If viewers ever doubted the use of symbolism in “Mad Men” — and, really, who could miss all the metaphors at this point? — they should look no further than the new car Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has landed as an account: the Chevrolet Vega. The model was still unnamed in Season Six’s sixth episode, “For Immediate Release,” taking place in early- to mid-May 1968, but the timing fits. The Vega was still only a plan in 1968, but it was an ambitious, “cutting-edge” one, as Robert Sorokanich wrote in Rode and Track: “The Vega represented an entirely new direction for Chevrolet: a fuel-efficient, high-tech compact from the company best known for bristling muscle cars and living-room-like sedans.” It was even designed with a computer, as Roger points out. The Vega was a forward-thinking car, but a look back at its history doesn’t bode well for the fictional world of “Mad Men.” The Vega bombed.
Chevy rushed the Vega into production, and after years of recalls and redesigns, the car was kaput by 1977. The vehicle reference is an impressively specific one for Matthew Weiner and crew, but it isn’t subtle. To land Chevy, SCDP had to merge with competition Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Neither firm is big enough to handle a top-tier brand on its own, which Ted tells Don once both are in Detroit to pitch the automaker. The firms’ forces combined, however, could do the job, and that idea — that there is a way to land Chevy, no matter what — is all it took to ignite a merger. The deal is done and the account landed before anyone back in New York at either agency knows what hit them. Don and Ted are all smiles, having found a way to beat the big guys for once and not let their creative be stolen out from under them, but at what cost? The physical merger of the firms — offices, employees, accounts, supplies, etc. — won’t be easy and is a decision that should not have been rushed. But there you go; this new firm may be its own Vega. Nice idea; poor execution. People like Peggy, who just can’t escape Draper, are left to pick up the pieces.
The prospects aren’t as bright as they were when Don, Roger and others from the firm’s previous incarnation, Sterling Cooper, hatched a plan to create their own agency and split from their owners. The end of Season Three, specifically the finale “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” was the series at its best, clicking on all cylinders, energetic and exciting. “For Immediate Release” had a touch of that panache, with Don and crew yet again fighting off failure by rebooting (good for you, Roger!), and the change of pace is welcome considering this season’s propensity for existentialism, not action. Roger’s plotting with airport lounge attendant Daisy (Danielle Panabaker) to find a way into the auto business was excellent, and it is good to see him back to working, not moping. But Don’s ultimate idea for Chevy may not work; he can’t always change the rules of the game to avoid losing. One of these days, winning won’t be an option.
At least no one at either firm appears to have a relative working for Chevy. The mixing of business and personal relationships has taken its toll many a time in the SCDP world, and the firm lost two accounts this episode over hurt feelings, not poor products. Pete’s father-in-law, Tom Vogel (Joe O’Connor), bolts along with his Vicks account after running into Pete at a “party house.” Sure, Tom is just as guilty of infidelity and hypocrisy, but his daughter is a “princess” and doesn’t deserve Pete’s behavior regardless of what her father is up to. Tom’s move is a gamble — “If I have such low character as you say, why would you push me like this?,” asks Pete, who soon follows through with his threat and reveals Tom’s cheating to Trudy. She is hurt, but almost more so by Pete for his cruelty than by Tom for his dishonesty. She doesn’t want any more to do with him — no more early morning foreplay/teasing here. Was it worth it, Pete?
Joan is similarly upset with Don and his dumping of Herb Rennet and Jaguar. The ditching was deserved — Herb never should have been taken on to begin with, his disgusting request to sleep with Joan in exchange for business ignored. Don didn’t want a part of that play, and he urged Joan away from the decision (albeit too late). Don maneuvered around Herb’s attempt steer the direction of the firm’s advertising earlier this season, but the man’s directive that a kid who writes flyers for his dealership review Don’s work pushed him over the edge. “Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?,” Don asks Joan the next day. “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?” Joan can’t put all the blame on Don; he didn’t make her sleep with Herb. But she is right in her assertion of Don’s selfishness — it took something happening to him for the client to be dropped. “Just once I would like you to use the word ‘we,’ ” she said, “because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.”
How far characters are willing to go to achieve their goals is a central theme for the series, that and how far characters will go to fool themselves into believing they have already met those goals. Peggy’s relationship with Abe is beginning to feel like a bad merger itself, with the two of them trying to make the best of things in a new apartment. But if she’s honest, she wants someone more like Ted — someone who isn’t just an “interested party” in her life. Someone strong. Megan wants Don to open up to her, to fight with her if that’s what it takes. Her mother, Marie’s, suggestion is to get Don’s attention ssexually, and that trick works. So, too, does Peggy’s imagining Abe is Ted as they kiss (a reprise of their actual kiss at the office). But if neither really says what it is she wants and works to get it, all she is left with is a series of trysts or a rundown apartment with junkie neighbors and poop on the stairs.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.