Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 6, “The Strategy”

This is the episode I have long been waiting for: the return of Bob Benson! Actually, more exciting is that the ice finally thaws between Peggy and Don, who gradually reconcile their past differences and become close with one another again, both literally and figuratively.

Strangely enough, the seeds of their reconciliation are inadvertently planted by Pete. I really like the turn Pete’s character has taken in his professional life this season. He might still be a hypocrite and a selfish little boy in his personal life (more on that below), but his amicability with Don and Peggy is rather refreshing, especially considering how far he’s come in his relationships with them since the early days of the series. He now genuinely enjoys their company and values their creative skills, rather than envying Don and trying to oust him from the company, and being resentful of Peggy and jealous of any happiness she might obtain. It’s especially refreshing considering how hostile nearly everyone else at SC&P has been to Don this season (regardless of the extent to which he may or may not deserve it).

Pete’s persistent confidence in Don’s skills is what sets up Don and Peggy making peace with one another. Much to everyone else’s surprise, Pete insists on having Don present in a meeting where Peggy goes over the Burger Chef strategy. His insistence leads to a nice moment where Peggy tries to maintain her authority by willfully misinterpreting Pete’s desire to have Don present as a desire to have the entire team present. She offers to have Mathis (the youngest creative) to join the meeting as well, thereby implicitly diminishing Don’s significance The whole exchange is reminiscent of when one parent (Pete) – ignorant of his child’s misbehavior – gives their child (Don) a treat without first consulting their spouse (Peggy and/or Lou).

After Peggy describes her potential Burger Chef commercial, everyone seems to approve of the strategy, but there’s a pregnant pause when Pete asks for Don’s opinion. You can practically see the hairs on Peggy’s neck stand up as she waits for Don to speak. It’s a great moment for Elisabeth Moss, who manages to silently convey Peggy’s anxiety both over having her authority so quickly undermined, and over whatever awful thing might come out of Don’s mouth (an understandable reaction, given Don’s abuse of her since then end of season 5). Don’s on good behavior however, and much to Peggy’s relief, he compliments the strategy. In an attempt to further placate Pete, Peggy then compliments Don’s contributions.

Pete is not entirely satisfied, however. In a subsequent meeting, he strongly encourages Peggy to cede authority over the presentation of the pitch to Don when SC&P actually meets with Burger Chef. Pete seems to be hoping for another classic Don Draper pitch, but Peggy is understandably miffed, and resists Pete’s request. Pete argues that Don will give authority, while Peggy will give emotion, and Peggy understatedly and knowingly responds: “I have authority. Don has emotion.” Nevertheless, Peggy accedes to Pete’s request, and leaves the office crestfallen.

When she breaks the news to Don, she still maintains a patina of authority by pretending that it was her decision. Don sees right through the lie, but doesn’t question her motivation too carefully, as he’s too excited at having the keys handed back to him, as evidenced not only by his excited fist pump after Peggy leaves, but also by his immediately offering Peggy a suggestion for an alternative strategy he had been “noodling around with.”

Don’s suggestion to Peggy is an idle one, but it sets the creative gears turning in Peggy’s head. She becomes dissatisfied with her previous strategy (which, as she puts it, became “tainted” when Don implicitly questioned if it is really the best approach), and she heads into the office on the weekend. Her first impulse is to try to convince Stan to come in and brainstorm with her, but Stan is not the partner she needs, and she knows it. She calls Don, but can’t bring herself to ask for his help, and instead tries to goad him into coming into the office by crapping on his alternative suggestion and yelling at him for undermining her. Understandably, Don doesn’t take the bait, at least not right away – he’s about to have dinner with Megan, and is too invested in trying to heal their marriage to drop everything and run to Peggy (more on Megan and Don below). However, he has a moment of consternation after he gets off the phone, where he seems to realize that Peggy’s call was a cry for help rather than a dressing down.

What follows is a marvelous series of scenes that resolves much of the acrimony that has accumulated between the two over the past three seasons, and that draws them as close together as they have ever been. Don swallows whatever pride he might still have left, goes into the office on Sunday, and helps Peggy come up with a new strategy. At first, she’s both relieved and irritated to see him, sarcastically asking him where his white horse is, and asking after whatever his brilliant new idea is. The dynamic is great: Peggy has resigned herself to ceding her authority to Don because she’s convinced she can’t compete with whatever strategy Don has concocted. She’s bitter, resentful, and suspicious of him, convinced of the inevitability of Don’s abusive behavior, and agitated over what she perceives as her own creative inadequacies.

However, not only does Don not have a ready-made strategy, but his motives in visiting Peggy are pure: he’s decided to put on his mentor hat once again, and to help Peggy through her creative struggle. He slaloms past Peggy’s hostility with genuinely helpful insights into his own creative process, and defuses some of her suspicion and hostility with a little humor and self-awareness, telling her, “Whenever I’m really unsure about an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need, and then I take a nap.” It’s a great line not only because it’s funny and true, but because it’s also an implicit apology for the way he’s treated her in the past, and Peggy rewards Don by flashing him the first warm, genuine smile she’s directed his way in a long, long time.

Later, we return to the pair in the middle of their brainstorming, and we see them open up to each other about their vulnerabilities in a way that seemed almost inconceivable when Don returned to work just a few episodes ago. At Peggy’s lowest moment, Don reassures her that she’s doing great and offers her a hanky. As she’s dabbing her eyes, inspiration strikes: Peggy comes up with a new strategy for Burger Chef, one that feels right to her, and that emphasizes Burger Chef as a place where families come together.

It’s a wonderful moment: Rather than Don being the knight in shining armor, coming up with a genius idea at the last second as he’s done in the past, Peggy comes up with an inspiring idea herself. All she needed from Don was some praise and some reassurance of her abilities (two things Don only doled out sparingly in the past, and often intermixed with abuse). Her trajectory as the female Don Draper seems nearly complete, and best of all, Don was there to witness and support it (rather than feeling threatened or resentful).

As if in celebration of the moment of Peggy's epiphany, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” starts playing over the radio. Don points out the connection between the song and Peggy’s breakthrough, and offers her his hand. She takes it, and they slow-dance together, Don beaming with pride, and Peggy comforted to have reconnected with him (and relieved to have solved the Burger Chef puzzle). We haven’t seen them this at peace and affectionate with one another since what for me is still the high water mark for the entire series, season 4’s “The Suitcase.” To some degree, this scene forms a nice parallel with that episode; there, Don was bottoming out over having lost Anna Draper, and Peggy comforted him, reassuring him that he does indeed have people in his life who truly know him (even if she doesn't know about his past as Dick Whitman). Here, Peggy is bottoming out over her creative limits, and Don comforts her by reassuring her that she is indeed to doing a fine job, and isn't the failure she thinks she is.

The episode concludes with a scene between Pete, Peggy, and Don sitting down for a meal at Burger Chef, where Peggy reveals the new strategy to Pete. It’s a nice scene both because it illustrates Peggy’s vision for Burger Chef – after all, these characters are practically family to one another, considering how much they’ve all gone through together and how well they know each other – and because it also demonstrates what will hopefully be the new status quo: when Pete is resistant to Peggy’s new idea and appeals to Don for help in getting his way, Don gives Peggy his unwavering support, telling Pete, “She’s doing it the way she wants to do it. Do you want it right or not?” Finally, Don is behaving towards Peggy the way a true mentor should, and not just in private. Perhaps Don is finally becoming the better person that many viewers having been rooting for. It’s an extremely satisfy place to conclude Don and Peggy’s relationship, and it really feels like it's the end of their arc for the series, even though there are still eight episodes left to go. Perhaps there is yet further room for their relationship to grow, or perhaps the remaining eight episodes will emphasize other relationships more than this one, but I'm extremely satisfied with their reunion here.

This episode also marks the first time this season that Megan has appeared in New York. Her presence here seems to reawaken something in Don, who throughout this episode is more affectionate and loving toward her than he has been since season 5. This leads to a nice series of scenes between the two, where Megan seems pleased by his renewed closeness, but also slightly uncomfortable, as she is no longer sure she can trust Don’s feelings towards her. Much like Peggy, Megan has learned how fickle Don’s affections are, and we can see her struggle over the conflict between her desire to accept his affection and her desire to prevent Don from hurting her if/when he loses interest again. I enjoyed how their scenes together explored this tension: Megan reacts to Don with cautious optimism, while also searching for signs that she should close herself off to him (much like how Peggy had long ago learned to try to insulate herself from him). She seems to end the episode more confident in their marriage, as she looks rather contented when we last see her on the plane headed back to Los Angeles.

If Pete is instrumental in bringing people together in his professional life, in this episode he has the opposite effect on his personal life, both with Bonnie, who accompanies him to New York, as well as with his estranged wife Trudy and daughter Tammy. When Pete visits Tammy over the weekend, we see how thoroughly he has embraced absenteeism: Tammy hardly recognizes him, hiding behind the skirts of her nanny when Pete stops by his and Trudy’s old house. It becomes immediately evident that Pete had hoped to run into Trudy as well (thus his insistence that Bonnie stay behind in the city while he visited his daughter), probably so that he could show Trudy how happy and unaffected he is by their separation, his confidence bolstered by his relationship with Bonnie.

The plan backfires, however, when Trudy – as usual – proves to be a step ahead of Pete, arranging to be out of the house both when Pete stops by the first time, and then again when he returns later in the day with Tammy. This second absence really sticks in Pete’s craw, because Trudy makes it obvious she is out on a date by leaving her car parked in the driveway. Ever the petulant brat, Pete cancels his plans with Bonnie and waits for Trudy to get home in order to practice some patented Don Draper hypocrisy. He yells at her for dating while they’re still technically married, trying to make himself feel better and her feel worse by assuming a moral high ground to which he has no right. It’s a classic Don Draper move, and once again, Pete appears to be reenacting his own version of Don’s personal life, except much less successfully. Here, he doesn’t make Trudy feel bad about herself as much as he makes her angry at him, and he lets his bitterness poison his time with Bonnie, who seems to realize that Pete is something of selfish child when he effectively ignores her throughout much of their time in New York. By the end of the episode, Bonnie is flying back to Los Angeles alone. The lesson, as always: Trudy > Pete.

Meanwhile, Bob is inspired to propose to Joan by Bill, one of the Chevy representatives, whom Bob picks up from a holding cell after Bill is arrested for trying to sexually solicit an undercover police officer. Bill expresses relief that his wife understands his homosexuality, and Bill’s arrangement seems to inspire Bob to try to convince Joan to be his beard, first proposing to Joan as if they have been romantically involved all along, and then coming clean with her about his true motivations.

The scene of Bob’s proposal is an interesting one, because it reveals the extent to which Bob and Joan have been straightforward (or not) with each other. It’s been quite clear to us that Joan knows Bob is gay, but Bob – somewhat surprisingly – doesn’t seem to realize that Joan knows it. I read his proposal as though he expected Joan to be overjoyed, and that he is somewhat shocked when she responds to his proposal with a mixture of surprise and pity, telling him, “Bob, you shouldn’t be with a woman.” It’s quintessential Joan: rather than asking “Aren’t you gay?” instead, she takes into consideration the possibility that Bob is being dishonest with himself (rather than with her) and phrases her rejection of him so that if he is truly in self-denial, he might consider the truth of what she’s telling him. As always, Joan is much too smart for any of the men on this show.

Bob presses on, however, trying to convince Joan of the benefits of being his beard, but he goes too far when he questions her chances of finding a man who actually loves her. In trying to sell her on marrying him, he winds up disparaging Joan’s life by implying that he is her last, best chance at happiness, even though a marriage to him could only ever involve a platonic sort of love. Even though he doesn’t mean it to be, it’s incredibly insulting. Luckily (or unluckily) for Joan, she has had far too much experience with disappointing men to be willing to add another to the list, and she is adamant in her rejection: “I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement. And you should too.” I’m glad Joan has become so self-assured in what she wants out of life (likely aided in no small part by her move into accounts at SC&P), but it’s too bad Bob had to sacrifice their friendship in order for it to be revealed to us.

Other thoughts:

- I was slightly confused by Peggy’s description of the first Burger Chef ad – the father is already at the restaurant buying dinner when the mom pulls up? I suppose that’s the “father’s permission” angle Lou was pushing for.

- Add one more slight in the list of indignities Don has made Megan suffer: Marcia, one of the secretaries prominently located near the entrance to SC&P, apologizes for not showing Megan inside, as she not only did not know who Megan was, but didn’t even know that Don was married. The exchange was very similar to last week, when Stephanie did not know that Megan is an actress.

- Stan greets Megan with a hug and a kiss. Peggy: “Megan’s here for a visit.” Stan: “Yeah, thanks for the subtitles.” Long live Stan the jester!

- I greatly enjoyed nanny Verna’s awkward reactions to Pete’s presence, and to Tammy reacting to Pete as though he were a stranger. Nothing like father needing to tell his daughter who he is.

- Bonnie, talking to Pete about their relationship: “I don’t know where this is going, but I don’t want it to fail on account of delay.” Not to worry, Bonnie; if it fails, it will be because of Pete’s chauvinism, hypocrisy, and perpetual adolescence.

- I loved Trudy’s initial reaction to seeing Pete in her home: she gives an exasperated sigh that manages to mix both surprise and disappointment. Alison Brie is good. Also nice: “You’ve seen your daughter for the year. Don’t you have a plane to catch?” Zing!

- Joan’s mom, Gail, explains to Bob why he couldn’t find a gift for Joan in midtown: “The Jews close everything on Saturday.” Casual antisemitism: always brightens the day!

- I loved Don’s reaction to Peggy when she says that he always hits the tag like he just thought of it. He asks, “Do I do that?"

- Lots of funny lines in this episode. Peggy to Don after he shows up at the office on Sunday: “Did you park your white horse outside?”

- Ugh, the partners voted Harry in as a partner. Jim continues to marshal forces in his favor. Even Don votes for Harry, no doubt because Harry told him about Philip Morris.

- Just look at Peggy's face when Don defends her vision to Pete! Everything in this episode between Don and Peggy gives me the warm and fuzzies.

- I suppose there wasn’t a good way around it, given the timeline of the episode, but I would have much preferred for the episode to have ended with the image of Peggy and Don slow dancing, rather than returning to the office for the business about SC&P losing Chevy. Although I suppose Pete, Peggy, and Don eating at Burger Chef is not a bad ending either, especially considering Peggy’s new strategy for the campaign.

- Only one more episode to go before we lose Mad Men again for a year. Boo on AMC for such terrible scheduling.

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