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Mad Men Character Study: Meet the Old Don. Same As the New Don?

The beauty of Sunday's Mad Men: it appealed to viewer's fascination with swaggering, confident antiheroes while also questioning it.

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Michael Yarish/AMC

Spoilers for Sunday’s Mad Men episode, “For Immediate Release,” below:

I’m going to agree with most of the reviews and online comments I’ve seen so far that “For Immediate Release” was the best Mad Men episode so far this season. But I would argue that the coolest part of the episode was not the best part. (Well, in truth both the coolest and best part was Pete Campbell falling on his ass down the stairs in a rage, but that’s hardly a fair competition.)

The coolest part of the episode–reminiscent of the Ocean’s Eleven caper that closed Mad Men’s third season–was the surprise merger of SCDP and CGC to land the Chevrolet account, enabled by a combo of Don’s barstool improvisation and Roger’s airline espionage. It was brisk, confident, funny. As our protagonists walked past GM’s shiny ’68 models and ordered up the press release announcing the merger, it was as if Mad Men itself had gotten a fresh buff, polish and coat of wax.

The episode underscored an old truth of storytelling: that characters who want something and take action are more compelling than characters who don’t. TV viewers, like anyone else in life, respond to confidence and enthusiasm. The knock on Mad Men season six to date is that it was rambling and overly morose. (I don’t entirely share that, by the way. I like those melancholy, slow Mad Men episodes, and they’re necessary to the flashier ones.) Don Draper had become a moody, contemptible asshole, contemplating death and having an affair that seemed only to depress him and the married woman he was sleeping with.

The break with Jaguar, and the chance to pitch Chevy, seemed to snap Don out of his funk, and with him, the show—it was as if the clouds parted over the second half of the episode. I don’t think that anyone who thought Don Draper an asshole before (correctly, in most respects) suddenly thinks he’s not. But we* were again seeing the confident, assured asshole we once knew, and that’s the more fun kind of asshole to watch. Schemes are fun. Action is fun. Swagger is fun.

*Note: Here and below—and, honestly, in most essays like this one—”We” means “me, and other people I’ve heard from.” (Culture critics overuse “we” the way Don Draper under-uses it.) I can’t pretend this reaction is universal: I do know that the episode successfully made me feel it, and that I was seeing a lot of “Don and Roger are back, baby!” in the post-airing comments. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are driving the 1970 Chevy Vega.
This is—in antihero TV and sometimes the larger world—our social contract with assholes. We will indulge them, at least if we’re not the ones being hurt by them, so long as they are charming and optimistic and capable. Their job is to win and be awesome. (Think also: politics, sports, entertainment.) If they deliver, we may not like them, but we can enjoy them; we may at least temporarily forget what there is to despise about them. (This may also, in part, explain why antihero shows like Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos have a vocal set of fans who love stories about the characters’ areas of competence—be it drug dealing, Mob hits, or advertising—and hate family drama and pillow talk.)

There’s a big downside to that deal, of course, as we’ve seen in viewers’ responses to Don. If they become bitter and gloomy like Ted Chaough inviting Don to join him in conceding defeat, or Don for considerable stretches of Mad Men, they are doubly despised. But if they show strength and confidence, or fake it, suddenly they are the Teddy Chaough of Peggy’s fantasy, wearing a smoking jacket and reading Something by Emerson as we lean in for a kiss.

Matthew Weiner and his crew are strong enough storytellers to know this, and they’ve used the entertainment power of their charming rakes to earn goodwill for Mad Men’s darker, more interior stretches. “For Immediate Release” did that, showed us Don and Roger at their winningest, and Mad Men felt cool again.

But what was best about the episode was that, even as it pushed those buttons, it also interrogated the very feeling of excitement that it was creating. Just listen to Joan, who wasn’t about to high-five Don for his peevish impulse to end things with Herb and thus Jaguar. To Don, it’s another in a string of hero moments in his life, and he sees no reason why Joan shouldn’t thank him for cutting loose the man she was traded to for sex and a partnership: “Don’t you feel about 300 pounds lighter?” (Side note: there’s probably never a situation in which that’s a good thing for a man to say to a female coworker.)

But to Joan, it’s just another man high-handedly taking away her agency and expecting to be thanked for it. Herb is still the guy she had a skeevy night of sex with, but now, thanks to Don, she’s done it for nothing. Money aside, Don’s wasn’t an act of chivalry but of selfishness and disrespect. “If I could deal with him,” she says furiously, “you could deal with him.”

Pete–no hero himself, sure–makes a similar argument, no less valid for his pratfall on the stairs, or Don’s happening to save the day with Chevy: “You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine.” And not everyone wants to be his Jane, being rescued without their asking.

It’s Megan, though, who offers the most striking meta-commentary on the charming-asshole fallacy at work here. Even without knowing about Don’s love-in-an-elevator escapades near home, she has no reason to be enamored with him right now: as she tells her mother early in the episode, he’s become distant to her, unsupportive of her career, as if he feels her every success diminishes him. Fans are asking her autograph, but she has to treat a dinner date with her husband as if it’s an audition for his continued affection.

And yet, when Don comes back from his Chevy brainstorming sessions, anxious, hungry, and wired—swoon!—suddenly he’s transformed into her Clark Kent and Superman all in one. It’s a response not unlike that of the Mad Men fan at seeing Don get his mojo back, for all his flaws, only she registers her approval in a slightly more, er, expressive way, heading south of his 49th parallel to bolster him to fly off and save the day.

Does this mean Don will be any more comfortable with her being a Superwoman in her own field, or can he only deal with her as his Lois Lane? Our memories of Don are long enough not to give him too much credit on the basis of one business coup. “For Immediate Release” was an exciting episode for many reasons—Peggy’s real-estate-fueled feelings of conflicted attraction, Pete’s mutually assured destruction with his father-in-law—but in large part because it gave us the confident, competent Don we remember. What makes Mad Men a great drama, though, is that it knows enough to acknowledge that charming assholes are a lot more charming when you only have to deal with them for an hour at a time.