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'Mad Men' Explores What Makes a Family In "The Strategy," One Of Its Best Episodes

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | May 20, 2014 | Comments ()


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Welcome to the beginning of the end, Mad Men fans! Come back every Tuesday for a breakdown of the latest episode comprising the first half of this seminal show’s seventh and final season. Want more Mad Men discussion? Be sure to subscribe to the Not Great, Pod! podcast featuring me and Messrs. Corey Atad and Kevin Ketchum. Feel free to give us a rating, like us or follow us, and please shoot us an email with your questions, comments and crackpot theories at notgreatpod@gmail.com.


The final shot of Mad Men’s sixth episode of Season Seven, “The Strategy,” is perfect enough — poignant enough — to be the final shot of the series itself:

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Neither the show nor the fans are ready for that ending, however, but if Matthew Weiner decides to say goodbye in a similar manner, few would complain. Peggy, Don and Pete sitting at a fast food restaurant eating hamburgers encapsulates both the theme of Peggy’s Burger Chef ad pitch and the episode: family. A family is more than relatives, and it’s more than romanticized notions of what comprises togetherness. It’s having people with whom you can be yourself, to drop the fantasy you’re chasing and live in the moment, even if that moment is under fluorescent lighting surrounded by others. These three are a family — they know each other, and they get each other — and there’s no point in settling for less.

All the main players in “The Strategy” are struggling with the notion of things not being good enough, whether it’s a relationship or an ad campaign. Bonnie isn’t interested in being Pete’s kept woman, the blonde he stashes in a hotel room while he visits his daughter and not-yet-ex-wife. Her career ambitions and sexual appetite don’t cancel out her desire for a relationship and a family of her own, and it takes a trip back to New York for Pete’s outdated “I want you shopping all day and screwing all night” mentality to fully shine through. No, he can’t f*ck his way out of this, and he can’t show up at Trudy’s expecting her to be waiting for him and his daughter to even recognize him. It doesn’t matter which coast he’s on; in both places, he’s living a fantasy.

Don certainly isn’t facing the reality of his and Megan’s relationship when she returns to visit. Seeing her preparing him breakfast on the balcony (a nice contrast to his out-in-the-cold scene in the same location as this season opened) has him wishing her time in L.A. had been a dream, yet their New York life hasn’t been and will never be this paradise he so desperately wants. What’s the point in maintaining the charade if they can’t even be open with each other? Megan appears to finally be taking steps to break away from the failed marriage, collecting more of her belongings to take back west to what she considers her real home. (The old newspaper with the JFK assassinated headline could be pointing to this.) “Tell me you didn’t miss this,” he says to her. “I missed you,” she answers, which rings true. She still loves him, but it’s not enough.

Bob_Joan_MM7.6.pngThe return of Bob Benson is a wonderful things for the series, especially given the added insight into his true character and not the lie he’s been peddling for years. In many ways, Bob is Dick Whitman/Don Draper Part Two, as Pete discovered in Season Six, not that the desire to reinvent oneself is bad. Being gay has Bob even more desperate than Don to fit in with what society says is acceptable, and the Chevy rep’s (Matthew Glave) run-in with the police for trying to fellate an undercover officer only worries him further. Perhaps the rep’s admission that he has an understanding wife gives Bob the idea to propose to Joan, or perhaps he already had it planned and the news that he would land a position with Buick now that SC&P is losing the Chevy account spurred his decision. Either way, his pitch is a heartbreaking one. Sure, they would be happy as companions who love each other — Bob clearly has a connection with her family — but neither would have the love they need and deserve. His tactics are unfair: “Is this what you want? To be near 40 with a two bedroom apartment with a mother and a little boy? I know I am flawed. But I am offering you more than anyone else ever will.” Yet Joan handles his play on her insecurities with grace. An “arrangement” won’t fix anything, and trying to get Bob to realize this sooner rather than later is the kindest thing she can do for him.

Peggy’s age and circumstances also come into play, this time from Peggy as she struggles to write an ad about a family eating Burger Chef for dinner. Her error is trying to write from the perspective of the mother, a role she can’t relate to. She isn’t that harried mom sweating in the station wagon with screaming children in the background, the mom whose biting comments about being perceived as not good enough and slacking off by buying her family fast food were painful to hear. Peggy had a child, but she chose to give it up for adoption. That doesn’t make her a failure by any means, but it is an experience she shouldn’t ignore when it comes painting a picture of a family for her ad. She shouldn’t settle for a version of life and family that isn’t true to what she knows. Her original pitch is good, but only that, and Don’s mild-mannered praise of it coupled with a suggestion of his own (likely intentionally made to get her rethinking things) is enough to keep her up at night. He’s in her head, like he has been countless times before, and she knows her work isn’t her best. She lashes out at him, but he takes it in stride, coming into the office over the weekend because he knows she’s there trying to rewrite the ad. Their exchange about his tepid fix to the ad is excellent:

Peggy: It wasn’t great. It was terrible. I want to hear the real one. Or are you going to pull it out during the presentation?
Don: This idea is good. I think we can get the client to buy it.
Peggy: No you don’t, or you wouldn’t have questioned it.
Don: I’m going to do whatever you say.
Peggy: So you’re going to pick the hell out of my shitty idea and I’m going to fail?
Don: Peggy, I’m here to help you do whatever you want 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 the job.
Peggy: What’s the job?
Don: Living in the not knowing.
Peggy: You know I wouldn’t have argued if it was me, I would have just given you a hundred ideas and never questioned why. You really wanna help me? Show me how you think. Do it out loud.
Don: You can’t tell people what they want. It has to be what you want.
Peggy: Well I want to go to the movies.

She’s learning, she’s processing, she’s struggling, and her strive for creative perfection and her ego are a match for Don’s. He has always been a mentor to her, and a father figure, and his patience here is moving. “Well, whenever I’m really unsure about an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need,” he calmly says, and she smiles. He understands her better than anyone, and he knows that what she needs is to be encouraged and reminded that she’ll never have all the answers. For all her career advancements, Peggy is still hit left and right from the men who surround her. Pete made Lou look practically modern this time around, first with his continuously referring to Don and his opinion over Peggy’s, then by requesting Don deliver the Burger Chef pitch because of his ability to present “authority” and Peggy’s ability to present “emotion.” (Never mind that Peggy is correct to point out that it’s the other way around.) He was being sincere when he exclaimed “You know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business!,” so it’s no wonder Peggy can easily get in her own head and doubt herself. Don’s response is perfect: “I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about you.” His taking a cue from the fortuitous playing of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and leading Peggy in a dance is a beautiful display of their affection for and understanding of each other. This scene in “The Strategy” — taking place in what used to be Don’s office — also serves as a final chapter in the trilogy of consequential Don-Peggy scenes in Season Four’s “The Suitcase” and Season Five’s “The Other Woman,” both of which played out in that space:

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Mad Men is as much Peggy’s story as it is Don’s, and seeing the two of them come so far together has been powerful. She began by learning and practicing his way of doing things. Now, she knows it’s better to do it her way.

Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Robert Sanchez III

    This episode really made me happy. I just can't stand all the new people they have in the office (fuckin' Lou) and they seemed to be stretching thin on real emotion with all the maneuvering and company intrigue. Peggy and Don have my favorite relationship in the show and it should be central to the conclusion I hope. I would really like a phasing out of Megan as well. She has never rubbed me the right way and every time i start to feel a little sympathy for her she does something like send away a pregnant girl to keep Don all to herself.

  • ed newman

    I kind of like all the new people. It makes it seem more real to me. People come and go from an office over a ten year period and with the size of the new SCP firm, there should be lots of new faces.

  • Robert Sanchez III

    Also is it just me or is Cooper no longer a sympathetic voice of reason anymore?

  • ed newman

    He's getting older and older, more and more crotchety. I am sure the social change around him is messing him up as well, but the show would never take the time to show it. So yeah, I think you're right.

  • One question, though:

    Joan is a partner. She's loaded. Why is she still living in that shitty apartment?

  • Ruthie O

    There's a discussion over at TLo about this very question! http://tomandlorenzo.com/2014/...

  • I have a friend who's been living in what is essentially a tenement for 20 years. Joan's apartment is dated and getting worn, but I don't think it's shitty.

    And she's still living there because she always needs time for her perception of herself to catch up to the changes she's already made.

  • What an amazing episode for Peggy and Don. And even Pete. When that last shot appeared I just thought "Aw damn, it's the original three." They know each other better than anyone else, and they still love each other. They're pretty much the only thing the other has. And while that's incredibly sad in a way, it also makes me hopeful that things will turn out OK for them.

    *sigh*

    I love this show.

  • dizzylucy

    I loved Peggy coming back with "I have authority, and Don has emotion".
    I've always liked her role (and more and more Joan too) as sort of the example of the women's liberation that was happening at the time. But I also liked that she questioned all that for a bit here, because it's human to still wonder if you chose the right path, even if you know you did.

  • Sarah Weissman

    Especially because an assured woman is still seen as "bitchy"

  • I'm so glad we finally got a good Peggy episode this season.

  • Marc Greene

    I loved Joan's switch in gears with her discussion with Bob once he mentioned the Buick situation. Talk about being able to compartmentalize business and personal; she seems to be maybe the only one of the partners who can do that.

  • BWeaves

    1. Does John Slatterly's contract say he has to be naked in every episode he appears in? Because I'm OK with that.

    2. Other than that, Sarah said almost everything I was going to say about this episode.

    3. Bob Benson proposing to Joan was inevitable. I've been waiting for it. I was ready to punch him when he told Joan, "I am offering you more than anyone else ever will." I think he forgets she's a partner. She may be making less than the other partners, but she's still making more than most of the people at SC&P. She may be living in a tiny apartment with her mom and her son, but she is saving her money.

    4. Harry finally gets his partnership. He's the last of the original group that broke free from SC and formed SCPD.

  • Sarah Weissman

    I think, re: 3, Bob meant, "You're too old for anyone to propose to and you have a kid..."

  • Art3mis

    4. Harry finally gets his partnership. He's the last of the original group that broke free from SC and formed SCPD.

    Not quite. Peggy was in that original group, too.

  • BWeaves

    Oh, right. How could I forget.

    I just always thought of Harry as being about the same level as Pete.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Lovely recap, and as someone who was having a bad day when that episode aired I can say that was one of the finest and most reinvigorating hours of television I've ever seen.

    Bob Benson's shattered glimmer of hope in the corner of his eye hiding his sad desperation through a rehearsed smile was heartbreaking even when he unintentionally bemoaned Joan, who handled that admirably. The guy may be an analogue of Don Draper, but he projects false confidence underneath his own personal insecurities instead. James Wolk killed it.

    Pete's slimeball behaviour, disdainful attitude and backhanded compliments finally returning to surface after his West Coast venture in fantasy land was great.

    And I really like that brief exchange between former co-workers when Stan genuinely looked happy to see Megan in the office again and just hugged her, no awkwardness or forced tension, just two nice people who haven't seen each other in a while.

    Also, as someone who works in a field fueled by creativity (architecture) I can relate to Peggy's moment of doubt and her subsequent epiphany, I know that feeling when the good idea you initially thought was going to reinvent the wheel turned out to be merely "good" but still not "great", when you just have to settle for presentable as the deadline approaches. So you spend countless hours during your weekend trying to revitalize your original concept and come up with something better, you obsess over every tiny detail and sculpt the damn thing it inside your head even in the company of other people, it's that resilient idea that just won't let you turn off your brain. I really identified myself in her situation and from now on I'll take Don's advice to heart:

    "I abuse my staff, take a nap, return to work and see if I still arrive at the same place"

  • Fost

    Great episode overall.

    I was so pleased with Bob Benson's return. So glad the writers are still in interested in exploring homosexuality in the 60's after Salvatore Romano's departure.

    Also, big shout out to David Carbonara for his compositions for this week's episode, so many memorable cues.

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