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Mad Men Recap: First-Class Lounge

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) - Mad Men - Season 6, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Watching “For Immediate Release” is like riding a rickety old wooden roller coaster that thrills you with its seemingly unsafe twists and turns and leaves you feeling sore for a couple of days. That’s a compliment, by the way.

It was payoff for four straight episodes that offered little besides characterization and atmosphere, much of it problematic or unsatisfying for fans (or maybe just me). Written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, it was all dramatic action, much of it appealingly soapy. The firm was up, it was down, and then it was up again maybe. Rivals have become partners. Don is still an asshole, but because he delivered — thanks mainly to Roger’s Playboy mansion approach to corporate intel — he’s a heroic asshole, for now.

In the episode’s opening scene, Pete, Joan, and Bert met with a banker about taking Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce public. Don then unknowingly screwed up the public offering by being Don and unilaterally firing Herb the Jaguar dealer over dinner for, essentially, being Herb, a classless, presumptuous client from hell. Then Roger found out via his sometimes-mistress, who works in the first-class lounge at the airport, that Chevy was soliciting pitches to sell their supposedly revolutionary new car because they’re apparently not happy with the agency they have. While in Detroit for the pitch, Don commiserated with his rival Ted at a bar (in a soul-baring scene somewhat similar to the one between Don and the soldier in Hawaii in the season opener) and agreed that little agencies like theirs rarely had a chance against the big ones, because major clients tended to be conservative and look for size and “boots on the ground,” to use Ted’s words. By the end of the episode, the agencies had agreed to merge. The last scene was Peggy typing out a press release announcing the deal. What? Huh? Oh, okay, fine. Awesome.

Speaking of Peggy: Although this was really Don’s episode, because so many of the other characters were forced to react to his shenanigans and inspirations, I came away thinking more about Don’s onetime pupil. Don’s been compared to a penny that just keeps showing up in women’s lives. Now he’s back in Peggy’s as well, appearing at Ted’s office like a David Lynch phantom and trying to make the merger sound like a great opportunity for Peggy while congratulating her on buying a sketchy apartment with Abe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Problem is, just a few scenes earlier, a distraught Peggy got an unsolicited kiss from Ted, who’s previously been a charismatic but platonic boss like Don used to be, and she liked it. The notion of Peggy having to work for both Don and Ted is fascinating because she never had a romantic relationship with Don (who was more like a powerful yet emotionally vulnerable big brother at times), but she’s thinking about having one with Ted. Romantically she’s in a tricky spot. Poor Abe is a sweet man, but he talked Peggy into a living situation that’s already making her unhappy, and he’s just not enough of a star to be her equal; at various times this seems to have bothered both of them. This new work situation is going to cause all sorts of trouble for her, romantically as well as professionally.

The more I think back on it, the more this seems like an episode in which the men triumphed and the women were ignored or left out. Peggy’s arguably the most important creative person at her new agency, but now she’s back to being one medium-size fish in a pond with plenty while sharks like Don and Roger loom over her, and I have a feeling that having Don around all the time will box-block her from doing anything with Ted — though you never know with this show. The agency merger is a leap forward for both agencies, but I don’t immediately see how it benefits Peggy; from here it looks more like it just complicates things for her. She’s going to spend a lot of effort playing peacemaker between two guys she knows so well, one of whom she’s sweet on. (I love the scene of Peggy fantasizing about Ted while making out with Abe; it was clever filmmaking, and funny.)

Poor Joan, meanwhile, recently complained to a friend that even though she’s a partner now, she still gets treated like a glorified secretary. We saw two confirmations this episode. One was the banker in the opening scene praising Joan’s immaculate books — a statement that, as Pete correctly observed, wasn’t just about her books: “Everyone wants you, don’t they?” The other was the moment right after Roger announced the Chevy opportunity (saving Don from public flaying) and Don shifted into White Guy Takin’ Charge Mode: His first act was to bark orders at Joan as if she were still a secretary.

Joan was rightly furious that Don had fired Herb. She let Herb screw her for the greater good of the company, and Don can't even get through a meal with the guy because it offends his sense of integrity? "Honestly, Don, if I could deal with him, you could deal with him, and what now?" Joan asked, on the edge of tears. "I went through all of that for nothing?"

Well, not “nothing” — she’s a partner now, and one could make a case that having Jaguar improved the company’s profile and swelled their coffers; so there was a net gain for SCDP even if Jaguar didn’t stay with them forever and ever, amen. But on a human level, she’s right. One gets the sense that every powerful man at the firm, Don included, has forgotten the personal implications of Joan’s sacrifice, or never considered them in the first place. They seem to view the Joan-Herb incident as a pretext for knowing glances and innuendo and nothing more — even Don, who showed up at Joan’s apartment on the night of her date with Herb with a forlorn Galahad face, too late to talk her out of going. “Just once,” Joan told Don, “I would like to hear you use the word we. Because we're all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping you decide what you think is right for our lives!" Don is a poster boy for unexamined privilege, and perhaps always will be. (I guess one could argue that Don hates Herb in large part because Joan prostituted herself with him on behalf of SDCP, but that was never the vibe I got from their scenes together; it always felt like Don hated Herb on general principle, because he was the stereotype of the big, fat, ignorant businessman treating everyone like lackeys and disrespecting artists.)

Though it was definitely satisfying to see Pete ream Don in the lobby, stair pratfall and all, Don’s comeuppance was short-lived. I was struck by the fact that, for all his deep emotional turmoil, his creative ego remains fundamentally unbruised. He’s still an arrogant bastard who does whatever he wants, and expects the world to adjust. (The tobacco letter from season four was maybe the most notorious example.) Don’s been such an absent presence from the firm this season that it was a bit of a shock (pleasant in some ways, at least from the standpoint of a viewer looking for excitement) to see how he behaved at that dinner with Herb and his wife, Peaches. The Don Draper sneer, complete with slitted mongoose eyes, returned. He acted as if his fortunes were still at their peak — as if he were still a rainmaking prince among men. Over the years he’s been likened to all manner of glamorous pop-culture heroes, including James Bond, Batman, and Superman; there was another Superman reference in this episode (Megan made it), plus a new comparison, courtesy of Pete: “Don’t act like you had a plan! You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine!” Apparently some of that spark remains, even now. “I like you like this,” Megan told him. “Desperate?” he asked. “Fearless,” she replied. She even gave the prince a going-away present, kneeling in front of him, Don sitting there like a prince on his throne.

During that bar conversation between Ted and Don, I wondered if Ted was playing Don, or Don was playing Ted. I found it hard to believe that two guys that competitive would tell each other their pitches the morning before their presentations; I figured one guy was trying to set up the other for failure. (More “psychological warfare,” as Don puts it.) But no: It was an authentic and trusting moment between equals who in some ways seem like one another’s doppelgängers, and the start of, if not a beautiful friendship, then at least an alliance.

Odds and ends

  • Between Dawn’s absence from this episode and the scene in the whorehouse with Pete’s father-in-law getting caught with “the biggest, blackest prostitute I’ve ever seen” (Pete), I’d say the show’s civil rights/racism subject matter is on pause mode for now.
  • Robert F. Kennedy was name-checked again this week, in a conversation between Peggy and Abe. This episode is set around Mother’s Day. The assassination might be on deck for next week or the week after.
  • I loved seeing Marie Calvet in this episode, a sexy grandmother fleeing Mother’s Day oppressiveness and landing in a home without kids. Her line about Herb’s wife, Peaches, was one of the episode’s highlights: “She’s the apple that goes in the pig’s mouth."
  • The show is solidifying the notion that Megan has her own identity as an actress/public figure apart from Don, and that her professional success is driving a wedge between them. “He must think you belong more to other people than to him,” Marie told her, a few scenes after she saw strangers recognize her in an elevator. Her advice prior to the Herb dinner — to make Don think of nothing but getting between her legs — put Megan in the same boat, more or less, as Joan and Peggy this episode, women who are recognized and paid for their skills yet still valued as sex objects or romantic partners.
  • This was a great Roger episode that proved that Rat Pack–ish, host-of-every-party attitude could benefit the firm. Everyone’s constantly making jokes about Roger’s disengagement from the daily life if SCDP, and he is disengaged. At the same time, though, Roger’s got skills that nobody else at the firm could dream of having, and he put them to use here. There’s an art to making people feel as if it’s okay to have fun — and a related art to turning their pleasure to your advantage without making them feel they’ve been taken advantage of. Roger could sell heating oil to Satan.
  • The scene of Roger leaving for the airport was just wonderful: the hat, the travel bag, the copies of his book, the way he left the room and then came back in. Charming as hell.
  • Take notes, would-be smooth operators: When Roger cozies up to the Chevy guy in the first-class lounge and offers to get him a drink, he asks his squeeze to fetch a Jim Beam for the client and "a glass of water with an onion" for himself. 
  • Pete’s snottiness reached some kind of giddy peak this episode, but it was hilarious. This character in high dudgeon is comic gold, and his desperation rates at least a silver. I liked the subplot with him and his father-in-law — another example of personal animosity affecting business, and thus a mirror of the Don-Herb stuff — and I liked how the script didn’t question the fundamental hypocrisy of one man cheating but being so outraged by his son-in-law’s cheating that he takes money out of his pocket as punishment. There are no repercussions. Forget about “mutually assured destruction”: In situations like this, the more powerful man gets to dictate the moral reality and dole out punishment. It’s not fair, but it’s real.
  • That said, Trudy’s expression after Pete told her what he saw in the whorehouse was devastating. She acted as if she were more offended by Pete’s disclosure than by the act itself, but you could tell that it destroyed her. Nobody likes to picture their father in circumstances like that, and as justifiably furious as Pete was, I wish he hadn’t told her.
  • Friends can expect me to start using Ken Cosgrove's sexual euphemism "working the slide rule" in everyday conversation, though hopefully only where appropriate.
Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC