Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Puddles of My Mad Men Season Six: "For Immediate Release"

Fate, opportunity and a Swedish twentysomething.


In a bar last week, a distressed guy was telling me his thoughts on life. He had just finished an affair with a 22-year old Swedish girl and he was distressed because the Swede had confessed to going to bars and making out with strangers; as well as to having a shadowy arrangement with a rich guy who gave her money and whom she may or may not have been sleeping with.

My new friend showed me an exchange of text messages where he had insinuated that the 22-year old Swede was a prostitute. The girl had fired back in frenzied, manic texts in an attempt to defend herself as well as to get some kind of reaction from the guy.

“I’m almost 30,” the guy said to me. “I don’t need to be getting crazy texts from a 22-year old.” He pulled out his phone, showed me a picture of his older brother’s kid, and then despaired over the fact that it was hard to find a good woman in New York, let alone have the chance to start a family.

Then, he told me a story about how last month, after working a week of double shifts at his bar as well as doing freelance illustration work, he had a day off. It was a sunny day so he decided to sit in the park. While he was sitting, a large branch from a tree fell on him, separating his shoulder. Luckily, he had ducked in time and, as he later learned from a doctor, the branch had fallen on the strongest part of his shoulder.

“You’re very lucky,” the doctor had told him. “There’s no ligament damage anywhere. The shoulder could have been separated much worse. You were very close to serious danger.”

The guy then explained how the event had made him think about his life. He said that he had friends that believed in fate and the mystic way of the world and others that just believed that things were a random series of events. The branch falling on his back made him think that he was meant to be on his feet for the next two months, rather than laid up in bed with a serious injury; but he wasn’t entirely sure. It could have just been freak accident.

“All I know is,” he said. “Is that I don’t want to be the guy who is eating dinner alone at forty.”

I told him that if he was this worried about it at twenty-nine, that he would probably be alright. We drank beers at the bar and then the music got loud, people started filing in and we went our separate ways.


“For Immediate Release” was the best episode of the sixth season of Mad Men thus far. To recount all of the action would be dizzying and pointless. The episode had all the trademarks of the show when it operates at its peak: the playful “caper”, the unexpected intimate conversation, a revealing speech, humor, adultery, selfishness and that vague ambiguousness that makes you have to watch it again.

Upon watching this episode multiple times, the parts I keep coming back to are the ones that have to do with fate, and whether or not it exists. There are two major mentions or allusions to fate. The first is when Pete says to Don—after he has yelled at Don for firing Jaguar and after Don then uses Roger’s news about Chevy to make it seem like everything worked out—in the SCDP conference room, “Don’t act like you had a plan. You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine!”

The second, and more outright mention of fate, occurs when Don rides the elevator with Dr. Rosen who tells him that he quit his job as a surgeon because his hospital stopped him from giving a heart transplant to a little boy in Houston. “Fate hasn’t chosen me,” Dr Rosen says. “I don’t believe in fate,” Don answers. “You make your own opportunities.”

Despite the fact that Don is the main character of Mad Men, it seems interesting that these two opposite takes on fate, planning and opportunity are both taken in close relation to Don—and his ongoing professional success. Dick Whitman made himself into Don Draper by stealing a man’s identity after he accidentally blew him up in Korea. Then, after leaving his family behind, Dick/Don toiled as a car salesman in California, where Anna Draper found him using her husband’s name. She could have reported him to the police, but she didn’t. Later, in New York, while working at a fur company, Don meets Roger Sterling, forces his amateur advertising work on him, gets him drunk, then shows up to work at Sterling Cooper and lies about Roger offering him a job. And from there, the Don Draper we know was slowly formed—opportunity by opportunity.

However, the majority of those situations are easily and most likely based on luck. Did Don “make his own opportunity” by taking a job at the fur store that Roger Sterling happened to use as the place to buy his red-haired mistress a “getting to know you” gift? Was it “opportunity” that Dick enlisted in the Korean War, was clumsy and then accidentally blew up the real Don Draper?

Most of Don’s success is based on luck and Roger’s landing of the Chevy account as deus ex machina is just another example. Meanwhile, Don’s decisions affect the fates of those around him. Pete and Joan discuss the fact that Don doesn’t even care about money, but his decision to fire Jaguar costs the company the chance at the IPO and costs Joan the chance to have a stake in the company worth a little over one million dollars—a sum that (along with some alcohol) makes her blush. It also takes away whatever remaining dignity she had in the wake of her rendezvous with Herb from Jaguar in “The Other Woman.” And she certainly lets him know it in one of the episode’s best scenes and one of Joan’s most powerful moments in the entire run of the series.

Don’s decision also costs Pete a chance to make another claim in his ongoing quest to be MVP of the agency. However, Pete ends up costing himself when he celebrates at the whorehouse and runs into his father-in-law. I’m not trying to be a prude (to each his own), but that was an “opportunity” that Pete could have avoided. There’s no way he could have known that he would see his father-in-law, but that chance could have been taken away if Pete elected not to go to the whorehouse to celebrate—luck swung poorly for him. And, then, Pete compounds his bad luck with another bad decision when he tells Trudy about her father being in with the “Negro prostitute*.” As Trudy tells Pete, “You’ve made plenty of choices, Peter.” And she’s right. Pete has had his chances—he’s always wanted to be Don, but he just seems to make the more destructive decision (even moreso than Don) and, for the most part, he just doesn’t seem to have luck on his side.

(*Editor’s Note: You have to love Pete accusing Harry of being a racist just last week and then relishing the opportunity to rub the fact that Trudy’s father was using an African American prostitute in Trudy’s face.)

Meanwhile, Peggy may be the unluckiest character in the Mad Men universe. If anyone on the show has truly made her own opportunities, it’s been Peggy. She never slept with Don, she was loyal to Freddy Rumsen when he pissed himself and only begrudgingly accepted her promotion when he was put on leave. She endured hours of abuse and transcendent, subtle moments of drunken bonding with Don and even then had to be pushed by Freddy Rumsen to “make her own opportunity” in negotiating for a new position at CGC. And now, because of Don and Ted’s decision to merge in order to land the Chevy account, it’s as if all her progress has been wiped away. Though, Peggy subtly wishes for that when she tells Abe, in their newly-bought, run-down Upper West Side apartment: “I don’t like change. I want everything to stay the same.”

In the end, fate and opportunity come down to something approximating what Joan says about Don, “because we’re all just rooting you from the sidelines, hoping what you decide is best for our lives.” There are lots of times in life when it seems as though someone else is deciding what is best for us, that no matter how hard we try to “make our own opportunities” that, as Don says, “this game is rigged.” You can work as hard as you want and it can all come to nothing; you can go out with a crazy 22-year old Swede and find out that she is cheating on you and possibly for money; and then a tree branch can fall on your back, almost putting you in a hospital.

You can’t regret those decisions, those “opportunities” you made for yourself. All you can do is learn from them, and realize that most of the time things can be a whole lot worse. There’s always going to be someone else, someone far away, someone nearby, someone with less power than you or someone with more power than you making decisions as well—and there’s a chance that somewhere along the line those decisions can affect you too; change or destroy your own “opportunities,” the things you worked to make for yourself.

So, perhaps, its best to be like Abe and try to make the best of the crappy Upper West Side apartment you’ve just bought, instead of being like Peggy and fantasizing over your boss, wearing a smoking robe and reading Something by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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