Welcome back to Don and Peggy Are The Absolute Best Mad Men. It was an episode where plenty of stuff happened—Pete joined the Mile-High Club, Don headed closer to a divorce, a closeted GM exec was outed in a horrifying if historically accurate manner, and a perfectly good cake was destroyed by Pete’s petulance. But “The Strategy” will likely go down in Mad Men history as one of the show’s best episodes for its quieter revelations, which cut to the heart of the characters’ humanity in ways that exemplify why we keep watching. Read on for our take on the episode.
“It’s nice to see family happiness again,” said Lou Avery after Peggy lit up the room with her preliminary Burger Chef pitch featuring a daughter in a tutu, a son in a football helmet, and two loving parents bonded by the dinnertime ease of fast food. But if anything, the emphasis on family in “The Strategy” was on the way that word was well into the process of redefinition, one necessitated both by the changing times and by the realization that gender roles—much to the consternation of old squares like Lou—have never been set in stone, even in advertising. (More on that from Annalee in a minute.)
I’ve been saying, somewhat flippantly, that I can’t wait to see some women’s-lib realness worked into office life at SC&P, but “The Strategy” was a reminder that Mad Men’s engagement with changing gender-role expectations and the self-actualization of its female characters is already right on, no “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” posters or consciousness-raising-group scenes needed. The episode was especially trenchant in its look at how the men of SC&P still assume they know what’s best for the women in their lives and their offices.
Pete’s intervention in Peggy’s pitch, and his insistence that Don, not Peggy, be the one to present to Burger Chef was a key example of this. The fact that Pete blithely swans into the office from the West coast, all Pete-like, to say something like “Don will give authority. You will give emotion” was enough to make me want Lane Pryce to rise from the dead to call Pete a “grimy little pimp” just one more time before punching him in the mouth and peaceing out back to his grave. But Peggy’s response—”I have authority. Don has emotion”—was just as satisfying. Indeed, it seemed like one of the points of the episode was to point out how woefully behind the times, in just about every way, Pete is. Thinking that he can just delegate his gauzy idea of Life as a Woman to Bonnie (“I want you shopping all day and screwing all night”) and not expect to get called out for being an inconsiderate boob? And thinking that he could guilt Trudy because she’s now a swinging single lady with a fresh hairdo and a hot date, when he’s such an absent father that his daughter didn’t even recognize him? Think again, Pete. Think the fuck again.
Bob Benson, bless his well-meaning, closeted heart, thought he knew what was best when he proposed to Joan on what seemed like a whim, considering they hadn’t seen each other in months. But the proposal was based as much on his own fears as it was on his feeling that Joan needed a considerate, loving man in her life—it was only after he bailed out the fellow closeted GM colleague who’d “attempted to fellate an undercover officer” that he learned that he’d be changing jobs and would need to go even deeper into the character of a straitlaced executive. It was a heartbreaking, character-defining moment for the show—finally, some insight into what makes Bob Benson run—so it was just as painful to see him realize just how much he’d underestimated Joan’s independence, and how cluelessly he insulted her by assuming that she’d be willing to settle for a marriage of convenience just to be able to have a ring on her finger, and the attendant legitimacy that comes with it. (“I know I am flawed, but I’m offering you more than anyone else will.”) Joan, like Peggy with Pete, expertly counters the insult with the verve of someone who has been insulted so many times before that she’s expertly practiced at not sounding insulted. It’s a shame, because Bob and Joan really do have a special friendship, and this will harm it in irrevocable ways. But Bob, Joan, Kevin, and even Joan’s mom are much better as a family of their choosing than as a legal “family” brought about through societal pressure and personal insecurity.
Don, perhaps because his alpha-male swagger has been hobbled by the new restrictions and hierarchies accompanying his return to SC&P, is the one person who doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of “Let me show you how it’s done, ladies.” Sure, he celebrates Pete’s “suggestion” that he, rather than Peggy, deliver the Burger Chef pitch with a triumphant first-pump in the privacy of his office. And yes, it makes sense that Peggy would accuse Don of undermining her triumphant pitch with some criticism—after her treatment by Pete, of course she’d blow up at yet another dude insinuating that her work doesn’t stand on its own. But Peggy, and the rest of us, eventually realize that Don’s feeling that the pitch could be better is what illustrates their true bond. They’re not mentor and mentee, not boss-turned-underling vs. underling-turned-boss. They’re partners who stand out among their colleagues for their sometimes debilitating egos and their need to be excellent at any cost.
Deep in my Mad Men–loving heart, I trusted that Don and Peggy’s relationship would eventually move past the sour looks and curled lips of late and get back to the late-night confessions and near-perfect mindmelds of episodes past, and “The Strategy” took us there. Like “The Suitcase,” “The Strategy” revealed once again that Don’s great love isn’t the women he meets and casts off with the ease of a London Fog overcoat, but the business of advertising—and, even more than that, the process of coming up with a winning pitch. Don’s admission to Peggy of how dismal his strategy of creative brainstorming actually is—”First, I abuse the people whose help I need. Then I take a nap”—is delivered with a self-awareness that’s new for Don, and one that, furthermore, seems reserved just for Pegs; his belief in her as she unloads to him about the insecurities and indignities that come with being a successful woman is more genuine than ever. For those who believe that Mad Men has always been Don and Peggy’s story, this episode offered some indelible agreement.
“She’s as good as any woman in this business!” Pete, you choad, I knew all that hippie talk about vibes was a complete sham. When Bonnie declared “I don’t like you in New York,” I can’t be the only one who shouted, “Get a clue, Bonnie! No one likes Pete anywhere!”
And speaking of Bonnie: When Don’s phone rang shortly after Pete blew off his plans with Bonnie to stay in Connecticut and harangue Trudy, didn’t you totally think it was going to be her, asking Don out to see racy off-Broadway hit Oh! Calcutta! (“the first nude musical”)?
Poor Harry Crane. Nobody cares that he’s now a partner, and he’ll probably be the last to know.
I wouldn’t bust out the champagne just yet, Harry.
Sugar and spice and everything nice
That was a gut punch of an episode, no? In between office-dance tears and sexist jeers, “The Strategy” was chock-full of MM characters chafing against quickly antiquated—but long from being expired—notions of masculinity and femininity. And while SC&P is busily formulating a strategy for the Burger Chef pitch, not to mention a back-up plan for Chevy unexpectedly dumping them, several of our friends are also struggling to negotiate a life that goes against the script that’s been assigned to them.
Considering that Mad Men is about advertising (you know, that manipulative thing that convinces us of fictional problems that can be solved by a real product), we don’t often talk about this ad agency’s role in promoting the gender roles its employees are subject to. In version 1 of the Burger Chef ad, Peggy describes the daughter of her nuclear family as being outfitted in a tutu, while the boy wears a football helmet. These details are largely unneeded, but serve to communicate the wholesome—and more to the point, the comforting—tone of the ad. We also hear that the girl “is hungry,” whereas the boy “is starving,” once again reminding us, and the ad’s audience, of the voracity with which men can approach their (heteronormative) lives. Later, we see Pete give Tammy a Barbie, while Bob brings an Erector set to Kevin. The former gift is especially interesting given the physical similarities between the doll and Bonnie—and, perhaps more important, the lack of resemblance shared by the littlest Campbell that will no doubt subconsciously gnaw at her self-esteem for years to come. SC&P and its competitors present a vast amount of examples of manhood and womanhood for the young’uns to model their behavior after, but with little to no variety. The times may be a-changing, but the gender socialization of children is the same as it ever was, which won’t surprise anyone who’s ever watched Killing Us Softly.
Elsewhere, we’re finally reunited with our pal Bob Benson, who serves as a tragic example of trying to fit in. We should have seen Bill Hartley’s hidden side when he was sleazily (and repeatedly!) hitting on Joan in the office, but “The Strategy” wastes little time at getting to the meat of Bob’s issue. When Hartley calls BB to bail him out—either because the account is on the line or because he’s pinged Hartley’s gaydar, or both, it’s a reminder of how much Bob’s sexuality is at odds with his aspirations (Sal’s homosexuality was presented as a suppressed problem, but as a creative rather than an executive go-getter, he had a different set of office issues.) When Bob says “It’s hard,” he’s talking about more than resisting the temptation of NYC’s undercover cops, and leading us to his painful plea to Joan to help him be the man the world wants him to be. When Joanie explains that she’s waiting for love, and that Bob should as well, BB responds that he’s “just being realistic.” There’s no high- achieving gay men to model his behavior after, so Bob is forcing himself into a mold, no matter how uncomfortable or unsustainable.
Peggy, much like Bob, is also without role models. As per usual, but especially cruelly, her authority is undercut by nearly every man in her life. Pete doubts her ability to carry the Burger Chef account, but offers the empty compliment of “She’s every bit as good as any woman in this business.” Nice sentiment, I guess, except, as Peggy knows, she’s the beginning and end of women in this business. While there may be colleagues who have similarly climbed the career ladder, we haven’t seen any, and we can assume neither has Peggy. Her forced smile communicates as much. There’s no comfort in being your own role model when seemingly no one has your back (even Don, who later redeems himself, initially celebrates Pete’s sexist decision to have him lead the pitch instead of Peggy). In her efforts to fix the pitch, Peggy steps into the shoes of her male counterparts, calling Stan from his own office and setting up shop in Lou’s. What’s significant, of course, is that Lou’s office was formerly Don’s – a point foreshadowed by Megan’s claim that Peggy will soon move into his office. While she starts off sitting at Lou’s desk (a callback to the end of last season, where she appeared to triumphantly claim it for her own), as she and Don work together, and DD offers her the support she’s so desperately craving this episode, she moves to the couch, relinquishing control. While Pegs and Don are moving in a direction of being equals (a change advanced by his admission that he’s not the successful man he appears to be), he’s still the authority figure whose opinion matters to her. The closest Peggy has had to a female role model may have been Faye Miller, and while my heart felt feelings seeing her and DD dance to “My Way,” it also reminded us that she’s still a subject to the opinions and decisions of men.
What will next week bring? Ugh, this whole half-season deal stinks, and it doesn’t help that the “Next time on Mad Men” that closed the episode was just a pastiche of previously aired dramatic scenes and lines.
Is this the last we’ve seen of you, Bob Benson? I still have so many questions about you, dude! I guess you’ll remain an enigma.
Was anyone else halfway expecting to see Neve Campbell on that same flight as Bonnie and Megan? That airplane seemed like the place to be.
With Lou’s invocation of Bob Dylan last week, can we expect a Weather Underground mention sometime in the near future?
Serious question: Do we think he proposed with a pear-cut diamond?
All in the Family
It’s no coincidence that an episode centered around a family-themed fast-food ad was largely focused on characters confronting their own family happiness. We start off with Peggy and Mathis literally polling a harried mother at a Midwestern Burger Chef about how satisfied she is; throughout the first half of the episode, we see Don, Pete, Joan, and Peggy all taking stock of their familial status. One’s slowly, inevitably lurching toward a second divorce, one’s separated from a wife and now a girlfriend, one’s trapped in an apartment with an overbearing parent, and one’s single and wondering what went wrong: As Peggy comes to realize during this shining jewel of a Mad Men episode, the happy family they’re trying to sell no longer exists.
Peggy and Don’s epic Burger Chef brainstorm mirrors what’s happening in both their lives. As they break down years’ worth of barriers and reveal their true fears to one another—that they “never did anything” and “don’t have anyone”—Peggy strikes advertising gold: The people you share a bag of fries (or an office) with can be family too. Don and Peggy feel alone in the world, but as they dance to “My Way” (and I cry complicated tears onto my laptop) they realize they’ll always have each other.
That modern-day notion of a chosen family should provide some comfort to Pete, who drunkenly tanks his already-fraught relationship with his estranged wife out of frustration and loses his girlfriend in the process. When Bonnie boards that plane alone and that first-class curtain snaps shut, the stewardess is also closing the door on Bonnie and Pete as the mile-high power couple they were only days before. (Can we say the same for Megan, who’s a few rows back, and her marriage to Don? It sure feels like it.) Though Pete has always wanted that traditional model of what Lou termed “family happiness” to come easy for him, he looks far more at home in the Burger Chef dining room than he does in either Cos Cob or California.
Joan, too, is caught between the two pitches that bookend this week’s story—the picture-perfect nuclear family smiling at home or the real-life people making it work at a fast-food restaurant. When she decides she’d rather die alone than settle for an “arrangement” with Bob Benson, she’s choosing the latter: She and Bob might look like a happy family from the outside, but she’d rather hope for love at a Burger Chef than live a lie in a Detroit mansion.
The closing scene drives Peggy’s pitch home. She, Don, and Pete—three people who’ve shared secrets, love, hate, death, sex, and even a baby over the past decade—are as much a family as any they’ve had. The ones you eat fries with, or drink rum in the boss’s office with, or share your thoughts with (or watch Mad Men with!), can bring you “family happiness” too. Was it just me, or was that one of the greatest episodes in the history of this great show? I laughed, I cried, I felt nostalgic for the past and optimistic about the future—that was Mad Men at its absolute best. Now pass me a hanky and take me to Burger Chef.
The way this episode drew on everything that’s been building for seven seasons—Peggy and Don’s relationship, Megan and Don’s marriage, Pete’s family, Joan’s family, SC&P’s future as an agency—it felt like a series finale. And it was so good I kind of WANT it to be a series finale! Mad Men, where could you possibly take us from here?!
If you aren’t already reading everything Tom and Lorenzo write about Mad Men, you should start. Those two always nail it, but they’re especially good when it comes to analyzing the Bob Benson episodes.
What was up with that Roger/McCann scene in the steam room? Is SC&P going to land Buick as a client, or is McCann trying to put them out of business? Roger seemed happy about the way things ended up, but I didn’t quite understand why.
Cultural References: I Am Curious (Yellow), Oh! Calcutta!, Ernest Hemingway, Barbie, and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” an old newspaper with a Kennedy-assassination headline
Inappropriate Office Behavior: Probably Bill Hartley’s ogling of Joan. We get it, dude, you’re totally not gay at all.
Read the rest of our Mad Men recaps here!