“Second place — tied for last,” Ted complains over drinks with Don. It’s a sentiment Don can get behind. His whole career, his raison d’être, has been about being better than everyone else in the room. If there’s one thing that unites all the characters on “Mad Men,” it is their desire to get ahead. Joan slept with a client to do it,[ref]”The Other Woman,” Season 5[/ref] Pete stands up to his dismissive father-in-law to do it,[ref]”The Rejected,” Season 4[/ref] Roger played office Santa to do it.[ref]”Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” Season 4[/ref] Everyone but Don gives up their dignity to get ahead. Don’s virility, an important element in “Mad Men,” comes from not giving in (remember when Pete tried to blackmail him during Season 1 and Don practically laughs him out of the room?).[ref]“Nixon vs. Kennedy”, Season 1[/ref]

He gets off on telling a client to go shove it. He gets off quite a bit this episode.

Bert, Pete, and Joan, an unlikely threesome, plan to take Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce public–without consulting Don or Roger–and become millionaires in the process. We know Don doesn’t care about money, an attitude in stark contrast to Pete’s boyishly gleeful reaction upon calculating his potential riches. Pete, unlike Don, needs something to feel good about. His marriage is in tatters, and worse, he thinks this merger will impress Trudy. “You don’t even care how much I want you, do you?” he asks Trudy after she rebuffs his advances in bed. (Their relationship is complicated. It seems he sleeps over when she wills it, but sleeping is all they do). He can’t believe that someone wouldn’t want him, especially if he has expressed his desire. Pete’s only currency is platitudes and compliments. So when Pete praises someone, his highest form of respect, and receives static in return, it truly offends him. He is offended quite a bit this episode.

After a slow burn, plot-wise, this season, “Mad Men” ratchets up the drama considerably this week. The main thrust is that SCDP, thanks to Roger bedding an eavesdropping stewardess at JFK, lands a chance to compete for Chevy’s top secret new car.[ref]Looking up the model number, it’s the Chevy Vega, which carried the slogan, “See What It’s Like to Drive a Winner[/ref] Don, invigorated by the work, throws everything he has to try to win the account after putting the nail in the coffin of the Jaguar account with a brash pissing contest over dinner. Jaguar’s rep, Herb, whom Joan slept with in order to land the account and make partner, suggests that maybe Don could run some of SCDP’s ideas by the flier maker at his dealership. Don bristles and storms off, blowing up the relationship in a matter of minutes. “Someday you’ll be working for this kid,” Herb bellows. Don should know, too. He was once that kid, making advertisements for a clothing store, before being “discovered” by Roger.[ref]“Waldorf Stories,” Episode 4[/ref] It’s a wonderful callback and it shows not only how far Don has come, but also how much he has forgotten.

Megan’s mother observes that she looks as if she’s been married far longer than she has. Megan laments that Don is “far away” (ironic, since he’s often one floor down with Sylvia) and her mother tells her to make Don think only of getting between her legs at dinner. It works. Don pushes her up against the wall and they make love. Later, Don comes home from working on the Chevy pitch to change clothes and head back in. Megan goes down on him in a sign of sexual subservience, which, in Don’s eyes, places the relationship back in proper order. They have always played this game of sexual dominance, but now the stakes seem higher than ever. This exchange plays into the outmoded notion that if only the stepped-on wife had put out more, her man wouldn’t have strayed. For Megan, a still a malleable young woman, it’s a painful thought to consider.

Ted meets Don in a Detroit bar, both there for the Chevy meeting. They pitch for each other (Don’s was way better, right? Am I crazy?) and Ted walks Don through how rigged the game is. GM wants little people’s ideas, but a big firm’s stature. The little guys will never win. The companies will just take their brilliant ideas and hand them, along with the account, over to a big firm. So Don, fresh off the sting of having been left out of the IPO dealings, proposes a merger. Ted, fresh off Peggy’s rebuff of an excited kiss, agrees. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and that’s exactly what they plan to do.[ref] I’m pretty sure neither Ted nor Don knew that Vick Chemical had left SCDP when they agreed to the merger. Roger played it off as a joke.[/ref] Jon Hamm’s facial expressions alone could win an Emmy this season, and the joy radiating from sticking it to the big boys is so fun to watch. Personally, I can’t wait to see Pete’s face when Don tells him, not only are they not going public, but they’re merging with CGC.

Peggy, finally bucking the patriarchy this season by buying an apartment and managing a handful of male creatives, comes face to face with the sad reality that men still control her life. Her hippie boyfriend, whom she fantasizes as an Emerson-reading Ted, convinces her to move to the seedy Upper West Side instead of the posh Upper East Side.[ref]Not much has changed, eh? UWS slam![/ref] It’s sort of a shithole, filled with dealers, loud music, and firecracker kids loitering on the stoop. It might be part of a movement, but it’s not one that Peggy wants to be a part of. She just wants some sleep. After finally getting out from under Don’s shadow, the reveal that Don is her boss once again is crushing. She’s confused and angry (and a little disappointed considering she seemed ready to reciprocate Ted’s kiss). Despite being the chief copywriter at a top 25 agency, she is, yet again, just another pawn in some man’s game.

“I don’t believe in fate,” Don says, “You make your own opportunities.” But fate, or at least serendipity, plays a large role in this episode. Don dumps Jaguar the same night Roger gets a lead on Chevy; Ted walks into the bar Don happens to be in; Pete and his father-in-law appear at the same brothel at the same time. While the coincidences are indeed plentiful, it’s what the characters do with those opportunities that matter. Pete makes the poor decision to confront his father-in-law and regale Trudy with stories of her father’s salacious proclivities. Don makes the great decision to turn an unfair situation into a lucrative opportunity. Actions have consequences in “Mad Men” and that’s a comforting thought. Don’s whole life, indeed his very name and identity, are built on the choices he made. And in Don’s life, second place is the first loser.