Mad Men, “The Strategy”

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This week’s Mad Men continues to hurtle forward into what we can only assume will be the cliffhanger of this season: what is the ultimate fate of SC&P, post-Don? Will they survive with him, or without him? We took a long luxurious path to get to where we are, and this week’s episode nudges us along, but only a little bit further. Once again, we have a grander mix of storylines crossing paths, but they’re all elaborate set ups for the next major conflict in the Mad Men universe. This week, we tell these stories through odd reunions and unions of our characters, all while breaking down what 5 or 10 years ago for them were socially accepted norms, as astutely pointed out by Peggy while she picked apart her strategy for Burger Chef. With these socio-psychological pickings apart are lingering visuals – many of which through doorways, hallways, a way of looking in while maintaining a distance. Let’s get to it.

You could maybe say the catalyst for all these revelations – easy and uneasy as they were to confront – is Pete Campbell’s visit to the NY office. With Pete’s visit came an onset of outside visitors, coming in to shake the home lives of some of our Mad Men team. These particular reunions wind up exploring the family norms that Peggy and Don wind up deconstructing by the end. Pete’s visit to NY cannot be complete without visiting his daughter Tammy. We’ve already observed two big divorces on the show – Roger’s and Don’s. None of these divorces were more awkward than Pete’s, who was leaving behind a child he no longer sees (at least Don still upholds his father responsibilities). A stranger in his own home, not even knowing who Trudy’s maid is, watching his daughter hesitate, not recognizing the man in the plaid jacket holding out a Barbie doll. Pete makes an awkward father, and what’s more ironic is he chides Trudy for dating around and being irresponsible about her daughter being left in the house, about not sharing with him her father’s heart attack. I mean, Trudy has every right to cut him out – he’s no saint, as we know, and he is no longer part of that family. The uglier side of what divorce looked like in that era (or ever, really) is revealed to Pete, who feels the burn when Trudy says they’re not a real family anymore. He later finds immediate disgust with plugging “family” as the strategy, as opposed to a singular figure, having broken down himself the farce of the packaged and sold concept of the American nuclear family.

We see a second challenge to this idea of the family with the return of Bob Benson, which brings two big bombshells into the Mad Men universe. First of which is the NY visit as a courtesy before unofficially dropping SC&P for advertising, building up and favoring instead internal strategy at Chevy, all of which is revealed when Bob picks up his now-outed colleague at Chevy. Bob has obviously maintained a strong friendship with Joan, having a family day with Joan, her son, and her mother over the weekend. He makes the brazen move to propose to Joan, who tries to save Bob’s dignity but eventually pushes back, telling him he’s “not meant to be with a woman.” Bob’s sexuality has been a topic danced around, and treated with a slickness in writing. Even Bob’s colleague hints he’s aware of Bob’s sexuality, saying he called Bob because he knew he could keep what happened between them. He proposes the idea that the marriage – knowing that he is gay – could itself be the perfect arrangement for him and Joan, where they both can live their own love lives under wraps, and Joan’s son would have a father. Of course, the thing that takes a stronger effect on Joan is business, not family – Bob considers the arrangement of a marriage to be beneficial because they would no longer be working together if he moves on to Buick. Again, another huge breaking down of how to construct the “normal” family, and if it’s even possible anymore, since obviously the fast move to propose is so Bob can maintain a “certain image.” Joan immediately declines, and waxes poetic about her own private life, saying she’d rather die waiting for love than settle for just an arrangement. We end this moment, hanging on Joan in a moment of contemplative distress through the hallway of her apartment, and we know she’s probably more worried about the future of her business than strategizing how to give Kevin a “normal” family life.

Don also has a brief reunion with Megan. We also know the “family” they’ve constructed is broken as well, and we kind of see Don acknowledge for the first time how it affects him. They share moments of superficial bliss, having a romantic breakfast on the deck, making dinner together. He watches her pack her things, though, and something stirs inside Don. He notices Megan is packing up a lot more clothing than she initially said, and there’s this quiet recognition that Megan is accepting their lives apart. We hang a moment on him through their closet hallway, Don watching Megan slowly remove traces of herself from his apartment, leaving him further alone (which he ruminates over with Peggy). Also, sidenote – anyone feel woozy watching Don and Megan sway in the wind on their deck? I know there’s a lot of those Sharon Tate theories out there about Megan, but it felt like she could just blow away or fall off that deck, Don holding tight as long as he could before she fully slips away.

The final big reunion that culminates all of these musings about the image of the family occurs between Peggy and Don, who have kept a very tense working relationship, with Peggy constantly suspecting Don undermining her, and Don just barely holding his tongue to respect the new status quo. Don knows his place, but Peggy’s suspicion continuously frustrates her, and causes her to try to re-work the strategy that Don seemed otherwise proud of for Burger Chef. They haven’t been able to take the gloves off and have a true go at it since Don’s return, and they finally have their moment, albeit working out of Lou’s office to get the strategy right. They loosen up and Don watches Peggy at work, after Peggy tries to demand Don’s method out of him. We watch her work and rework aloud, the way we would Don, and we only cut to Don once Peggy’s decided that it’s not about projecting the image of the Mom, but the family. We fulfill their reunion as father-daughter, mentor-mentee figure as they slow dance to “My Way,” a shot of them dancing through the doorway to Don’s old office. It’s also a very poetic image at the end, kind of a meta moment where we see what Peggy and Don are envisioning as the iconic image of the ad for Burger Chef: Peter, Peggy, and Don gathered at the “family” table, enjoying a meal together, no other distractions (it also helps that the building facade basically looks like the most basic image of a house) These three are a symbolic trio of SC&P – three people who were at the base of the new company and its growth. They are all also equally alone in their private lives, and find their main fulfillment in the job. They are a family of sorts – the kind of family of the future, it seems.

Even though there’s something warming about the ending, we know there’s disturbance in the air: with the upcoming loss of Chevy, and the huge gamble they’re going to take with Philip Morris, there’s actually a lot riding on this Burger Chef presentation. I wondered if we’d get a chance to see it, but I guess the final image is our way of seeing their presentation, for now. If Don and Peggy win over Burger Chef the way Ted and Pete suggest (with Don at the forefront leading into Peggy during the pitch), what will that mean for the company’s stakes with future clients? Will they go the Harry Crane route and seek technology clients, which they basically suggest in the partners’ meeting towards the end? (I’m glad Roger and Joan are on the same page for that one, and I’ve been waiting for that damn shoe to drop) Roger also realizes that he was approached in the sauna by someone suspecting rumblings of the loss of their car account (and worrying about Bob staying with SC&P to pull in Buick instead) Is Roger going to scheme? This show has a way of very thinly creating an atmosphere of comfort, a veil whose destruction is imminent. We’re nearing the end of this first stretch, so I’m assuming more and more shoes will drop. But this show has its way of averting my expectations. Maybe we’ll slow back down to let the upcoming conflicts simmer. Until next week…

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