After a “Mad Men” episode with enough twists to fill a season of a daytime soap opera, major changes are afoot. By the end of “For Immediate Release,” Sterling Cooper goes through yet another major renovation as the agency merges with a rival. Some interesting historical themes lie beneath the major plots of the episode.
As the company readies to go public, Pete celebrates by going to a house of ill repute in Manhattan. In an unbelievably awkward moment, he sees his father-in-law with a prostitute as well. Concerned about the personal and professional implications, Pete asks Ken for advice and he tells him that his father-in-law, who is also an important client, will have to keep quiet because to do otherwise would expose his own culpability. Talking about the bizarre encounter, Ken says, would be the equivalent of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD).
Of course, MAD represented the military doctrine governing the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. As long as both the US and USSR maintained huge stockpiles of missiles aimed at each other, neither side could use them because it would precipitate the end of the world. “It’s why I don’t worry about the bomb,” concludes Ken (though as the season 2 finale of “Mad Men” showed, the world came perilously close during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962)
With less apocalyptic issues at stake, Pete’s father-in-law pulls his business from the agency. Furiously, Pete storms over to his office and tells him “you just pressed the button, Tom” a reference to the nuclear analogy. Though his father-in-law believes Pete won’t respond to his first strike and tell Trudy, he proves to be wrong. Only time will tell what the fallout will be from this radioactive exchange.
Meanwhile, Peggy is frustrated by the decline of her neighborhood, a concern shared by many New Yorkers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Abe reassures her, “Look the neighborhood’s changing….Everything’s getting better. Johnson’s gone. The war is going to end. We’re going to have a new president no matter what. Maybe McCarthy. At worst case Kennedy.” Peggy, who was raised Catholic and has a picture of JFK on her wall, responds, “I love Bobby Kennedy.”
Abe and Peggy will both experience disappointment. Though Johnson pulled out of the race, the war in Vietnam would drag on until 1973. As the episode occurs in May 1968, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy will duel for the Democratic nomination for the next few weeks, until Sirhan Sirhan assassinates RFK following his victory in the California primary in June. Relying on the strength of the party bosses who still determined presidential nominee at this time, Vice President Hubert Humphrey garners the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention in the summer and would likely have done so even if RFK had lived. One guesses we will hear Abe yell “Dump the Hump” at some point this season, due to Humphrey’s rhetorical support for the war from 1965-68 (despite his private misgivings)
Historical references notwithstanding, the firm’s major concern is how to recover from Don’s sabotage of the all-important Jaguar account. He gets an opportunity to redeem himself when a revitalized Roger gives him a chance to compete for a new Chevrolet product. Remember when Don declared, “I want Chevy” last season? The importance of the account reminds us that Detroit and the American auto industry remained dominant in the 1960s, before the high oil prices of the 1970s opened the door for more fuel-efficient Hondas and Toyotas. General Motors reigned supreme and Chevrolet was the car designed for the burgeoning middle-class in 1968.
In the end, Don concocts a scheme to merge with longtime rival Ted Chaough’s agency in order to win the Chevy account. With this accomplished, Peggy and Don can be together professionally again while she flirts with Ted while living with Abe. How will this all turn out? We’ll find out next week on “As the World Turns”… I mean “Mad Men.”