This week's episode of Mad Men operated at the highest level possible.
As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in his Mad Men recap on Vulture yesterday, “[g]reat movies and TV episodes are like houses you never want to leave.” That’s exactly how I felt about “The Strategy,” the penultimate episode of this half-season, final season, seven week fever dream of excellent TV, or whatever you want to call the manner in which Mad Men has been airing this spring.
I watched “The Strategy” three times in less than twenty-four hours and I found myself enthralled with each viewing experience. Every time through, there was a new exhilaration. The first time, it was the goose bump inducing scene between Don and Peggy talking in the office and then dancing to “My Way”; the second time through I picked up even more on the subtle meta-references to the show’s history such as Peggy’s secretary stating “I didn’t know he had a wife” regarding Don, which was a commentary on Don and Megan’s marriage but also on the initial reveal of Don going home to his family in the pilot; and the third time through, I found myself on edge watching Bob Benson propose to Joan—his proposal became much more nefarious upon the third viewing and Joan’s stand seemed even more noble, though touched with a greater level of sadness and loneliness; Christina Hendricks acted the hell out of that scene, her chin and slight underbite both absolute marvels in conveying Joan’s shifting emotions.
But those are just the visceral observations I experienced on each separate time through the episode. To extend Zoller Seitz’s metaphor, when you are luxuriating in a home or building you truly enjoy, you begin to notice the trim, the pleasing angles and the way the light casts a certain shade upon a far wall. So, then, how do we begin to appreciate the way Ken greeted the men from General Motors and answered their question about his son with the line, “You’ve really got to keep an eye on him,” all while the good ol’ GM boys averted their eyes? And in that same span of time, Clara, Ken’s secretary, was subtly pregnant and Bill, the GM guy who Bob later bailed out of prison for trying to fellate an undercover officer, makes a trail-covering pass at Joan. That leads to Bob’s retort, when arranging to spend time with, Joan, of “Unless you’ve got plans with some married guy later.” All of that conversation and social dancing a simple foreshadowing for how complicated and indirectly related those three very different characters ended up being in this episode.
In a well-designed building, you also admire the overall shape and foundation. This episode was perfectly constructed around the tripod of Don, Peggy and Pete. We got to see succinctly how each of their personal lives is falling apart; how their decisions and inability to change have failed them; how they will always be left wanting something better. Yet, when the three come together at the very end of the episode, they can each simply be who they are in the company of the other two. All of their flaws are present; no one is hiding anything from the others.
Sure, Don doesn’t know that it was Pete who got Peggy pregnant; but likewise, Pete doesn’t know about Don visiting Peggy in the hospital; and Peggy has no clue about Pete discovering Don’s shoebox in Season 1. But that isn’t important. What is important is that each of them, in their current fallen states, echo what Don wrote in his journal in “The Summer Man” from Season Four:
When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going and then he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel and dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect.
Each of them brings their whole lives with them and their lives are not perfect. Pete is a monster. He is a petulant child who throws a sexist, double-standard-laden tantrum towards his ex-wife in some slurring attempt to hang onto a family and life he never truly wanted. Then, he goes back to the city and satisfies his own desires rather than thinking of Bonnie, a strong, sexy woman who in the end is nothing but a trophy for him to stroke his ego (ahem!) with.
Don’s faults and failures are well covered. His relationship with Megan seems strained at every corner. Watching the two of them interact in front of Peggy and Stan in the office was painful; watching Megan accept Don’s kisses on the balcony was to watch a woman who’s mind was clearly elsewhere; and Megan’s suggestion for the two of them to meet at some neutral destination sounded like vintage Don Draper making a last ditch attempt to save a marriage or affair.
But Don is in an interesting place during this episode. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish at the end of “The Runaways” when he foiled Cutler and Lou Avery’s plans at their secret meeting with William Morris. It seemed like he was relying on old tropes and behaviors in some misguided effort to save something that wasn’t worth saving. However, a week later, he seems so much more composed than we’ve seen him in a long time. It’s not a smooth, confident classic Don Draper, but more of a comfortable, laid back Don Draper. This Don appears to be a man who is resigned to the way his life is and knows there’s nothing he can do to control it other than to just be an active participant and to play whatever role is available for him to play—rather than the role he believes he should play. That’s something like progress for Don. But Mad Men is tricky with progress, very often a subtle step forward like this is only temporary, much like life. Don may have another setback in the few remaining episodes, but the arc of his progress this season seems to be fairly consistent overall. The fact that he can tell Peggy that he worries about the fact that he “never did anything” and that he “doesn’t have anybody” speaks volumes about where he is in identifying his feelings and his insecurities.
And then there is Peggy. Much has been made over her bad behavior this season, but it seems right in line with a driven, professional woman who is beginning to feel trapped as she crosses over the threshold of thirty. As much as I relate to Don’s fears about having not accomplished anything and not having anyone in his life, I find myself truly relating to Peggy.
Even though Peggy has achieved more in her fictional career than I have in my real one, I’ve already explained how I’ve been in that very painful and ultimately useless state of looking around and asking “what did I do wrong?” There are a lot of things in life to want: love, music, family, jokes, friends, sex, kids, passion, success, a dog. But very often your decisions limit you from fitting everything you want from the world into your little corner. Some of us drive ourselves crazy wanting it all and wondering what life on the other side of the fence is like; wondering what we would have been if we just had taken that job or wanted that, other, specific definition of success. And that can leave you feeling lonely, frustrated and bitter.
Peggy has drunk from that cup in great measure. She knows the pain of being passionate about work only to have various roadblocks, specifically gender, thrown in her way. And she’ll probably continue to be lonely and wonder if she’ll ever have a husband and kids. That wondering will never go away, but the only thing you can do to cope is to accept and begin to appreciate what makes your certain circumstances unique; what makes all of your decisions up to this point worth living in. And when you go back to your pad and try to build who you are back up, maybe you end up in the same place; or maybe there’s a tweak that alters the course just gently to the right. That’s better than nothing and very often that’s the most we can hope for in life.
Either way, we’ll always have that unforgettable scene with Don and Peggy; the two of them reminiscing about what 1955 and 1965 meant to each one respectively, both not acknowledging that they’d already had a transformative late night experience around the same time of the year just a few years earlier. And then Don holds out his hand, Peggy bashfully, reluctantly takes it, Don holds her, she puts her head on his shoulder, a million emotions flash across his forehead before he decides on the one he wants, and then barely sway to Sinatra.
There will never be a greater show.
I wasn’t able to write about last week’s episode, “The Runaways,” but in light of what happened this week, it seems silly to go back and give my thoughts on it. But I thought the three-way scene was choreographed in a pretty sexy way, the scene with Harry and Don was smart plotting, Don’s busting up of the William Morris meeting was foolish and a bit shortsighted (what else is new?).
And, most of all, I was disappointed with Ginsberg’s exit from the show. I felt that Ginsberg’s character and the way he was handled on the show, was one of the few major missteps Mad Men has ever made. There seemed to be a lot more story to tell with Ginsberg and his inner life, as well as his personal life, appeared to be much more interesting than we were allowed to see. I had no problem with him being crazy and cutting off his nipple, but it was a bit too abrupt. I would’ve liked to see a few more storylines/scenes of Ginsberg at home with his father, trying to find love—just more examples of his point of view other than his random outburst, inappropriate one-liner in the office, or someone like Ted calling him “lightning in a bottle” every couple episodes or so to remind us that he’s really good at his job. For a character that started off with a lot of potential, he kind of got lost in the shuffle. But with stakes and emotions like the ones on display between the heavy hitters in “The Strategy” it’s hard to keep all of the role players in focus.