Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
I don’t know about you, but this episode had me feeling very 1962. There was an “everything will be alright if you keep me next to you” vibe about it all—what with the swagger of the scene at Chevy HQ. It’s a lightness so rarely displayed on “Mad Men” after season two, and a significant shift from the ponderous death-obsessed pilot that opened this season. “For Immediate Release” also brought characters we don’t often see together in friendly camaraderie (Don and Ted; Megan and Marie; Pete and Joan; Pete and Ken). While Pete accused Don of erratically “swinging from vine to vine” last night, the episode had itself another kind of swinging attitude. Not only in its buoyancy, but in how it managed to spread its focus—and thus our interest—among multiple characters and plotlines. The episode lacked the anxious heavy-handedness that so often plagues “Mad Men.”
“For Immediate Release” might be the most joke-packed episode of “Mad Men” yet:
“There’s poop on the stairs again.” (Peggy)
“I don’t have any laudanum either!” (Pete)
“You just pressed the button, Tom. You just blew everything up.” (Pete)
“You had to write that down?” (Ginsberg)
“I love puppies.” (Don)
What a relief! The past is hard. Witness Don sitting at the edge of a bed, whiskey in hand, starring into the middle distance. But even Don broke out of his usual stony mold this episode; a scrunched-up confused face was his reaction to just about everything Herb and his wife said at dinner. It’s harder to take Don seriously when Don can’t muster up that seriousness in himself, and increasingly I felt like some of those reaction shots should have been accompanied with a laugh track (“Hazel”-style). Instead of watching the world from Don’s weary eyes, we were observing how haphazardly those eyes observed the world.
The de-centering of Don in “For Immediate Release,” as Phil has observed, happens not just at the level of plot, but also at that of visual and musical cues. The loosening of the show’s atmosphere was significantly effected through Jennifer Getzinger’s sweeping camerawork and the soundtrack—slinking Pink Panther tunes as well as rock and roll! (Getzinger also directed two of my favorite “Mad Men” episodes, “My Old Kentucky Home” and “The Suitcase,” both filled with gorgeous and arguably iconic shots for the show.) Like the closing scene of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which ends with Don on the green, we’re again watching our leading man from a distance here. Not only did this episode take a significant break from Don’s private life (how dull and un-illuminating is the Sylvia plotline?) to focus on those of others, but Getzinger also makes sure to pass around the lens through which we view this episode more generally.
When Don and Pete have it out about botching the Jaguar account, Getzinger playfully bounces the camera between the main and heated action to Bob (i.e., Curious George) peeping in from the staircase; the creative staff is also watching from stage right. Later, when Pete and Ken talk about his father-in-law encounter, there’s trusty Bob again, gesturing from outside with his two cups of coffee. They didn’t put in transparent glass-walled offices for nothing.
The hypocrisy that usually drives the success of Great Men will be increasingly harder to obscure.
If there’s any visual metaphor I can get behind on “Mad Men,” it’s that the show will be increasingly focused on transparency and reciprocity. If Don screws up, he’ll be called out—and not just in private. The hypocrisy that usually drives the success of Great Men will be increasingly harder to obscure, and that it’s often women (and angry women) who break that down for these men is no coincidence. Pete’s anger toward Don is as deserved as Joan’s, but the show refuses to give “Why won’t you give me what I want?”-Campbell any nobility in calling Don out. Partly, this is because Campbell is himself a hypocrite: The man who yelled at Harry for being racist last week is now more stunned by his father-in-law’s being with the “biggest, blackest prostitute you've ever seen” than the fact that he’s with a prostitute period. That Pete has just been with a prostitute himself doesn’t seem to factor much into his thinking—it takes Ken to explain that with his cold war–themed talk about “mutually-assured destruction.” When Father-in-law Tom pulls his account, Pete sees it as a form of dropping the bomb. The problem with “mutually-assured destruction” though, is that no one comes out a winner. So when Pete tells Trudy of her father’s “compromising position,” the bomb backfires, as in, it fires. These bombs rarely leave room for much nuance, especially when it comes to morality.
The sliding of perspective away from Don’s heroism and toward Pete and Joan’s respective rage also means we’re no longer being asked to view Don’s choices as the moral fulcrum around which “Mad Men” pivots. Instead, Don comes off as acting carelessly (Herb is correct here) because, being a certified Great Man, he’s been able to laugh at fate in order to opt for the whole “you make your own opportunities” route. It’s like Don thinks he’s immune to history! (Or systemic societal forces for that matter.) Carlyle’s concept of hero worship was already on the decline during the two world wars, however, and the bro-y military rhetoric promoted by the men in this episode (“They fight wars with bodies on the ground”) has little real life practical effect in the end. Don and Ted might have won the battle over Chevy, but it’s still Peggy who will have to write the urgent press release at the eleventh hour. As Frank tells Ted, “I don't want to draw anymore rockets … I'm tired of rockets, that's all.” Rockets won’t win the war either.
We don’t have a name yet,
Jane Hu is a cultural critic, mostly at The Awl.