In a show set inside an advertising agency, where selling images of perfect products and people is key, the theme of family has been an important subtext this season, but it took center stage in the latest episode of Mad Men.
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"I hate even the word 'family.' It's vague." —Pete CampbellFor all of the characters in "The Strategy," they're either lamenting the road not traveled and the family they're supposed to have but don't, or their relationships are crumbling. And this all happens with the backdrop of trying to create a Burger Chef ad that attempts to sell a choice that goes against 1960s-era traditional ideas of how families are supposed to gather for a meal.
For much of this season, Peggy has been an insufferable character. And with Don's return to Sterling Cooper & Partners, Peggy and Don's relationship has been anywhere between non-existent to antagonistic. But this episode brought them back together, while showing that through all their troubles Pete, Peggy and Don are a "family" in their own dysfunctional way.
From Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix:
Five years ago, after a long night at press tour, Matt Weiner and I sat down to discuss the third season premiere of "Mad Men," "Out of Town." It was a sprawling conversation, covering not just the episode, but past decisions about the show and even, near the end, his future hopes for it. As the series has gone on, Weiner has grown more close-mouthed about what's coming next, but this was far away from the hypothetical end of the series that he felt comfortable talking a little about what he envisioned for it:Some notes about the episode:I would like to see them get to the end of this (decade), and that was my original intention when I wrote the pilot. My idea was, "What is it going to be like for someone who is already an adult?" Let's take away all the Boomer rosy haze. This guy's an adult. Pete's in his 20s, Peggy is in her 20s. What was it like for them to sit back and watch this happen? And no matter what happens — Summer of Love, The Beatles, Woodstock, Rolling Stones — when you get to 1970, "My Way" is still in the top 10 songs. You know what I mean? That's what I'm interested in. And I would love to see where they are. I would love to see this sense of how things turned out.As Don and Peggy worked all night on Burger Chef, and Don recognized the sound of "My Way" coming from Lou's stereo, my mind returned to that warm California night, and to that last answer Weiner offered before we said our goodbyes. And as Don invited Peggy to slow dance, in an office that was once his, and that each of them is more qualified to occupy than its current tenant, with both of them filled with so much sadness over the way they've lived their lives and the lonely, unfulfilled place it's brought them to, I realized that even as I am not ready for "Mad Men" to go away — not after one more episode airs this year, and certainly not after the remaining seven episodes air next year — if Weiner had decided that this was, in fact, the place where he was going to bring the series to an end... dayenu.
- Pete is still an asshole, but ... : Pete's (Vincent Kartheiser) relationship with Bonnie (Jessy Schram) feels and seems shallow. Yes, she's giving him hand jobs and letting him become part of the mile-high club on their way to New York. But Pete still treats her as a thing, while also walling off other aspects of his life from Bonnie. Pete shows Bonnie around the office and to Don like a trophy, but doesn't want her to meet his daughter Tammy. All the while, Pete has so little of a relationship with his daughter that she hides behind the maid, afraid of him, when he arrives. And Pete is still possessive of Trudy (Alison Brie). Pete slamming the beer down into Tammy's cake is probably one of his best dickish-prick moves. He realizes Trudy is moving on, Pete doesn't have a place with his wife and daughter anymore, and that he threw it all away. With all of that being said, Pete does show some redeeming behavior. He is loyal to Don. It is Pete that insists Don be included on the Burger Chef ad. And he does it not to fuck with Don, but because he still trusts Don's abilities.
- The rise of fast food: Peggy at first thinks the key to a Burger Chef ad is getting over a mother's guilt for picking up fast food instead of cooking. Not only does she resent Don being part of the discussion and pitch, but Peggy also has to deal with the sexism of Pete and Lou (Allan Havey) who pat her on the head and talk about how good she's doing ... for a woman. And even Ted (Kevin Rahm) pops up on the speakerphone to "suggest" that Peggy let Don take the lead on the pitch. Don's suggestion that Peggy slams, that an ad should be aimed at the kids, isn't too far off. Just ask McDonald's and their Happy Meals. But Peggy comes to believe the ad should be based on the idea that going to Burger Chef is a family event. Peggy is able to find it through Don being her mentor. Don and Peggy's relationship has always bordered on big brother-little sister or even father-daughter. And in the scene in Lou's office where they reconnect, Don is honest with her and brings out the best when he tells Peggy not to do a strategy the way the client wants, but the way she thinks it will work best. Don is being there for Peggy in the way she's been there for Don in the past.
When Peggy talks about turning 30 and about the life she didn’t lead in that scene, I thought inevitably of the child she gave up for adoption, the child she and Pete will never, can never know. And I thought about how when you turn 30, you suddenly realize that there are more paths you can never follow than there are paths you can. You’ve made your choices, and no matter how you might try to blow up your life, you’re trapped by those choices. Your fate has been sealed, to some degree, and you’re playing out the string. You are finally you, and there’s something wonderful and terrifying about that.
- My Way: Last week I did a column on song meanings, and it's interesting to think about how the song fits into what these characters are experiencing. "My Way" was written by Paul Anka and based on a French song called "Comme D'Habitude," which tells the story of a man looking back on his life and finding himself bored by it. Anka changed the lyrics to make the song about a man looking back fondly on his life triumphantly, knowing that he lived it on his own terms. But it should be noted that even though it's one of Frank Sinatra's signature songs, he is said to have loathed it and thought its message was self-serving and self-indulgent. The scene between Don and Peggy above splits the difference between the two versions of the song. A lot of times, late at night, when we start thinking about what might have been, there's a tendency to think the grass would have been greener on the other side. What if I had asked Lisa to marry me? What if I had taken the job in New York? But a lot of times those are revisionist dreams. Peggy asks what's wrong with her that she's alone at 30? But there's no guarantee that if she had taken the other road Peggy wouldn't have been a housewife, sitting at home watching kids, lamenting not taking her chance at being a successful business woman. There is a satisfaction in looking back at your accomplishments, knowing that you did it your way. But sometimes there's a loneliness too, along with all sorts of regrets, both real and imagined.
- Megan comes for her fondue pot: Megan's appearance at the office was awkward, and she doesn't even seem to "fit" within Don's life in New York anymore. And in all of her scenes, there's a feeling of finality and wistfulness that even the characters know their marriage is doomed. There really isn't happiness between her and Don. And Megan packing things to take back to California feels like the end. Don finding the newspaper from the day of the Kennedy assassination is a reference to the end of Don's marriage to Betty (January Jones), which occurred around the same time. Also, the shot of Megan on the plane towards the end of the episode is similar to one of Betty around the time Don and Betty's marriage ended. There are also similarities between Megan and Bonnie. Beyond being on the same flight back to California, they're also in relationships that feel incomplete. And they both like entertainment with some nudity: I Am Curious (Yellow) and "Oh! Calcutta!"
- Bob Benson tries to keep up appearances: Bob Benson (James Wolk) returns and decides to propose to Joan (Christina Hendricks). He's spurred into that decision after dealing with a gay GM executive that gets picked up by the cops for soliciting, and news that he has an opportunity to work for Buick. Bob offers marriage to Joan as a situation that works for them both. Bob gets to keep up appearances, and Joan gets to be a married wife to a successful GM executive instead of a middle-aged woman pushing 40 with a child, living with her mother. But Joan refuses, because she wants love. And she would rather be alone than be a "beard." Does that love still extend to Roger (John Slattery)? Who knows? It's also worth noting that this episode is taking place in the summer of 1969. The Stonewall riots and the Apollo 11 Moon landing should be occurring pretty soon.
- The problem with shopping in New York: According to Joan's mom, “the Jews close everything on Saturday.”
- Harry Crane, the newest partner: The loss of Chevy, and Jim Cutler's (Harry Hamlin) plan to get Philip Morris, leads to Harry (Rich Sommer) being made a partner. They can show off his new IBM 360 with proprietary software in the New York Times. Joan is understandably upset because Harry is an asshole, and she took a lot of shit from Harry about how she got her partnership. But Don's comment that Harry is loyal is significant too. Cutler suggests making him partner, but Harry's loyalty may be big if a war between Roger and Cutler divides the office. Spurred by both the news about Chevy and Jim from McCann's strange conversation in the sauna, Roger seems to have started making a plan to take advantage of the entire situation. And I have to believe that whatever Roger is thinking must play some part in next week's mid-season finale.
- A family sits down at Burger Chef: The final scene of the episode is probably one of the best the series has ever done. Through all of their troubles, three characters with a lot of water under the bridge, sit down like a family because they are a family in that moment.
The image channels Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, and of course it's a sunny-side-up answer to the cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos, where Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner cut his showrunner's teeth.