After repeatedly picking on Mad Men in Season 6 for the mediocre episodes that followed a triumphant premiere, it was something of a welcome surprise to love “For Immediate Release” so much.
The title refers to the announcement that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler, Gleason & Chaough would be merging – a lark dreamt up by Don while sitting in a bar with former enemy Ted Chaough as the two come to terms with Ted’s truism that they will never win the Chevy account. Their firms have the best ideas, but they're not big enough.
This is a major thematic development for Mad Men and it makes you realize that despite the driving force of the series being Don’s inner demons, sometimes it’s fun to remember that the actual advertising concept is worthy of exploration.
Of course, all of this praise wouldn’t be right without point out that Mad Men had really let the advertising part of the series slip in recent years. I mean, if you think back to how great “The Carousel” episode was in Season 1 or the euphoria created when the decision was made to create Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it’s easy to forget how well Mad Men hums along when the overarching focus is on the work that employs the characters rather than so much emphasis on the home lives or petty digressions of those same characters.
Which is a long way of saying that even though the major theme of Mad Men is not actually advertising, as some people think, it's nice to refocus energy on that aspect and do it in a dramatically formidable way.
Listen, I’d rather have 10 episodes about advertising than another episode that explores the characters’ reactions to events in 1968. Mad Men works best when it can illuminate the world of advertising as some kind of seductive illusion that keeps Don and company temporarily distracted from their navel gazing, provided that at the end of the day they can take a long look at themselves and be unhappy with what they see.
Sometimes it’s all in the balance.
And let’s not kid ourselves here – the recent episodes have not been as strong as they could be, because they were heavily invested in emotional carnage or derring-do without much concomitant emphasis on what that means for Don, our key cog in this machine. Translation: Better to talk about Chevy than Ginsberg’s dad, if you’re not going to focus on Don wondering why the hell he’s so unhappy.
This episode was written entirely by series creator Matthew Weiner, as was the last good episode – which was the Season 6 premiere. That’s not to say that his underlings aren’t getting the job done (since pretty much everyone these days knows how obsessed Weiner is with details and his refusal to give up much control in the writing department). But it’s telling that the his solo work has been the most Mad Men-ish episodes this season.
Weiner managed to create a whole “Secrets and Lies” scenario in this episode, where people are making unilateral decisions while others are missing and how those decisions have a massive effect on all involved. From Don being left out of the discussion to go public to Pete calling bullshit on Trudy’s dad’s bluff, the bulk of the episode was about hidden agendas (hell, even Megan’s blow job was directed from without and done to shore up problems rather than a spontaneous act of sexual impulse).
So to have such a monumental outcome – a merger! – fall into the final third of the episode was crafty and well done on Weiner’s part. And it covered up a few moments that otherwise would have been things to pounce on – the hokey daydream fascination from Peggy when she’s kissing Abe but wishing it was Ted.
Oh, holy horrors, was that lame. Please do not ever do that kind of stunt again, Mad Men.
Also, we got through an episode without Sylvia. In fact, focusing on Arnold instead was much more beneficial. He's not going to be the first American doctor to successfully complete a heart transplant. And that's messing with Arnold's head. Hell, maybe he'll be so disappointed in work that he'll leave the hospital early one day and come home to find that....
Well, we can hope.
But let’s not be negative. There’s been plenty of that to go around in the past few weeks. Instead, there’s so much to celebrate beyond the obvious, which is the artfully constructed coming together of Don and Ted’s egos and how right that felt. Think about the possibilities of Bert Cooper looking at Don and Ted and wondering what the hell they’ve done. Or how much fun it will be to have John Slattery and Harry Hamlin (who plays Jim Cutler, a partner in Ted’s firm) tossing off catty one-liners. Plus you’ve got the morning-after effect of Don and Ted’s competing egos, plus the what-the-hell-just-happened nature of Peggy realizing she’s working for Don again.
You want a dramatic twist in a series not keen on big and fast developments? Well, “For Immediate Release” certainly provided that. What’s most impressive is that halfway through the episode, were you to hit the pause button to reflect on what you’d just seen, the reaction might be, “It feels exciting, but I don’t know why.” Not much had happened yet. But in the end, Peggy’s storyline was significantly altered. Pete had blown up his marriage out of petty revenge (that’s just Pete being Pete, of course). We finally got rid of the Jaguar guy (I wonder if the Alpha Romeo guy that Ted must have been dealing with was half as annoying). We didn’t have to deal with 1968. And there were very few elements to be upset about, unlike the previous episodes.
This was a superb return to form for Mad Men. I’m not sure what’s more startling – refocusing with such precision on the world of advertising or the realization that events outside of Don’s life (and inner turmoil) can be so intriguing. The truth is, “For Immediate Release” was a shot in the arm for a great series that really needed to get back on its game. Merging companies is a huge deal, dramatically, and it immediately made next week’s Mad Men something to eagerly look forward to – a feeling missing early in this sixth season.
Well done, all the way around.
And the glorious kicker to this episode? That car Don and Ted are staking their companies on? The one designed by a computer and conceived to outdo the Ford Mustang? Just Google “Chevy XP-887.”