You are not part of this family anymore! –Trudy Campbell
Mad Men episode 7.06, The Strategy, is about the dissolution and recreation of family. In my original recap, I talked a lot about family, about sexism, the “new woman,” and so on. What struck me on rewatch, though, was the extraordinary way that the episode allowed this narrative theme to come full circle. Everything breaks, and then everything reforms.
Consider: We watch so many relationships break down, or simply be broken. Pete and Trudy, mid-divorce, with her nasty rejection of him. I hate the above quote. It’s a sadistic and awful thing to say, and patently false. Pete is Tammy’s father no matter what, and for her to withdraw that is vile. Pete deserves to lose Trudy, but he has done nothing wrong to Tammy, and Trudy is being selfish in a way that harms both Pete (which she intends) and Tammy.
Part of what breaks Pete and Bonnie up is the pressure of his marriage. He lies to Bonnie about Saturday night, staying to confront Trudy rather than have a fun evening with his girlfriend. Pete is roiled up in the notion of his failed family, and can’t create a new bond when both are on the same coast.
The episode opens with a snapshot of people’s family status: Pete and Bonnie on a flight, discussing their relationships, Don preparing for Megan’s arrival, Joan leaving her mother and son to go to work. Next, we get an ad presentation that is entirely about traditional family: “Dad” giving “Mom” his “permission” to eat Burger Chef. From there, it’s all breakdown.
Pete and Bonnie. Then the undermining of Peggy’s authority because she’s a woman. Then Peggy snaps at Stan. Then the gay executive gets beaten and arrested. Then Pete and Trudy. Then we see how close to breaking apart Megan and Don are–she’s packing her things in a much more long-term way than she’d indicated to Don. Then Pete and Bonnie fight–apparently with finality, and then Peggy confronts Don with bitterness and bile, then Bob Benson proposes to, and is rejected by, Joan, in an absolute parody of family. Then back to Peggy and Don, with Peggy so, so lost that she’s 30 and has no family, and doesn’t know what she’s done wrong.
All that breakdown, all that disconnect. It seems like the theme of the episode, the brokenness of family, the brokenness especially of ideas about what a women is supposed to be. And certainly there have been episodes of Mad Men that have left us with that, that have ended on sorrowful or bitter or questioning notes.
Here, then, is where we enter genius territory. Because now, we have a chance to reshape, to recover, to re-form.
It’s all about the dance, of course.
We’ve had a season of hostility and unspoken words between Don and Peggy, at this point. She blames him for the end of her relationship with Ted. She blames him for blowing up everything, and she doesn’t trust him. But she also misses her mentor. Then she was put in the position of having to supervise him. At first he was a shit about it, but then Freddy kind of slapped him around, and he treated her with respect, and did his work. But Peggy wasn’t going to reach out to him until she needed him, and she wasn’t going to make peace with him until she aired her anger, and her grief.
Peggy works through her feelings by working. As she processes the pain of not being one of the women she saw in all those station wagons, the ad comes to her: What if there was a place where you could go, and there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family? A place that would include Peggy. A place that would include Don.
I think it’s absolutely significant that Don doesn’t ask Peggy to dance until after they hit on the strategy. Their feeling for each other, that they are each other’s family, is in the work.
Later, Pete is included in their circle of not-family family, when they present the idea at a Burger Chef. Here, just as in Peggy’s fantasy, is a place she can be warm with Don and Pete, and forget they’re not conventionally related. Here Pete can forget he has neither wife nor girlfriend. Here, Don can forget that Megan wanted to take her fondue pot to LA with her.
Not everyone gets their moment in this resolution; not everyone is handed back a new relationship. But our principals have found a tender peace together, and that tenderness sprinkles some hope over the remainder of the cast; over Joan and Bob, Megan and Bonnie.
Every table here is the family table.