Mad Men - The Strategy

TV Review – Mad Men episode 706: The Strategy

Warning! This piece contains spoilers.

Mad Men“It’s about family.”

Peggy tells this to Pete as she has dinner with him and Don at Burger Chef. She’s referring to their strategy for winning the fast food chain’s business, but she might as well be referring to the three of them. They are all sad and lonely, having failed at love. After ten years of working together, they come to realize, if only subconsciously, that they can rely on one another more than they can their respective families.

The episode is titled “The Strategy,” and while there was plenty of strategizing going on, it could just as easily been called “The Family” for how central the idea of family, both literal and metaphorical, played into the strategizing of the episode’s main players.

It’s nice to see family happiness again.

Since his bottoming out experience with Bert and Freddy, Don has humbly returned to work, determined to work himself back into the good graces of the colleagues he let down. The funny thing is, no one seems to care very much. The agency continues to bill more-and-more, and with the installation of the IBM 360, the agency seems poised to take on the top-tier agencies, like McCann Erickson.

Perhaps this has been a good thing because it’s allowed Don to simply “do the work” without the added pressure of making winning pitches. In the process, Don seems to have recaptured his joy for the business.

Don is plucked from the sidelines when Pete rolls into New York, girlfriend in tow, to finalize the Burger Chef strategy. After running into Don at the office, Pete invites Don to sit in on the dry run with Lou and Peggy. Surprised at the rare opportunity to participate in high-level decisions, even if only a spectator, Don agrees.

The look on Lou and Peggy’s face when Don follows Pete into the conference room is priceless. When Pete says he wants Don’s take, Don shrugs as if to say, “Blame him. It wasn’t my idea.” Lou shrugs off the annoyance, and Peggy goes into her nervous, jerky head-nod routine.

Peggy nails the pitch. Lou smiles for once and says, “It’s nice to see family happiness again.” Pete smiles, then turns to Don and asks what he thinks. Don, who has smoked and looked at Peggy with a pained expression the entire pitch, spits out some supportive platitudes that confirms what everyone else has said. He goes with the flow.

Later, when Lou and Pete call Peggy into Lou’s office, Pete throws her a curve ball by insisting that Don give the presentation. Regardless of their history, Pete knows what a pro Don is, and wants to give himself every opportunity to win this business and prove to home office that he is still valuable to the agency.

Peggy pushes back until she realizes Ted is on the speaker phone. Sensing she’s beat, she agrees with Pete and informs Don of the decision, which she makes her decision. This pleases Don, who, once Peggy leaves him alone, punches his fist like a young kid notching his first victory. He feels like it’s working, that he’s climbing back to the top of the mountain he created.

As happy as Don is, Peggy is just as displeased. She’s also climbing the same mountain, and wants to be king of the mountain as much as Don. She’s also nursing her grudge against Don for all the shitty things he did to her once her affair with Ted went public. She goes out of her way to childishly let Don know his ideas are bad and that she’s the boss now. Don, to his credit, endures the insults without a word of complaint.

The catalyst to the episode comes when Peggy has told Don that he’ll be making the presentation. As she leaves his office, he offhandedly tells her he’s been noodling around with the strategy and sees another way they might make a stronger pitch. This sends Peggy up into her head and out of her mind, furious at Don for “undermining” her with his better idea. This drives her back to the office, where she works all weekend to come up with a better idea. The problem is, she hasn’t got one. No matter how hard she tries, Peggy Olson can’t seem to crawl out from under the shadow of her mentor. And it’s driving her insane.

After a fruitless Saturday, where Peggy gets nowhere working alone and calls Don to remind him his idea sucked, Don shows up on Sunday to try and help come up with a better plan. This leads to the best Don/Peggy moment the show has given us since “The Suitcase.”

Don finds Peggy in Lou’s office, working and drinking. Like a petulant child, she lashes out at Don in a self-pitying way before angrily demanding he show her how he thinks. She wants him to save her, but at the same time, she wants him to show her once again how it’s done. She’s drowning in self-doubt and loneliness, and she admits in the worst way possible that she needs Don.

Don, once again in gracious New-Don mode, takes her through the process, outlining the pros and cons of the existing plan. Together, they agree the cons outweigh the pros. Finally, Don says, “Whenever I’m really unsure of an idea, I abuse the people whose help I need, and then I take a nap.” Having done just that on Friday with Stan, Peggy smiles and says, “Done.” And with that, the polar ice cap that has been Peggy’s resentment of Don begins to melt.

Later, after many drinks, they have gotten no closer to uncovering THE idea. As they brainstorm, their ideas trigger references to real life and they open up about how poorly their private lives are going.

When Peggy paints a picture of the nuclear family from the 1950’s, one where there are “people who eat dinner and smile at each other, instead of watching TV.” She asks Don if his family ever did that, and all he can say is that he doesn’t remember. Wow.

She confesses that she recently turned thirty, and that she’s tried to keep it a secret from the office. She worries she’s turned into one of those women who lie about their age.

When Don tells her he worries about a lot of things, but not about her, she asks him what he has to worry about. New-Don, having just admitted to being a worry wart, confesses he worries about not having done anything substantive with his life, and that he has no one to share his life with. Aside from that night together in “The Suitcase,” when Don celebrated Peggy’s birthday by working her very late, taking her to a Greek diner, vomiting, getting nearly beaten to death by Duck Phillips before passing out on Peggy’s lap…then receiving the phone call that Anna Draper had died as Peggy watched, this is the only time Peggy has really seen Don so naked and honest. And what’s better, he pays attention to her in a way he maybe never has before. She confesses that seeing all those moms in station wagons, while she did field research for Burger Chef, made her wonder where she’d gone wrong in her life.

At this, Peggy begins to cry. Don fishes out his handkerchief and hands it to her. Then Peggy has her first real Don Moment. “What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV?” she asks. It could have been Don posing the question. “And you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family.” After a beat, Peggy realizes what she’s done and tells Don that’s it. That’s the strategy. Family.

Mad MenMy Way” plays in the background. Don notices and stands. He reaches out and asks her to dance. Together, they dance in Lou Avery’s office. Neither says a word. Don smiles a fatherly smile. After a moment, Peggy rests her head on Don’s chest. Don’s smile turns to something deeper as he seems find a lost connection with Peggy. It’s as if they’ve each come home, dancing there in Don’s old office no longer as frienemies, but as colleagues…or is it more?

Forums will certainly be afire with speculation over what Don and Peggy’s dance means, and more specifically, what Don’s expression meant. My first thought was to remember how happy Don was when Megan worked alongside him, an equal at work and at home. The kind of family Don seems to crave, where life isn’t compartmentalized, but is seamless. Perhaps Don’s sabotaging of Peggy’s and Ted’s relationship was out of a jealousy he didn’t realize the meaning of until that dance.

Or maybe Don was glad to have his most trusted ally back.

Either way, it was a beautifully played moment that seems to herald yet another plateau in Don’s evolution. And with storm clouds gathering, it looks like Don will need all the allies he can get.

I thought you just needed summer clothes?

The one thing New-Don doesn’t seem to be able to fix is Old-Don’s marriage.

Megan surprises Don at the office when she makes a rare trip back east to retrieve her summer clothes. Though they say all the right words, it’s painfully obvious these two are about to go their separate ways.

As open as Don is with Peggy, he doesn’t seem to have told Megan much about his new working arrangements. When Megan and Peggy catch up at the office, Megan predicts that Peggy will someday make it to Don’s office. At this point, Peggy is still chapped at Don, and this remark is like salt in the wound.

Mad MenThe following morning, a Saturday, Don wakes up alone in bed. Alarmed, he sits up to see Megan out on the patio, setting the table for breakfast dressed in sexy lingerie. He rests on his elbow and takes in the scene. We have no idea what he’s thinking, but after his dance with Peggy, I can’t help but think that he was fantasizing about a life that could have been but never will be. There is sincere affection in Don’s gaze, and when he slips up behind her, he offers to take her shopping after they eat – nothing we’ve ever seen Don do before.

The marital bliss is short lived, however.

On Sunday, Don finds the apartment torn apart by Megan, who is looking for a fondue pot. When Don reminds her she was only coming back for her summer clothes, Megan tells him she misses her things. When she wonders whether she can check all the stuff on her flight back to L.A., Don offers to bring them with him on his next visit. When Megan asks exactly when that will be, alarm bells rang out. Methinks she’s having an affair.

Mad MenOn their bed, Don finds an old copy of the New York Times. It’s the November 23, 1963 edition – the day after JFK’s assassination. The paper calls back to season three of Mad Men and “The Grown Ups,” when Betty told Don she doesn’t love him anymore. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, as “The Grown Ups” also had family issues at the center of its plot involving Don, Pete, Peggy and Roger. Mad Men often takes on the form of a novel the way Matthew Weiner and his writers layer in echoes and references like this that build on the present episode by pulling in events from years past – just as in real life.

In “The Grown Ups,” Don was on the verge of two big watershed moments – his divorce and the genesis of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the agency he birthed. This seems to be a foreshadowing not only of Megan asking for a divorce, but of another career watershed for Don that could be the cliffhanger of the mid-season finale.

You are not part of this family anymore.

Pete, who has been mostly MIA this season gets tossed into the deep end of the pool this week, with love interests from the past and present causing him grief.

First, there’s Bonnie, Pete’s California girl who strikes me as some Okie-grifter with her rough edges and obsession with deal-making and money. She’s a female version of Bob Benson. It’s too bad we’re meeting her this late in the show’s run. I’d love to see a story about her.

On the flight to New York, when Pete informs Bonnie she’s not invited out to see his daughter Tammy, Bonnie tells Pete she wants their relationship to work, but would hate for it to fail because of needless delays. She softens the threat by initiating Pete into the Mile High Club, to remind him of what he’ll be missing when he’s with the soon-to-be-ex-wife.

Mad MenRelationship-wise, things go downhill from there for Pete. When he arrives in Cos Cob, Pete is surprised to see Verna, a housekeeper/nanny, waiting for him with Tammy instead of Trudy, who has gone to the hairdresser. To make things worse, Tammy is afraid of Pete, a near stranger to her at this point. Pete rolls with the punches and has Verna help him get her in his car.

Later, when he returns home with Tammy, it’s Verna who waits to give Tammy a bath and tuck her in. When Pete asks about Trudy, Verna tells him she’s out. Pete instructs Verna to bathe Tammy, but let him tuck her in. After that, he waits for Trudy, helping himself to the beer in her refrigerator.

Pete seems to have this fantasy that Trudy still loves him and wants to get back together. He also seems to have a fantasy that HE still loves Trudy and wants to get back together with her. The delay in their divorce is not explained, but I get the sense that it’s more him than her, and this was just before the no-fault divorce was invented.

After an ugly reunion with Trudy, where Pete has the nerve to accuse her of being immoral by possibly dating another man, then accuses her of merely trying to make him jealous with this date of hers. Unable to take anymore of Pete’s nonsense, Trudy drops the hammer on Pete, telling him, “Your not part of this family anymore.”

With that, Pete smashes his beer bottle through the middle of a cake on the table, buttons his plaid sports jacket then bids Trudy goodnight.

What did he really expect? Like Don, Pete is at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is all but officially over. His career has stalled. His California girl, sick of being ignored on the trip, returns home early…on the same flight as Don’s soon-to-be-ex.

Pete is ripe for a big move. As horrible as he may be as a husband and friend, he’s good at his job, even though Jim Cutler doesn’t seem to have much use for him out in California. And unbeknownst to Pete, his nemesis Bob Benson is about to be a jump ball for the gang at SC&P, once the move to Buick is made official.

You shouldn’t be with a woman.

Joan and her family take center stage in episode 706, when Bob Benson shows up complicate things.

Bob, the darling of the XP gang at Chevy, arrives at the office on Friday morning with two Chevy executives in tow, looking for action. As he introduces them to the office, Bob makes a date with Joan to see her family.

That night, Bob is awakened in the middle of the night to come and pickup Bill Hartley, one of the executives, who has been arrested for trying to “felate an undercover cop.” Hartley’s face has been severely beaten, and we’re left to believe this has come at the hands of the arresting officers. The precinct officer, all insults and judging, says “Goodnight ladies” as the two leave the precinct.

On the cab ride home, Hartley explains that he and his wife have an arranged marriage and that in Detroit he knows how to conduct his alternative life discretely. He knows Bob will keep this matter a secret, and the two speak of their homosexuality with a familiarity that tells us its come up before.

During this ride, Bob also learns some startling news – that the XP is being moved in-house and that he will be offered a job at Buick. At any moment. Hartley tells him that Chevy loves him and that SC&P had a great audition. Good things are in store for both parties.

Mad MenAfter spending a day with Joan and her mom and son, where presents were showered on all but Joan, Bob gets Joan all to himself late at night. He explains the reason for not having a gift for Joan by presenting her with an engagement ring and a proposal for marriage. When Joan stalls, Bob presses the matter with words and a kiss, which Joan rebuffs by telling him, “You shouldn’t be with a woman.”

Bob pulls back, regroups then tells her he’s been with them in the past. He confides that he’s been offered the Buick job and that SC&P is about to momentarily lose Chevy. This sends Joan into a tailspin.

He goes on to argue that compared with her current conditions – nearing forty, husbandless, and living in a two bedroom cramped apartment with her mother and son – he is offering her more than anyone ever will. Joan’s response to this assessment, which sounded like a sentence, is visceral as she tells Bob that she would rather die alone hoping for true love than to settle for an arrangement. She tells him he should want the same for himself, but based on the life Bob has built for himself, her words fell on deaf ears.

The last we see of him, Bob receives Joan’s rejection without argument and slips off into the night…and out of her life.

Or does he? We don’t know what his role will be at Buick. If he has any influence on how Buick’s ad dollars are spent, it could be a feeding frenzy at SC&P as Pete and Joan fight for position, with both having dirt on Bob Benson.

When we grow up, we’re going to kill you and marry your wife.

We catch up with Roger in the steam room, where Jim Hobart, from McCann Erickson, chats him up about the current state of affairs.

Mad MenHobart condescendingly congratulates Roger on his “little car” – “It’s not Buick, but it’s cute” – and his fast food account. “It’s not McDonalds. It’s run by morons.” Roger trades insults with him until Hobart tells him that SC&P wants to grow up to be McCann Erickson. Roger, who always gets the best lines, fires back. “When we grow up, we’re going to kill you and marry your wife.”

That’s one way to get a family.

Hobart gets to what he wants to know by bringing up Philip Morris and how SC&P expects to win the account with Don Draper “haunting your halls.” Roger gets serious and laments that Hobart is lucky not to have Roger’s problems. When Hobart asks what if he wanted to have Roger’s problems, Sterling mistakes the comment for a hint that Hobart is looking for a job. Hobart side steps the comment and tells Roger he simply wants to enrich the lives of those he respects. Roger, unsure of what exactly is going on, cracks a parting joke, then leaves.

Hobart was referring to Don, of course, though Roger has no knowledge of the lunch encounter Don had with Hobart while meeting with Dave Wooster from Wells Rich Greene. Remember that Hobart, like the devil himself, tried to lure Don with promises of riches. Don has turned down the easy money before, but we haven’t heard the last of McCann Erickson.

From there, Roger slides into a funk that is underscored by his greeting to Cutler a little later when Cutler catches him and says, “Ah, good. You’re still here.” “That’s your opinion,” Roger says. Cutler informs Roger he’s just played a round of golf with an executive from Philip Morris and his name was brought up. Cutler hopes that Roger will help him secure the account. Roger goes from cool to cold when he tells Cutler, “Your secret plan to win the war?” Cutler, unfazed by Roger’s response, pats him on the shoulder and tells him needs to stop thinking about Don and start thinking about the agency. Roger looks at Cutler’s hand as if it held a dog turd.

From that exchange it seems that Roger knows of some underhanded plan Cutler is concocting to force Don to follow-through with his offer to resign his position if Philip Morris is signed. What’s more, Roger has said nothing to Don about this. Why? Does he fear an emotional response from Don? It doesn’t seem likely he fears for himself. The only thing Roger fears is death.

The bottom line here is that Roger has consistently proven himself to be, despite his charm, an unprincipled man. Over the years he’s sold out his family, his friends and his company, and it looks like he’s at it again until Joan’s bombshell gives him a flash of insight about Hobart’s mission in the steam room.

When Jim calls a partner’s meeting to formally announce that the XP is gone, he indicates that it was Joan who shared the news. This shocks Roger, who feels that Joan is beholden to him and should relate any and all secrets to him before anyone else. After the meeting, when she fills him in on Bob’s story, Roger thinks he knows what’s really going on. But does he? How could Hobart know about Bob Benson? Next week’s episode is titled “Waterloo.” Look for Roger to be one of the Napoleons.

Every table here is the family table.

“The Strategy” closes with a set-piece nearly as powerful as the scene with Don and Peggy dancing.

Pete sits in a booth at Burger Chef, alone. Don joins him and lights a cigarette. Pete is despondent, but not about the account. Once again, he’s all alone and feeling sorry for himself. He whines about not having a strategy, and Don shushes him and says to give Peggy a chance.

When Peggy arrives, she sits with Don and tells Pete she wants to shoot the spot in the restaurant. Pete says it’s not a home, but Peggy says it’s better. It’s a clean, well-lighted place. “It’s about family,” she says. “Every table here is the family table.”

Mad MenWhen Pete argues against the idea, he appeals to Don to talk sense to Peggy. Don paraphrases the song “My Way” by telling Pete, “She’s doing it the way she wants to do it. You want it right, or not?”  At hearing this, we see Peggy swell with pride and happiness at having been defended by Don Draper, the only man in her life whose opinion really matters. Pete considers the pushback from Don and Peggy, and accepts it because he can trust it.

Music plays, and the camera pulls back to take in the rest of the restaurant.  As it does, Pete gets ketchup on his face, and Don slyly signals it to Pete, much the way a dad might to his son.  Pete smiles and accepts a napkin from Peggy and wipes the mess from his face.  The camera continues to pull back to reveal that this trio is just one of many families happily sharing a meal together.

And there you have it. This defacto family gets together over their family table and works through their family business. An odd triangle if there ever was one, with Don as the father figure and Pete and Peggy as his kids. But wait. Peggy and Pete have had a child. And what’s going on with Don and Peggy? Are they more like Mom and Dad? At any rate, these three trust and respect one another, no matter their history and personal failings. And maybe they’ve all come to the realization that moving forward, treating each as a valued family member is the best strategy for surviving the new world order that Jim Cutler is hell bent on ushering in, where Harry Crane gets to be a partner.

4 thoughts on “TV Review – Mad Men episode 706: The Strategy”

  1. Fascinating. I don’t watch the show any longer, but the reviews are certainly thoughtful and authentic. Keep it up.

    1. Thanks, Anita. Glad you’re able to make it to the end of these gassy posts. Why don’t you watch the show anymore?

  2. I love how this episode drew on six seasons of emotional investment. A testament to the art form, Matthew Weiner’s patience and vision, and the commitment and execution of everyone involved (cast, writers, etc.). It was a privilege to experience it.

    Also, Elisabeth Moss has to win an Emmy for this episode. The body language and facial expressions were near perfect.

  3. I agree, David. These past two episodes have been chock full of echoes of past seasons, and I’ve been running back to these episodes to find a scene or a moment, and usually end up watching the entire episode.

    The season got off to its customary slow start, with the setting-up of the chess pieces, but boy has it been paying off!

    Cant wait for the mid-season finale.

    Thanks for the observation.

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