Monday, May 6, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 6, “For Immediate Release”

Joan spelled out the theme of this week’s stellar episode most explicitly in her bitter, emotionally charged confrontation with Don: “Just once, I would like to hear you use the word ‘we,’ because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you decide whatever you think is right for our lives.” However, behaving as a part of a team rather than as an individual is something all of the characters struggle with this week, as nearly everyone indulges in a series of impulsive decisions:

- Joan, Pete, and Burt clandestinely pursue taking SCDP public (perhaps not impulsive, but certainly not in the spirit of cooperation and consultation that Joan later wishes for).
- Roger blows off a meeting with Don and Herb from Jaguar in order to pursue a business opportunity (which turns out to be Chevy).
- Don impulsively fires Jaguar, having had enough of Herb (and his idiot wife, whom Marie finds insufferably contemptible). This impulse decision stems from Roger’s absence, which effectively torpedoes the Jaguar account. Don had already expressed open contempt for Herb, and given Don’s somewhat poor client-handling skills (dating back to Connie Hilton in season 3), this meeting was bound to turn south without Roger there to smooth things over.
- Pete’s impulse celebration over taking SCDP public inadvertently causes him to lose the Vicks account when he and his father-in-law cross paths at a Manhattan brothel.
- Arnie quits his surgery practice because the hospital wouldn’t let him perform the heart transplant he’s been aching to perform (not necessarily a selfish decision, but certainly an impulsive one).
- And finally, in the shocker special of the evening, one with the biggest implications for the rest of the season and for the show going forward: Don goes off on his own – again – and plots a merger between SCDP and CGC.

Nearly all of these developments are juicy pieces of drama in themselves, but none is bigger than the merging of SCDP and CGC. One thing I love about this show is its willingness to make significant alterations to its infrastructure, particularly to the relationships that govern character interactions. Previously, the end of season 3 was the high water mark for changes being made to the premise on which the show operates, as it brought the end of Sterling Cooper and the birth of SCDP, as well as the end of Don and Betty’s marriage. The SCDP-CGC merger seems nearly as big a change, and it creates many different questions, and a lot of potential drama. However, before speculating about that potential, first I want to take a moment to appreciate how exciting it was to watch all of these pieces fall into place over the course of the episode.

The seeds for the merger are sewn earlier in the episode, when Don tells off Herb and tanks the Jaguar account. There is some very nice editing here: As Burt and Pete toast the $11/share rating the banker awarded SCDP, the episode cuts to a shot of Marie drinking while at dinner with Don and Herb, her eyes pleading for a release from the banality of Herb’s talkative wife. As Pete and Burt toast their success, Don is about to throw it away out of sheer contempt for a noxious ass.

However, things get really exciting the next day, in an excellent scene that transitions between many different emotional registers: humor, pity, and suspense. In terms of suspense, Pete learns that Don has set fire to the Jaguar account, and the two get into a shouting match by the SCDP staircase, drawing a crowd that seems to consist of nearly everyone else in the office.* For the second episode in a row, the show has put us in the position of sympathizing with Pete. While it’s always fun to see Pete so wound up, his outrage is well-warranted, as Don has jeopardized the company, even without taking the public stock option into consideration. Jaguar was a huge get for SCDP (snagging them was one of the more climactic moments last season), and for Don to blow it off so callously is extremely disrespectful of everyone else’s well-being. Joan points this out to Don in another emotional turn in the scene (pity): “Honestly Don, if I could deal with him, you could deal with him.” The ever-suffering Joan is understandably upset (and unloads on Don with fantastic righteousness) because Don’s actions have invalidated the sacrifice she made to get the account in the first place (not the reaction Don was expecting from her). Roger further stirs up this scene’s emotional jambalaya, adding a dash of comedy: he waltzes into the middle of Pete and Don’s fight and boastfully announces that thanks to him, they now have a shot at Chevy (“I close, Pete. I close things.”). Finally, the scene ends on a comic note: as the impromptu meeting breaks up, Don leaves the conference room, scrambling all of the spectators who had gathered outside, including people running up the staircase and above the frame line. It’s a wonderfully scripted, directed, and acted scene, deftly switching back and forth across these registers at a breathless pace, sometimes within the space of a single line (like when Don issues orders to Pete, Roger, and Joan successively, alternating his intensity depending on the person he's talking to).

* This staircase is quickly becoming the writers’ favorite place to stage confrontations or almost-confrontations. Cf. Joan’s firing Scarlet, Pete’s shouting match with Harry last week, Harry’s angrily brushing past Joan in the premiere, etc. 

These different emotional registers are ultimately replaced by excitement over Don and company needing to come up with another home run on short notice, accompanied by some jaunty music reminiscent of the caper music we’ve heard at other points throughout the series, whenever Don and company get up to some mischief. It all leads to his and Ted’s interesting late night meeting in a Detroit bar. For one of the first times in the series, Don questions his assumption that merit will win out in the end. Ted convinces him (correctly) that Chevy will want a big agency to handle their new car, no matter how good the creative is from a smaller agency like SCDP or CGC. However, Ted’s despair also leads Don to an epiphany, one clearly predicated on what Joan said to him earlier in the episode about him never using the word “we.” He proposes to Ted that SCDP and CGC merge. Ultimately, it is ironic that Joan’s anger with Don for never thinking of others is what leads him to the idea to merge SCDP and CGC: the merger idea is another impulsive decision he’s making without the consultation of any of the other partners. Ted puts a button on it when expressing reservation over Don's proposal:

Ted: “Well, ‘we’ have partners.”
Don: “Who aren’t sitting in this bar.”

So, with SCDP and CGC merging into one large-scale agency, many interesting questions arise: how will the new agency operate? Does SCDPCGC, or whatever the new company will be called, now have seven partners? Presumably, the merger gives Frank Gleason the opportunity to cash out his share of the partnership of CGC so he can go fight his cancer. Will SCDP and CGC each continue to independently maintain the smaller accounts they had been working on before, and simply pool their resources for the bigger ones like Chevy? That seems like it will create the least amount of confusion. What about hierarchy? Who is the lead creative: Don or Ted? Don and Ted’s management styles clash like oil and water: Ted is a nurturing enthusiast, while Don is a disciplining pragmatist. Will they find a balanced symmetry, or will they clash so violently that they destroy the firm? Perhaps Don will just bounce Ted out of the agency. Regardless, this does not bode well for Harry’s bid to become a partner (let the crocodile tears flow).

However, by far the biggest and most exciting development in this new configuration is that Peggy will once again be working with/for Don. The episode conveys perfectly how unsettling this news is for Peggy. She walks into Ted’s office, asking how the Chevy pitch went, and to her great surprise, Don replies in Ted’s stead, “We got it. We won Chevy.”* Suddenly and without warning, Don is already treating Peggy as though she works for him again, before she even has time to realize what’s happening. It’s extremely jarring for her, and her shock and trepidation are written all over her face. To his credit, Don realizes he’s being presumptuous, and he refers to how he “did this wrong once before,” a call back to the end of season 3, when he assumed that Peggy would be along for the ride when Sterling Cooper became SCDP. Back then, his presumptuousness rankled Peggy, who was tired of his treating her like furniture, and who decided she would not be going along with him. This previous confrontation paid off in a wonderfully sweet moment where, for the first time, Don gave Peggy a moving speech where he stated clearly how much she meant to him, and how much he valued her talent.

* More ironic use of the word “we.” As far as Peggy is concerned, there is no “we” in Don and Ted’s decision to merge – she had no say in the matter, and is clearly disturbed by it. Don's reply is made even more disturbing because it begins when he is still off-screen, making his appearance even more sudden and surprising.

Now, however, as Don begins a rehash of this speech, it comes off as something else entirely: manipulative and disingenuous. Peggy rejected Don when she decided to leave SCDP for CGC last season. By merging the two companies, Don seems to behave like an oppressive ex-lover who can’t let go, one who hopes that a repeat performance of his wooing will work again a second time (true to some extent, even if we know there is more to it than that). However, this time around, Peggy has much less leverage, and she knows it. After Don and Ted finish explaining to her what her position will be in the new company, Peggy mutters, “I just bought an apartment.” Don indicates how poor he has become at reading her when he takes her reaction as an excited acceptance of their offer, rather than as a discouraged acknowledgement of how she has no other options, and shakes her hand in congratulations (somewhat of a twist on the kiss he gave her hand when she left him last season). Don’s slightly guilty conscious is evident throughout the scene as he oozes self-satisfied smarm, a façade meant to mask his deep-seated knowledge that Peggy left SCDP to get away from him (even if he might not want to admit it to himself). It’s an expertly played scene by both Elizabeth Moss and Jon Hamm.

Suffice it to say, this is definitely not what Peggy wanted. It was eminently clear that she had outgrown Don’s mentorship (or more specifically, Don’s demeaning treatment of her) last season, and this season has made her growth even clearer, turning her into a female version of Don, one who has clearly flourished away from Don’s influence. Despite Don having helped make Peggy the person she has become, and despite Ted’s excited description of her position in the new company, she will almost certainly feel chafed at being back in the orbit of the man who regularly heaped abuse upon her. However, what’s bad for Peggy is good for viewers, as it allows for the resumption of one the show’s most complex and consistently rewarding relationships.

Those who have complained that show is merely treading water and not doing anything new ought to be rather pleased with this latest development; it might not push Don in a new direction in his personal life, but it gives his and Peggy’s professional lives quite a jolt. Best episode of the season thus far, by a long measure.

Other thoughts:

- There is some very nice editing in this episode. As Burt and Pete toast the $11/share rating the banker awarded SCDP, the episode cuts to a shot of Marie drinking while at dinner with Don and Herb, her eyes pleading for a release from the banality of Herb’s talkative wife. As Pete and Burt toast their success, Don is about to throw it away out of sheer contempt for the slimy Herb.

- Loved Roger dishing out the details on Chevy’s new car. It was like Santa Claus giving kids presents. Speaking of which, the car Roger identifies is what will become the Chevy Vega (gulp!).

- Peggy’s description of Jim Cutler proves accurate, as he and Roger appear to be doppelgangers when they meet before the Chevy pitch.

- Interesting to see Joan, Burt, and Pete in casual weekend clothes at the office, especially Joan with her hair let down.

- Last night’s episode had me leaping out of my seat near the end. I’m very excited to have Don and Peggy back together. Let the sparks fly!

- Marie’s disinterest in her own matriarchal status continues to be a source of humor. I chuckled at her dismissive attitude toward her grandchildren (presumably by one of Megan’s siblings), whom she finds annoying, as well as her trying to get rid of the flowers Megan gave her by offering them to Arnie. Also funny: Marie knew there was some tension between Megan and Don because she and Marie had not yet had a fight during her visit.

- Although my interest in their relationship is petering out with the return of Don’s old adulterous habits, there were some minor developments between Don and Megan this week. Marie has sage advice for Megan, who senses the growing rift between them: dress for dinner so that he’ll want to fuck you. And it seems to work, as Don, invigorated after dumping Herb and Jaguar, can’t keep his hands off Megan after they return home. Later, she gives Don sexual support as he’s wrestling with the Chevy pitch.

- Marie has a pretty wicked kiss-off line when Roger calls with news of why he didn’t show up at the Jaguar dinner: “Forget. My. Name.”

- This week in “Pete Campbell’s smooth moves”: upon bumping into his father-in-law at brothel, rather than turning away or pretending he didn’t see him, Pete’s first impulse is to utter a dopey “Hullo.” Smooth! Runner up moment: slipping and falling on the stairs at the start of his epic confrontation with Don (nicely accented by a quick reaction shot of Roger’s secretary Caroline smiling in amusement).

- Bob Benson gets some funny business in this episode: wanting to pay for Pete’s prostitute, and offering Ken and Pete coffee through the window in Ken’s office

- Don’s confrontation with Pete provides a couple of excellent “what?” utterances to be added to the “Don Draper says ‘What’” super-cut.

- Welp, Ted kissed Peggy. We all saw that coming. Peggy is intrigued, however – later she fantasizes about kissing him again when she’s with Abe in their new shithole apartment. Nice touch: fantasy Ted is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later, before she’s summoned to Ted’s office when Ted and Don break the news to Peggy, Peggy puts on lipstick.

UPDATE: As Sepinwall and Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out, Ted is reading "Something by Ralph Waldo Emerson," which is completely hilarious.

- Other nice editing in this episode: when Don and Roger wonder what the hell the people from Dancer are talking about when they make fun of SCDP for losing, there is a cut to Pete yelling frantically into his phone, trying to get his father-in-law on the phone. Roger handled this very nicely as well – he keeps it from Don so that Don can focus on the Chevy pitch.

1 comment:

  1. I am still laughing at SOMETHING by Ralph Waldo Emerson. That's the book all my fantasy men read! bahahahaha