“It’s nice to see family happiness again.”
You said it, Lou. How strange that it’s Lou Avery, of all people -- the creator of "Scout's honor" and the equivalent of King Joffrey in a mohair sweater -- who perfectly sums up my feelings for Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men,” a satisfying and quietly uplifting hour that finds the series’ central characters contemplating and redefining the very notion of family.
Though it comes slightly less than halfway through the final final season, in an alternate dimension “The Strategy” could have also been a fitting series finale. Just imagine if that slow zoom-out of Don, Peggy and Pete dining together at Burger Chef had been the very last images we ever saw on “Mad Men.” It wouldn’t be such a bad way to go, would it?
And while it isn't the series coda, what “The Strategy” does is obliterate the artificial distinction between home and office that’s always defined “Mad Men,” a line that’s grown increasingly blurry since the days when the narrative shifted between the poles of Ossining and Sterling Cooper.
The episode’s subtly hopeful conclusion is all the more surprising because it’s unexpected. Initially -- and right up until that sweet slow dance -- it appears as if like Peggy and Don are headed for an ugly collision. Peggy has come up with a swell pitch for Burger Chef, one tailored to overwhelmed housewives who feel guilty for feeding their families fast food. The only problem is, Pete thinks Don should present the idea. He can provide “authority,” while Peggy will provide “emotion.” t’s a request that’s not only sexist, it’s also logically suspect: Yes, Peggy is a woman, but she’s neither a mother nor a wife and certainly not an “expert witness.”
Understandably frustrated, Peggy decides to make it seem as if it’s her idea to have Don pitch. It’s a deviously clever move that backfires when Don casually tosses out another idea -- to reframe the ad from the perspective of the child. Peggy quickly concludes that it’s not right for the campaign, and yet she can’t shake the feeling that Don has undermined, and perhaps even sabotaged, her seemingly perfect idea.
Don, it must be said, responds to Peggy’s mounting paranoia with saint-like patience, patiently guiding her through a brainstorming session turned confessional that not only yields a better idea for Burger Chef, but also leads to the most lovely moment these characters have shared since “The Suitcase.” Over a tumbler of booze, Peggy imagines the many reasons a frazzled mom might find comfort at Burger Chef: “She burned the roast, she dented the fender, she backed over the dog, little Katie’s pregnant, Jimmy got drafted but there’s still burgers and fries on the table.”
Peggy is speaking off the cuff, but her impromptu speech gets to the heart of the broader social changes underway -- not just the war, but the rapidly shifting relations between the sexes. The episode’s pop cultural references -- to the nudity-filled off-Broadway show “Oh! Calcutta” and the sexually explicit Swedish film “I am Curious Yellow” -- help drive this point home. It turns out Peggy’s having so much difficulty with Burger Chef because she’s pitching to a phantom customer -- the idyllic, 1950s family with two perfect children.
“Are there people that eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?” she asks Don in disbelief. (Note how Peggy’s reaction to this outdated ideal mirrors the audience’s response to “Mad Men”; she seems amused by how quaint and outdated it all seems.) This leads Peggy to reveal that -- gasp! -- she’s just turned 30 and is now, much to her own horror, one of those women who lies about her age. Having reached this milestone only emphasizes the bitter irony of Peggy’s lead role in the Burger Chef campaign: She’s single with no children, and yet is expected to understand and speak for housewives everywhere by virtue of her sex.
We know Don’s life is similarly in disarray, with his job very much in limbo and Megan very clearly plotting some kind of marital escape (“I was just looking for my fondue pot” is the new “I’m going out to buy a pack of cigarettes and a newspaper.”) So when Peggy finally settles on a new concept for Burger Chef -- “What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV and you could break bread and whoever you were sitting with was family?” -- it feels like not just a slogan but a validation of her improvised workplace family.
So too does “My Way,” which comes on the radio just as Peggy has her breakthrough moment -- surely not a coincidence, according to Don. To celebrate the triumph, he invites her to dance, and they sway back and forth to the sounds of Frank Sinatra. The scene is a callback to other pivotal Don-Peggy moments throughout the years -- most obviously to “The Suitcase,” but also to the tearful hand kiss in “The Other Woman,” the hospital flashback in “The New Girl” and even to the series pilot.
Some will look at Peggy and Don’s dance and see it as a clear sign of romance to come; others, like me, will view it more like a father-daughter waltz at a wedding. Whatever happens in the show’s remaining eight episodes, neither interpretation is wrong. Don and Peggy’s relationship has always defied easy categorization, and it always will -- intimate without being sexual, they are confidantes as well as adversaries, dear friends who know each other on very limited terms. To paraphrase Pete Campbell, theirs is a very vaguely defined sort of family.
Ant it’s a family that includes Pete, the awkward little brother who always has ketchup smeared on his face. The bitter East Coast Pete Campbell we all love to hate is back in full force this week. On a trip to Cos Cob, Pete drunkenly castigates Trudy for her supposedly immoral behavior. Of course, this is wildly hypocritical coming from a chronic philanderer who’s still married yet feels free to join the Mile High Club with his new girlfriend.
But Pete can be forgiven somewhat, if only because he longs for family -- something that eluded him even when his parents were alive and that, whether he knows it or not, he has in Don and Peggy. The episode’s parting shot is not only reminiscent of the infamous final scene of “The Sopranos” -- an unconventional family breaks bread together -- but also of “Far Away Places,” the Season 5 episode where Don tried (and failed spectacularly) to convert Megan to the wonders of orange sherbet at an upstate Howard Johnson’s. Only in this case, instead of trying to force someone he loves to share in his taste, Don is seated with two people with whom he has forged an unlikely bond -- the guy who discovered the truth about his identity all those years ago, and the co-worker with whom that guy fathered a secret lovechild. Just one big happy family, right? It would all be a little saccharine, if it weren't so warped.
“The Strategy” also marks the long-overdue return of Bob Benson, who’s been away all season long in Detroit filming “The Crazy Ones” -- um, I mean, working on the Chevy account. Until now, Bob’s sexuality had just another wrinkle in his enigmatic personality -- though it was strongly implied he was gay, it also seemed possible Bob was just strangely fixated with Pete. (Really, anything seemed possible with Bob Benson.)
Now we know for sure. Bob isn’t even vaguely shocked to receive a late-night call from the police station, where Chevy executive Bill Hartley has been detained after propositioning an undercover cop, indicating both men have long since been aware of their shared sexual orientation. During the cab ride home, Bob seems mildly irritated by Bill’s recklessness, but eventually concedes that living in New York, a city rife with temptation, was “hard.”
Not coincidentally, “The Strategy” takes place in June 1969, the very same month the Stonewall Riots helped kickstart the gay rights movement. Bill’s arrest -- and even Roger’s sarcastic quip about unwanted advances in the steam room at the New York Athletic Club -- function as nods to that historic milestone and to thriving, yet marginalized, gay subculture of the city in the late ‘60s.
Of course, this is “Mad Men,” and dating back to the days of Sal Romano (last seen making a phone call to his wife from a cruising spot in Central Park circa late 1963) the show is interested in one very particular breed of gay man -- the “Far From Heaven” archetype of married, closeted businessmen who confine their sexuality to random elicit encounters. Men who, like Don Draper, use a veneer of professional success and cultivated masculinity to mask their true identities.
And it’s a group Bob seems determined to join by proposing to Joan. For a second there, I worried she might say yes -- savvy as she is, Joan has been known to make disastrous decisions in her personal life. But if anyone on “Mad Men” is going to have highly attuned gaydar, it's Joan, and she firmly but tactfully declines Bob’s marriage proposal because, as she puts it, he “shouldn’t be with a woman.”
Bob doesn’t deny the allegation -- for all we know, which is very little, these two have already discussed his sexuality -- but instead pitches for a marriage of convenience. A wife and son would make him the type of executive GM expects, and also conveniently save Joan from the humiliation of being a single mother pushing 40. They would be each other’s comfort in an uncertain world, Bob says, making the depressing arrangement sound almost romantic. But our Joanie isn’t buying it. “ I want love,” she says, “And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement. And you should too.” Amen, sister. A vague definition of family is one thing; a fraud is another.