[This is a review for Mad Men season 7, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
Conflict, especially familial conflict, is certainly a familiar aspect of Mad Men. This is after all a series that began with its protagonist coming home to his wife and kids after spending the entire episode with another woman and with his true passion: his work. There have been plenty of other themes to come and go, and come again throughout the series' nearly six and half seasons but the idea that work comes first, perhaps because it is all these characters truly have or truly feel any passion towards, has been something of a constant.
And now with season 7 almost halfway over, Mad Men showcases not only how well it knows the emotional ins and outs of its characters, but it also demonstrates (for the second time in six episodes) how smartly the series can unwrap longstanding and often contentious relationships like the ones between Don and Peggy, or Don and Pete – and certainly Peggy and Pete – in such a way that adds yet another layer of depth to them, confirming why it is these connections are worth investing in, and mean so much to the viewer as the end approaches.
'The Strategy' is, in essence, the next step in Don and Peggy's relationship, brought forth by the magic of SC&P landing a fast food account in Burger Chef. There is a closeness and familial intimacy between the two, as Peggy spends most of the episode's first half being undermined by men like Pete and Lou, and constantly reminded that, try as she might to avoid him, Don is once more a physical presence in the office, not some memory occasionally referred to as the agency's "collective ex-wife." Some people still cling to the idea of who Don used to be. Roger certainly has, and now Pete essentially uses his partner status to wedge Don in on the Burger Chef pitch. It makes sense that it would be Pete. For one, he's been in Los Angeles and is not privy to the tension floating around the office since Don's return to work. Secondly, if anyone wouldn't care about tension being created by the presence of Don, or anyone for that matter, it's Pete.
But Pete's brief return to New York is not merely about championing Don, or even playing a role in landing a major account. It is because the episode is about the idea of family and there can't be any scene between Peggy and Pete that doesn't immediately have familial subtext written all over it.
Family is everywhere in the episode, and in true Mad Men fashion, it is mentioned either in the past tense, or with an overwhelming sense of failure. Pete spends the day in Cos Cob under the pretence of trying to reconnect with Tammy, but what he really wants to do is confront Trudy about the manner in which she's moved on, prompting her to emphatically remind him, "you're not a part of this family anymore." Meanwhile, Bob Benson returns and after discovering SC&P is losing the XP, and that he's moving on to Buick, he implements an ill-advised strategy to propose to Joan. The move is prompted by his discussion with GM exec Bill Hartley, a fellow gay man in whom Bob may have seen for himself a possible cheerless, solitary, and closeted future.
Megan even drops by Manhattan, briefly reminding Don of the things that he's missed, but writer Semi Chellas brilliantly leaves their rocky marriage virtually unmentioned, as the episode's tremendous and affecting turning point tosses everyone back into the arms of their true love: work. All season long, Peggy's position in the company under Lou, and potentially under Don once more, has felt like an unfulfilled promise of last season's finale in which she'd situated herself in Don's office following his abrupt dismissal. At best Peggy now finds herself in the same position as her former boss and mentor – emphasized by the fact they now have adjoining offices – and at worst, her character almost felt as though she was without any agency in the story, or in the agency for that matter. (At least she's not like Harry, whose future has been discussed almost as an arbitrary side note in larger conversations.)
Don has tainted everything. Peggy's work, her relationship with Ted, and now the strategy she'd thought up for Burger Chef. But like he's done several times this season, Don opens up, admits his faults and failures – "I abuse the people whose help I need. And then I take a nap." – and the strategy becomes less about fast food burgers, and more about correcting Don and Peggy. It is a gorgeously written and acted moment peppered with Peggy's fear of being alone for the rest of her life and Don admitting his own fears, and that he doesn't really remember what it was like when he was at home with the family he no longer has.
The scene ends with Don and Peggy dancing slowly to Frank Sinatra's 'I Did it My Way,' before seamlessly transitioning over to Bonnie and Megan flying back to Los Angeles. The episode culminates with Don, Peggy, and Pete breaking bread at a table in a Burger Chef. The camera slowly pulls back on the painting of an atypical (yet strangely modern) family going about the business that is their business, but also communing with one another on a level they often can't with anyone who exists outside what they do.
Mad Men will conclude the first half of season 7 next Sunday with 'Waterloo' @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Justina Mintz/AMC