A review of tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I'm not working the slide rule...
"Just once, I would like to hear you use the word 'we.'" -Joan
For an episode about characters impulsively blowing up relationships, "For Immediate Release" was put together with the level of meticulousness we expect from "Mad Men" at its absolute best. It's an episode that takes a plot development — the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler, Gleason & Chaough into a new super-agency — we've all suspected was coming (if not from the moment Peggy went from one to the other, then from the bar scene after the failed Heinz pitches where Ted laments life in the minor leagues) and made it feel both completely natural and an absolute delight.
This was a classic "Mad Men" episode, rich in intrigue, deeper meaning and... simpler entertainments. (I cannot tell a lie: this review would have been done at least 30 minutes sooner if I hadn't been watching this GIF of Pete falling down the stairs on a loop.) As fascinating as it can be to watch Don Draper battle his inner demons — and he did quite a bit of that here, actually — the series cooks the hottest when big things are happening at the office.
We open on Bert, Pete and Joan planning in secret — the first of many scenes in the episode where major decisions are made without all the affected parties being consulted first — to take the agency public. Their banker tells them, "It's a common mistake to not ask questions when you want something because you're afraid of the answers," and throughout the hour, we'll see characters make rash decisions (like CGC dumping Alfa Romeo in hope of landing the top-secret Chevy account) out of want rather than need. And after the banker leaves, Pete notes that the IPO will double the agency's size — having no idea that the agency is about to double under an entirely different circumstance.
For most of his appearances in seasons 4 and 5, Ted Chaough was painted as a poor man's Don Draper: a haircut trying and failing to imitate our man. We've seen this season that he's more complicated — and sympathetic — than that, as he would need to be for this merger idea to work as an ongoing proposition for the series. But we're reminded throughout "For Immediate Release" how much the two have in common, well before the same impulse puts them in the same bar at the right moment to have a career-changing epiphany.
Don is the bane of Pete's existence for how he takes unilateral action that hurts the agency — and in dumping Jaguar, Don expects to be treated like a hero, but even Joan is disgusted by it, because ultimately she was stronger and more mature than Don was about this ugly business — but we see that Ted has the ability to cause agita for his own partners, as well as Don's occasional weakness for trying to seduce his underlings. Ted makes his move on Peggy in the way that Don never did, and though it's initially awkward, pretty soon she's fantasizing about him while making out with Abe in the apartment she hates, and she makes a point to fix her makeup before going into his office. But like Roger returning from his Detroit trip(*) with a combination of good news and bad news (that winds up being only good news once he realizes they've already cut ties with Jaguar), Peggy doesn't get the exact reception she was expecting: yes, Ted landed Chevy, but in the process put her back into the employment — and very long shadow — of Don Draper.
(*) Pete's been carrying the business side of the agency for years, but Roger's been hustling for a while, and that hustle — with the help of a friendly stewardess — finally pays off. A Roger Sterling who has a stake in the game again is a very welcome thing.
Joan (in a tremendous scene for Christina Hendricks) tries to warn Don about the difference between "I" and "we," and yet he makes this enormous move without consulting anyone but Ted. Roger and Jim Cutler clearly know about it the next morning (and I hope this is only the first of many silver fox-offs between John Slattery and Harry Hamlin), and it will likely be for the good of both agencies in the long run(**), but Don made this move the way he makes most of them: on a whim, assuming it will be the right one because he thought of it.
(**) The merger had better be more valuable than the account that led to it, given that the XP-887 will (as my friend Phil pointed out to me) turn out to be the Vega, which was not only a lemon but a car that Chevy struggled to market. I can certainly imagine a final episode of the series taking place at the dawn of 1970, with a newly-permed Don Draper convincing himself that the new decade will be better than the old one, and that this car is going to be a huge hit for him and the agency.
While Don and Ted are each busy chasing away a car company's business, we see other characters creating professional separations for their own personal reasons. Dr. Rosen quits his job at the hospital out of frustration at not being able to perform the first heart transplant, and Pete and his father-in-law do an excellent job of proving wrong Ken's theory about the folly of mutually assured destruction. Tom hypocritically fires SCDP to punish his princess's loathsome husband for going to a whorehouse, assuming Pete would never be dumb enough to tell Trudy. But this is Peter Dyckman Campbell we're talking about, and if he has to torch any future chance of reconciling with his wife in order to get his revenge immediately, then by all that is unholy, he will. Pete still aspires to be like Don, which is what makes these repeated betrayals sting all the more — it's not just that Don ruined things with Jaguar, but that he went to dinner without Pete — and you can see the same selfish impulses steering both men. The difference in this case is that Don acting on his own ultimately proves to be good for both him and the company, where all Pete accomplishes is ruining any chance at reconciling with either Trudy or Vick. (Pete's like the scorpion from the oft-told fable with the frog; he doesn't want to hurt himself while hurting others, but it's in his nature.)
With the dispatching of Herb, Joan's scolding of Don and the securing of a new car account, the obvious comparison is to "The Other Woman," But where that episode — despite a lot of brilliant individual components — always felt like Matt Weiner came up with an end result and then hastily worked backwards to ensure that it happened, the conclusion of "For Immediate Release" feels like something the show built up to naturally. And when you add in the caper touches of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," and the incredible possibilities of a workplace where all these people with their complicated histories (up to and including Burt Peterson) will be under one roof, you have not only the most satisfying episode of this season, but one that makes me more eager to see what comes next than any recent installment.
By the end of the episode, Don finally learns the value of "we" — even if it just involves himself and Ted combining to do the same thing that so frustrated people when they were doing it alone. But the definition of "we" at whatever the new agency is going to be called — and the potential combinations therein — just got much, much bigger. Cannot wait to see it come to life.
Some other thoughts:
* Opening the floor for agency name suggestions now. Even if you leave Lane Pryce and the ailing Frank Gleason out of it, a list of partner names would be too unwieldy, right?
* Pete falling down the stairs was some genius slapstick from Vincent Kartheiser, but Weiner and director Jennifer Getzinger cooked up several other priceless moments in that sequence, including the entire creative staff beating feet away from the conference room to pretend like they weren't just eavesdropping on all of it.
* The one bump in an otherwise superb episode: Megan. Since quitting the agency midway through last season, she's landed in a similar position to Betty in the early seasons: always a distant second, dramatically, to anything going on at the office. And at least Betty had offered interesting standalone plots and social commentary, in addition to providing access to Sally. Megan's just a remnant of a time in Don's life that Don has already moved beyond, and while that's the point of her stories this season — and in this episode in particular, where her mom pushes her to win his affections back (on a week when Sylvia is conveniently distracted by the presence of her son) — I inevitably watch a Megan scene and find myself wishing we were back at the office. At least tonight, we got to enjoy Julia Ormond being very bitter, French and drunk in most of the Megan scenes, but Marie unfortunately won't be around every week.
* This is Don's third pitch of the season (after the Royal Hawaiian and Heinz Ketchup) to omit visuals of the product entirely (at least in the initial wave of things). Is this Don getting stuck on a gimmick, or a reflection on where his head has been all season: present in name but not in substance?
* And which pitch did Ted and Don decide to give Chevy? I'd have loved to hear those negotiations — even if they ended up combining aspects of both pitches.
* Also, the lines between "Mad Men" actors pitching products and "Mad Men" characters pitching products has become so blurry that when I heard Don rehearsing his Chevy pitch for Ted, I began wondering when Jon Hamm had jumped ship from Mercedes.
* Peggy's sexual fantasies are specific enough that Ted would be reading Emerson, but not specific enough that she'd be able to think of an actual Emerson title. "Something" by Emerson is all that matters.
* Peggy's press release sets the date as May 17. The Houston heart transplant Arnold is so envious of took place earlier in the month, on May 3. He's been stewing.
* Harry Crane, conspicuously absent in an episode that would underline the reasons for his anger over not being made partner.
* Roger keeps copies of "Sterling's Gold" in his flight bag. Of course he does.
* I'll leave it to Tom and Lorenzo to do their usual brilliant fashion analysis, but I couldn't help noticing Joan wearing her hair down in a much more modern style in the opening scene. But that seems more a reflection of meeting someone on a Saturday night than her changing her personal look, since her hair's back up in the later office scenes.
* I expect the show to get more mileage out of James Wolk down the road, but for the moment I think I would love it if Bob Benson only appeared to respond to absurd requests from the partners with his usual brown-nosing enthusiasm.
* Appropriate music for our first glimpse inside GM headquarters: "Baby Jane (Mo Mo Jane)" by Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels.
* UPDATE: I have to add this to the review for posterity, simply because several of you caught this and I missed it: Herb's wife's name is Peaches. Don and Peggy are reunited, and it feels so good to Don, if not to Peggy.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org