This review contains spoilers.
So much of Mad Men is about the conversation going on beneath the dialogue that Don and Peggy’s rare, honest exchange towards the end of The Strategy verged on the epiphanic. After seasons of resentment, hostility, disgust and power-play between the two, that My Way scene was water in the desert. Subtext-free Mad Men. Who’d have thought it could be so gratifying?
How could it not be gratifying; when else are we able to find out what Don Draper is thinking straight from the horse’s mouth instead of inferring it from camera angles or the cult novels lined up on his bookshelf?
Don revealed that he worried that he never did anything, that he doesn’t have anyone. What he isn’t worried about – as he told her in the best Don and Peggy episode since season four’s The Suitcase – is his former protégé. She’s doing great, he says, a simple and sincere sentiment free of the locked-horns tension that’s weighed down every compliment or insult between the pair since Don’s return to the agency.
Had the episode, or even the season and thus the show, ended on the rewarding rapprochement of Don and Peggy dancing to Frank Sinatra in an office that now belonged to neither of them, you’d have heard no complaints from me. John Hamm was reliably strong in the scene but Elisabeth Moss was extraordinarily good. If she’s not bending under the weight of Emmys and the like next year then the judges can’t have been watching closely enough.
Writer Semi Chellas though, did the really exceptional work. The Strategy’s dialogue was taut, affecting and revealing. Like so much in Mad Men, the conversation that preceded that dance wasn’t only about advertising. Don’s description of the job of an ad man as “living in the not-knowing” is just as much about the job of any writer or artist.
Without wishing to become too ponderous about it (though if any TV drama invites chin-stroking philosophy, it’s this one) coping with “living in the not-knowing” isn’t just a strategy to get through a fast-food pitch but a strategy to get through life. As Stan said, there’s always a better idea out there, always another option. One of our essential anxieties as human beings is never being able to know if our choices are the right or the best ones. It’s no wonder so many of us feel as if we’re failing.
Peggy’s sense of personal failure is tied up in the expectations of her gender at a time when a colleague could proudly compliment her on being “as good as any woman in the business” and remain oblivious to the implied slight. She’s thirty, unmarried and without a family, so regardless of her professional achievements, she’s found to be lacking.
As is Bob Benson, a character whose sexuality is fettering his chances of success. Without Joan and baby Kevin to complete his Norman Rockwell persona, Bob can only make it so far up the career ladder. His proposal to Joan was a pitch in itself, a desperate attempt to win the social acceptance account. Unfortunately for Bob, his client revealed herself to be a romantic, not a pragmatist (something that signified a real change in outlook and a new optimism for Joan, a character who’s evidently learnt lessons from marrying her rapist to avoid being over thirty and single, and from compromising her dignity in Herb’s hotel room for the sake of the firm. Last week we talked about the show pointing towards exits for its various characters, and it looks as if Joan may go out on a note of optimistic hope, not lonely desperation).
The Strategy reminded us that the world runs on fictions like Bob’s. When Peggy asked, exasperated, whether the “family happiness” Lou was so comforted to see the return of still existed, that’s what she was acknowledging. Advertisers decide which fictions are going to be wrapped around reality, which collective hallucination we’re going to experience next. That’s why Don’s advice to Peggy, “You can’t tell people what they want. It has to be what you want” was more than a pep talk from a former mentor, it was the key to unlocking what his character has been doing throughout the show.
Each of Don’s pitches over the last seven seasons, from the carousel to the Hawaiian resort to Sugarberry Ham, were fantasy solutions to his own problems, lies he told himself and managed to sell to other people. This time, with her bright fantasy of how an ersatz family and a fast-food restaurant isn’t just a replacement for, but better than a loving home, it was Peggy’s turn to choose the lie. “What if there were a place…” she began, dreaming up a fantasy to stave off her loneliness. As Phil Abraham’s camera dollied away from Pete, Peggy and Don, two ‘parents’ fondly wiping sauce from their ‘child’ as other beaming, attractive families were illuminated by Burger Chef’s cheery lights, Mad Men’s viewers weren’t just watching Peggy pitch her ad, we were watching the ad itself, a cheery, comforting lie.
As well as being an exceptionally well written episode of Mad Men, The Strategy may also take the crown of being the show’s most feminist episode yet – which is saying something.
The closer Mad Men gets to the 1970s, the more suffocating its male characters’ sexist attitudes feel. Pete Campbell spoke for a myopic generation when he said he wanted independent Bonnie to be shopping all day and screwing all night, not to mention his request for her to model her “wares” and his hypocritical stance on Trudy’s “immoral” dating life. It was Pete’s plan too (though colluded in by Lou and Ted) to relegate Peggy to the voice of the mom at her Burger Chef pitch. “Don will give authority, you will give emotion” he told her, summing up centuries of reductive gender assumptions in one handy sound-bite. Not that the others were much better, from Lou’s “Who gives moms permission? Dads” to Don’s incredulous response to Peggy’s suggestion that the fictional ad mom might have a job. Chuck in Henry’s rant to Betty from last week and Mad Men is turning up the heat on its women, now a pressure cooker rattling with steam and ready to explode.
In lesser news, Megan was putting down roots in LA, Chevy was lost, Harry Crane made partner, and the SC&P war over Don Draper continued. None of that though, was a match for this episode’s exquisite development of Peggy and Don’s relationship and characters. It’s episodes like this that hammer home just what we’ll be losing next year.
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Runaways, here.
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