We’re already on record as defending this season of Mad Men to those who had disparaged it for its unlikeable characters (you can read my linked-to essay for why I’d dispute the proposition that most of these people are unlikeable) and stubbornness in rendering some of the old guard as incapable of keeping up with the changing times (and there should be no need to complain about this, because I think it’s what Matt Weiner’s been getting at all along). Now, I’d go ahead and vote “For Immediate Release” as the strongest episode thus far, and judging from the reaction I’ve read from the various denizens of the Internetz, it appears as if there’s a lot of agreement on that front. There are certainly strong reasons that “For Immediate Release” stood out—it was my favorite, again, in a season in which I’ve liked them all—but those reasons didn’t have much to do with characters suddenly improving their Q scores or eschewing old habits. (I’d say recommitting to your work doesn’t mean you’ve dropped old habits but rather doing what it is that helped those habits take root; plus, from high-end whorehouses to office make-out sessions to fantasies about office make-out sessions to flight attendants to “dress[ing] like you’re not his wife,” there were a lot of clocks covering six to midnight in about five seconds.) What made last night’s episode so gosh darn fantastic was the show’s patient penchant for letting its plot-driven scenes percolate and its empathy for its characters, that, contra its critics these recent weeks, the show has never abandoned.
I think the lazy reason to like this week’s episode was that something happened—as in, something happened in furtherance of the plot, and we’re left wondering what will happen next.* So yes, unlike watching Don cavort around with Sylvia or Joan showing her visiting friend around town, Don and Ted’s refusal to partake in the same old song and dance and say thanks for the opportunity with plastic business-meeting smiles actually had implications for Mad Men‘s nominal story—that is, is the ad business bullish or bearish and what client needs some pussy and how’s the presentation going, will it be ready for Friday? That’s lazy first because it ignores, on a smaller scale, that when Don cheats on his wife or when Don takes his kid to the movies, something is happening, of course; the centers of our universe aren’t SCDP or CGC, but Don’s (and Roger’s and Joan’s and Pete’s and everybody else’s) mind.
*I should say that I, too, am curious about what’s coming for this new combination of creative talent, but I’d posit that we think about what happens next pretty often on Mad Men, it’s just that we project that question onto characters more than plot.
Last night, Don referenced to Ted his frustration with the constant compulsion to engage in “psychological warfare” that his life and job require, and as evidenced by the merger they hatch, Ted feels the same way. These guys are suffocating at work with vindictive, cutthroat, and angry colleagues and clients (Peggy’s euphemism was “pessimistic”) who often don’t know the best strategy to pursue. Don and Ted aren’t in the business of selling Chevrolet’s or Jaguar’s or Alfa Romeo’s identity so much as selling their own identity to their co-workers and spouses. If we’ve learned anything from Mad Men, it should be that these people work just as hard at analyzing each other as they do on the new ad buy. It’s why Don’s taking Bobby to Planet of the Apes is significant, because it flaunts the spirit of Betty’s petulant rules, and why Joan gives Don a dose of real talk after dropping Jaguar (for me, this was where the real tension in the episode was to be found) when the violation of Don’s sunny disposition (a line easily crossed) was much less severe than what Joan suffered and has been putting up with. What I’m trying to get at is that the ah-something-happened view would be neglecting the subtext—who likes who, who hates who, who’s depressed, who’s happy, and why—that drives this show. Using Don’s remark as our reference point, so much of the show is psychological or below-surface. The moments when the tension and the analysis and the frustrations bubble to the surface and cause people to make drastic business decisions or lash out at somebody—like last night? They are more powerful because of this subtext. So yes, something happened last night, but the reason you might have liked the episode is because these wheels have been in motion even when they seemed stationary.
I’ve written before about how Roger Sterling is the funniest character on Mad Men; as far as I know this is unanimously agreed upon. In “For Immediate Release” we got a glimpse of early Roger, the one who had earned his reputation for charm, not the late Roger we’ve seen wallowing in his past. Instead of actually giving pointers to somebody else at the office when it was his turn to take the client out, it was rejuvenating (for us and for John Slattery’s character) to learn that Roger is still capable of practicing what he preaches (ordering water with lemon for him and a double Jim Beam for the GM honcho; conniving with his stewardess fuck buddy to lose his rival’s luggage). As I argued above, this doesn’t mean Roger’s refrained from his habitual drinking or facetious façade, just that, at least for a glimmer of time, we remember that he’s earned his stripes and is more than just talk. (I’m guessing Roger’s Q score is treading very high, anyway.) That’s not to say that Roger’s gift for gab wasn’t on display, either—Slattery’s delivery of “Well, my mother’s dead,” used to coax some morning Mother’s Day coitus from his girlfriend, was perfectly dry.* [kyra note: you could say Roger was looking for some ‘immediate release’ LOL] It’s in that line, too, where we can see Mad Men‘s empathy for Roger, a guy who’s a little past his prime, who hides his grief, and who brings more comedy than business to SCDP these days but who easily reminds you why you loved him in the first place.
*I think it’s worth noting that “For Immediate Release” was one of the funnier episodes I’ve seen in a while, from Roger’s comment to Pete falling down the steps to Ken’s great reaction to Pete’s father-in-law’s proclivities.
Another character who gets an empathetic treatment from Matt Weiner and crew is Joan, who’s someone that a feminist might excoriate (our inclination is that a strong woman like her should speak up when the men around her objectify and pimp her) but is, as the show has made clear, actually quite comfortable in a man’s world. Of course, that Joan is a generational complement to people like Don and Roger isn’t mutually exclusive to her speaking her mind, as she’s done to her ex-husband and to Don last night. If Joan’s scolding of Don for his me-first GLORY BOY attitude (h/t Drew Magary) was mildly shocking, as it was for me, I think that’s because you think of the two of them as sharing a pretty similar worldview and because your impression is that it’s odd for her to take out her rage on the guy who stood up for her. If anything, you’d think her tongue should have spit fire in Pete’s direction, or Herb’s, but empathy doesn’t require that Joan’s actions be of a piece with the way we’d like some of our characters to act. Instead, it’s required that we understand Joan’s stoicism and her ability to compartmentalize her ambition and her misfortune.
I’d even argue that Pete Campbell is, while still odious, at times an empathetic character, too. Maybe not when he falls down the steps or takes a haymaker to the face—too easy to laugh at him there—but maybe instead when his plans fall through and his ego is wounded. The key scene last night was Pete’s visit to his father-in-law, Tom, unwilling to abide the don’t-ask-don’t-tell code where Pete is concerned, because it’s his daughter’s happiness at stake. But Tom gets to abide by a double standard, because only Pete’s forays into the underworld of sexual misdeeds get outed initially, and whether you not you think that’s fair you accept how this would lead Pete to hastily inform Trudy of her dad’s tastes. Again, empathy doesn’t ask whether you’d act the same as Pete, but that you have an understanding of what motivates him when shit hits the fan. God help you if you’re as reckless as he is, but it might be that his bad luck—with women, with his scheming at work—clue us in on the source of his recklessness. As has been established, Pete’s a guy who doubles down when he fucks up and would rather pass his germs onto anybody else than use Vick’s VapoRub.
And finally, there’s Peggy, getting her feet wet (and trying to avoid getting them dirty) on the Upper West Side, and finding that her idea of living out the American dream differs from Abe’s. It’s noisy and filthy up there, but her office (and Ted) is clean, and she’ll do anything to drown out the noise. Her scene in which she imagined Abe as Ted showed how close and how far Peggy is to realizing her dreams; I’m assuming both Ted and Abe are fans of Emerson’s, and she certainly sees plenty of them all the time, but Ted is married and Peggy can’t put in ear plugs or unsee some hippie’s shit on the stairs. (Nor is this Peggy’s first dalliance with her boss; see Phillips, Duck.) This scene was another of Mad Men‘s cinematic touches—there was no ambient noise in Peggy’s fantasy but plenty of it in the reality with Abe that exists alongside it—for which the show is famous. And it’s proof that above- and below-surface, there was plenty going on last night, you know, just like most Mad Men episodes.
[kyra comment]: Another great review, I don’t have too much to add. On one point briefly, is Megan’s mom so angry at Roger because he didn’t show up to dinner and left them with Herb and his idiotic wife, or because she gave him a blowie and he never called her? Or both? Either way, I hope we get to see some more interaction between them before the season is through, and I’d like to see Sally, the key witness, as well.
On the episode’s ending, which is where the episode takes its title from, what to make of Peggy’s reaction to the news? She has just gotten away from all those people to more riches and stature at CGC. Now she is being brought back into the fold. I don’t think she likes it one bit and I am interested to see where exactly she fits in the new combined agency. I presume she’s above Ginsberg, but I also presume Ginsberg will find that completely unacceptable.
On the merger, I’m not 100% sure I like it. I guess I was sold on Don believing in it after his conversation with Ted at the bar in Detroit, but I have a hard time seeing Don admit that Ted’s ideas were better. I was expecting that scene to turn into Ted stealing Don’s idea or something like that. I don’t know…it was just a big and totally shocking shift. I need some time to let in sink in, maybe an episode or 2, before I can pass judgment on it.
Final thought–it’s really funny to see all the staff members scurry away when the executives come out of the room. I made a comment 2 weeks ago about how we really are just following their lives, which are now predominantly at the executive level. It’s just funny to see the other people working at SCDP run away from them.
Also, Dr. Rosen quit! Another big and unexpected change. I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m really enjoying the ride. As I said to Buckeye last night, I think Matthew Weiner is Reaganing right now.