Mad Men: “The Strategy”

Mad Men: “The Strategy”

Sonia Saraiya: I often watch Mad Men a little later than the rest of the world, because I DVR it while catching up on other Sunday television, which airs a little earlier in the evening. So well before I saw “The Strategy,” I was hearing excited commentary about it on Twitter. But starting the episode, it was hard to figure out what got everyone excited. “The Strategy” starts out a little slow, taking us through the opening salvos of a weekend in New York by starting with many arrivals on a Friday morning. Don and Joan head in to work; Pete and Bonnie fly in from Los Angeles; Bob Benson arrives with the Chevy guys from Detroit. It’s funny seeing this on a Sunday, at the end of the weekend—because the feeling of possibility that comes with a Friday permeates the beginning of the episode. And naturally, that feeling slips away by the end of the episode, which has Pete, Don, and Peggy having a family dinner at BurgerChef. It’s not a disappointing ending—not at all, actually. The closing moments at BurgerChef might be one of the most touching scenes in the show’s entire run. But it’s less a feeling of giddy possibility, and more a sense of content acceptance. Don tells Peggy to put into the ad what she wants, not just what she wants the customers to want. And Peggy wants a place where she’s at home in a crowd. It surprises me not at all that dinner at BurgerChef happens on the last night of the weekend—the Sunday night. We’re at home watching Mad Men; Mad Men is at home eating burgers. It’s not glamorous, but it’s joyful, in its way.

Peggy has been a frustrating character this season—bitter and envious and grasping. I’ve been waiting for Peggy and Don to mend their bridges ever since Don showed up in the office, but it was immediately clear that Peggy saw him as a threat and an interloper more than as an old friend. It was strange in my mind that they didn’t immediately return to their rapport, but now that I think about it, camaraderie has never come easily for these two. They seem to be bitterly opposed to each other when they’re not trading grudging respect. Peggy tries to be a professional manager for about 10 minutes in this episode, but then it’s Saturday evening, and she’s yelling at Don on the phone, telling him he’s “tainted” her idea. That intimacy of anger and frustration returns faster than mutual support does—for both of them. Don yells right back at her, startling Megan, who’s cooking dinner.

But Peggy and Don also seem to get each other’s tantrums; perhaps more than anyone else does their anger. Peggy gets that she hurt Stan’s feelings, so she relents and apologizes on the phone; she even watches TV with Julio now, instead of just yelling at him and handing him a plunger. And much of Don’s relationship with Peggy is offset in this episode with Don’s marriage to Megan, which is in the process of what I’m reading as a slow if loving denouement. Whereas Don can scare Megan away with his tantrums and secrets, he really can’t scare Peggy away. I’ve talked in the past about how Sally is the part of himself Don can’t escape. I wonder if Peggy plays some role similar to that, too.

But what really warmed the cockles of my heart is that this is an episode about Peggy’s idea—where she delivers the kicker as if she just came up with it—for perhaps the first time since her memorable “basket of kisses” accidental pitch in the first season. She just hasn’t had a chance to sing since then—she’s been relegated to the “mom voice,” and that’s made her passive-aggressive and creatively frustrated. No one sees Peggy as a creative, passionate being anymore—not even Stan the Bearded, who has more affection for Peggy than anyone in the office. No one besides Don.

Todd: “The Strategy” is my favorite episode of this truncated half-season of Mad Men by far, the kind of episode that ended in such a way that it made me half-swallow a sigh of happiness at how well this show can stick landings. (I count at least four other moments that would have worked just as beautifully as an ending as the actual final scene here, but the one that was chosen is brilliant.) The first five episodes of this season seemed to feature the characters splintering apart from each other, moving to islands of their own construction because they were slowly drawing up sides for some battle they assumed was to come. The problem was that this was what their competitors—if you can even call them that—wanted. They wanted the characters we’ve known since the Sterling-Cooper days to be divided by a continent or, worse, internal rivalries. They wanted Don and Peggy at each other’s throats, the better to finally push the former out for good.

I’ve said this a lot in my time covering the show, and people always react poorly to it, but it’s worth saying again: In its creative rhythms and embrace of the weirdness of the brainstorming process, Mad Men is often as much a show about a TV writers’ room as it is an advertising agency. In the best scene of this episode, in which Don and Peggy compare notes on how disastrously they believe their lives to be turning out before a tearful Peggy finds the answer that’s been in front of her all along, this sense is laid out even more so than usual. Here’s the mentor turning up to offer his support to the student he’s always known to be capable of surpassing him. And here’s the student who finds, in her darkest hour, an idea that gives her hope that the whole process isn’t flawed. Yeah, this is about people who are trying to sell customers greasy hamburgers, but there’s something all-American about that idea, too. This is about the idea of sitting around a table with your family and having a moment when you’re not divided. It’s about the idea of Don and Peggy and Pete, who have had so many differences and will have so many more, finding the common ground that comes from an idea at least two of them believe in. In what is surely a lovely coincidence but something that I’m choosing to read as symbolism anyway, this script is even solely credited to Semi Chellas, one of Matt Weiner’s most able lieutenants over the years and a writer who surely brought some level of understanding to Peggy’s plight here.

What’s beautiful and brilliant here is the way that the script is structured to return us to pairings that have died out—Pete and Trudy, for example—before refocusing us on pairings that still have possibility. In some cases, that’s just a hint of a suggestion, but possibility is what makes Mad Men spring eternal. It’s somehow fitting that in an episode where Jim keeps pushing forward with the plan to land Philip Morris and the firm loses Chevy’s business (but not before a conniving Roger starts his wheels turning when it comes to Buick), the thing we spend the most time focused on is BurgerChef, a company that doesn’t exist today and one that ultimately wouldn’t be as important to the firm as either a new cigarette firm or a car company. But it’s the company that’s brought Don and Peggy and Pete, the show’s original trio, together again, so it’s the company that we follow. There’s a sense of getting back to basics, of regrounding.

It’s tempting to just talk about Peggy and Don for the whole of this review, as all I’ve ever wanted is for them to just have a handful of mutually respectful moments together, but there’s so much more going on here than what’s occurring just between those two. The show raises the specter, for instance, of Joan marrying Bob Benson, just so she could be comfortable within a predetermined “arrangement,” but she immediately shoots it down. She doesn’t want a marriage where there’s no possibility of love. (As if responding to its own internal wishes, the episode promptly offers us a scene where Joan and Roger stand alone in opposition to making Harry Crane a partner. Connection and possibility again.) Human relationships need to evolve. They need times when we hate each other as much as we love each other to have any potential for growth. They can’t be as cut and dried as business transactions, just as creativity can’t be determined by a bottom line. The ad that Peggy comes up with is probably less likely to sell—but it’s better.

This whole half-season increasingly seems to be about understanding the necessity of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Peggy has a perfectly fine idea, as does Bob, as do so many others in this episode. But “perfectly fine” doesn’t get down to the raw, beating heart of what it means to be human. We all long for things, and in their best moments, these characters channel that longing into an attempt to sell stuff. (This, too, is a sly commentary on writing for an ad-supported TV show.) Pushing and pushing for something that is better than good—that is, indeed, transcendent—is a lot more work, but when you’re someone like Don and Peggy, the work is the easy part. The frustration at rolling that boulder up that hill, over and over, pales in the frustration that comes when looking at the rest of one’s life, at the way that relationships decay and deteriorate over time. The work is the work. It’s everything else that leaves scars.

SS: That’s a really good point, Todd, about how this episode had multiple possible (and wholly satisfying) endings. It had many lovely moments, even if I had trouble connecting all the moments to each other. The scene I thought the episode was going to end was with Don and Peggy dancing while listening to “My Way,” which was both a tad too cheesy for me to entirely buy, but worked primarily because Jon Hamm’s face crumples so convincingly as he’s looking down at Peggy’s head. I couldn’t locate exactly what was haunting him there—I still can’t—but it was a moment that stayed with me. Don says flippantly to Peggy that he “doesn’t remember” if he had the perfect TV life they’re trying to sell. But of course he remembers, and he didn’t, at all. I saw that cross his face, as well as love for Peggy, who is maybe the only person he’s ever seriously tried to mentor, because he recognized ambition and disenfranchisement from a mile away.

The other beautiful little moment that capped a complicated scene is that interstitial bit on the plane back to Los Angeles, where Bonnie is at a window seat, face blotchy from crying, while Megan is across the aisle and a few rows back, sipping red wine while smoking. Both are lost in their own thoughts, as happens on a plane. Bonnie is mourning something. Megan seems secretly happy. And then the stewardess snaps the first-class curtain shut, and it’s over.  Again, I don’t really know why we see that, or what it means. But I like that we see it.

I wasn’t as enamored of Pete’s presence in this episode as you were, Todd. Bonnie’s sandal-problems (as a microcosm of her larger issues with New York) were a lot more interesting to me than Pete’s foray back to Cos Cob, which ended up not surprising me at all. (Good on Tammy for being cautious around this guy, Barbie or no Barbie.)

For me, the line of the episode is Joan’s pert little refusal to Bob, when he offers up an engagement ring and a strategy of his own to get through his next major transformation. “Bob, put that away.” After many hours off-screen, it’s weird to see Bob Benson back in our lives, especially because he more or less admits to being a closeted gay man who’s faking huge parts of his life to succeed in some way. When Joan tells him she’s not interested in his plan, because she wants love and happiness (which: Joanie! So idealistic!) he responds with something truly heartbreaking: He’s just trying to be realistic.

There’s so much longing in this episode. Bob for normalcy, I think. Joan, for love. Don, for Megan. Megan, for fame. Bonnie, for Pete’s legitimate love. Pete, for Trudy, and his family. Trudy, for independence. And Peggy, for that life she decided not to live—the life where she was a mother with a family, driving a station wagon, asking herself whether or not to stop at BurgerChef. She doesn’t really regret her choices—but as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” attests, there is both pride and loneliness in knowing you did it your own way. Pride, because it was hard; loneliness, because if it’s your way, then no one else is on that path with you. Poor Peggy, and poor Don, because no one else will ever really understand them. But at least they have begun to understand each other.

TV: I was going to say that your last sentence was one that could have been said at many times over the course of the series when it comes to these characters. Don and Peggy have come to the precipice of understanding so many times over these seven seasons, and backed away from it almost as many times. But every time, they seem to understand a little more deeply, a little more fully. Peggy is perhaps the person in his life that Don can most completely be himself with, and that’s something he only realizes fitfully, every once in a while. I get that this is the chief complaint about this series from many: The circularity of the characters’ realizations gives the illusion of forward momentum when the series simply keeps chasing its own tail. But to me, every single one of those moments of connection has pushed forward, no matter how subtly, toward a destination that is revealed, finally, to be the place we always knew we were going.

What I’m struck by in that closing sequence is the way that director Phil Abraham keeps pulling us away from these moments of connection, both real and imagined. The curtain between first class and coach closes in front of us. Don and Peggy’s dance slips away from us. Pete slams a beer down into the middle of a cake that symbolically represents the old life he’s tearing to bits all over again just because he can’t let go of it (and Abraham’s camera focuses on the beer, not really on him). The final shot pulls back and back and back from the faux-nuclear family of people who have only their work and not much else, to find that they’re flanked on all sides by actual nuclear families, by people who chose another path and aren’t necessarily worse off for it but might be having these same imaginary conversations with themselves about what might have happened if they’d just chosen, instead, to work, to pursue their particular passions toward some other end.

All of which brings me to Sylvia Plath.

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.

In The Bell Jar, Plath writes:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Plath is mourning the life not lived because of anxiety over which choice is the correct one, but how recognizable might this passage be to Don or to Peggy, to two people who made choices and stuck to them and were just as damned as Plath beneath her tree? We are all stuck, surrounded by all of the selves we might have been, by all of the paths we didn’t take. The ghosts that haunt most of us aren’t the dead or even the shadows of some other dimension. They’re the ghosts of who we weren’t but might have been, the ghosts of other selves glimpsed briefly out the window, before everything shimmers and we are drawn away again. To create—even a BurgerChef ad—is to hold on to that feeling just a moment longer, and it’s that high that Don and Peggy chase. There’s always a better idea, because there’s always a better self. The reason understanding comes so fleetingly on this show is because these characters, just like all of us, can only understand each other after they’ve first understood themselves.

Sonias grade: A-
Todds grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Dunno if it was just the feed I watched, but this episode had an uncensored “fuck” in it, a few days after Louie had the same thing. I guess both FX and AMC are breaking new ground. (No, Skyler did not say “I fucked Ted” when that episode aired on TV. It was bleeped.) [TV] I rewound and replayed that very scene. I could have sworn it was “talk,” but maybe I was censoring Bonnie’s Californian vulgarity. Do you think the FCC is fining AMC as we speak? [SS] Well, the FCC wouldn’t have any say over it. I don’t know why all of our basic cables aren’t 24/7 fuckfests! [TV]
  • “My Way” was released on June 14, 1969. It’s clearly summer in New York, based on the comments about air conditioning. It looks like the moon landing is going to close out this half-season, just as Todd predicted. [SS]
  • Joan’s mom has some shopping tips for New York: “The Jews close everything on Saturday.” Thanks, Gail! [SS]
  • “Did you park your white horse outside?” [SS]
  • Pete slamming the beer down into Tammy’s cake is ridiculously overwrought, but it’s my favorite Pete Campbell moment in quite a while. What a little prick that guy is! [TV]
  • From the department of backhanded compliments: “You know she’s as good as any woman in this business.” [SS]
  • Something I noticed in the background at SC&P: Clara is pregnant (with a smashing maternity dress). A rare enough sight until Lane Bryant made maternity clothes mainstream and acceptable. Very trendy, Clara. [SS]
  • Roger and that guy from McCann-Erickson: OTP. [TV]
  • “The work is great, I’m positive, exclamation point.” Stan. Marry Peggy immediately. I am tired of waiting for you kids. [SS]
  • My dad had a blazer just like Pete’s red-and-black plaid one. That is really disconcerting. Fortunately, it never fit him right, so there are no pictures of him in it. And we gave it away. [SS]
  • Next week on Mad Men: Everything ends! Except not really, because this decision to split the season in two is really weird! [TV]

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