lyons on mad men

Burgers, Fear, JFK, and TV: Where Are the Good Families on Mad Men?

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 6 - Photo Credit; Justina Mintz/AMC
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 6 - Photo Credit; Justina Mintz/AMC Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC

Advertising relies on insecurity. Are you pretty enough, thin enough, sexy enough, prim enough? Are you rich enough, powerful enough, respected enough? Are you loving your children enough? Are you American enough? If not, maybe you should buy Belle Jolie lipstick, or the Rejuvinator, or a Maidenform bra, or a Jantzen swimsuit. Or maybe you need an “executive account” at your bank, or a brand new Jaguar, or to fly Mohawk Airlines. Give your kids a Popsicle. Respect Dow Chemical. Feed your family beans so they know they’re safe. Stay at a Hilton, so you know you’ve made it. Buy Utz potato chips because, man, don’t you want to seem fun? Drink Heineken, lest you be perceived as uncultured. Use Clearasil so you can be more attractive. Drink juice, so you can be healthy for once. Use margarine, so you’ll never expire. Buy a ham, because everyone else is.

On Mad Men, these insecurities are, generally, the insecurities of the characters developing the campaigns, and that’s as true as ever in the Burger Chef campaign seen in “The Strategy.” It starts off as a campaign about the anxiety of being a “bad” mother and wife — of not having dinner on the table. “Who gives moms permission? Dads!” Lou declares in the meeting. Later, after Peggy delivers a successful pitch, Pete decides it would be better if Don presents her ideas to the client. Who gives moms permission? Dads! Peggy and Pete are mom and dad to a (never-seen) child, and when Pete revokes Peggy’s permission to pitch Burger Chef, she’s livid. When Don wonders if there’s a better angle for the strategy, Peggy’s even more upset — briefly because it seems like Don is undermining her (which he is, a bit), but more so because she realizes that this campaign does not actually resonate with her, or with her own insecurities. “You can’t tell people what they want,” Don tells Peggy. “It has to be what you want.”

No kidding. Peggy’s not worried about being a bad mom. She’s worried she has no family at all. She’s not married, she placed her child for adoption, she’s relatively alienated from her mother and sister, and she doesn’t even seem to have any outside-of-work friends anymore. The revised Burger Chef strategy isn’t better because it’s substantively, objectively better. It’s better because it’s truer for Peggy. And, not for nothing, for Don, too. “It’s about family. Every table here is the family table,” Peggy says in the closing scene, as she distributes burgers and sodas to Don and Pete. That makes this trio a family, and they are in a lot of ways.

“I hate even the word family. It’s vague,” Pete snarls. And this family is vague: Who are they, exactly, to each other? Well, Don was the boss, but he’s not really the boss anymore, and Peggy and Pete had a child together, but they were never really together-together, and Don’s Peggy’s mentor, but she’s often the one who’s more grounded and responsible; Pete knows Don’s dark secret; Don knows Peggy’s; Peggy practically is Pete’s dark secret. But however often this collective relationship is acrimonious, which is pretty often, there’s a pull to it that’s stronger than the pulls any of these characters feel to their biological or nuclear families. Pete sees his daughter Tammy very rarely. Don must seem like a stranger to his littlest child Gene. The closest Peggy gets to her family these days is asking her brother-in-law to help fix a clogged toilet. And yet Peggy and Don and Pete are bonded to each other, and we can imagine them excising biological relations before we can imagine them excising one another.

“Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV? Did you ever do that with your family?,” Peggy drunkenly asks Don. “I don’t remember,” he says. Luckily, we don’t need Don to remember, because we can remember for him. In season three’s “The Grownups,” Don insisted that his children turn off the television and join him as he cooked them dinner — on November 22, 1963. Don telling Peggy he doesn’t remember rings a little phony because he had just looked at an old newspaper from November 23, 1963. That date not only conjures JFK’s assassination for Don; it’s also the day before Betty announced that she didn’t love him anymore. When did families stop eating dinner together? Well, for the Draper family at least, the answer is on or about November 23, 1963.

“The Grownups” can be felt all over “The Strategy,” in fact. Repeatedly in last night’s episode, someone invokes the encroaching presence of television, particularly as it (ostensibly) destabilizes family interactions. That comes up over and over in “The Grownups,” too, as everyone gathers around televisions, first to hear the news about Kennedy’s assassination, then to see Lee Harvey Oswald, and then again when Jack Ruby shoots him — “turn it off,” “turn it off,” “turn it off,” someone says in every scene. Roger’s daughter Margaret gets married in “The Grownups,” the day after the assassination, and Roger makes a toast. “Here we are, not watching TV, instead watching the two of you,” he says, but in fact, Jane, and a few Sterling Cooperites, are off in the kitchen of the reception hall, gathered around a television.

Peggy and Don find themselves in a deserted office together in “The Grownups,” just as they do in “The Strategy,” and even the storyboards for the commercials they’re working on look similar, with all the characters in a car. The 1963 campaign is for Aquanet, and everyone’s in a convertible (which, at the time, Peggy and Don worried would be too reminiscent of the Kennedy motorcade). The 1969 Burger Chef campaign has everyone in a regular car — though Peggy, drunk and mostly out of ideas, suggests switching it to a convertible. “I wanna take you to the movies right now,” Henry Francis declares to Betty in “The Grownups.” “I want to go to the movies,” Peggy sighs in “The Strategy.” A pouty Pete complains to Trudy about his lack of promotion in “The Grownups.” “Did you lose your temper?” she worries, and then seems hugely relieved when he says he didn’t. We know why she was concerned, because in “The Strategy,” we see Pete do exactly that.

Peggy and Don and Pete aren’t the only ones grappling with the idea (and the commodification) of family: Bob Benson and Joan confront it in their own way, too. “We could comfort each other in an uncertain world,” Bob pleads, but Joan’s not interested. She tells him she’d rather die hoping for love than live in an “arrangement,” and that he should want that too. “I’m just being realistic,” he replies, tragically, because there are vanishingly few options for a gay man who wants to live openly with a partner in 1969. Bob says he’s offering Joan more than anyone else ever will, which she denies — and maybe she’s right. But he is offering her more than any other man ever has, which is to support and provide for her, openly, unlike Roger, and without ever raping her, unlike Greg. He’d be polite, unlike Paul, and he genuinely cares about her, unlike Mr. Gross-o Jaguar John.

Desperation and resignation are not a great way to form a family, but no one (with the possible exception of Ken Cosgrove) on Mad Men has figured out a better formula. Don and Betty? Certainly not. Betty and Henry? Well, maybe, though that’s not a very happy household. Trudy was in denial about Pete from the get-go, maybe because her own dad shared Pete’s hobby of patronizing sex workers. Roger’s a lifelong philanderer, and if Margaret’s word is anything to go on, Mona was none too present and none too happy as a full-time parent. Joan married her rapist. Don married the idea of Megan much more than he married Megan herself. Lane’s family life seemed unhappy in every capacity. Ted had to move to California in the hopes of keeping his marriage intact, though he’d already slept with Peggy by the time he moved. Harry has cheated on his wife and is basically a Judd Apatow character who’d rather get high and eat White Castle than be with his family. Sal’s wife Kitty slowly realized her husband was gay. Duck Phillips’s alcoholism destroyed his family, and he’s a bad enough caretaker that he abandoned his dog on the street. Bobbie Barret likes being Jimmy’s manager much more than she likes begin his wife. Megan’s parents cheat on one another. (Just ask Sally Draper.) Francine fantasizes about poisoning her cheating dope of a husband. Sylvia Rosen cheats on her husband. No one’s doing a very good job on the family front. At least a sham marriage between Bob and Joan would produce some truly gorgeous Christmas cards.

That family anxiety, that fear of not belonging, the worry “that I never did anything, and that I don’t have anyone” — that’s not Don Draper’s special snowflake fear. That’s everyone’s fear, only no one realizes it. Even Peggy, whose relationship with Don is deep and special and mutual, has no idea that he worried about that. (She once told Don that she wanted what he has. “You have everything, and so much of it,” she said in season three.) When Peggy dreamily starts her new Burger Chef pitch with “what if there were a place with no TVs?” what she’s really saying is a place with no commercials — a place with no insecurity. No anxiety. No one preying on your fears. No images you can’t live up to.

Where Are the Good Families on Mad Men?