5
May
2013
Mad Men: Season Six, Episode 5
For Immediate Release
Jordan
Every once in a while, Mad Men likes to be a show about a corporate caper, taking on the feel of a great heist film and throwing our characters into a situation where they need to be smart, smooth, and a few steps ahead of the game. The show does this so well, its actually surprising it doesn't go to this well more often, though I'm glad for that. The rarity of the great corporate caper makes each one shine, and gives an energy to the episode that the show usually eschews for slow-burning internal character analysis.

"For Immediate Release" is just such a corporate caper episode, with all the necessary darkness, and then a sudden, invigorating burst of light. We learn SCDP is on the verge of an IPO (at the startling for the period price of $11 per share) that is likely to make all of the partners very rich. Almost immediately, the show sets about destroying the best laid plans of Pete and Cooper, as Don fires Jaguar so he never has to deal with Herb again, and Vick's pulls their business after Pete's father-in-law catches him at a whorehouse (hypocrisy be damned, after all). For a moment, the episode sets up a challenge similar to last season's bid for Jaguar, when Roger gets the company a chance to pitch Chevy on their new car, but it very quickly becomes clear that the firm is a ringer, brought in for their ideas but never likely to land the account. So Don sits in a dark bar across from Ted Chaough, talking about how the game is rigged against them, and then comes up with a way to change the rules.

At the center of Mad Men is Don, a man always looking for an out, and always prepared to completely abandon everything and reinvent himself at the drop of a hat. He recreated himself when he dispensed with Dick Whitman, and he has showed himself perfectly willing to do it again on several occasions. In one of my all-time favorite Mad Men moments, Don sits at Peggy's bedside after she gives birth and tells her, "it will amaze you how much this never happened." He believes in the power to completely leave your past behind because in some sense he has to; he's spent decades running away from his demons, and if he ever let himself believe he couldn't escape his past, he would fall apart.

One of the clever things this series does, without really explicitly commenting on it, is periodically reinvent itself, the way Don does whenever he is backed into a corner. A lesser man, on a lesser show, would be forced to spend months or even years clawing his way back up after the losses the company takes in this episode. But Don Draper simply changes the game he's playing and saves the day by completely reinventing the world in which he's playing it. To Don, the chance to turn over a new leaf is always the chance to leave past mistakes behind--reinvention is not just creation, in Don's mind, its a resurrection, a chance to create a new version of himself, and to hope, often blindly, that the man he becomes will be better than the man he was before. Don't like a decision you've made? Run away and pretend it never happened. That's the Don Draper way.

Not everyone is quite as giddy at the idea of escape, though. The episode underlines this perfectly with Joan, who is rightfully furious when Don announces he cut Jaguar loose because he couldn't stand dealing with Herb. For Don, Herb was a distasteful man and an annoying client; he made Don remember the awful thing that Joan did to get them the account, and Don's complicity in that act made him uncomfortable. So he cut and ran, without thinking for even a moment what that impulsive decision would do to his company or to his partner, the woman who sacrificed greatly to land that account. For Joan, that distasteful work, that difficult decision, is completely undercut because the implications made Don feel uncomfortable. Similarly, Pete is livid when Don tries to use the Chevy pitch as a silver lining to his decision to cut Herb loose. "Don't act like you had a plan," he tells Don, "You're Tarzan swinging from vine to vine." It's a completely accurate description of Don, and in fact, probably what Don most treasures about his life. But then, Don acts without a moment's notice, and without a single thought to the collateral damage he might leave in his wake. He makes the decision to merge with with Cutler Gleason and Chaough without even consulting his partners. Why? Because "they aren't in this bar." All that matters to Don is the chance to reinvent, but others are more concerned about what might get lost in the shuffle.

Think, for example, of poor Peggy. She walked away from Don triumphantly last season, breaking out from under his rule to prove she could do the job on her own terms. In the same episode where Joan chose to tie herself inextricably to the men in her life who would use her as little more than a prostitute in order to secure her own financial security, Peggy chose to walk away from SCDP, a place she could feel was rotting from the inside, even if she was unaware of what was happening to Joan. Last season's "The Other Woman" was a sickening hour of television (I was actually nauseated through much of Joan's story), but it also ended with a sense of hope, as Peggy walked out of the office that could treat a woman so callously and into a brighter future. "For Immediate Release" does a lot of work toward invalidating the decisions that both Joan and Peggy made in that episode, and in both instances, its Don acting callously that does so. Joan's sacrifice didn't buy her nearly what she bargained for, and Peggy's freedom just got a lot less free. All because Don Draper didn't like something, and decided the best course of action was to bury it and hope what grows up in its place is more pleasing to his eyes.

Don's impetuousness is given two counter-points tonight (discounting Ted, whose bright eyed optimism and good nature are kind of a permanent anti-Draper), in Pete and in Arnold Rosen. Pete is interesting, because he has spent the entire series trying to be Don Draper, and has found himself growing further and further away from that possibility, due in large part from his complete unwillingness to let go. Don once said, "when a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him," and while that is absolutely true, Don lives his life as if it isn't. Don can never escape his past, but he pretends, with every drink, with every decision, that he can. Pete, on the other hand, truly does carry his whole life with him. Where Don lets bad situations roll off him like water off a duck, Pete is a dog coming in from the rain: he's sopping wet, and damn it if he isn't going to make anyone in his close proximity feel the same way with a forceful shake. Pete thinks he can earn men's favor through hard work, Don assumes if he acts like he commands respect, everyone around him will respect him. Pete gives off a neediness, a scent of desperation. Which is why, despite Ken's assurance that he and his father-in-law are in a situation of mutually assured destruction, Pete stands to lose everything while his father-in-law loses nothing.

When Pete goes to talk to the man, he comes off as the petulant child he is, whining about the unfairness of the situation and expecting his wife's father to fall in line. But what, really, does the other man have to lose? He can cut off Pete's livelihood, further estrange him from his wife, and humiliate him. And all that he might get in return is a weak, desperate man trying to wound him before he is wiped out entirely. And Pete does try to inflict pain,m telling Trudy what he knows and claiming he had no choice. But he did have a choice. he always had a choice. He just makes the wrong one, again and again.

Then there's Dr. Rosen, who decides to quit his job because another man will get to perform the first heat transplant, because "fate" conspired against him. To Rosen, his destiny is beyond his control, the world is an unfair place and he can only rage against it by getting out of the game. Don stops him there, though. There's no such thing as fate, to Don Draper. Every man makes his own opportunities, and every man is responsible for what he's wrought. Don believes this in a mechanical, thoughtless way, because it sounds good and it sounds like the sort of thing he should think. He finds it easy to make his own opportunities, after all. He's just much less interested in sticking around for all the collateral damage and watching the consequences play out.

It's easy to look at Pete and Rosen and be left with the impression that Don Draper has it right, and in some sense, I think that's what "For Immediate Release," and this season as a whole, may be going for. It's easy to justify Don's existence, his outlook, and the choices he makes by resorting to counter-examples and pointing out their flaws. In fact, that's how Don has been doing it for years. But its much harder to justify what Don is doing if you take a hard look at the man himself, and at the effects of the way he chooses to live his life. Don can sail through the years by making himself an enigma and reflecting everyone else's flaws back at them. He can live by appearing to be a model man, an exemplar of existential existence, the guy every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. But the illusion only lasts so long as no one looks too hard at the actual man they idolize. Take Don off his pedestal, and suddenly, his life and his choices don't seem so great after all. Don's Tarzan, alright, swinging from vine to vine, never looking back. But someday, he's going to run out of jungle. And then he may find himself in a world that is very hard for him to live in.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-"Do you want my flowers? I'm quite done with them." "Thank you, mother."

"Did he say your dinner with Jaguar is off?" "Yes. Unless that was the world's most boring dream..."

-"Honestly, Don, if I could deal with him, you could deal with him."

-"Just once in my life, I wish you would use the word 'we.'" I wish I had been able to transcribe Joan's whole rant. It was great, great stuff, and Hendricks played the hell out of it.

-"What the hell are you doing in Detroit?" "My doctor recommended an ocean voyage."

-"The future is something you haven't even thought of yet."

-On the next Mad Men: Burt Cooper is concerned when he discovers (DUN DUN DUN!) paper.
Tags: Mad Men
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