'Mad Men' Explores What Makes a Family In "The Strategy," One Of Its Best Episodes
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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:
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don’t cancel out her desire for a relationship and a family of her own, and it takes a trip back to New York for Pete’s outdated “I want you shopping all day and screwing all night” mentality to fully shine through.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.
The 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:
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.