Mad Men: The Future is Something You Haven’t Even Thought of Yet

Ted, Don and Peggy ponder the latest plot twist.

As a public relations professional (if you can call it that), I immediately recognized the title of this Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode (“For Immediate Release”) as press release jargon that indicates to reporters they can use the news right away.  But since that seemed too obvious a clue, I thought Matt Weiner might have another meaning in mind (and given all the sex that occurred on the show, maybe he really was trying for a double entendre).

Regardless of how many interpretations you can give to the word “release” the show really did end with Peggy typing a press release — and to the loyal readers of this blog who were tipped off several weeks ago about the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce with Cutler, Gleason & Chaough, all I can say is …. You’re welcome.

After a season full of despair, fear of death, lying and cheating, “For Immediate Release” was a blast. Almost everyone’s having a good time, except for poor Pete Campbell. And who among us is saintly enough not to revel in his misfortunes.  In a night of great lines, the sight of him stumbling down the was possibly the funniest moment of the episode.

Here’s what’s going well for our friends: the partners are on the verge of being rich, or getting richer, through an IPO; Don finally fires Jaguar and shows his contempt for the porcine Herb Rennet who runs it; Don and Megan’s marriage seems to regain a bit of pizzazz; and most important of all, SCDP and CGC merge in order to win the Chevy account, which will catapult them into the big leagues.

And all this is accomplished by the old guard, the characters who seemed so irrelevant at the beginning of the season. Burt Cooper is the partner who brought in the underwriter to manage the IPO. Roger Sterling is the one who used his guile and charm to get the firm introduced to Chevy; and of course it was Don’s creative genius that carried the day with Chevy and conceived of the merger with Ted Chaough’s agency.  When big things need to be done you bring in the big boys.

The sunny optimism of the show was not confined to the old school mad men either.  Peggy’s boyfriend Abe thinks the future is looking up. Despite living in a squalid dump on the upper west side, he thinks positive charge is on the way: “Everything is getting better. Vietnam is going to end.  Johnson won’t be around. McCarthy may be president; Kennedy at the worst.”

Peggy’s next line, “I love Bobby Kennedy,” is a clear signal that we have to enjoy this episode while we can because the “flood” predicted in last week’s episode is about to consume America.  It’s May 17, 1968; in three weeks Bobby Kennedy will also be assassinated; in July there will be riots at the Democratic National Convention; in November Richard Nixon – not Gene McCarthy – will be elected president after the segregationist George Wallace siphons off most of the southern states and prevents Hubert Humphrey from getting traditionally Democratic votes; and the Vietnam war will continue for another six years.

Don’s pitch for the Chevy account – “the future is something you haven’t even thought of yet” – is supposed to be optimistic, but it’s actually a portent of further despair.  The RFK assassination, coming so soon on the heels of the Martin Luther King Jr. murder and the killing of JFK just five years earlier, was bad enough.  The early optimism of the nonviolent civil rights movement gave way to years of urban rioting. And of course the country tore itself apart over the Vietnam War in a way that we have not even seen on “Mad Men.”   1968 was a year when half the country hated the other half; on “Mad Men” no one seems to object to Abe’s Frank Zappa looks, or Stan’s long hair and bushy beard, but in the Sixties a haircut was an overtly political statement that could set off a huge argument at a family dinner.  “Everyone likes astronauts,” Chaough’s partner says but that’s not true.  With their clean cut looks, military backgrounds and reliance on technology, astronauts were the symbol of the “establishment” and everybody did not love them.  I’m not sure if Matt Weiner, who was only a toddler in 1968, really gets that.

But before we descend again into darkness, let’s savor this very funny, very sunny interlude.  This is an episode where someone can truthfully say “my mother just died” – on Mother’s Day, no less – and use it as a wry pick-up line.    Oh that Roger Sterling! (Who wisely decided to empty his bag of “Sterling’s Gold” copies before headed to the airport.)  And of course any episode with Megan’s mother Marie is a treasure.  She visits the Draper household to avoid going to visit her grandchildren on Mother’s Day (their sin being that they are overly excessive in their Mother’s Day wishes). She offers to give away the flowers that Megan has given her for the holiday and then delivers the maliciously biting observation that Herb Rennet’s wife Peaches “is the apple that goes in the pig’s mouth.” Ha! And don’t forget how she swigs wine from the mouth of the bottle while she waits for Don and Megan to complete their spousal reconnection.

This is also the episode where Don says “I love puppies” and where Burt Cooper asks Pete if he has any spirits of elderflower (a real liqueur, apparently).

Of course not everything is hunky dory in the SCDP universe.  The odious Pete Campbell has blown up his marriage. After learning that he’s about to be enriched by the firm’s IPO, he creeps back into the marital bedroom from whence he has been banished for John Cheever-like indiscretions with the local housewives; when Trudy somewhat good-naturedly resists his advances, he petulantly responds “So, we’ll maintain every other aspect of this marriage except the one that really matters.” “You mean Tammy,” she coolly replies. His libido thwarted at home, he visits an uptown whorehouse, where he runs into his father-in-law.

Neither Pete nor the father-in-law seem to understand the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, a strategy that generally kept the peace for during the Cold War.   But MAD was deployed by cool-headed statesmen, which is not Pete Campbell.  When his father-in-law escalates the conflict and pulls the Vicks account, Pete goes nuclear, telling Trudy that he “caught him with a 200 pound Negro prostitute.” Well that ends that, and by bragging to Trudy how rich he is going to be, he has just doubled his alimony and child support payments.

(By the way, it’s a delicious irony that Pete, the office liberal, who just last week excoriated Harry Crane for being insufficiently sad about the MLK murder, makes the only two racist comments of the show: he also told Ken that he’d seen his father-in-law with “the biggest, blackest prostitute you’ve ever seen.”)

It’s also not clear how badly Don has damaged his relationship with Joan.  She’s bitterly upset that Don unilaterally severed the firm’s relationship with SCDP with Jaguar – the account that the firm won after she had sex with Herb Rennet. “I went through all of that for nothing?” she rages.  Don’s been yelled at my dozens of women in his life, but Joan’s comments are probably the most cutting: “Just once, I would like to hear you use the word ‘we,’ because we’re all rooting for you on the sidelines, hoping you’ll do whatever you think is right for our lives.”

And yet, in business at least, Don’s unilateral actions have mostly been right.  His problem is that he sees things before anyone else and acts like the Lone Ranger (or Superman as Megan rather grandiosely says.)  He was right two years ago to publish that open letter promising that the firm would not accept tobacco clients; and he was almost certainly right that the Jaguar account is doomed. An account obtained through sleaze is always on thin ice and Herb Rennet is looking for revenge after Don sabotaged his attempt to shift ad spending to local TV stations.  By trying to get Don to report to the kid who writes flyers, he’s making a play to regain creative control, which Don will not cede.  And to make it worse, Herb has just learned after Megan, saying in the most lascivious way, “tall and tan and young and lovely.” Ick. He deserved to be fired.

So on we go into the future, which we know is bleak, but the characters don’t. Peggy is assigned the task of making the newly merged firm “sound like the agency you want to work for.”  Because that’s what she and Don and Ted do: they create a new reality out of words.

Some other thoughts:

— I don’t really want to complain because it was such a good episode, but for a series that prides itself on getting every little detail right, there were three whoppers this week. 1) The IPO process is nothing like it’s presented on this show. The stock price is determined the first day or trading, not by the investment banker. And there’s no way a banker would come to the office on a Saturday night, look at some financial statements for 20 minutes and then agree to do the IPO on the spot.  There’s something called “due diligence.” 2) Similarly, two same-size agencies cannot agree to merge in less than a day. There are many tricky money and control questions that need to be resolved in laborious detail, especially when the partner at one firm has cancer and the other firm is about to go public.  3) It’s extremely unlikely that Peggy and Abe would have been able to buy and close on an apartment in less than a month, even on the Upper West Side. And why are they living in a dump like that? How is it even possible that a place like that is a co-op?

— Marie’s advice to Megan to revitalize their marriage through sex seems a bit off.  It’s not just sex that Don wants.  He wants a partner. He was most in love with her when she was part of his work life too.  Not to sound like something out of “Can this marriage be saved,” but I think Megan needs to stop nattering on about her soap opera career and engage him again where he comes most alive – at the office.  Of course needless to say, she does need to keep the sex coming too.  That’s a given.

— That was an interesting new perspective on Dr. Arnold Rosen, who had seemed the innocent cuckold until now.  He comes into the Draper kitchen and basically hits on Marie in front of Don and Megan; then he quits a job because his hospital won’t let him perform a heart transplant. He’s upset because the patient died, but even more upset that he won’t get the fame and prestige of performing this new procedure. (I’m not sure if this is another mistake, but the first U.S. heart transplant took place at the beginning of 1968, very soon after the world’s first transplant by Dr. Christian Barnaard in South Africa.) We no longer feel quite as sorry that Don is sleeping with his wife, now that he’s no longer a saint.

— Speaking of the now unemployed Dr. Rosen, I wonder if he and Sylvia will move to Houston, where most of the heart transplant action is taking place?  That would get Sylvia out of Don’s orbit before he can wreck both marriages.  That would be a very interesting and unexpected plot development, since we all think it’s inevitable that Don will torpedo his relationship with Megan.

— The car that Chevy will develop — using a computer no less! — is the Chevy Vega, a real bomb. A literal bomb since it used to catch on fire.

— According to my calculations, the SCDP partners will now be worth $16.5 million if their 1.5 million shares trade at $11/share. Joan is worth more than a million dollars, which is a windfall for her and probably worth five minutes of cuddle time with a naked Herb Rennet.  In keeping with the show’s theme that you can’t predict the future, though, what the partners don’t know is that the stock market is about to enter a prolonged slump and those shares will probably not be worth the IPO price again until the 1980s.  Also, what they don’t know is that they will spend every day from now until the day they sell out calling their brokers asking what the stock price is (no Bloomberg terminals or e-trading in the 1960s!)

— Joan’s extreme reaction of Don’s question, “Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?” reminds me of how she slapped down Peggy for firing the guy who was harassing her in the “All The Beautiful Girls” episode in Season Four. Then, as now, Joan claimed that she could handle herself, but she clearly can’t.  As long as the stain of Jaguar fell remained, the agency as a whole could never put that unholy act behind.

— How furious will Harry Crane be when he finds out that the firm is going public?  Joan get a million dollars and he gets $23,000 for thinking up “Broadway Joe on Broadway.”

— Don’s Chevy pitch is the third time this season he’s tried to sell the concept of a ad that doesn’t include an image of the product (the others being the Heinz ketchup bottle and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel).  I’m not sure if this means he’s running out of ideas or that we are to understand that Don himself is not there. Regardless, they are all interesting stylish pitches, too far ahead of their time.

— It may turn out to be that “tall and tan and young and lovely” will be the most consequential line of the season — the moment around which the whole series pivots.  Before then, Don was still in a funk, going to far as to pretend to love puppies to keep the chit chat going; but after Herb Rennet makes one sleazy remark too many, Don is jolted back to the old Draper.  “I’ve never felt better,” he says after dumping Jaguar and he’s a tiger in the bedroom when he gets home. Power really is the ultimate turn-on and Don has his mojo back big time.

— So Ted Chaough hates being called a nice guy. I wonder how big of a problem that is since he’s mostly been a douche on this show (except for the one time he told Peggy to send the staff home on New Year’s Eve.) Still, he was gentlemanly enough not to ravish Peggy on the couch, which is a step up from Draper behavior (although to his credit, Don never made a pass at Peggy.) Note to Abe, drop the shirtless farmer jeans look and grab a groovy turtleneck before it’s too late.

— Speaking of Abe, here’s another prediction – he ends up getting his head cracked at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

By the way, I want to make this clear, unless this works, I’m against this.

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