Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘The Strategy’

Senior Television Writer
05.19.14 305 Comments

AMC

A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I park my white horse outside…

“I know I am flawed, but I am offering you more than anyone else ever will.” -Bob Benson

Five years ago, after a long night at press tour, Matt Weiner and I sat down to discuss the third season premiere of “Mad Men,” “Out of Town.” It was a sprawling conversation, covering not just the episode, but past decisions about the show and even, near the end, his future hopes for it. As the series has gone on, Weiner has grown more close-mouthed about what's coming next, but this was far away from the hypothetical end of the series that he felt comfortable talking a little about what he envisioned for it:

I would like to see them get to the end of this (decade), and that was my original intention when I wrote the pilot. My idea was, “What is it going to be like for someone who is already an adult?” Let's take away all the Boomer rosy haze. This guy's an adult. Pete's in his 20s, Peggy is in her 20s. What was it like for them to sit back and watch this happen? And no matter what happens – Summer of Love, The Beatles, Woodstock, Rolling Stones – when you get to 1970, “My Way” is still in the top 10 songs. You know what I mean? That's what I'm interested in. And I would love to see where they are. I would love to see this sense of how things turned out.

As Don and Peggy worked all night on Burger Chef, and Don recognized the sound of “My Way” coming from Lou's stereo, my mind returned to that warm California night, and to that last answer Weiner offered before we said our goodbyes. And as Don invited Peggy to slow dance, in an office that was once his, and that each of them is more qualified to occupy than its current tenant, with both of them filled with so much sadness over the way they've lived their lives and the lonely, unfulfilled place it's brought them to, I realized that even as I am not ready for “Mad Men” to go away – not after one more episode airs this year, and certainly not after the remaining seven episodes air next year – if Weiner had decided that this was, in fact, the place where he was going to bring the series to an end… dayenu.

Obviously, he decided at some point over the years that he had more on his mind than “My Way,” and there is still story to tell about Don, Peggy, Joan and the rest, but that dance, to that song, was such a perfect distillation of everything that has made “Mad Men” so great for so long – even here, at this advanced age, when there are so many newer, shinier shows to consider, in the same way that Sinatra seemed terribly old-fashioned with the rise of the counter-culture. Like the long night Don and Peggy spent in that office in “The Suitcase,” it's a great breakthrough in their relationship, and one that acknowledges all the horrible things they've been through together, and the bad ways they've treated each other at times (mainly Don, but more recently Peggy), only here it finds each of them in a sadder place. They're four years older, and wiser, and more aware of the mistakes that they've made, the people they've hurt and discarded along the way, and more aware of how much further away they're getting from the people they wanted to be when this all started. Every other relationship in their lives has been terribly damaged, if not wrecked altogether, and yet here they still have each other: the pants-wetting impostor who acts the bully when things aren't working out for him, and the revolutionary woman who still can't quite get the men around her to see her as something other than a dog playing the piano. Despite the age gap, neither is a part of the counter-culture the Baby Boomers are swept up in, and if Sinatra isn't quite Peggy's music, he sure as hell is Don's. And so they dance in a way that is incredibly intimate without ever being romantic – because the two of them feeling that way for each other would make life much too easy (or else unbearably difficult) – and they reflect on how doing it their way has brought them to this point, and he is happy, and then sad, and she is the reverse, but they are together, and it is beautiful, and if the show had ended with that shot of them moving slowly together, framed in the doorway of Lou's office, I don't know that I would have ever needed to see another second of “Mad Men.”

And just as Ol' Blue Eyes and his collaborators were able to reach down deep and produce something like “My Way” – which, even if he reportedly didn't love it, would become his signature song – the “Mad Men” team (here represented out front by Semi Chellas' script and Phil Abraham's direction) can still give us an episode like “The Strategy,” which offered not one but two perfect potential end points for the series(*), was packed with humor and pathos, intrigue and beauty, not only evoking the show at its peak, but in some ways surpassing it because the emotions are all building on what's happened before. Even in the days of the long-haired, unwashed musical invaders from Britain, Sinatra could still remind everyone why he was the Chairman of the Board; even in the age of “True Detective” and “Orange Is the New Black” and all these other descendants of the revolution Weiner helped start with “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” is still capable of being “Mad Men.”  

(*) “Mad Men” is not structured like “Breaking Bad,” and I'm not expecting a moment at the end of next week's episode akin to Hank on the toilet. But I do wonder if Weiner might, like Vince Gilligan, have multiple kinds of endings in mind, which he plans to deploy at various points between now and the actual finale.  

This has been a bumpy season at times, but the show, like its self-destructive protagonist, is still capable of greatness when it follows Freddy Rumsen's advice and focuses on the work. There's a lot of personal material in “The Strategy,” but it's all beautifully intertwined with the campaign Peggy and Don are working on. Over the course of the hour, we go from field research to finished idea, and Peggy's concluding pitch speaks not only to the unconventional family she and Don and Pete represent – with all their shared history and secrets and losses (including a baby who could have turned Peggy into the harried mom trying to get home with a sackful of burgers) – but to the flimsy or illusory nature of the other families presented throughout the hour. They may not always understand or even like one another, but there's a bond between these three that runs deeper and stronger than the sham marriage Bob proposes to Joan, or the marriage Pete still has on paper with Trudy, or the one Don and Megan are constantly trying to repair.

Here, we get a sizable contingent from the show's West Coast bureau (even Ted makes an amusing cameo via speakerphone, so irrelevant that Peggy's not even aware he's part of the meeting until it's almost over), with Pete and Bonnie arriving for a week of work and family for him, shopping and tourism for her, while it's Megan's turn to act like she's comfortable on Don's side of the country.

Pete's visit to Cos Cob goes about as poorly as one might imagine. Tammy looks at him as a stranger, hiding behind a nanny she's known for maybe six months at most, while Trudy tries to avoid him at all costs and goes on a date. And Pete, sexist(**) hypocrite that he is, gets drunk and tears into Trudy for it, even as Bonnie is waiting for him back in Manhattan. Bonnie later complains, “I don't like you in New York,” and for the first time since he headed west and got tan, Pete is able to recognize that him in New York is who he is, and that perhaps this is the beginning of the end for him and his special lady friend.

(**) Note that even though Pete has learned to respect Peggy's talent, he still refers to her as “every bit as good as any woman in this business.” Lou remains the worst on this (and every other) front –  “Well, who gives moms permission? Dads!” – but plenty of men this week are trying to smash a glass ceiling over Peggy's head.

Similarly, Megan and Don are making an effort, but the amount of the effort they have to make on each trip speaks to what a lost cause this marriage is. Peggy's secretary doesn't even know Don is married, and though Megan can still be friendly with Peggy and Stan, this isn't her world anymore. Don looks at her on the balcony of his apartment and wants so desperately for it to be their apartment again. Instead, she starts rifling through the closet, looking for more parts of her life to bring out to Laurel Canyon – and fewer to leave in New York. She and Bonnie wind up on the same flight back to LA, and if she isn't as definitively separating herself from her man as Bonnie is, we've gotten very little evidence this season to think that the end won't be as near as it is for the narrator of “My Way.” 

And then there's Bob Benson, back temporarily from Detroit (while James Wolk got a brief break from his job on the since-canceled “The Crazy Ones”), and quickly embroiled in the legal difficulties of closeted Chevy exec Bill Hartley. Their cab ride back from the police station at first shows the secretive, chameleon-like Bob feeling mortified and indignant at being roped into Bill's mess, but then two pieces of information set his mental gears turning in a different direction. First, Bill tells him that he'll get a job offer from Buick after Chevy brings the advertising for the Vega in-house. Second, Bill notes that even with this latest mess, “My wife understands. Thank God.” Bob Benson, climber of ladders and faker of resumes, realizes that he will need a wife like that – and who better than the gorgeous, talented, pragmatic Joan? But Joan – who has taken to Bob precisely because she knows who he is – declines the offer. We've seen her sacrifice her body and/or her dignity for the sake of her own advancement. But sex with Herb was temporary; this would be her life, and as she's gotten older, she's gotten a better sense of what she actually wants that life to be. There would be some value to marrying Bob – a more present father figure for Kevin, a great pal to hang around with (preferably while he's in short shorts), maybe a mansion in Detroit (which was still a couple of decades away from really crumbling) – but it would be fake, and Joan's had enough of that.

In her brainstorming session with Don, Peggy questions whether the warm and happy nuclear family that Lou wants to see in commercials is even real anymore. That's skewed by her perspective as a woman who has pursued her career and left kids and potential husbands behind, but it also speaks to the very nature of what she and Don do for a living – which seems apt in an episode where she comes right out and asks Don to explain his work process to her. They take a thing that has some basis in reality and shine and polish it until it seems so much better than reality that real people will want to buy the product that brings them closer to it. That job has brought them tremendous satisfaction at times, but it's also left them feeling so empty at others. (When Peggy wonders what Don Draper, Master of the Universe could have to worry about – a question she has even as she's keenly aware of his precarious position at work and at least somewhat aware of the tenuous nature of his marriage – he tells her, “That I never did anything, and that I don't have anyone.”) But they have each other – and weirdly, they both have Pete, who gets to play the role of the son in that final scene, even as the obvious pleasure of their company is proving Peggy right for wanting to build the campaign around something more amorphous like “family” (which she can and does have) than “mom” (a role she rejected years ago).

Had “Mad Men” concluded with Peggy and Don dancing, or with the two of them and Pete at Burger Chef, it would have been enough. But the idea that Weiner may have found a better ending than the one he was toying with at the start of the series makes me very glad this isn't the end. The show doesn't hit this level every week anymore like it did in the early days, but when it's this good, I don't ever want to leave that office.

When it's this good, there is “Mad Men,” and then there is everything else. And we only have one more hour of it to enjoy this year.

Some other thoughts:

* Megan and Bonnie wind up on the same flight back to California, without their men. And while they're in New York, they demonstrate an overlapping taste in entertainment, with Megan taking Don to see the avant-garde, sexually explicit Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and Bonnie getting tickets to see the frequently-nude Off-Broadway revue “Oh! Calcutta!”

* When Megan is rifling through the closet looking for the fondue pot and other treasures to bring back California, she finds the newspaper Don saved from the day after President Kennedy was assassinated – which was the event that precipitated the end of Don's marriage to Betty.

* Given how he sat on the Lucky Strike news for a month, Roger is being just a wee bit hypocritical when he gives Joan a hard time for not telling him sooner about Chevy. That said, his wheels are already turning about Buick and about Jim from McCann's odd approach to him in the sauna. Bill from Chevy did, after all, tell Bob that GM loved the agency's work, so there could well be another car in their future.

* Joan is understandably miserable about Harry getting a partnership, given how much he's needled her about the way she acquired hers, but it's not hard to understand why Don's enthusiastic after the events of the previous episode. Harry's a smug, sexist pig, but he's also loyal. And he, like Pete, still has enough latent hero worship for Don to be of value in the war that seems to be coming between Roger and Jim Cutler.

* Once Bob was so prominent in the clips from previous episodes, I figured he'd be returning, but then briefly readjusted my expectations when James Wolk's name didn't appear in the opening credits alongside Harry Hamlin and Alison Brie's. One day, I want to get to the bottom of how this show credits guest actors, because Wolk at this point is at least at Joel Murray status in terms of importance to the show, but he gets bumped to the end.

* Stan has been to see Ginsberg in the mental ward, but Peggy has not – perhaps because it would bring up painful memories of her own time in such a place.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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