the recap recap

The Best of This Week’s Mad Men Recaps: ‘The Strategy’

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC
Photo: Courtesy of AMC

After a pretty bleak season, this week’s Mad Men episode left a warm and fuzzy feeling in our critics’ hearts. As Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “‘The Strategy’ is a little cathedral of a show, one of the great hours of Mad Men … it’s packed with images that could stand in for the episode, and for the show, as a whole.” One of the most powerful moments was Don and Peggy’s dance scene, which a number of critics felt could easily have served as a conclusion to the entire series — or, as Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall put it, “dayenu.” Here is your recap of the recaps:

“Some will look at Peggy and Don’s dance and see it as a clear sign of romance to come; others, like me, will view it more like a father-daughter waltz at a wedding. Whatever happens in the show’s remaining eight episodes, neither interpretation is wrong. Don and Peggy’s relationship has always defied easy categorization, and it always will – intimate without being sexual, they are confidantes as well as adversaries, dear friends who know each other on very limited terms. To paraphrase Pete Campbell, theirs is a very vaguely defined sort of family.” —L.A. Times

“If you were to ask us what our favorite scene in the entire run of Mad Men was, we wouldn’t hesitate to name this one, from season two, where Don walks Peggy right up to a killer Mohawk Airline tag  (’What did you bring me, Daddy?’) by connecting with her on a deep and intense level and coaxing greatness out of her. It’s a scene that perfectly defines their relationship and the relationship the show has with advertising; the ways the writers use it to illuminate themes and comment on important personal and familial relationships. Well, they finally managed to top themselves – and how utterly, perfectly poetic that this time, Don and Peggy weren’t connecting over the perfect way to sell airlines to businessmen fathers, they were doing it over the question of how to sell hamburgers to overworked mothers. Instead of Don at the top of his game teaching an eager apprentice the ropes, we had Don at the end of his, well… rope, doing his best to placate an angry and bitter Peggy back into greatness. To end the scene with them slowly and sadly dancing to ‘My Way’ made for the absolute best moment in the entire run of the show. Beautifully written, directed and performed.” —Tom and Lorenzo

“Some episodes this season seemed to have been plotted too neatly on graph paper, with characters mirroring each other’s symbolic gestures. This episode, ferociously written by Semi Chellas and thankfully low on Stanley Kubrick references, is less tidily parallel and more gritty, from blond Bonnie’s filthy New York City toes to Bob’s bloody-nosed friend. Like Don and Peggy’s pitch, scene after scene feels hard-won. It was difficult not to think of the series at its best — as in Don and Peggy’s Season 4 episode ‘The Suitcase’ — and to note, as many did on Twitter, that their dance to ‘My Way,’ with all the stubborn, bullheaded intimacy it implied, could have been a lovely series finale.” —New York Times

“Which is a long way of saying: Peggy displays a degree of uncertainty in this episode that seems specifically Peggy but also seems specifically female. Peggy lacks Don’s confidence: This is both because she is a woman who is undermined at almost every turn by her colleagues but also because she is Peggy, a person specifically sensitive to the critique of her mentor. It is worth remembering that Peggy has very capably mimicked the ‘unladylike’ behavior of Don when it comes to, for example, verbally abusing her underlings and then napping. And yet she cannot feign his supreme confidence. And even as I write that I wonder: Would Peggy’s uncertainty about the Burger Chef ad read as uncertainty were she a man? Would Man-Peggy maybe seem curious, open, willing to keep exploring new options? Or would he just be less tortured by his uncertainty to begin with? Would he, like Don, do a better job camouflaging his panic?” —Slate

“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.” —A.V. Club

“In typical Mad Men fashion, working on the pitch–which is initially supposed to focus on a mother feeding her family with Burger Chef—stirs up potent emotions in the characters. ‘The hell do I know about being a mom,’ she says. ‘I just turned 30, Don.’ He responds: ‘shit,’but then tells her: ’I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about you.’ Peggy, meanwhile, transforms her pain—her ‘what did I do wrong?’ questioning—into a brilliant pitch, just like Don did so many times before her. This is her ‘Carousel’ moment. ’What if there was a place where you could go, where there was no TV, and you could break bread? And whoever you were sitting with was family,’ she smiles as ‘My Way’ begins to play.” — The Wire

“What will become of Bob Benson? His fate seems uncertain now. The year is 1969, and Stonewall is on the horizon. Mad Men’s previous acknowledgment of social change and civil rights movements suggests the show will incorporate the riots into its plot, too, but at the same time, Bob’s desperate, tearful proposal felt like an ominous last resort. So much of this season has been a reminder that while the 1960s were a time of great change, that change didn’t always happen as fast as it should have; it would be a sobering message if Bob didn’t live to witness such a watershed moment in LGBT history. Then again, maybe Bob will just disappear without any explanation — the mystery surrounding the character has always been more fascinating than his truths, and not knowing his fate might actually be the most appropriate send-off.” —Time

“Like the concern that screen time diminishes family intimacy, Peggy’s discovery of families of choice feels like an idea that has more to do with the present than the past, as did the debate about workplace gender dynamics that sprung up when Pete suggested that Peggy should cede the Burger Chef pitch. ‘Don will give authority,’ Pete explained. ‘You will give emotion.’ Peggy countered: ‘I have authority. Don has emotion’ (and boy, has the show borne that out). With its heartbreaking shots of Don and Peggy dancing to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and the brightly lit pull back from the duo plus Pete Campbell eating at one of Burger Chef’s infinite ‘family tables,’ ‘The Strategy’ offered an uncharacteristically sentimental assurance that things were going to turn out all right. They can’t, at least not yet — which means, really, that this can only be the calm before the storm. If Don, Pete and Peggy have found common ground, they’re inevitably about to find themselves defending it with everything they’ve got.” —Rolling Stone

It was Don’s humble admission of what worries him (’That I never did anything, and I don’t have anyone’) that first marked the scene as more than just a meeting. He’s had a few moments this season where he’s been willing to confess his darkest fears, perhaps laying on the exposition a little thick. Still, he’s reaching his pinnacle of self-awareness, and cutting him some slack this week was easy. Their working together would have been enough. Even with only one episode left, the sheer sight of those two smoothing things out over a pitch is a pretty massive step forward. Then came the dancing. Oh, the dancing. Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ was playing on the radio, and while Peggy was ready to dismiss it, Don said, ‘You think that’s a coincidence?’ and offered Peggy his hand. It was an extremely touching moment, made more so by Peggy placing her head on Don’s chest and Don taking it all in before kissing her head.” —IndieWire

Peggy aspires to power, but doesn’t want to have to be emotionally isolated to get there. She wants both — authority and emotions. The men get to have both, so why can’t she? Don has always been extremely emotional, as she points out. Peggy feels like the universe is punishing her romantically for her success at work. She knows what a b she’s been lately, but doesn’t like it. It’s just a lot harder to be happy for other people when you’re unhappy yourself. Peggy, Joan, Bonnie, Megan, Sally, and even Betty don’t just want love from the men in their lives. They want respect, too. They want what modern ladies would term ‘it all.’ During the all-nighter with Don, Peggy radiates the charm that she’s been lacking in the office. She’s funny, sharp, and secretly gorgeous under her unflattering turtleneck pantsuits.” —Grantland

As Don and Peggy worked all night on Burger Chef, and Don recognized the sound of ‘My Way’ coming from Lou’s stereo, my mind returned to that warm California night, and to that last answer Weiner offered before we said our goodbyes. And as Don invited Peggy to slow dance, in an office that was once his, and that each of them is more qualified to occupy than its current tenant, with both of them filled with so much sadness over the way they’ve lived their lives and the lonely, unfulfilled place it’s brought them to, I realized that even as I am not ready for Mad Men to go away — not after one more episode airs this year, and certainly not after the remaining seven episodes air next year — if Weiner had decided that this was, in fact, the place where he was going to bring the series to an end… dayenu.” —HitFix 

“So we end with our ersatz family. Pete, Peggy, and Don have done tremendous emotional violence to each other, yet there they sit: Pete, so loyal to Don at this point that he fights to give him more influence and power where once he literally tried to destroy his life. Peggy, no longer treating every interaction with Don as a genderbent Oedipal struggle, drawing on his wisdom and leaning on his support but still making her own decisions. And Don, minding the food smeared on Pete’s face like Pete’s nanny did with his daughter earlier in the episode, backing off as Peggy tells Pete the score.” —Wired

Pete Campbell, ever the smarmy little punk, thinks he’s run as far away as possible from his prim and proper marriage with his new girlfriend, Bonnie, a Californian blonde sex kitten who at first appears to be everything that Trudy wasn’t: totally chill with his work life, and kinky enough to propose a little mile-high rendezvous in the airplane bathroom. ‘I want you shopping all day…and screwing all night,’ he says, because Pete can’t help but but reveal all those fiendish power fantasies when given the chance. But then the talk turns to divorce and remarriage, Pete’s compelled to stand her up to go visit a daughter who barely recognizes him and a still-wife who’s off galavanting with other men—which Pete calls ‘immoral,’ because again, Pete—and suddenly Bonnie has bees in her, well, you know, and this whole carefree California sexcapade is just such a drag, man. At heart, Campbell’s still the BB gun-toting accounts rookie he was at the very beginning—and when his toys are taken away, or when they demonstrate independent thought, he’s not pleased, to say the least. He’s always reaching for that superficially Don Draper life, and getting rebuffed.” —GQ 

Speaking of frustrated sociopaths, Bob Benson is back! Admit it: you let out a little shriek of joy when Bob popped up in the show’s opening teaser after being off-screen all season. Bob returns to New York with Chevy executives in tow, and they check in with eye-patched Ken Cosgrove on their tour of the office (which elicits the show’s only mention of the gay-whispering IBM 360). Free peanuts to the writer who had Ken say this of his rambunctious toddler: “You really got to keep an eye on him.” —Entertainment Weekly

Equally powerful in this episode are the stories of those characters to search for family, and can’t find one. Bob Benson returns from Detroit and when realizes he is about to be made an offer at Buick, he proposes to Joan. ‘You don’t want this,’ Joan answers, aware of his homosexuality. Even though Benson counters that Buick ‘wants a certain kind of executive,’ his next lines are closer to the truth: ‘We could comfort each other through an uncertain world.’ Isn’t that a definition of family? I ache for the impossibility of Benson’s yearning for family. He cannot achieve it in 1969. I also ache for the impossibility of Joan find the ‘love’ she is waiting for.” —Wall Street Journal

Perhaps that’s why Bob’s desperate proposal resonated so strongly, despite his peculiar absence from the first five episodes of this season. He’s about to be poached by Buick—yet another company that wants to run its own advertising business, I should add—and he knows they expect ‘a certain kind’ of executive. A heterosexual kind of executive. So he asks Joan to marry him, promising her more than be believes she will ever get from anyone else. She rejects him. Why? Because: ‘I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens then make some arrangement. And you should too.’ Joan knows the pitfalls of traditional family all too well. She wouldn’t fall into that trap again. Bless her.” —The Atlantic 

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.” —Washington Post

The Best Mad Men Recaps: ‘The Strategy’