Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Season Seven, Episode Six of Mad Men, titled “The Strategy,” takes as its subject families—how they are configured; and success—how it is defined; and happiness—in what it consists; and how all these matters overlap.

Late in the episode, Don Draper articulates his basic “worry”: “That I never did anything, and that I don’t have anyone.” Here a careerist fear (“never did anything”) is distinguished from a familial fear (“don’t have anyone”). Or maybe identified with it. Or maybe juxtaposed with it confusingly on purpose. Familiarly, we think that careerism—doing something—makes it harder to have someone. Such has been Peggy Olson’s story since Season One, at least on the surface. But since the latter episodes of Season Six (if not before), Don has been floundering both as a careerist and as a family man. What is the proper relation between these two spheres? And where is happiness to be found?

With its focus on these classic Mad Men questions, Episode Six was a pure crystallization of an episode of Mad Men. Nearing its end, the series seems to be taking account: Where are we with our characters on these several interrelated points—family, work, happiness—which we set out as crucial way back in the day?

Several familial “arrangements” are reviewed in the course of the episode. We will discuss them in ascending order of interest.

Pete Campbell and his California girlfriend, Realtor Barbie (Bonnie Whiteside), are encountered in transit from L.A. to New York. In mid-flight, Pete and Bonnie are improvising an eccentric family plan: Bonnie, seeking some approximation of a wifely and maternal role, would like to accompany Pete when he visits his daughter Tammy in Cos Cob; Pete thinks this would “confuse” the child. Bonnie retorts, “She’s probably just confused that her parents aren’t actually divorced.” But we may doubt whether the toddler has been casting a gimlet eye on her parents’ slow-moving divorce proceedings. Tammy is “confused,” certainly—because her parents no longer live together. We soon learn that she now has a better rapport with her nanny of a few months’ standing than she does with her bicoastal father.

Anyway, Bonnie does not make it out to Cos Cob. When Pete gushes to Tammy, “I got you a Barbie all the way from California,” it is not Bonnie in that box. But Bonnie did pick out the doll, so she is present in spirit as well as in effigy.

Pete himself is a tad confused. Later in the episode, he will presume on his still-legally-married status when he surprises his still-legally-wife Trudy in Cos Cob, drinking and waiting up for her on her night out. When Trudy walks in, Pete accuses her of “carrying on” in a way that is not ladylike. He further proposes, “You still care about me,” and reproaches her with the fact that they are still married. Trudy is having none of this stable-family nonsense: “We’re getting a divorce. . . . You’re not part of this family anymore.” (Earlier she has said, “You’ve seen your daughter for the year. Don’t you have a plane to catch?”)

So Pete leaves Cos Cob in a huff. Later in the episode we will see him bicker with Bonnie in a hotel room, and still later we will see Bonnie fly back to L.A., grumpy and unaccompanied. Pete and Bonnie seem as over as Pete and Trudy. On both the marital and extramarital (patriarchal and Swingin’ Sixties) fronts, Pete is luckless in his arrangements.

Joan Harris and Bob Benson must be discussed together, since their family arrangements intertwine during this episode—or momentarily threaten to. Neither Joan nor Bob seeks a traditional nuclear-family arrangement—but the alternatives they do seek turn out to be vastly different, and sought in different spirits.

A quick scene near the start of the episode reminds us that Joan lives in the West Village with her mother Gail and her toddler son Kevin (secret offspring of Roger Sterling, alleged offspring of ex-husband Greg). A later sequence involving the arrest and bailing of a gay Chevy exec reminds us that Bob is a single gay male who is very good at passing. The Chevy exec marvels: In a city with “so much temptation,” and with undercover cops harassing and entrapping gay men, have you never been arrested? “Never,” answers Bob (italics in the inflection). “I am not of your stripe.”

Bob’s very essence, insofar as he has one (he is a notorious chameleon), is his ability to be discreet, to blend in. Hearing from the Chevy exec, “My wife understands, thank God,” Bob gets a brainwave. He can acquire the ultimate in gay camouflage—a formidable and glamorous beard—Joan Holloway Harris herself. So he visits Joan’s West Village apartment, where he is greeted (as “Uncle Bob”) far more joyously by toddler Kevin than Pete was by his daughter Tammy. Later, when toddler and grandmother are in bed, Bob comes out with his proposal: He and Joan should get married. They can live together in Detroit (“We’ll have a mansion!”), or Joan can remain in New York if she prefers. Either way, Kevin will have a father and Bob will earn lots of money, because the GM execs will never suspect what is the truth, that he is not their kind of man.

Bob’s arrangement would be unconventionally conventional—having the looks of a conventional nuclear family for the sake of social acceptability and certain expectations (a male breadwinner, a father in the house), without being especially conjugal. It would be deviantly conformist—with the emphasis, perhaps, on “conformist.” In a brutal moment, Bob suggests to Joan how she looks to the world: “Is this what you want? To be near forty in a two-bedroom apartment with a mother and a little boy?”

Joan is appalled. “I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens, than make some arrangement”—in her usage, a great euphemism for the loveless pseudo-family. Joan’s is one pithy enunciation of the episode’s central message: That it is “love” that makes a family, not any particular configuration (“arrangement”) of individuals occupying specified age and gender categories.

But it is Peggy’s story arc that provides the fullest exploration of family arrangements and all related themes. Peggy is heading up the SC&P campaign for fast-food chain Burger Chef, and in this role she has undertaken a deep dive into what Lou Avery, with great complacency, calls “family happiness.” Through her fieldwork in Burger Chef parking lots in multiple states, Peggy has learned that, for the moms of America, Burger Chef means failure and shame: It means that Mom has failed to get a proper dinner on the table, is picking up fast food instead, and has to worry what her husband will think. So Peggy develops a campaign strategy based on “turn[ing] Burger Chef into a special treat, served with love. . . . We need to address how to give homemakers permission.”

Peggy’s “dry-run” (“I think we’re circling a strategy”) goes well. Lou buys her strategy, as does the viewing audience. Then, fatally, Pete turns to Don and asks: “What do you think?” It is a destabilizing moment. There is no hierarchical reason for Don to be consulted here, so Pete’s question subverts the power structure that Peggy and Lou (both getting shifty-eyed at this point) guard so jealously. And Don, of course, is always a threat to blow up a meeting. He does so here, very subtly. His nominally affirmative answer—“It’s right on-strategy”—is faintest praise. (What if the strategy is lousy?) With it, he impels Peggy to second-guess her strategy—her campaign strategy, and her life strategy into the bargain.

On life strategies, recall this Betty Draper monologue from Season One: “[My mother] wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go until you’re in a box?” Is this the strategy? (Why is this the strategy?) Peggy’s is the inverse predicament, but the identical worry: Instead of inert housewife, careerist spinster. Is this the strategy?

But a late scene affirms the course she has chosen. During a wee-hours brainstorming session with Don, reflecting on her dozens of interviews with the moms of America, Peggy becomes distraught over her lack of immediate familial prospects: “What the hell do I know about being a mom? I just turned thirty. . . . Now I’m one of those women lying about her age. . . . What did I do wrong?” Don hands her a handkerchief and assures her—not that she is “right on-strategy”—but that she is “doing great.”

These congratulations precipitate a creative breakthrough. Peggy revises her campaign strategy, thus: “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 is family.” This grammatically dubious line, delivered beautifully by Elisabeth Moss, calls back to Don’s Season-One insight into the secrets of good advertising. In a successful ad, Don said then, the product becomes a source of affirmation: It becomes “reassurance that whatever you are doing is OK. You are OK.” On cue, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” begins playing in Lou’s office.

And Don and Peggy dance together in a fatherly-daughterly way. Their impromptu and probably fleeting (but still meaningful) coalescence of a family-style bond leads us to the episode’s final scene, set in a brightly lit Burger Chef franchise. Here, Peggy and Don debut the new strategy to Pete—and by “strategy” we mean both the new plan for the ad campaign and the new life strategy, the new approach to configuring personal and professional relations and expectations.

The new strategy entails losing the “mom” obsession and updating the word “family.” Quoth Peggy: “It’s about family. Every table here is the family table.” Pete needs convincing, and his objection is revealing: “I hate even the word ‘family.’ It’s vague. ‘Mom’ is more specific.” The “vagueness” of families has caused Pete some trouble lately. But Peggy is suddenly finding vagueness liberating, and with a visionary gleam about her, she does not budge from her capacious redefinition (“whoever you were sitting with”) of the word “family.” When Don intervenes paternally—“She’s doing it the way she wants to do it. Do you want it right or not?”—his paraphrase of Sinatra is a little on-the-nose (as is the cut to Peggy looking gratified). But, whatever: This episode at least knows what it’s about.

This penultimate episode of the penultimate half-season of a highly self-aware series has a recollections-in-tranquility feel—which is not unrelated, perhaps, to its before-the-storm feel. Through its recapitulations of classic thematic material, Episode Six invites us to appreciate what has been classically true in and of Mad Men. And cast-wise, note that everybody who’s anybody at SC&P was in the game here: Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Bert Cooper, Jim Cutler, Lou, Pete, Ted Chaough, Bob, Ken Cosgrove, Harry Crane, Stan Rizzo; Megan, an SCDP alumna, drops in; and even Ginsberg, offstage in the asylum, gets a name-check. What with the varying actor contracts (everyone except Jon Hamm will miss one or more episodes in the course of a season), this sort of full-court press in the office is rarely seen. Nor did anything major happen here, plot-wise, to necessitate it.

The episode functions as a roll-call—counting heads before the deluge, perhaps. I say this because next week’s half-season finale (titled, ominously, “Waterloo”) is so top-secret, evidently, that no clips could be released for the preview. We have only been teased with clips from previous episodes, played under portentous music. I take it this portends something. Developing . . .

Image from Amctv.

More on: Mad Men, Culture

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles