detroit, Ted discovers Don in a local bar on the eve of their respective pitches and isn’t particularly glad to see him. He’s incredulous not only toward the presence of his direct rival, but the addition of another small fish in an admittedly huge pond does nothing to help either agency’s efforts to land Chevy. “We’re both dead,” he declares, as Don realizes Ted has a point. What’s worse, he notes, the larger corporate outfits often lift their creative ideas from outside sources instead of their own while reaping the financial rewards and professional credit. Major companies like GM appreciate the artistic strength of smaller agencies, but often favor the safety offered by the sheer staffing numbers of larger ones. In a rare moment of trust and humility, both men share their pitches and acknowledge the other’s merits before embarking on the revolutionary idea to combine efforts, and even agencies, to present Chevy with the content and the cavalry needed to land the account. Ted is initially speechless when Don suggests the merger, but finally speaks up when another drink is ordered. “No!” Ted shouts to the bartender, before turning toward Don. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“For Immediate Release” arrives at a crucial point as we reach the halfway mark in Mad Men’s sixth season. The need to acknowledge and explore the inevitable changes in the characters’ lives helps perpetuate the authenticity and depth of the show’s storytelling that’s made it the cultural phenomenon it is. Constant wonder about the choices we make and the control we have over them is a major component of modern existence, and it’s a theme the show is ready and able to address after chronicling a sufficiently solid amount of time. Although Don believes in the ability to create our own future, his consistent avoidance of the past has only paralyzed any real progress within himself. Dr. Rosen might believe in a different definition of destiny, but Don’s decision to finally say “we” proves his newfound willingness to put his fate in someone else’s hands. Even if it means mutually assured destruction.
Did you see the merger coming? How is Peggy going to handle working with both Ted and Don? Are the other partners going to be on board? Will Megan wise up to Don’s extracurricular activities? Can we ever stop laughing at Pete’s incredible tumble down those stairs? Sound off on all things Mad Men in the comment section below!
Season 6, Episode 6: “For Immediate Release” (originally aired May 5, 2013)
Mad Men airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on AMC
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Images courtesy of AMC