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Maureen Ryan: Best 'Mad Men' Episode In Two Years?

Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 6 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "For Immediate Release."

"Everybody loves astronauts." -- Ted Chaough

Oh "Mad Men." That's the stuff!

"For Immediate Release" was packed wall-to-wall with moments of awesomeness. There were swell big scenes, hilarious small touches, quite a few memorable lines, and so many fabulous visuals that I need you all in my office right now; it'll take an all-night team effort to ensure the creation of the maximum number of entertaining gifs.

There's a little tiny part of me that is going "But wait! But, what about...?" All right, I'll get that stuff out of the way first, just to make it clear that I haven't lost my damn mind (though this terrific hour did cause me to lose my mind a little in a good way, but hey, we're allowed to be a little goofy and giddy after experiencing that particular slice of old-school "Mad Men" deliciousness).

So, this whole time, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has harbored a secret cell that has been working to take the company public? And the Mod Squad consist of Bert, Joan and Pete? Don't get me wrong, I get why those three would end up in the same boat: They all have reason to feel excluded, marginalized and unappreciated, but we didn't have the slightest clue that those three were really traveling in the same orbit, let alone hatching complex and important schemes that would majorly affect many characters' futures.

"Mad Men's" often good at laying the groundwork for future developments right in front of our faces without us noticing it -- except when it isn't, as was the case with Lane's rather hastily arranged venture into financial chicanery last season, which was one of the show's clumsier set-ups. The stock offering felt even more sudden, and it was such a bolt from the blue, I almost felt as if I'd missed an entire episode (I mean, when's the last time we even saw Bert and Joan have a real conversation?). But, as was the case with the announcement of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in last week's episode, I think we were supposed to feel jarred. But my goodness, to see Joan with her hair down at the office! Give me a minute to process that!

But there wasn't much time for reactions of any kind, not that that's necessarily a bad thing. We'll undoubtedly see the fallout from all these changes going forward, but there wasn't much time for these explosions to land in this hour. The news that there was a secret scheme and that it involved taking the company public was soon stampeded by the machinations surrounding the Chevy pitch -- which the new firm actually nailed, the new firm being some unnamed combination of SCDP and CGC.

Holy shenanigans, Batman!

Truth be told, I don't really mind that much that the stock offering near-miss came out of the blue, and not just because this episode positively crackled with energy and life and had many wonderful moments in it (Pete falling down the stairs, Marie chugging booze straight from the bottle, the look on Don's face when he said, "I love puppies," to name put a few. Oh Lord, I need that last image on a T-shirt that I will wear every day for the rest of my life.).

All of that would have ensured that "For Immediate Release" was a lot of fun, but what made this a truly wonderful hour of TV was something deeper -- something captured on Don's face in that impromptu Chevy meeting in his office.

Don smiled. He wore a real, exited, anticipatory, hopeful smile. I can't even remember the last time a look like that crossed his face.

That genuine smile encapsulated so many things about the episode. In that moment, Don was afraid, excited, nervous, uncertain, thrilled, hopeful and dying to take on the future. Everyone in this episode was unsettled; everybody felt the sense of charged wonder that Don described in his car pitch. They really didn't know what was around the next curve, and that's both exciting and scary.

All that energy bursting forth meant there were confrontations aplenty as well: Trudy and Pete finally ended their personal relationship for good, Trudy's father pulled the Vick's account from the firm after years of jerking Pete's chain, Don fired Jaguar as a client after enduring one indignity too many from the loathsome Herb, and a long-suffering Joan ferociously and gorgeously read Don the riot act in front of half the company. (Someone has no doubt just left this comment on a "Mad Men" review somewhere: "But nothing happened!")

Poppycock. A lot happened. And let me be clear, I don't actually mind episodes in which the breakthroughs and big events are more indirect and emotionally intimate. But when "Mad Men" decides to truly go for it, in terms of sh*t getting real, it's really hard to top, often because it layers so much humor and observational perfection into all the conflicts, confrontations, meetings and incongruous alliances. The kind of melange we saw here takes a while to set up, but this was one hell of a payoff.

As the hour unfolded, we didn't know exactly where it was all headed -- and this is the part that lifts the whole thing into orbit -- neither do the characters. Every action was charged and meaningful, every decision was freighted with doubt and hope, and in this hour, there was hope in every action, even the desperate ones. Pete would have happily salvaged his marriage, but he blew it up instead. Ted didn't expect to land the account, until he saw how it could be done. Roger decided not to phone it in for once, and he actually closed. Boo-yah!

I've been hard on the show in the last season and a half, but that's because (among other reasons) I find it hard to invest in situations in which people don't want things. I want these people to want things for themselves, and I want to be able to root for at least some of characters to get what they want at least some of the time. When Don's indifferent about his future, when he's bored with everything and and when he doesn't appear to care whom he hurts, I grow more diffident about him. But this Don? This is a guy I want to follow. Again, I'm not saying he has to be this guy every week (he's Don, after all -- his whole brand is to keep everyone guessing), but man, it was good to see that old energy and excitement course through the man.

All that plus a shot of "Sterling's Gold" while caper music played? I have to steal from critic Alan Sepinwall, who, when he really loves an episode of television, invokes the word "dayenu." "Dayenu, for the gentiles among you," Sepinwall once wrote, "is a song sung around the Passover seder table listing all the things we have to be thankful for in the Exodus story: if God had only freed us from slavery, Dayenu (translate, 'it would have been enough'); if God had freed us from slavery and taken us out of Egypt, Dayenu; if he had only taken us out of Egypt and fed us manna, Dayenu; etc."

In the spirit of stealing someone else's creative, I'm going to borrow that word, and list just a few of the things I loved about "For Immediate Release":

  • If we had just seen Roger actually get off his ass and reel in a big potential client like Chevy while romancing a hot stewardess, dayenu.
  • If we had just seen Harry Hamlin skeeze it up as Jim Cutler and walk into to a pitch meeting with his silver-fox counterpart, Roger Sterling, dayenu.
  • If we had just heard the thundering feet of the staff as they ran away from the giant fight they all avidly watched, dayenu.
  • If we had just watched Pete fall down the stairs, dayenu for all time.
  • If we had just watched Marie abuse Herb and his wife in French, insult them when speaking to Roger ("She is the apple that goes in the pig's mouth!"), and then chug alcohol, dayenu.
  • If we had just seen Don suffer through the story of the puppies and say the words, "I love puppies" in a tone that clearly meant "I hate you and your kind," and if we had just seen him tell Herb where he could shove Chris Fawcett, dayenu.
  • If we had just listened to Joan tell off Don with typical accuracy and brilliance ("Just for once, I would like to hear you use the word 'we'! Because we're all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping you decide what you think is right for our lives!"), dayenu.
  • If we had just gotten that pitch-in-the-bar scene, in which the dialogue was like something out of an ad-man version of "Casablanca" ("What the hell are you doing in Detroit?" "My doctor recommended an ocean voyage"), dayenu.


Oh, but then there is the cherry on top -- Peggy walking into Ted's office at the end of the hour and getting the shock of a lifetime. "The future is something you haven't even thought of yet." And how.

As shocked as Peggy was -- and let's face it, she was probably hoping for another kiss from her future lovah Ted -- the woman still had her wits about her, as always. I wholly loved how she gave those two men some serious side eye as she exited Ted's office. I'm sure she was wondering how the hell those two massive egos would co-exist at one agency. Sure, it's all joy and celebration and confusion now, but what would the day-to-day workings of the business really be like? Peggy was excited, terrified and resigned all at once (she instantly knows she'll have to do a whole lot of mediating between those two men).

In that moment, it was hard not to think of Faye Miller's line about Don from the Season 4 finale: "I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things." Ted probably does know that about Don, but what Don doesn't know is that Ted doesn't really have a choice about the merger. Both men were under the gun when their companies came together, and shotgun weddings usually work out, right?

Uhh......

Oh never mind, the combined power and speed of these two agencies landed a huge account, one that will permanently put their combined shop on the map once and for all.

"It's totally new," Don said. Damn if it doesn't feel that way, at least for a little while. Disillusionment will no doubt set in again, but it's good to see them all so amped up and future-oriented.

Megan doesn't thrill me as a character, but I have to agree with her assessment -- this version of Don Draper ain't half bad, and this mode of "Mad Men" is the show at its best, in my opinion. Again, do all episodes need to have this level of fizzing energy and unsettled, nervous anticipation? No, that'd be exhausting, and there have been quieter episodes I've loved.

But there is something delightful about watching people excel at their jobs, and there's even more fun in watching them enjoy excelling at their jobs. There were so many little ways in which we were reminded that these people actually know what they're doing: Roger didn't actually hit the sauce when he was trying to win over the Chevy guy, and just before they got on the plane, he did what a good accounts man would do in that situation -- he assured Don everything was fine back at SCDP, even when it surely wasn't. And that's on top of the moxie he showed in pumping (ahem) the airline employee for information about potential clients. He even knew to dump the spare copies of "Sterling's Gold" before heading to the airport (maybe he can get rid of the extras by giving one to every Chevy executive in Detroit).

Turning to Peggy and Ted, I feel like I'm cheating on Stan's beard by saying this, but I'm a fan of Peggy's new crush. Unlike Abe, at least Ted wouldn't try to convince Peggy that her Terrible Apartment is not terrible (raise your hand if every scene set in that flat gave you flashbacks to your worst-ever living situation, one that you always hoped would get better and just never did). I have been hoping that Peggy would take Stan to be her lovah, but Ted and Peggy also make sense together: They're both driven, creative perfectionists who don't have to explain to each other why their work matters to them (Peggy works because she defines who she is through her job; Stan works because his paycheck allows him to buy weed). But for all her experience, Peggy is still also a sheltered girl from an outer borough; she looks up to Ted, which is maybe a bad idea, because isn't he just every bit as slick and hollow as Don, on some level? Yet there's something appealing about Ted and his endless array of turtlenecks; he seems to be continually pointing out and subliminally admitting that he kind of knows he's a phony, and somehow that's charming.

Peggy, being Peggy, sees the best in him; she sees through his false realness to his real realness, if that makes any sense (and I will admit that it may not). Here again, the sublimely funny is mixed in with the serious: I could easily die laughing at the fact that, in Peggy's sex fantasy, Ted's on her bed reading a book titled "SOMETHING" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. You know, because Ted's so deep. Oh Pegs, the reality is unlikely to ever be as sweetly awesome as that image. (Though it's easy to see why that fantasy exists: Abe's a pill, and if Stan ever ended up in Peggy's bed, he'd probably be really stoned, wearing a stained shirt and most likely asleep).

This was an episode suffused with desire of all kinds, and it was a welcome change from the not-infrequent misery of some other recent episodes. There were some callbacks to the season premiere ("Hey Lieutenant, want to get into some trouble?"), but this did not feel like another trip 'round a level of Dante's hell. This felt like a ride on a rocket ship, a trip to parts unknown, a chance to explore a new world.

And that's why people love astronauts.

Here are a few more reasons I loved about this episode, in bullet-point form:

  • Poop on the stairs? Jeebus, Peggy, get out of there! Do not get that poop on your adorable weekend coat (which I want).
  • Not many people understand what Pete's worth to the company, but Bert certainly does. Just when you're ready to count the old guy out, he comes up with something quite shrewd and perceptive.
  • "You never fail to overheat." Kind of like a Jaguar engine, amirite, Herb?
  • That was one fabulous dress on Megan. She may have got Don worked up that night, but Marie's not wrong about how he probably feels about Megan's status right now: She's ascending the ladder of success a little too quickly for Don's taste. Like just about every other relationship in this episode, Don's marriage is by no means on stable ground.
  • "Not working the slide rule," heh heh heh heh. How Ken got from that phrase to not fearing the bomb in less than two steps was kind of wonderful.
  • Michael Ginsberg, the man with no filter: "You had to write that down?" Roger's a senior partner, you ninny!
  • "I don't like change!" Peggy certainly doesn't enjoy it, but she's certainly embraced and pursued her share of change -- look how far she's come in seven years (Wouldn't old Freddy Rumsen be proud of his ballerina now?).
  • Not to be a huge bummer and stuff, but Abe is really terrible at predicting history. Three weeks from the date of that press release, Bobby Kennedy will be dead, and looking further down the road, the war in Vietnam certainly won't be over any time soon. No doubt Abe will enjoy Nixon's time in office.
  • "Unless this works, I'm against it." Love you, Cutler, you magnificent weasel!

"Mad Men" airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.
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