There have been many Sunday evenings when I couldn’t fall asleep after Mad Men because I was disturbed or emotionally wrung out, but Sunday’s episode (”The Strategy”) might be the first time I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so – what? Happy? What a joyful redemptive episode. Finally there seems to be a way out of the Hell these characters have been living in and it’s nothing magic; it’s as simple as acceptance and self-awareness. Only when the characters strip away their illusions and let down their defenses do they achieve a modicum of peace. As Don says, the job of existence is “living and not knowing” – a tough job made more miserable if you try to fake it or go it alone.
There’s an important clue in the final scene when Peggy calls the Burger Chef “a clean well-lighted place.” Aha, after all these years I can put my B.A. in American Studies to good use! Because “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most existential short stories. It’s the tale of a conversation between two waiters in a Parisian café, who are waiting for an elderly, deaf World War I veteran to finish his brandy so they can close up. The older waiter understands that the patron, a damaged man, is fending off darkness and desperation by staying out all night in orderly, well-lit places.
It’s Peggy’s insight that even a cheesy fast food restaurant can be a safe place for families who are struggling under their weight of their own expectations. And not just the perfect family either because the tableaux we see at the end is Mad Men’s vision of the Modern Family. Pete, Peggy and Don – three survivors who see work as the only thing in their lives that redeems them – are casually and familiarly eating their dinner in a Burger Chef as the camera silently pulls back. Adding poignancy to the scene is the missing person, the one who would make it a real family: Peggy and Pete’s baby, long ago given up for adoption. That baby, who is is never spoken of but never forgotten either, would be about eight years old now. He or she could have been part of those families she was interviewing for market research during the opening scene. “I looked into the windows of so many station wagons,” she says with her voice cracking, “What did I do wrong?” (She also laments: “What the Hell do I know about being a mother?”)
If I ate a Burger Chef burger for every time the word “family” was uttered in this episode I would be as fat as Bert Cooper. This was an utterly fantastic episode but it wasn’t subtle. When it wasn’t hammering home how terrible it was to be a woman in 1969, it was commenting on the disintegration of the traditional family. And in fact, there are no happy families on Mad Men. The only families that are scraping by are non-traditional ones cobbled together by mothers, caretakers and gay men. There’s Joan, Kevin and her mother (and to some extent Bob Benson). Then there’s Trudy, Tami and Verna. And finally there’s the ultimate disaggregated Twentieth Century family: the work family consisting of colleagues who spend more time with each other than they do with their official family. “Every table here is the family table,” Peggy says to Pete and Don at Burger Chef. People with no blood connection who share dreams and experiences can also be a family.
“The Strategy” is a perfectly constructed episode, first displaying an increasingly dark world, and then in a series of powerfully satisfying scenes, offering a way out. The world is a terrible place at the beginning of the episode. Women are devalued and condescended to, valued only as ornaments and easily bought off with offers of shopping sprees. It’s a world where gays are beaten up and where “The Jews close everything on Saturday.” The world is dirty: Bonnie’s feet are filthy from walking on the streets in sandals; Megan wants to go to a dirty movie (“I am Curious Yellow”); Bonnie wants to go to a dirty play (“Oh Calcutta.”) As noted, it’s a world of absent fathers. And as always, it’s a dog-eat-dog business world, where powerful businessmen play with the lives of others. We only need to see the half-blind Ken Cosgrove making happy talk with the people who shot out his eye to be reminded how careless people are about the things in their care.
But about two-thirds of the way through, there’s a little light generated by characters who display courage and an unwillingness to settle for mediocrity. First Joan turns down Bob Benson’s offer of a marriage of convenience. He knows that if he’s going to succeed at Buick, he needs a traditional family, with a wife. In one of the most heartfelt rejections ever, Joan makes it clear that she won’t marry a gay man, even if the reward would be living in a mansion in Detroit. Bob’s proposition is seductively attractive; it doesn’t even sound like the compromise it is: “At times like this, Joan, this is where you need someone. To comfort each other in an uncertain world.” But Joan won’t settle for a sham marriage. “I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens, then making some arrangement – and you should too.” This, too, is an existential response to despair. Just as Sisyphus keeps pushing that rock up the hill even though it always rolls back, so too will Joan keep pushing for her dream, which is love.
But the main event of the episode is the reconciliation between Peggy and Don. Theirs has always been the central relationship on the series. She’s the one woman he can truly relate to and their estrangement these past few seasons has created an emotional hole in the middle of the series. “The Strategy” hearkens back to that great episode in Season 4, “The Suitcase,” in which they worked together all night, screaming and fighting and then opening up to each other like they’d never opened up to anyone else.
What Peggy and Don have in common is a commitment to the work. A burning desire to achieve excellence, even if nobody else appreciates it (this too is an existential response to absurdity.) Even though Pete, Lou, Harry and the rest of those yokels thought her first Burger Chef presentation was great, Peggy is tortured knowing that it was mediocre. She has been awful to Don all season, relishing having him under her thumb, but in the end, frustrated at not being able to solve the Burger Chef puzzle, she demands that he reveal his creative secrets. And what’s remarkable about this scene (and others in the episode) is how deeply self-aware he is, jokingly tell her, “Whenever I’m unsure about an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need. Then I take a nap.” This is Don Draper on his super-best behavior.
So they go to work – testing idea after idea. Trying to get at the truth of the client’s dilemma. And they are honest. Finally we get to the heart of why Peggy has been such a bitch all season: it was her 30th birthday a few weeks ago. It’s a testament to how much Don has grown that he reacts sympathetically, and not dismissively as he did in “The Suitcase” episode, which occurred on her 26th birthday. For his part, Don confesses that he’s worried that he’s never accomplished anything and doesn’t have anyone. And when their emotions are raw and open, Peggy finally comes up with the strategy: “What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV and you could break bread and whoever you were sitting with was family.”
And then they dance. To Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” no less. It’s a sweet, gallant dance, with Peggy finally receiving the comfort and understanding that’s been missing all season long. Don’s greatest gift to her in these scenes is that he let Peggy come to the idea herself, allowing her to finally become his peer, and then he folded her in his arms, kissed her fatherly on the top of her head and soothed her troubled spirits. Don Draper has been Superman, James Bond, even Sinatra, but he’s never been more heroic than now.
Some other thoughts:
— The episode is set sometime between June 17, 1969, when “Oh Calcutta” opened, and June 28, 1969, the night of the Stonewall riot. The Stonewall riot occurred at a gay bar in Greenwich Village when the patrons pushed back against police harassment and is generally considered to be the beginning of the gay rights movement. It’s hard to believe this event would gone unmentioned by the cops or by Bob Benson and the gay GM executive if it had already happened.
— That final scene at the Burger Chef was shot at an empty restaurant in Rialto California. It’s amazing what you can discover on the Internet (see this story). What a gorgeous scene that was, shot in vivid Technicolor with no shadows or depressing hues.
— Here are the real Burger Chef commercials. The company’s actual tagline was “We’ll always treat you right,” and it looks like their strategy was more along the lines of what Don originally proposed: to take the kids perspective:
— It seems clear that Megan and Don’s marriage is basically over. It’s not going down in blaze of recrimination and vituperation but in a slow decline of sweet regret. When Don wakes up and sees her on the balcony, his eyes are full of love; and Megan too, says she misses him. But she’s here to pick up her belongings (including her fondue pot) and she’s not excited about seeing him in LA in July. Later Don admits he “[has] no one,” which is not the thing a fully engaged husband says. But the real clue is the scene of her and Bonnie flying back to LA, separate, but on the same plane and in the same frame of mind. That scene ends with the stewardess decisively pulling the curtains together; I think that symbolizes the end of both Pete and Don’s relationships.
— It would have been hard to find a more perfect song for Don and Peggy to dance to than “My Way.” In 1969, Sinatra was in an analogous situation to Don. He’d been the hippest cat of 1955 but he seemed retrograde and out of it as the Sixties wore on. Nevertheless, he forged ahead and outlasted the Sixties, becoming even more popular and successful than he’d ever been. As for “My Way,” it’s a pure existential anthem about a guy who made mistake, had regrets, but blazes his own trail and is true to himself.
— Funniest tweet of the night: @lhlamb Peggy: “If only I were the exec ed of the NYTimes I wouldn’t have to put up with this shit.” #MadMen. Yes, there were many comments about Jill Abramson, the glass ceiling and the mistreatment of women on Twitter Sunday night.
— The most unwanted compliment of the night: “She’s every bit as good as any woman in this business.”
— “I Curious Yellow,” was a famous Swedish “art” film that was heavy on explicit sex (see this description from Vulture). Don says he was scandalized, but I doubt it. Many other people were, though.
— And then there’s “Oh Calcutta,” a musical spoof with a naked co-ed cast cavorting on stage for the titillation of sophisticated upper-middle-class liberal audiences.. What a weird time the 60’s were.
— Harry Crane finally makes partner, over Joan’s vociferous objections. She has never forgiven the dismissive things he’s said about her when she made partner by sexually satisfying Jaguar Herb. More to the point, when TV first started to get popular in the early Sixties she created the firm’s first media-buying unit, and the powers-that-be casually took it away from her and gave it to Harry.
— Don does get a little bit of revenge, though. At the partner meeting when Joan objects to Harry’s promotion, he says, “Well at least he’s loyal,” shooting daggers right at Joan, who has certainly NOT been loyal to him despite the times he stood up for her.
— Speaking of Harry, it’s possible that Jim Cutler’s plan to make him partner might redound to Don’s benefit. They have treated Don miserably, but if it was put to a full vote, I’m pretty sure Don would be reinstated. If he pushed it and forced a boardroom showdown, he could count on the following votes: his, Roger’s, Pete’s, Ted’s, and Harry’s. The only sure votes in opposition would be Jim’s, Joan’s and possibly Bert’s. And even if Ted stabbed Don in the back after Don gave him the chance to go to California and save his marriage, there would still be a 5-4 vote in Don’s favor.
— I loved that the entire reconciliation scene between Don and Peggy took place in Lou’s office, which is Don’s old lair and where Peggy yearns to be. I doubt that either of them yearn for Lou’s Tiki Bar, even if Lou’s wife is “a card.”
— And whatever happened with Don’s power play at the end of last episode, when he violated the rules and pitched himself at the Commander meeting? An annoying thing about Mad Men is that it always skips ahead a month between seasons and we have to infer what happened between episode. I guess the assumption is that Don is safe as long as the Commander account is still up for grabs. But still, it was surprising to see him at a partner’s meeting, since earlier in the season the partners were making decisions without consulting him at all.
— The Jim Cutler character continues to swing between evil genius and an empty suit. In this episode he’s back to being a moron, thinking that an article in the NYT about Harry Crane and his IBM 360 is going to off-set the harm of losing the Chevy account. I’ve worked in PR long enough to know that a single story is not going to solve a fundamental business problem.
— The Chevy XP project that the firm has been working on was eventually branded the Chevy Vega. It turned out to be a bomb, so maybe SC&P are lucky to lose the account now, especially if they have a shot at Buick later.
— It’s a sign of the casual homophobia of the era that the worst thing you could imply about your business competitor is that he’s a pass at you, which is what Roger does to the McCann Erickson guy in the New York Athletic Club steam room. The thing is, the guy really was propositioning Roger, hinting that they might like to buy SC&P (“I’d like to enrich the lives of people I respect.”) I’m not sure if Roger picked up on that, but he did observe that McCann was worried about losing the Buick account, possibly setting the stage for corporate shenanigans in the next half-season.
— For the record, we know from “The Suitcase” episode that Peggy’s birthday is May 25 (the date of the second Clay/Liston fight). In other words, last week when she was sitting on the couch with Julio watching TV, we got a glimpse of what her birthday was probably like.
— The poster on Stan’s wall is Moshe Dayan, the former defense minister of Israel and the hero of the 1967 Six Day War. We saw that poster in a previous episode and every time we are reminded of Ken Cosgrove’s injury.
— I’m sure it’s a coincidence but Bob Benson and Trudy Campbell, both of whom have been sorely missed, are back right after their TV series (“The Crazy Ones” and “Community”) were cancelled. Nice to have you back guys.
— Speaking of Bob Benson he looks entirely different now that he has the security of the Chevy account. Last year he had bland good looks but when he returns from Detroit he looks remarkably handsome. Not sure if it’s the haircut or just a new personality, but one can only dream about what a great couple he and Joan would make.
— This is the tiniest detail, but on second viewing I noticed that Megan was making spaghetti for dinner – again! I’m telling you, this is a very inside joke by the writers — that she doesn’t know how to cook anything else.
— Enjoy this respite of happiness while you can. Next week’s episode is the mid-season finale and it’s bound to have some fireworks. Ominously titled “Waterloo,” it will also take place in July 1969 – the month of the first moon landing. At the time, that was considered the most momentous event of the year and you have to think it will have to play a role in the episode.
— Finally, where is Creepy Glenn? Has he been arrested for smoking pot? Is he occupying the Dean’s office? He will definitely make his reappearance once more on Mad Men. Matt Weiner has been providing exits for his characters one by one and he’s certainly not going to overlook his real-life son.