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‘Mad Men’ Reminds Us What Don is Like at His Irresistible, Self-Concerned Best

'Mad Men' Reminds Us What Don is Like at His Irresistible, Self-Concerned Best

The article below contains spoilers for “For Immediate Release,” the May 5, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

There were so many choice lines in “For Immediate Release” that it’s hard to pick a favorite. There were Marie Calvet’s (Julia Ormond) barely disguised French-language insults aimed at the woman with whom they were sharing a table (“Do you want me to break that bottle over her head?”) and Bert’s (Robert Morse) requests for a celebratory brandy or “spirits of elderflower,” neither of which Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) had. There was Ken’s (Aaron Staton) description of running into someone you know in a compromising place as “mutually assured destruction” (“It’s why I don’t worry about the bomb”) and Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) saying of the plan to merge his agency with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that “I want to make this clear — unless this works, I’m against it.” There was Joan spitting at Don (Jon Hamm) that “Just once I would like to hear you use the word ‘we,'” and there was Don telling a shocked Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) that they would be coworkers again by suggesting she write the press release to “make it sound like the agency you want to work for,” as if the time she spent under him hadn’t been both formative and difficult for her, as if she hadn’t left for a reason.

But the best moment wasn’t about words at all — it was about Don grinning over the Chevy information Roger (John Slattery) had just brought in, thrilled as a kid on Christmas to have this new product to pitch on. Having spent this season dwelling on the mortality of both the characters and a major historical figure as well as on our protagonist’s lingering and souring dissatisfaction, it was a deep pleasure to see everyone focused on work and actually caring about something, rather than worrying about the absence of feeling. Don looked more alive and open in “For Immediate Release,” which was written by series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger (who helmed last season’s opener “A Little Kiss”), than he has for a year, which is one of the reasons the episode felt like such a gratifying return to the show’s more livelier early days.

It’s at work on something that interests him where Don’s happiest, even if he’s carelessly twirling the future of SCDP around his finger like a set of car keys as he does it, and “For Immediate Release” did a lovely job of showcasing why negotiating for an account is where Don’s in his element and why he can be such a pain in the ass to work with. The underlying arc of this episode, from the opening scene of Bert, Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Pete meeting with the banker, was one of their attempts to take the company public without bothering to inform Don, who’d likely shoot the plan down simply because he doesn’t need the money himself and would rather work without having to answer to investors.

Don’s always tended to be unapologetically self-concerned when it comes to his life at the office — it’s part and a display of his power — but this time he didn’t just unknowingly put the IPO in jeopardy by firebombing that dinner with Jaguar’s odious Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), he tried to claim the equally undependable Roger’s lead at Chevy as part of his motivation after the fact. “Don’t act like you had a plan,” Pete snapped, rightly, while Joan’s distress came from a more deeply rooted place but was just as much about calling Don out on his own bullshit. He wasn’t coming to her rescue, he was just acting out of wounded pride, affronted by Herb’s suggestion that a kid writing flyer copy for his dealerships would ever get a say on Don’s ad campaigns-as-art.

That capacity for self-regard can also be one of Don’s more magnetic qualities, as seen in that scene at the bar where he and Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) practice their pitches and console each other about the fact that Chevy’s probably going to take their ideas and hand them over to one of the larger firms better staffed to handle the job. Don’s suggestion that they combine forces, an inconsiderate and frankly reckless thing to do without consulting their partners, was a head-slapping moment but also a brilliant one, a solution to their both getting pushed out of accounts by bigger rivals that ended up involving seismic shifts. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler, Gleason and Chaough have become one company — SCDPCGC? Where will they move now? And will there be a staircase for Pete to storm and stumble down?

The sudden union came as a blow to Peggy, who found herself back under her old mentor, boss, father figure and emotional batterer after striving and starting to see herself as his rival. The scene in which she, having primped first, walked into Ted’s office only to have Don tell her, from the couch, “We got it — we won Chevy” (there’s Joan’s “we”), had a dreamlike quality, as if it were one of those moments in the show in which the past intrudes on the present.

But Don was really there, having seduced Peggy’s boss before she ever had a chance to. While Abe’s (Charlie Hofheimer) talk about imagining where their children would grow up was enough to spur Peggy to buy a fixer-upper in the not-yet-gentrified Upper West Side, the reality of living in a rougher neighborhood has been running her down and proving how bohemian she isn’t. The kind, courtly, appreciative Ted has been providing her with a pleasant mental escape from the slog — when she imagined him in her bed after they shared a kiss, he was reading the delightfully vague “Something by Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Peggy, like Don, longs for a romantic and work partner in the same person.

The marriage of SCDP and CGC as ordained by Chevy, two forces coming together to be stronger, was paralleled with Pete’s going with the nuclear option with regard to his failing marriage and his father-in-law Tom (Joe O’Connor) after spying the latter with the “biggest, blackest prostitute you’ve ever seen” in a brothel. Ken had suggested they both had too much to lose to acknowledge what had happened, but Pete ran with this failing to understand that for Tom it wasn’t a case of two men catching each other stepping out but a far more serious betrayal of his precious daughter — in the face of that, any reveal of his own indiscretions would be less important, and so to hurt Pete he pulled the Vicks account. Tom gave Pete too much credit (or not enough) in thinking that Pete wouldn’t tell on him, but in the end it blew up in Pete’s face — he may have outed his father-in-law’s hobby, but it looked like he ended the marriage he’d been trying to repair for good by saying those things to Trudy (Alison Brie), regardless of whether or not she believed him.

Pete gambled and lose, and Don gambled and won, but things could have gone either way. And what made “For Immediate Release” work so well, beyond the much-needed energy it brought to a lethargic season, is the way it summed up what Faye Miller (Cara Buono) told Don back in season four: “You only like the beginning of things.” That’s proven sometimes painfully true for our hero, but here in the wooing of a new account for a car so cutting edge no one’s gotten a look at it yet, he’s irresistible and awful, sometimes at once.

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