May 192014

The Strategy was hands-down the best episode of Mad Men Season 7 (so far). It was eventful, lucid, had strong narrative, great character work, and deftly introduced thematic elements without hitting you over the head with them.

The ending, with Pete, Don, and Peggy seated together as a makeshift family, the camera pulling back to suggest the very ad they are discussing, is nothing short of brilliant, combining visual storytelling, smart use of music, and humor as well as emotion. Well done, Semi Chellas, Phil Abraham, and Matthew Weiner. Well done.

Welcome back, James Wolk! Lovely that he appeared in the end credits rather than up front so that Bob Benson walking in was a total surprise. Since The Crazy Ones has been cancelled, we may very well get a lot more Bob in Season 7.2.

Does this family exist anymore? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?

Pete is not yet divorced from Trudy. Trudy won’t even deign to see Pete to hand off Tammy, leaving her hiding from a Daddy she doesn’t recognize, behind a maid that Pete doesn’t know. Pete’s girlfriend Bonnie, we learn, is divorced. Peggy mourns turning thirty and being single, wondering what she’s done wrong. Don and Megan are increasingly distant. In the unlikely event that this marriage survives, it is certainly not Leave It to Beaver: bicoastal, Megan and Don pursuing separate careers, and Megan has no children by choice. Bob Benson proposes marriage straightforwardly as an “arrangement” so that he and Joan can safely pursue their individual careers. None of this is the conventional 1955 view of marriage.

Don remembers 1955 as a good year, a year Peggy doesn’t remember (she was sixteen). Peggy remembers 1965 as a good year, Don saying only it was the year he got married (to Megan). While Mad Men is always about change, and anything about 1969 kind of has to be about change, here we’re very explicitly talking about changes in families, in sexuality, and in gender roles as related to family. That’s why I say this episode had a wonderful narrative; there was nothing heavy-handed about The Theme Tonight, because the pacing moved us through so much, but it’s all spelled out at the same time. Megan with her marriage, her career, and her fondue pot is a new kind of woman. She misses Don, but Don misses something else entirely: He sees Megan preparing a meal for the two of them, on their balcony, and he is suddenly lovey-dovey. She loves the attention but isn’t falling into the trap. Suddenly, I respect her!

Bonnie Whiteside is fully the new woman. She is, in all fairness, way too good for Pete. Her sexuality thrills but also shocks him; he loves being initiated into the Mile High Club, and gets her tickets to Oh Calcutta, but he’s upset that she says “fuck.” (Megan and Bonnie, both “new women,” are bound together by the dirty media they take in; Bonnie sees a scandalous play, while Megan sees a “dirty movie“). More upsetting to Pete, and more on-point, is that Bonnie refuses to tolerate being stowed in a hotel room while Pete plays with the big boys. She wants a relationship in which she’s one of the people making decisions, and he is in no way prepared for that.

Peggy is conflicted about turning thirty. Meanwhile, Pete and Lou (old-fashioned and older-fashioned) treat Peggy as an emotional being, and Don as an authoritative one, simply because she’s a woman and he’s a man (a particularly authoritative one, to be sure). It’s both infuriatingly sexist and bitter to Peggy to be treated as the motherly one when it’s Don, and not she, who has kids.

All of this, the divorce, the sexuality, the sexism, the sense that the world is changing in a way that is deeply threatening to men, resonates throughout the Burger Chef creative process: The first creative process of the season, as Anne B so ably pointed out. Moms aren’t Donna Reed, they don’t stay home and serve delightful meals while wearing delightful aprons. And that creates anger, which can be turned to sentiment through advertising. The first ad campaign soothes the anger and makes it something else, but the second one, the one they’re going to go with, throws away the anger and says Look at this new world. You’re still okay. That’s the sentiment Peggy wants to hear, and so it’s the one she can truly sell.

And all of it is also boiled down in Bob Benson’s sad proposal to Joan, who can’t even muster up a “no” because she’s so clear about the wrongness of it. “Bob, put that away,” is quite the matter-of-fact response to a proposal. Bob and Joan have an honest relationship; she knows he’s her gay boyfriend, and she’s upset with him for mucking that up. She wants love, and rather amazingly, tells him he should have love too (if only Carol had been around for that).

Bob is not nearly as good at hiding as he thinks he is. Bill from Chevy knows he’s gay, Joan knows he’s gay, no amount of Bob’s carefully-crafted lies and smiles can hide who he is, especialy as the world around him becomes more knowing. When Bill, in that extraordinary scene in the cab, says that he has an understanding wife, Bob realizes what he must do, but Bill is older, and people in 1969 want more than a false front with which to face the world. And by the way, Bob, telling Joan she’s over the hill wasn’t your best move.

The Strategy is about strategy; arrangements versus real love, learning to “live in the not knowing” as Don said to Peggy. In the midst of all these failed and compromised and awkward relationships and pseuo-relationships, there’s Don saying to Peggy “You can’t tell people what they want, it has to be what you want.” He knows it about advertising; if only he knew it about life.

Bullets, bullets, bullets:

  • Oh, Calcutta opened June 17, 1969. Don refers to “late July” (not “late this month”) so it’s definitely June.
  • Lots of competition for quote of the week in a shocking and witty episode, but I’m going with a Rogerism: “When we grow up we’re going to kill you and marry your wife.”
  • Kevin is watching Road Runner on a Saturday morning. We’ve entered my childhood.
  • Pete identifies himself as New York to Bonnie. He may love California, and getting laid in California, but you can’t take Manhattan out of the boy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he was certainly a terrible husband, but Trudy making herself absent for his arrival and departure is very bad for Tammy and basically a shitty thing to do.
  • Pete, in his jealousy, mentions Charlie Fidditch, Trudy’s “first.” In Season 1, Pete wanted Trudy to sleep with Charlie in order to get a short story of Pete’s published.
  • Don and Peggy drinking together while working on the pitch was purposely (I’m sure) reminiscent of The Suitcase.
  • This time, Don was included in the partner’s meeting.
  • Harry’s loyalty to Don paid off. Joan has every reason to hate Harry, and I support her feeling that way. The vote was very interesting. Bert supported Harry. Bert!

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