Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Strategy" (season 7, episode 6)

Mad Men - "The Strategy" (season 7, episode 6)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 18, 2014/written by Semi Chellas; directed by Phil Abraham): It's to the side of the episode's central drama, but something is going on with General Motors. When McCann Erickson's Jim Hobart crowds Roger in a steamroom, needling him about Chevy and Buick, Roger makes a few homoerotic cracks - but a far more overtly gay storyline reveals what's really going on. Bill Hartley (Matthew Glave) is a GM rep who aggressively hits on Joan in the office but ends up calling Bob after getting arrested late at night for "attempting to fellate an undercover officer." Bill is certain that Bob understands his troubles and can be discreet, but he also wants him to know that GM is recruiting him to Detroit to handle their prized Buick account. Determined to cover his tracks, Bob proposes to Joan and when she turns him down ("You shouldn't be with a woman"), he drops the puppy dog facade to make a far more naked appeal to mutual self-interest. He needs a beard to fit in with the auto industry culture and she needs a way out of her sad single life with a mother and baby boy in a crowded apartment. "You're wrong," Joan corrects him. "I want love, and I'd rather die hoping that happens that settle for some arrangement. And you should too." The next day, the whole office discovers GM's next move - taking the XP inhouse and leaving SC&P with egg on its face. To compensate, Jim proposes making Harry a partner and aggressively advertising their new computer.

Meanwhile, Pete, Don, and Peggy overcome their personal frustrations over the "family table" at Burger Chef. Pete begins the episode cheerfully triumphant, flying back to New York with Bonnie and even joining the mile-high club en route. But things quickly fall apart. Showing up with a Barbie doll for his timid daughter Tammy (Arya Lyric Lebeau), who barely seems to remember him, he ends up staying at Cos Cob late into the night until Trudy returns from a date. Scolding her but also impressed that she appears to be showing off for him, he's further thrown off his game the next day when Bonnie calls out his distractibility (by the end of "The Strategy" their hot affair appears to have cooled off completely). Megan also flies to New York, visiting Don to make breakfast on their balcony, pop into the office to catch up with old friends...and pack her things away as if she made this trip mostly to tie up loose ends. She acts surprised when Don mentions flying out in her direction a few weeks later; they are on different wavelengths. Peggy, happy to stick to the Burger Chef strategy by focusing on busy moms who need a way to bring the family together, unravels when she realizes that she doesn't connect to this perspective. And she reels Don into her distress until the two of them are up late into the night brainstorming - Don mostly egging her on rather than inserting his own ideas. Finally she realizes what appeals to her: not the contrived, overly-researched concerns of the prototypical hectic mom, but the impromptu assembly of a makeshift family in a public space. This trio of the discontented - the three stars of the pilot eighty-plus episodes down the line - meet at a Burger Chef somewhere, who knows where, to manifest this very concept in the process of discussing it. Always striving for and stumbling around personal happiness, they never seem more satisfied than when they're just doing their job.

My Response: The Burger Chef preparation plays like an elegy: everyone is saying goodbye this episode, they just don't know it yet. Of course I may be exaggerating - after all, there are another seven episodes left after the next one, and for all I know Don could still be hanging on in SC&P when the series ends. But it doesn't feel that way, does it? Even the title of the next episode is suggestive (which isn't to say Mad Men never misleads). Waterloo wasn't just the grand battle that ended Napoleon and the Era that took his name, it also, more narrowly, marked the rapid conclusion of the Emperor's aborted comeback. That perfectly describes how Don's short-lived '69 stint at the agency will look if it collapses in episode 7. And how perfect would it be if his cherished protegee is wrapped up in the downfall, if this last warm burst of creativity and conviviality marks a swan song directly responsible for killing the golden goose? (Lou is certainly not going to appreciate Peggy's less traditionally familial approach, and probably blame Don for tainting it.) Anyway, speculation aside, "The Strategy" is a delight on its own merits. Echoing the poignant moments of "The Suitcase" and "The Other Woman" but with a valedictory edge, "The Strategy" allows Don to step back into the Pygmalion role he cherishes (check out his wolfish grin when Peggy finally gives him permission to uncheck his ego) while also allowing Peggy to fully emerge from his shadow. Indeed the whole point of Don's mentorship in this moment is to help Peggy draw out her own voice. Miraculously, they can both dance to "My Way" as if it's their own.

There is also a sad, touching quality to Don's and Megan's weekend. Lacking the tension of his visits to Los Angeles or the alienation of their former life in Manhattan, the reunion almost resembles Don's one-night stand with Betty last season. Like the Sinatra song, the appearance of a newspaper documenting JFK's assassination (forever linked with Don's first divorce) is probably no coincidence. Megan frequently responds with mild surprise to Don's overtures, as if she knows they are winding down and assumes he does too. In her mind they may have a mutual agreement to not speak it aloud, but then of course she's an actress constantly thinking about subtext while he's adman determined not to muck up the surface emotion by dragging in the superfluous. (That he's a bit more sensitive than a copywriter should be is both his gift and his curse, personally and professionally.) Meanwhile, the agency itself faces a bewildering crossroads in which it must head in multiple directions at once, all with particular consequences for Don, Roger, and possibly Joan. Ted, who appears to have been neutered by his biggest character moment last season, may yet have a role to play too. This entire stretch of the season, with all of its ominous intimations of the imminent curtain fall, has been titled "The Beginning" - a reminder that we're not only wrapping up six and half seasons of development, but setting up one last half-season which may be something else entirely.

Next (active on January 17, 8am): (Season 7 Part 1: The Beginning finale) "Waterloo"Previous: "The Runaways"

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