Great television is, with apologies to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, like pornography. You know it when you see it. Last night’s episode of “Mad Men,” effectively the midway point for the penultimate season, was delightfully unadulterated excellent television. “For Immediate Release” will likely go down as one of if not the best episode of season six — and quite possibly one of the top 10 in the entire run. It was that good.
The episode was a confluence of invigorated characterization, spotty communication, impulsive decisions and financial interdependence, dotted with comical moments that culminated with a game-changing merger of Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce and Cutler Gleason and Chaugh — and a Big Three car account, with Chevy’s Vega.
The episode played out thus: Pete, Bert and Joan meet with a banker, running numbers for an Initial Public Offering. Yes, the firm’s going public. (Note: The partners haven’t told Don or Roger about the IPO, but plan to do so the next day.) Roger, thanks to tips he gets from his latest paramour, a young stewardess who manages the First Class airport lounge at JFK, gets on the same flight to Detroit as a Chevy executive. (Note: Roger doesn’t tell anyone what he’s doing, he’s acting on a whim. Perhaps because it’s Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day.)
Don, at dinner with Herb, the Jaguar dealer, his wife Peaches, Megan and Megan’s mother, fires Jaguar while the ladies are powdering their noses. This was after Herb overstepped his bounds by suggesting that Don look at pamphlets one of his boys was writing. (Note: This is an impulsive, unilateral move on Don’s part. Further, Pete and Roger were supposed to be at dinner, but Herb asked Roger to uninvite Pete and Roger went off to Detroit, without sending his regrets.)
Back at the office, Pete goes nuts when Ken gets a call about losing Jaguar, and, proceeds to fall down the stairs as he yells at Don for his unilateral move in front of half the firm. In his anger, Pete mentions the IPO, which is a surprise to everyone except Joan. She corrals Pete, Don and Ken into the conference room. Don asks why no one told him about IPO. Roger shows up and announces they have until Friday to prepare a pitch for Chevy. Joan reams out Don for firing Jaguar, because of what she sacrificed to secure the account. (She slept with Herb, in the wonderful “The Other Woman.” Don was the only partner who urged her not to go through with the tryst. Only it was too late.) Here, Don miscalculated, albeit after the fact, and assumed she’d be relieved to be done with Jaguar. Remember how upset Joan was a few episodes ago when Herb showed up at the office? Well, letting Jaguar go made her even more so.
Over at CGC, the three partners discuss their Chevy pitch. Ted Chaough learns that their creative director has pancreatic cancer. (Note: Jim Cutler hadn’t told him.) This means that both partners will have to buy him out when he retires. The firm recently fired Alfa Romeo, and is feeling the pinch of one less client. Later Peggy finds Ted in his office, on the floor trying to get reception on the television. Ted, upset about the medical news, has been drinking. He kisses Peggy, but then Ted distances himself. Back at her apartment on the Upper West Side, she fantasizes about Ted when Abe kisses her. Her relationship with Abe seems strained by their unpleasant living quarters in the Upper West Side, an urban pioneer fixer upper that features drug addicts and lots of noise.
In another development, Pete bumps into his father-in-law at a midtown brothel. This leads to a showdown that costs the firm the Procter & Gamble account. It also leads to Pete telling Trudy about her father, an act that deeply wounds Trudy and prompts her to declare that they’re done. (Pete should learn that tattling never serves his purposes. He told Bert Cooper about Don Draper’s Dick Whitman past, and nearly got fired for it.)
Don and Roger head to Detroit. There, Don can’t sleep. Alone at the bar, Ted Chaough appears. Ted didn’t know Cooper Sterling was pitching, and the two bond over their small firms’ status and decide to pitch as a team and, if they get the account, to merge. And they do. Back in New York, Ted summons Peggy into his office. She didn’t even know he was back from New York. She powders her nose, and is stunned to find Don in Ted’s office and hearing the news that the firms have merged. Don extends his hand and says she hopes she’ll stay with the firm. Peggy, off kilter, says, “I just bought an apartment,” suggesting she’s in no position to walk. She’s asked to write the press release, with Don telling her to describe a place where she’d like to work. This is where the episode gets its title. “For Immediate Release.”
While much of the episode revolved around workplace matters, there were scenes at the Draper home. Megan’s mother was in town for Mother’s Day. Megan says her marriage to Don has grown distant, and she encourages Megan to stop dressing like a wife. Arnie stops by, asking for wrapping paper so their son Mitchell, who’s shown up to surprise Sylvia, also for Mothers Day, can give a proper gift. Don asks how long he’ll be staying. Arnie doesn’t know. Later Arnie bumps into Don in the elevator and tells him that he’s quit his job, because his hospital wouldn’t approve a pediatric heart transplant. If this is the case, Don and Sylvia are going to have a hard time finding alone time.
Phew! That’s a lot to ponder, and ponder we will, considering how complicated the merger will be for all, much more complex than when Cooper Sterling broke away from its parent firm with the aid of Lane Pryce at the end of season three. Don and Ted are all rivals. But they might be a better suited pair than Roger and Jim. Joan might find navigating the ranks of male partners more difficult, considering three of them are new to her. But Peggy seems the one who will have the greatest challenge, to merge two worlds, one she’d embraced and one she thought she’d left behind.
One character that leaves me scratching my head is Bobby Benson. Is he just an office brownnose — he’s so obsequious with his lidless coffee and offers to pay for everything, including Pete’s tryst at the brothel — or is there more, is he perhaps providing intel for someone? One possible tipoff to the latter was Pete’s jokingly calling him Curious George at the brothel. Or Bobby could just be that person we’ve all worked with, the office oddity, not strange enough to be considered eccentric but clearly someone you’d avoid if you were thrown together outside work. Either way, he provides a certain levity vérité.
From a writing and editing standpoint, this episode was almost flawless. In fact, I could see folks using this script to teach scriptwriting, it had so many deft touches, like the insertion of comic characters Tarzan and Superman, one as an insult, one as a compliment, and a wife named Peaches (Herb’s) whom Marie described to Roger as “the apple in the pig’s mouth.” And I loved how Don found inspiration in Joan’s use of the word “we,” when she admonished him to use it once when he acted. In Detroit, sitting at the bar with Ted, Don seizes on the “we” of Ted’s utterance; it effectively inspires him to propose a collaborative pitch and eventual merger.
The one thing that felt off on the heels of last week’s episode, which unfolded around Martin Luther King’s assassination, was that Dawn was nowhere to be seen. This bothered more than Pete’s father-in-law’s brothel companion being Black — even though that bordered on gratuitous. (I mean, was it really essential to the story line?) It just felt unnatural for Dawn’s desk to be empty. Granted, it was six or so weeks later. But for narrative continuity, Dawn being nowhere over several days left a gap.
There’s definitely some push-pull as far as social upheaval — the Vietnam war, MLK’s assassination — and the implicit optimism of technology and science, with references to heart transplants, astronauts and top-secret groundbreaking automobiles.
Perhaps the best thing about this episode was it left the fan culture ecstatic. After some hiccups, the shared experience of unconditionally and exuberantly loving “Mad Men” has resumed.