Well, was that 1968 enough for you? Mad Men’s last couple seasons have dedicated a great deal of time and energy to showing how social shifts into a new era are never a neat and discrete affair. This, as you might expect, is a tall order. For the sake of having any sort of sense for the time period, we naturally try to break down, and imagine decades using easily digestible, and identifiable affects, creating a vague potpourri of the epoch’s culture and feel. Modern day ‘80s nostalgia is hitting the dregs of the hairspray can, so pretty soon a new 19-35 demo will be pining for the golden days of plaid shirts, grunge, and general disillusionment. Paring down a whole decade to just music, clothing, and a mood hardly makes for a history lesson, so it’s certainly over simplistic to call “For Immediate Release” the most ‘60s episode of Mad Men ever, but when the broad strokes themes of the week and era are war, mutually assured destruction, and everyone getting f*@#ed, it’s a tempting assumption to make.
So I’ll make it, because hey, “For Immediate Release” was a “’60s” episode of Mad Men, with a capital “S”, and a flower in its hair. Considering we only have two years until the cultural shorthand for the show’s timeframe becomes disco and cocaine, you can see why season six has increasingly “groovy-ed” up the proceedings: Don’s smoking the reefer like a regular hip cat, Peggy’s living in ground zero of a diversifying New York, and Trudy lets Pete out of the house sporting those face-caterpillars he calls sideburns. It’s been a slow process, as it should be: much like how the signing of the Civil Rights Act a week after MLK’s assassination didn’t suddenly make America a land of racial harmony and tolerance, Don Draper was never going to wake up one day, and realize it was now the swinging sixties.
But swing Don does, though this week it’s confined mostly to the boardroom and bar, instead of the bedroom. A planned business dinner/makeup session between Don, Roger, Herb, and their respective partners (Marie Calvert, the last woman you want to scorn, gets stood up by an occupied Roger), ends with Don torpedoing the Jaguar account that he, and the rest of SCDP bled for less than a year ago. The company’s car was supposed to be the brass ring, but how they earned has always chaffed with Don. Finally, instead of simply undermining Herb with a kamikaze pitch, and a forgotten handshake, Don goes right for the jugular, after Herb has the “idea” of using Don to train one of his sale lot underlings. Though SCDP gains nothing from dumping Herb -expect having one less dirtbag master to serve- Don can sell the rest of the partners on this being a moral victory, right?
Nooooope. As it turns out, Don could not have picked a worse time to let go of the prized pig. The episode opens with Bert, Joan, and Pete conferring with a banker on taking the company public, which would help push SCDP into a heavier weight class, and line the partners’ pockets nicely. It’s an unusual pairing of characters, but these three really are the most business-minded of the partners. Bert’s finalizing his legacy, while Joan and Pete are still safeguarding theirs. Their own personal investment in the company is enough for me to believe that they would make a huge decision like this without at least advising Roger and Don ahead of time, because otherwise, maybe Don would have thought twice before completely screwing things up with Jaguar.
“You’re like Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine,” Pete yells at Don, in one of those great Mad Men scenes that reminds you the show is equally capable of making things fall apart slowly over the course of years, and exploding them like a hand grenade in a matter of seconds (see: “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency”). There’s an element of audience surrogacy to how everyone, Joan included, turns on Don for making another unilateral decision for others that’s entirely the product of his ego. “Honestly, Don, if I could deal with him, you could deal with him,” Joan snaps, wearing a faded shade of the green that she had on in the aftermath of her night with Herb. In one fell swoop, Don has taken away nearly everything Joan, and the company gained from her sacrifice. Even if he thinks he’s helping everyone retake the moral high ground, in the moment, the decision came down to what he wanted, not what anyone else needed.
Thank God Roger Sterling is there to save the day. John Slattery got a fair bit of screentime following the death of Mama Sterling in the premiere, but the rest of the season has seen him criminally sidelined until an occasional quip is required. While it’s great to have Roger back in the mix, what’s even better is seeing the smooth operator we always knew he had in him come out of retirement. With a saucily uniformed airline stewardess feeding him info on when a rep from Chevrolet is delayed at the airport, Roger proves he’s a gender-neutral pickup artist, wielding a quick line, a sharp suit, and the unmistakable aura of a man you want to be around, even if that means you have to hire him. Any sort of a prequel or spinoff to Mad Men would be sacrilege, but I would make an exception for any series starring a younger Roger spying, charming, and sleeping his way through post-war Berlin.
In a way, Roger proving he’s still got it (“I close, Pete, I close things”) by bringing home a shot at a new company car, at the exact same time that Don sends the old one to the scrap heap, is almost a literal deus ex machina -more for the machine side of things than anything religious. Don, as he tells the newly unemployed Dr. Rosen, doesn’t believe in fate, much less divine providence. “You make your own opportunities,” he says, with the assured confidence of a man who doesn’t realize he hasn’t actually used that advice in a long, long time. When Roger first met Don, he was a scrappy go-getter with a five-dollar haircut. Now, success, wealth, and a specific kind of fame have dulled his once killer instincts.
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