May 18, 2014 10:23pm PT by Tim Goodman
'Mad Men' Deconstruction: Ep. 6: 'The Strategy'
Let's get this out front right away: Don't read too much into next week's midseason finale of Mad Men. We're only halfway home -- no real conclusions can be reached yet. And if that's true, then it's especially true of Sunday's penultimate episode, "The Strategy."
There were some story-arc movements but nothing that will be as definitively change-inducing as those in the last half of the last seven episodes.
"The Strategy" did have its moments of real worth -- none more than the reconciliation of Don and Peggy, which couldn't have come a moment too soon (and maybe came too late for some people) since Peggy has never been more off-putting and unlikable than she has this season.
You could argue that Peggy being so annoying was systematic of her character going so far astray of what we expect from her. I disagree with the argument that Peggy, as a career-oriented woman viewers have mainly cheered on in the past, is somehow diminished or unbelievable for wanting love in her life, and that Mad Men went off course with her in that regard. A woman wanting to be loved and to be a part of a relationship doesn't immediately translate into some kind of "Peggy needs a man to be happy" slant on the part of creator Matthew Weiner. Give the man (and his writers) a little more credit. Wanting and needing are different. And Peggy not wanting to be loved or in a relationship would itself be an unbelievable portrait.
However, I would have much preferred a more nuanced look at Peggy's loneliness and how it reflects on her choices and how she may act out. To make her relentlessly shrewish and desperate seemed both unnecessary and unfortunate.
At least in "The Strategy" the payoff was worth the wait -- in no small part because it also involved the transformational fates of Don and Pete as well while allowing Peggy to, indeed, brilliantly define the strategy of Burger Chef. Every table is a family table, Peggy noted about the restaurant. And prior to that, when she mocked the notion of an ad -- a family in a convertible with a father smoking a pipe that would conjure dated memories of 1955 -- Peggy asked out loud, "Does this family even exist anymore?"
It doesn't. And one of the points in "The Strategy" was to hammer home that particular change happening in the country in 1969. Peggy just turned 30 and has, by choice, skipped the older-era idea of being a mom and living the station-wagon lifestyle. Don is on his second marriage and realized earlier in the episode that this one is also over -- it has run its course, and Megan is off to California again to continue a career Don didn't want her to have in a state he has no interest in living in. Pete has lost Bonnie to California as well, choosing instead to get jealous about where Trudy was the night he had his rare daughter visit, proving in one glorious scene that he's a lousy father, was a bad husband and is still a clueless guy playing single out in California. He's a terrible catch.
But all three of them at that table at Burger Chef? Hell, that's the ad right there. That's Peggy's strategy come to life. And it's a great one, which Don reaffirmed to Peggy so long as she believed that it was right -- validation not from a man but from her mentor, a person she jealously hated and tried to pin under her thumb to prove her worth and power when the whole charade only made her miserable. Having Don on her side, as a friend, is what Peggy was blind to needing.
As the camera pulled back in that final shot of "The Strategy," Don discreetly but with a smile points out to Pete that he's got ketchup on his face, while Peggy laughs inaudibly and hands him a napkin. All three get along famously despite everyone being alone (because they're together, at the new family table). In an episode where some points were more obvious than they needed to be, I liked that scene quite a bit for pulling so many strands from the hour together at the last minute.
"The Strategy" also did a fine job of talking about changing times, especially among the sexes, while heeding to the overall theme of how difficult it is to recognize change even when you're experiencing it. And by that I mean, at least in part, that men used the word "shopping" numerous times in this episode. It was almost always conveyed to women in ways that held little interest to them but had the males believing it would solve or obviate a problem.
Bonnie doesn't want to live a life where Pete takes care of her and allows her to shop all the time. That might have been what Trudy wanted, but Bonnie had supposedly already made it clear to Pete in a previous episode, that she enjoyed her work. So, too, does Megan. She wants to act. Don wishes it was all a dream, that Megan really didn't go to California, and she should admit she missed "this" -- her being a wife on a balcony where Don can look at her lovingly because it completes that part of him that he believes he needs (which he clearly doesn't).
Bob goes shopping for a ring for Joan because, well, that was always part of his con. Now that he's got a chance to work for GM, they expect a certain kind of executive. And that executive is not gay.
Poor Peggy had to suffer through Pete trying to reshape her plan for selling the Burger Chef ad by not only taking it out of her hands and putting it in Don's, but making her play a role in the presentation that she's not interested in living. "Don will give authority; you will give emotion." Worse, he tells her that she will be the mother -- she did so great at it in the run-through presentation -- forgetting that the both of them have already had a child together and Peggy didn't take too well to the mothering thing back then. It's not her dream. When she just flat out gives in, Pete bursts out with: "You know that she's every bit as good as any woman in this business!"
That anvil aside, the episode did coalesce many of the above-mentioned elements rather nicely. And that's because while it was making one point, it was making others simultaneously, as all well-written series do. Peggy, who long-believed that Don was getting too much credit for what were often her ideas, can't completely see that Lou is the one who should feel her wrath, not Don. She misses that Don has changed, that he's checked his ego and put in the work (as Freddie Rumsen told him to do). He's now trying to help her, not undermine her. If she's unsure of herself and her ideas, that's not Don's fault -- "that's the job." Peggy: "What's the job?" Don: "Living in the not knowing." It's just the kind of mentoring she's been missing -- the kind of feedback that a friend gives.
Ultimately you have to do it your way, Don says (and yes, the Sinatra stuff was another anvil, but at least it brought Don and Peggy back together as friends). And I would wager that Don's puzzled look as he was analyzing her deep hug and Peggy putting her head on his chest had more to do with realizing she needed an ally not an enemy and she was relieved to have one. I seriously doubt that the scene was some twist that will put those two together. I pray that doesn't happen.
For Don, he seemed to realize (as did Megan), that their marriage had run its course, as they want different things and, more specifically, don't want the lifestyle that the other prefers. I'm not convinced that Pete has really learned anything -- he's at least partially conflicted about Trudy when she's already over him. His ego in relation to her still wanting him simultaneously alienates Bonnie (at least for the time being). It only took one kiss from Bob for Joan to realize he shouldn't be dating women, and Bob's cruel assessment of her situation didn't help his master plan of having a beard to fool everybody. But it also convinced Joan to keep looking and not to settle or give up -- something almost all the characters could take to heart (and seemingly were meant to with this episode).
But again, we're only approaching the halfway point. Full conclusions are somewhere ahead (but far ahead, given the year break that's coming after next week). I still believe Weiner and his writers can get these characters to a place where their actions as we currently see them make more sense. Just as it was important for Ginsberg's ongoing weird behavior to be adequately addressed, "The Strategy" gave a long-overdue explanation for Peggy's behavior (her life being so complicatedly wound into Don's) and provided, through a truce, a drink, a dance and the realization of a stronger ad idea -- the chance for her to return to something more closely resembling the Peggy of the recent past, not the annoying incarnation from season seven.
Though I still have issues galore, I trust they will be addressed soon enough. And while next week's "finale" will probably have at least one cliff-hangerish element, the bigger story will not be rushed to a conclusion until Weiner's ready -- as it should be.