Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 6 – “The Strategy”
Written by Semi Chellas
Directed by Phil Abraham
Airs Sunday nights at 10 on AMC
At a time when plenty of bloggers and critics are writing about how much great television exists at the moment, it’s easy to think of Mad Men as part of the old regime–especially now that Breaking Bad is over–and how that makes the series less exciting than some of the shinier new shows. Those viewing tendencies make perfect sense to me, and I don’t necessarily disagree with them. Even if Justified‘s fifth season hadn’t been a bit of a bust, why not talk more about The Americans or Orphan Black, which are younger series on upward trajectories and not ones coming to a close? However, I would hope that a lack of enthusiasm would never be mistaken for a drop in quality regarding a production. Mad Men‘s seventh season hasn’t been its best, but these episodes show no signs of a show that has lost its way. With an episode like “The Strategy,” the former perennial Emmy-winner still proves it can outshine the best of contemporary television even when contemporary television is becoming increasingly high quality.
Of course, the pairing of Don Draper and Peggy Olson is the best conduit to show what this series can do in its twilight years. Both characters have spent plenty of time together and plenty of time apart, but each has been necessary for the other. Don is probably more willing to admit or acknowledge that, because Peggy has an admirable, if somewhat inflated, sense of pride; but she can’t hide the appreciation she has for her former mentor, even at the height of her dismissiveness. Peggy has spent the season up to this point stuck in self-pity and pettiness. If it hasn’t been high school-like pining and lashing out over her lost sweetheart, Ted, it’s been frustration that she isn’t getting the credit she feels she deserves from pretty much everyone at work. “The Strategy” adds fuel to that fire, unfortunately, before putting it out. Pete Campbell, upon returning to New York briefly, tries his best to re-integrate Don in a more prominent and important role with Burger Chef. The tipping point is convincing Peggy that Don ought to deliver the presentation, even though Peggy is “every bit as good as any woman in this business” (it’s kind of strange getting this dose of sexism with Pete, since he’s been one of the most pro-Civil Rights characters in Mad Men). What results is funny, difficult and touching to witness on the screen.
The initial conversation goes about as poorly for Peggy as you might expect, since she can’t put up a facade strong enough to convince Don that this is her idea to enlist his help. To make matters worse, Don presumes to have a better angle for the material despite complimenting her on how good her approach was. Those seeds of doubt grow so quickly that Peggy can’t go to sleep without second-guessing all of the work that didn’t come easy in the first place, and when she tries to get through to Don and explain what he’s done, she does it in the same way Don would: abusing the people whose help she needs.
Amid everything else going on in Don’s life (more on that below), he takes the bait and goes to see Peggy in the office, which begins a series of scenes that rank among the best in Mad Men history. After all this team, to see this platonic relationship as strong as it ever was is cause enough to be hopeful for an overall story that many people criticize as being too vapid. The episode doesn’t even need Frank Sinatra’s help. Yet, Frank Sinatra is there, singing “My Way” on the radio, and Don invites Peggy for a dance after they’ve plowed through hours of work to get Peggy to arrive at the angle she wants and thinks will work. That dance elicits some inexplicably powerful emotion, which I can only use “the feels” to describe. Anyone who has invested as many hours as it has taken to get to this point in the series just can’t walk away from it thinking that it doesn’t work. I don’t believe that person for one moment. Years worth of development for both these characters in different directions precipitates this scene, and as it comes together and lingers there for a moment, one has to wonder how Don and Peggy carried on without each other for as long as they did.
Things, in general, seem to coalesce for Don in this episode. There’s been plenty of issues with his marriage to Megan since the end of last season, and both have tried–to varying degrees–to hold that relationship together, but until “The Strategy,” there wasn’t much reason to be optimistic about their future together. At the very least, though, Don wakes up at home, sees Megan on the balcony and goes to her like a husband deeply in love. Part of that has to do with Megan being back in New York, which is where Don would prefer she stay, but there’s something different in Don’s voice and manner that silences those voices claiming he can’t really care for his wife in a meaningful way–that he will only ever be a womanizer. Love fills this scene, which would have been the standout one in any other episode that didn’t feature this Don-Peggy material. I don’t know if Don needed rehabilitation to get to a point where he felt like a different person, but he’s absolutely undergone enough to prove that his attention is where it needs to be: divided between wanting to do his job and loving Megan. It’s worrisome that Megan’s making excuses about missing some of her winter clothes and that she wants to meet on neutral ground sometime soon, but that could just be over-analysis; maybe she really does just want more things to remind her of home and wants to spend time with Don away from either of their obligations. The relationship is still anything but stable (and I’m also concerned that somehow it will get back to one of the partners that Don was breaching his contract by drinking with Peggy at the office), which means there’s plenty of ways the mid-season finale can dismantle certain things, but these episodes have shown for favoritism towards optimism than pessimism, so that’s hopefully an indication of where we’ll end up next week.
“The Strategy” features a few other plotlines, some which are more successful or integral than others, but the one that stood out and paired well with the Don-Peggy scenes was Joan and her relationship with Bob Benson, who finally makes an on-screen appearance this season after being mentioned by other characters several times. Bob’s story is a catalyst for some the Big Picture stuff that’s going on regarding Buick, but his proposal to Joan also gets her thinking about what she really wants, which is not to settle. “I want love, and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement.” It’s no coincidence how this parallels Sinatra’s “My Way” and Peggy’s storyline, since Joan’s been as much of a presence as anyone not named Don Draper this season. On the surface, it’s weird to consider how Joan is even in this position to begin with, but damn logic and sympathize with her for wanting to do things her way because she knows doing them any other way would probably lead to a relatively miserable life–or a disappointing one, at best. There wasn’t a ton of build-up to the moment, but Bob’s unusual pairing with Joan already has some built-in weight because of how surprisingly memorable some of those scenes from last season were. Bob feels immediately at home in his first appearance, which makes their conversation totally convincing on both sides (Bob is a realist, Joan is a Romantic). It’s another relationship that lacks the traditional romantic quality of male-female television pairings and is better for it, sitting nicely alongside the A-story in classic Mad Men interconnectivity.
– Sean Colletti
– Pete gets one of the joint B-stories, stuck between pissing off Bonnie and pissing off Trudy (hey, Alison Brie!). New York really does bring out the worst in him, although it’s fun to watch him smash a beer bottle into Trudy’s cake. Take that! But seriously, I don’t know how much Weiner wants us to be invested in Bonnie as a character, because this is the first we see of her really caring about how her relationship with Pete matters to her in the long run. If Weiner wants to make her a legitimate love interest for the second half of the season, I’m on-board, and scenes like this certainly help a lot; maybe just give Pete more of a reaction that isn’t nonchalance.
– Roger makes a joke about Jim in the steam room, but follows up with “I was kidding around, but I think you’re making eyes at me.”
– The other Jim (the better Jim) is trying to enlist Roger, telling him to stop thinking about Don. Unlikely, Harry Hamlin! We’re on to you.
– Oblivious Kenny talking about his child: “You really gotta keep an eye on him.”
– How Stan tries to shut Peggy up: “The work is great. I’m positive. Exclamation point.”
– And some Don-Peggy exchanges, because that’s what this episode is really about, right!? Right:
1) P: “What’s the job?” D: “Living in the not knowing.”
2) D: “I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about you.”
3) What Don worries about: “That I never did anything and that I don’t have anyone.”