"Mad Men" recap: "Power plus design equals adventure!"

In a rip-roaring episode, Don goes to Detroit to save the day. But are his heroics beginning to wear thin?

By Heather Havrilesky

Published May 6, 2013 1:15PM (EDT)


After last week's Very Special (and very tone-deaf) "Mad Men" episode on MLK Jr's assassination, "For Immediate Release" was exactly the sort of release we were craving. So much action, so much madness, so many dramatic changes afoot! Instead of impotently crouched over their radios, TV screens and telephones, waiting for the latest word on how the world is crumbling around them, Roger, Don, Peggy and Joan are conquering new horizons – or at the very least, taking on dangerous new challenges.

We begin with Bert and Pete scheming with Joan to take the company public, and Pete even has the gall to hit on Joan. (She says no, loud and clear, and then tells him, "I hope Clara reminded you tomorrow's Mother's Day." I love how she has become the moral center of the office – or at least the center of restraint and discretion.) Meanwhile, Roger ditches his inherited shoeshine kit (which signals his reckoning with death) to rush off to the airport to romance not his stewardess lover, but an executive from Chevy. Instead of mourning his eventual demise, Roger is thinking about his legacy – which we can see from the fact that he takes three copies of his autobiography out of his travel bag, but leaves the last one in. This idea of making your mark before you die is scattered throughout the episode, along with lots of talk of death (Roger says, of Jaguar, "This could be fatal"; Ted finds out his art director is dying of pancreatic cancer; Rosen says he has a heart and a kid who needs a heart and both are dead.) Everyone in this episode is looking for salvation, redemption, delivery from history's dustbin – but are they kidding themselves? Is their bravery in the face of absurd obstacles just another way of running away from the specter of death? Is their passion for work meaningful, or is it just a distraction that keeps them from facing the truth about themselves?

Pete, for all of his flaws, has no interest in shying away from the truth. Because he's so selfish and irascible at times, it's hard not to view him as a troublemaker who lashes out at people unfairly. But Pete can't tolerate playing along with bad behavior (even if he's a part of it – and he usually is). Like a young child without impulse control, Pete indulges his delusions of grandeur, tries to hit on Joan, tries to seduce Trudy, finally finds a whore, and then of course it all goes South. (Pretty much every time Pete tries to satisfy himself on this show, it gets ugly. He's the anti-Don: He can't smoothly secure a sexual conquest without making a gigantic mess in the process.) Naturally, Pete adds insult to injury by running around, frantically pointing fingers when everything falls apart around him. He's ruled by his emotions, and once he gets emotional he doesn't hold back: He blames Don for losing the Jaguar account, yelling at him in front of the entire company. He gets angry at his father-in-law, and loses the Vicks account in the process (although he probably would've lost it anyway). And finally, even as Trudy is asking him not to, he drops a bomb on her about her father.

Trudy and Pete may actually be soul mates; the only difference between them is that Trudy wants to pretend to have the perfect life, whereas Pete can't pretend anything. "Couldn't we just pretend?" Trudy asked him when his dalliance with their neighbor was revealed in this season's second episode. "I let you have that apartment! All I wanted was for you to be discreet." But Pete is anything but discreet; he has no self-control. "Don't you dare criticize my father," Trudy warns him, not wanting to know a thing, but he tells her about catching her dad at a whorehouse anyway. "He left me no choice," Pete says. "You had lots of choices, Peter," Trudy replies. "We're done, get your things."

Other men could've chosen differently, of course. Trudy would make the perfect happy-fake wife for Don. But Pete can't be fake (which is a little strange, for an account executive), and his assessments about what's wrong with the world around him are usually accurate. (Last week's "It's shameful!" was one clue to that.) It remains to be seen whether this flaw/quality will be Pete's undoing, or save him from the much darker fate that awaits the pretenders in his midst.

Speaking of the great pretender, it's surprising to see Don inspired by his work again, after he's been trudging around like such an uninspired has-been lately. And it makes sense that he'd get his mojo back by dismissing Jaguar as a client. Don has hated Herb from Jaguar ever since the guy essentially promised the account to SCDP in exchange for being able to sleep with Joan. Don's mother was a whore, he hates Johns, and he's been itching to enact revenge on Herb ever since. Don sees his ability to stand up to Herb as a heroic move. At her mother's urging, Megan plays into Don's hero complex. "I love you like this," she says. "Desperate and scared?" he asks, joking but also revealing his core self. "Fearless," she replies, feeding him her fantasy so he can play his part dutifully. She says she wants him to feel just like Superman.

But Joan refuses to play along with Don's hero complex when she finds out about him losing Jaguar.

Don: Joan, get the creatives in my office.

Joan: Get them yourself.

Don: Don't you feel 300 pounds lighter?

Joan: I don't. Honestly, Don, if I could deal with him, you could deal with him. And what now? I went through all of that for nothing.

Don: Joan, don't worry, I will win this.

Joan: Just once, I would like to hear you use the word "we." Because we're all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you'll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.

This last line is a foreshadowing of Don's eventual scheme with Ted Chaough to merge SCDP with CGC, thereby deciding what he thinks is right for the entire firm, once again. (Peggy, who's taken to daydreaming about Ted, may not be served by returning to her former captors. Just when she's mulling an escape from the compromises of her real life with Abe, Ted looks like just as much of a cipher as Don.)

Of course, Don believes he's making his own opportunities, just as he tells Arthur Rosen in the elevator. Instead of going out for a drink, he has work. He doesn't believe in fate. At this moment, he buys the myth of capitalism that Trudy outlines for Pete: He has lots of choices – or at least he's choosing to see it that way. He's not going to let anyone else take his place in history, the way Arthur Rosen fears he has.

But Matthew Weiner wants to remind us that circumstances can stand in the way of victory, and many so-called heroes are actually fooling themselves. Arthur, the show's only character whose work could be seen as truly heroic, may have to abandon his heart transplant ambitions because the hospital he works for is less than heroic and "chickened out" at the last minute. Not everyone is as fearless as they appear. "I had a heart, and a kid who needed a heart," says Arthur, "and they're both dead." This may be an omen of things to come: Arthur has a heart, and Don is the kid who needs a heart. Thanks to Don's fear of death, fear of love, fear of life, fear of everything, their mutual admiration and friendship is not going to end well.

The same could be said for Don Draper and Ted Chaough's relationship. "He's the enemy," Ted told Peggy a few episodes back. Now these two enemies will need to get along if their ad firms aren't going to crash and burn. Although it might be nice to take the optimistic view, which can be found in Ted's description of Chevy -- "Power plus design equals adventure!" – this particular adventure seems likely to end in mutual destruction. "It's so new, this combination of power, technology, comfort and price, it's impossible to imagine," says Don. In other words, their vision is overly idealistic – impossibly idealistic, in fact. And what does Ted say at the very end of that scene? "We're done. We've got a long night." Apparently a long night of the soul awaits these two, and their firms.

Heroism doesn't always lead to a glorious sounding of trumpets and a ticker tape parade. Or, as Ted Chaough's dying art director puts it: "Everybody loves astronauts. I gotta go lie down."

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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Chevy Don Draper Mad Men Mad Men Recap Peggy Olson Pete Campbell Roger Sterling