SPOILER ALERT: “You can’t tell people what they want. It has to be what you want.”
If you’re someone who has never seen an episode of Mad Men (ya poor soul) and wanted to watch just one to see what it’s all about, “The Strategy” might be it. In many ways it seemed to revisit well-trodden ground – Women struggling for respect in the workplace! The dissolution of the American family! – but the penultimate installment in this penultimate set of episodes offers some of the most wonderfully layered writing in the show’s history, as well as the slightest suggestion of evolution. That is, if the central question of Mad Men is “Can people change?”, it’s now maybe potentially conceivably sort of perchance kinda possible that the answer could be… yes.
Because although Peggy being coerced into not delivering her own Burger Chef pitch is another exhausting example of the glass ceiling, this time Don decidedly isn’t standing in her way. Describing Peggy with gusto as “every bit as good as any woman in this business” is not in fact praise, Pete. That scene in Lou’s office is quintessential Mad Men: patronizing men unable to see past a woman’s gender, with two men in question having taken advantage of said woman. What prevented Peggy’s story in this episode from feeling repetitive is Don, strolling into the office on a Sunday – not, as Peggy implies, to save the day, but to humbly help her do the one thing they both unequivocally love: advertising. But more on that gorgeous scene of gorgeousness later.
The ominously dark shot of Bob and GM exec Bill in the prison – the guard behind them calling, “Goodnight, ladies!” – is probably all we’re going to get from Matt Weiner in regards to the momentous events about to occur in downtown New York. The Stonewall riots of June 1969 were a pivotal point in LGBT history, but I don’t see this show lingering on its effect on these characters. For one thing, the arrests at the Stonewall Inn were barely reported at the time, so it’s conceivable even people like Joan, who lives a few blocks away, won’t hear about it. For another, this show has spent only slightly more time and energy depicting the 60’s-era gay experience than the 60’s-era black experience, and even the brief, tense interactions here covered a lot of ground. “How did you live in this city? So much temptation,” mutters Bill. “It was hard,” says Bob.
But the news of SC&P’s loss of Chevy (yeesh, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near One-Eyed Ken when he finds out they’re being dropped) and the implication that Bob is in for an incredible job offer sets off all his positive-thinking, go-getter instincts. Bob, like many of us, is eager to become what society thinks he should become. His heartbreakingly awkward proposal to Joan illustrates a slight lack of empathy on his part – if you’re going to propose to a friend who you probably know probably knows you’re gay, you should probably not imply it’s the best offer she’s probably going to get. Nor should you be surprised when talk of losing a big company account distracts her completely from the proposal itself.
How wonderful, and how fitting for 1969 Joan, that she says, “I can’t think about this right now.” The news about Chevy clearly trumps marriage in her mind, which would have been preposterous for the Joan of 1962. It’s clear too from her apartment – she’s a partner with an account and a faaabulous wardrobe, what’s with those tacky colors, girl? – that her personal life has taken a backseat to the kind of professional obsession that characterizes Don, Peggy and many others. Bob’s proposed arrangement is ludicrous to her, although it’s lovely to watch Christina Hendricks take a brief moment, as he leaves, to contemplate it.
There were multiple echoes of career eclipsing family in “The Strategy,” specifically the notion of belonging to a family or not belonging. Marsha doesn’t know Megan is Don’s wife (bitch, why would you say that!!), while Pete has to remind his daughter who he is. The only real family that emerges intact in this episode, and perhaps overall in this show, is the professional one. We have Stan and Peggy bantering like siblings, Joan and Roger uniting against Harry, and of course that astonishing last shot, where Don playfully points out the ketchup on Pete’s face. Don, Peggy and Pete have had their share of abusive behavior and, like, secret babies or whatever, but throughout their tumultuous personal lives, the dedication to the work has endured. (I’m reminded of that brilliant 30 Rock scene where Liz and Jack are questioned about the nature of their professional relationship and slowly realize they’re closer to each other than to anyone else.)
And then there’s the shot of Don unearthing a newspaper from November 22, 1963. Are we to take JFK’s assassination as a signal of how and why America changed, an echo of Peggy’s lament over traditional families breaking bread together? I think these characters are realizing that nostalgia is neither a helpful nor a marketable tool at the end of this crazy decade. Too much has changed to pretend the past is still within reach. The conclusion to Don and Peggy’s weekend Burger Chef brainstorm was more of a compromise: the perfect American family doesn’t exist anymore, but there is a way (albeit with fast food) to get kinda close.
That scene, with Don and Peggy coming into the office on a weekend all dressed up for each other, was even better than season four’s “The Suitcase.” It took all those ideas about creativity and reinvention and the American dream, and condensed them into a layered dialogue that advanced Don and Peggy’s relationship just as much as that renowned bottle episode did.
Don: “I’m here to do whatever you tell me to do.”
Peggy: “Well, how am I supposed to know?”
Don: “That’s a tough one.”
Peggy: “You love this.”
Don: “Not really. I want you to feel good about what you’re doing, but you’ll never know. That’s just the job.”
Peggy: “What’s the job?”
Don: “Living in the not knowing.”
We surely assumed Don and Peggy’s reconciliation would come eventually, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful:
Don: “Whenever I’m really unsure about an idea, first I… I abuse the people whose help I need. And then I take a nap.”
And there it is. Peggy smiles miraculously, and this show’s most important relationship turns a corner. Despite the constant doom and gloom, I can’t help but feel Matt Weiner is toying with the idea of ending on an upswing. Drawing on one of its richest relationships – perhaps one of television’s richest relationships – Mad Men turns the tables once again, as Don reaches his hand out to Peggy, without fear and without bitterness, and the two of them take refuge from the world, dancing to “My Way” in the office. It’s exactly where they belong.
Stray thoughts before the mid-season finale:
- James Wolk is as cute as a button A BUTTON I SAY.
- A lot of parallels between Don and Pete in this episode. Bonnie says, “I don’t like you in New York,” and Pete answers, “Then you don’t like me.” That pretty much sums it up for Don and Megan right now.
- Trudy is NOT HAVING IT with Pete in that kitchen, and she knows exactly how to eviscerate him. Her relieved exhalation after he left retroactively heightened the tension in a scene chock-full of painful history. Any episode that includes Allison Brie is a treat.
- Putting all the major female characters in that same shade of light blue felt like on-the-nose costuming for me, but Janie Bryant continues to weave masterful storytelling into her work so I’m not complaining. I am, of course, reading Tom & Lorenzo’s Mad Style recaps, and you should be too.
- Ken Cosgrove: “He’s crawling all over the place. You really got to keep an eye on him.” That jolt of accidental humor is also quintessential Mad Men.
- Gail Holloway: “The Jews close everything on Saturday.” …So is that.
- While it warms my heart whenever Don and Megan are in sync, I don’t have high hopes for their relationship for the remainder of this show. How will this mid-season finale, waiting-for-a-year-before-the-actual-last-season thing fadge? The awkwardness of Megan sifting through her stuff was highlighted by the contented, almost invigorated look on her face as she flew back. And what is with that shot of Bonnie and Megan on the plane anyway? “My Way” fades abruptly, and the stewardess closing that curtain seems like an overt symbol of – what? An end to their stories? Like Betty flying after her divorce, it definitely signals some kind of change.
- Ted Chaough alone in his office with his sad, sad cup of orange juice. 😦
- I love this show.