After last week’s dippy, trippy and gruesomely nippy episode of “Mad Men,” the show’s creators have gifted us a sentimental, beautiful and — dare I say it? — sweet penultimate episode for the first half of a season that has proven itself delightfully unpredictable.
Matthew Weiner and Co. must have wrestled with what could possibly come after a sawed-off nipple. What they delivered was an episode constructed so precisely that it draws parallels to the also expertly crafted episode from Season 4 entitled “The Suitcase.” And what made “The Suitcase” great is the same thing that made “The Strategy” great: Don and Peggy as friends, not foes.
The whole thing starts with Peggy’s Burger Chef strategy. She has come up with a heartwarming TV spot that could actually make mothers feel proud of going to a fast food joint for dinner. Ignoring the obvious gender roles here, Peggy has thought of a great pitch and she presents it brilliantly, enthusiastically and eloquently with a mother’s thoughts in mind to Lou and Pete, who seem entirely pleased.
But really, they’re not entirely pleased. Following her pitch, Peggy is brought into Lou’s office with Pete and they tell her that they love the idea, but they’d rather have Don present the idea to the Burger Chef execs. She has worked long and hard on this but it is, as always, not enough. They want Don as the authority and Peggy as the emotion. They want her to introduce Don in the meeting. Pete wants Peggy in the role of the mother. She is put in an incredibly awkward situation here, with Pete, who fathered Peggy’s child, telling her to take on the mother role and Ted, who she once or maybe still does love, listening in from Los Angeles. This is a cut down for her and she knows it. She accepts her role but leaves the room with a look of disgust, apprehension and confusion. She knows she’s worth more than this.
When she tells Don about his new role in the account, he’s of course thrilled and she tells him that it was actually her idea for him to take the driver’s seat and present. When she leaves his office, she’s wearing the same face as before because she knows, as we know, that she is worth more than just “emotion.”
She comes into the office on Saturday morning frazzled and unhinged because maybe the pitch wasn’t good enough. Maybe it was her own fault that Pete and Lou don’t want her presenting to Burger Chef. Maybe everything is wrong. She calls Stan who tells her everything is fine. He tells her the idea is fine, the visuals are fine, everything is fine. For Peggy, however, things can’t be fine because she’s not getting what she really wants. She wants to do a great job and be recognized for it, but she isn’t getting recognized for anything other than being a woman. In the initial meeting, Pete tells her that she’s “every bit as good as any woman in this business,” which is 1) patronizing and 2) false. She knows she’s better than most.
The Saturday morning obsessing turns into Saturday morning drinking which turns into calling Don at home where Megan is just packing up her things to head back to L.A. Peggy tells him that his strategy of looking to the child’s point of view is all wrong and will never work. He knows she’s probably correct and tells her to stop working. The mentor is telling the mentee to stop working here. Later on, Don goes into SC&P to see Peggy and we’re treated to a “Suitcase”-like exchange between two people who are quickly realizing how valuable they are to one another.
They joke. They laugh. They drink. They talk about their troubles, anxieties, depressions and failures. They bond over their troubles, anxieties, depressions and failures. They pass one another tissues. They imagine a better place. “What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV and you could break bread and anyone who you were sitting with was family?” Peggy says. They hear Frank Sinatra crooning “My Way” and they dance. They dance. It is sweet and sad and so sentimental that it feels removed from the “Mad Men” landscape. But it is in its distant beauty, as the camera draws out of the room, that it feels right. The two of them, both deeply damaged and also aware of so many of the other’s problems, dancing late at night in a nearly deserted office. They are so alike and so different, and in that moment we question their future together. Maybe they are meant for one another, although we all know Peggy deserves someone better. In business, at least, they are certainly meant for one another. They both have authority and they both have emotion, and with those two attributes, they can do anything.
Far removed from the beauty of that scene is the deliciously mysterious Bob Benson, who is just now making his appearance in Season 7. He’s given mere minutes of screen time, but the darkness is omnipresent and he makes those minutes count. He’s in SC&P with Bill Hartley of GM from Detroit and the moment he sees Joanie, he lights up and we know the two have kept in touch. Two major things happen in Benson’s world in this episode. As he sits in the backseat of a cab with a beat-up Hartley (who Benson has bailed out of jail for trying to fool around with an undercover officer), Hartley informs him that GM is pulling their Chevy XP business from SC&P, but Benson should be expecting an offer from Buick. Then, he proposes to Joan. That’s right. Out of the absolute blue, Benson shows up and expects that he can sweep Joan Holloway Harris off her feet.
“You don’t want this,” she says, after kissing him. “You shouldn’t be with a woman,” she adds, after kissing him. What he’s trying to do here is insert himself into the overwrought 1960s American Dream ideal that escapes him. It’s an American Dream that every single character in “Mad Men” has been unable to attain. “I’m thinking about you, Joan,” he says. But really, he isn’t. “Is this what you want? To be near 40 in a two-bedroom apartment with a mother and a little boy?” Is a man really expecting a woman to be encouraged when he inserts her age into a marriage proposal? The discussion ends with a swift uppercut to everything he is proposing, everything she does not want: “I want love and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement.”
There’s actually a bit of business discussed during his proposal as well. He tells Joan, before any of the other partners know, that Chevy will be moving their advertising in-house. He tells her that something is coming down the road for them, which I’m assuming is a sparkly new Buick account. Funnily enough, this ties in quite well with Roger’s steam room experience at the beginning of the episode. While getting his probably weekly — or maybe daily — spa treatment, Roger runs into Jim Hobart of McCann Erickson who attempts to pressure Roger into talking about his dealings with Philip Morris. Really though, Jim’s purpose in being there was because McCann is afraid SC&P is going to take on Buick. It should also be noted that most of the partners have now been seen mingling with Philip Morris and, according to Jim Cutler, there’s a “secret plan” still in the works that involves Don getting the boot yet again. In the office, Jim actually tells Roger to “stop thinking about Don and start thinking about the company.” Now with Peggy and Don linked, the threat of Don’s firing takes on more serious meaning because with a scene like the one described above, I don’t see Peggy losing Don again any time soon. With little more scoop than that, it looks like we’ll have next week’s finale to find out where SC&P stands, or to see if it remains standing at all.
In Los Angeles news, Pete, Bonnie and Megan all take the flight over to New York. As far as pressing Megan and Don developments, well, those are few and far to come by. Megan surprises Don by meeting him at SC&P where everyone seems so much happier to see her than Don does. The two do seem happy — probably because Don was so pleased about how work was going and because of his camaraderie with Peggy, but not much more than that. For a more hot and heavy romance, we can look to Pete and Bonnie (who seems like too much of a straight-shooter to stick around with Pete much longer) who are still basically rabbits in human clothing for most of this week. It’s borderline gross but we accept this because Pete is an entirely gross and unnecessary human. I’m mostly a fan of Bonnie because she used the show’s rare f-bomb card this week with the sweet line, “You’re not gonna f— your way out of this.”
The upside of this entire situation is that we get a glimpse of Trudy again when Pete comes in to visit Tammy. Trudy wisely makes herself invisible around the times he picks her up and drops her off, but upon hearing that she isn’t around to tuck Tammy in, he sticks around and we see the two square off yet again. He’s drunk when Trudy comes home, which may explain his reasoning behind telling her that she actually still loves him. Then, he plops a beer bottle into a freshly iced cake. I just feel like hating Pete is what really brings “Mad Men” fans together at this point.
The episode ends with official news from Chevy that they’ll be dropping their business with SC&P, and in a bold move, Harry Crane will be introduced as a new partner in a New York Times and Wall Street Journal article announcing that the company is open for business with their IBM 360 and proprietary software. In a very different part of New York, Peggy, Don and Pete are all sitting around a table at a well-lit burger joint and, after Don defends Peggy’s idea of promoting family instead of just mothers, the camera pans out to show the three of them looking like old pals passing each other napkins and joking around while surrounded by happy, sane, beautiful, friendly people. They’re three mad (wo)men in a fast food joint surrounded by people who could not be more unlike them.
Since next week is the mid-season finale and “Mad Men” hasn’t left us with any huge, looming threat this week, I’m expecting the worst. The episode was so light that it seems like the next episode has to be dark and dramatic. If they want to keep our interest without a dance sequence, there has to be a break — a shift or a death. There has to be unhappiness and maybe some Benson madness. So many people are hiding what they’re feeling. The leader of this mysterious pack is Megan, who I hope will be a large part of the finale. With so many ominous clues surrounding her, something has to happen. I don’t think a death is necessarily in the cards for Megan, but with an actress as skilled as Jessica Paré, it would be unwise to waste her.