Great movies and TV episodes are like houses you never want to leave. “The Strategy” is a little cathedral of a show, one of the great hours of Mad Men. Written by Semi Chellas and directed by Phil Abraham, it’s packed with images that could stand in for the episode, and for the show, as a whole. Many of them have an architectural beauty and highlight the idea of being sheltered and safe. The most striking is that slow pullout at the very end, showing Peggy, Pete, and Don in the Burger Chef window. The image channels Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and of course it’s a sunny-side-up answer to the cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos, where Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner cut his showrunner’s teeth.
Equally fine, though, is the shot that ends the scene of Don and Peggy dancing in Peggy’s office to “My Way.” Frame right, Don and Peggy dancing. Frame left, their reflection: same size in the frame, but reversed. It’s the emblematic image for an episode of a show concerned with the hard reality of people’s lives and the socially implanted, often unrealistic reflections that they strive in vain to emulate. This is one of the only Mad Men moments I can think of where the ideal and the reality of characters’ lives match up; they match up because the characters are just being the people that they naturally are. That’s why it feels so peaceful and blissful.
“I’m always working, Peggy, and so are you,” Don tells her. In recognizing the true source of their bond, their ferocious ego-driven pursuit of creative perfection, Peggy and Don have briefly entered paradise. The key that unlocked the epiphany was Peggy’s realization, after a lot of grunt work shaping the Burger Chef pitch with Don, that if they wanted the spot to be great, as opposed to serviceable, they had to speak to the reality of customers’ lives rather than selling the same old boring Ozzie and Harriet image that was always more aspirational fantasy than reality to start with. (I love how the camera holds on Peggy as she figures this out and doesn’t feel obligated to keep cutting to Don watching her figure it out. We don’t need to see Don, because at this point in the story, the characters are so in sync that they’re practically the same person.) Paradise, or something like it, reappears again briefly at the very end, in the diner, with Peggy, Pete, and Don enacting Peggy’s now-terrific and rather daring Burger Chef pitch, which was itself spurred on by Don’s recognition that it wasn’t everything it could have been: that in this place, every table can be the family table; that you can do it your way. That final shot is Shangri-La with fries.
This episode does a remarkable job of unifying itself around a particular idea — the gap between reality and socially constructed fantasy — without making itself seem too obviously organized. This has sometimes been a problem for Mad Men in the past, the sense that you’re watching writers unreel a thematic clothesline and then hang things on it, one after the other. Here it felt more organic. It’s not until you watch “The Strategy” again that you see all the different ways in which the show examines this idea of life and its advertised reflection not matching.
The show opens with what seems like a very traditional image of white upper-middle-class suburban family bliss, the mom and her kids in a station wagon, but something’s off: The car is backing up (to respond to Peggy’s request for an interview) rather than moving forward, and we soon deduce that the mom is exhausted and unhappy. (“Well, who gives permission?” Lou asks during a subsequent Burger Chef pitch meeting. “Dads.”) Roger’s still floating around the office like a ghost when he’s not fending off competitors’ psych-outs in a steam room with a Fall-of-Rome vibe; we’d forget he had a family at all if the show didn’t periodically remind us, often in a grimly comical way, as when Roger and his first wife Mona road-tripped to a commune full of hippies Who Don’t Need Your Rules, Man. Don and Megan are heading for what seems like a sadly resigned split-up. (Her request to meet him again in a space that’s not New York or L.A. sounds less like an invitation to heal in marital Shangri-La than a plan to split up on neutral territory; plus, nobody in a long-distance relationship cherry-picks personal belongings when they’re happy.) On the way to New York, Bonnie had made noise about insinuating herself into the lives of Pete’s children; she even intended to ply Pete’s daughter with a Barbie doll, a childhood starter kit for adult female insecurity. (Lou’s patriarchy-as-greeting-cards dialogue keeps ringing in my head as I write this: Now I’m remembering, “It’s nice to see family happiness again,” in response to Peggy’s unrealistic and rather saccharine pitch for Burger Chef as supplier of domestic joy.)
Pete’s return to New York confirms, again, what a disaster his attempt at traditional suburban fatherhood has been. His toddler-age daughter doesn’t recognize him, and he ultimately resents having to spend time with her. “You’ve seen your daughter for the year,” Trudy tells him. “Don’t you have a plane to catch?” The image of a beer bottle sunk in homemade cake (framed like the sword in the stone) could stand for his and Trudy’s irreconcilable differences. Pete was, and remains, a pipsqueak kid brother to Don — a guy who was never cut out for the Ozzie and Harriet routine, either. Don was introduced to us in season one as an Eisenhower suit living a secret life as a Bohemian tourist. He was so clearly unsuited to the suburban pastoral life that watching him go through the motions was painful. He was a man in denial, so ill at ease in his chosen circumstance that he had to get shitfaced before he could build a playhouse on his child’s birthday.
The most mortifying example of reality/reflection dissonance in “The Strategy” is Bob Benson’s sudden proposal to Joan. It’s a somewhat surreal overreaction to being offered a job with Buick and to the experience of bailing out another closeted gay man (one of the GM executives) who got beaten up after being entrapped by a vice cop in a sting operation. Here we go again with the mirroring: This scene comes right after Don and Peggy’s marvelous office conversation that climaxes (platonically) in their slow dance to “My Way.” In season six, Bob seemed the perfect mate for Joan in every way except sexually, and it’s clear that her son reacts to him as if he were something like a father figure. Their lives fit together like puzzle pieces. They appreciated each other for what they were instead of constantly nagging each other to live up to some distant ideal. But “GM expects a certain kind of executive,” as Bob puts it, and so he pops the question and kisses her. As she tells Bob that she knows that this (i.e., a heterosexual sham marriage) is not really what he wants, he unloads a Dumpster’s worth of sociological toxic sludge on her, making her feel like dirt for not living a version of the American Marital Ideal. Joan’s response, that she’d rather die alone never having found real love than having settled, is a great moment of self-actualization for the character. The woman knows who she is.
There’s a whole lotta self-knowin’ in this episode. Peggy’s breakthrough on the Burger Chef pitch doesn’t just feel like a theatrical epiphany of the Don Draper variety — a psychological working-through of the writer’s own baggage in service of the assignment. It feels like an authentic moment of self-knowledge. It’s extraordinarily painful for her to confess to Don how inadequate she felt looking into all those car windows and talking to all those mothers. Each one of those conversations was a reminder of what she was told she should have, or want to have, and did not have. She’d just turned 30 two weeks earlier and didn’t tell anybody, and felt ashamed (lots of shame in “The Strategy”) to realize she’d become one of those women who keeps her age a secret. Don gets this. Except for the feeling-ugly-for-getting-older thing, which isn’t as much of a factor for men and certainly not for the T-square-jawed Don Draper, he understands where she’s coming from, or at the very least, he can translate it into his own terms.
It’s remarkable to watch those Peggy and Don scenes a second or third time and realize how much of the dialogue consists of two people putting aside their insecurities and falling into comfortable rhythms that don’t feel like retreads of past interactions because the characters are on nearly equal footing now. Peggy’s workplace authority over Don is tempered only by the knowledge that he helped her get started as a copywriter and is, for all his faults, her greatest, truest mentor. Their characterizations of each other’s personality traits and working habits remind me of season four’s classic “The Suitcase,” not just for how they evoke the banter of couples bonded by either marriage or blood (Peggy telling Don to just go ahead and tell her the “save the day” pitch he’s presumably been sitting on; Don admitting his strategy at times like this is to abuse the people he needs most, then take a nap), but for how they subtly play on our own awareness that we’ve been watching Don and Peggy age and change since 2007 (or 1959, if you want to go by the show’s timeline). Peggy says the more retrograde vision of the pitch feels very 1955. Don liked 1955 a great deal. Peggy prefers 1965. Don’s not so fond of that one, because he was ten years older then, or maybe because it’s the year he married Megan. (If this scene had segued into Sinatra’s other late-career smash, “It Was a Very Good Year,” nobody would’ve been surprised, but of course they could never do that because The Sopranos did it first.)
More striking still is Don’s evident self-knowledge as he talks to Peggy. He’s better at absorbing unfairness and pettiness instead of lashing out or acting out. He’s better at asking himself “Is this the hill you want to die on?” and answering “No” ninety-nine times out of a hundred and getting on with his day. He’s traveled each and every byway, and one of the biggest, most wonderful surprises in this final season of Mad Men is the realization that he has grown, he has changed. He seems calmer, wiser. There’s hope.
- One other thing about that closing shot Don, Peggy and Pete are all bonded by an absent child: Pete’s baby by Peggy, given up for adoption; a trauma that Don helped Peggy endure.
- Besides the obvious plot-driven significance of “My Way”—it’s an unapologetic anthem by a man proudly claiming his life, all of it—the song has a more specific personal resonance for Don. It’s a song performed by an icon of American manhood who experienced the peak of his artistic and commercial success in the 1950s, then came to seem increasingly irrelevant once rock and roll came in, then rallied again at the end of the decade with a string of hits. I wonder if “My Way” foreshadows something vaguely resembling a happy ending for Don—an aural companion to Lane’s Mets pennant.
- Pete to Peggy: “Don will give authority, you will give emotion.” Peggy: “Don has emotion. I have authority.” Boom.
- Ted has been almost a non-presence this year, and as much as I like the actor, I can’t say that I miss the character.
- Harry Crane’s a partner now. Finally. How hilarious and perfect that nobody seems excited about it.
- I’ve read a lot of griping online that Peggy has become too short-tempered and petty this season, and that her (prior) hostility toward Don seemed unmotivated or unrealistic (including her calling Don at home to tell him his subjective, kid’s-eye twist on the Burger Chef pitch was awful, when in fact it just wasn’t what Peggy needed). I don’t see any of her behavior as false. It all feels real to me. She’s not a plaster saint of feminism. She’s quite capable of being shortsighted and petty. And she’s taken so much abuse and neglect over the course of her career that I find it sadly believable that she’d dish a bit of it out once she finally got into a position of real authority. It doesn’t make her a good person or a bad person, just a person. She’s still a lot less petty than most of the senior partners. And you really sense her decency and righteousness in this episode. It awakens again.
- Will Don and Peggy leave at the end of the show to start their own agency? That outcome is probably too obvious for a show like this one, but I can dream.