The title of last night’s episode of Mad Men, “The Strategy,” relates twofold to Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) teetering world. Most tangibly, the reference is to the upcoming Burger Chef pitch, which Peggy has been spearheading with Don (Jon Hamm) as her right-hand man. With Don’s return, Peggy has feared being placed in his shadow again, which is exactly where she finds herself when Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Lou (Allan Havey) ask her to allow Don to do the pitch. And of course, it’s right then, when she’s most uncertain of her place at SC&P, that Don passive-aggressively questions her entire concept. One couldn’t be blamed for snickering when Don suggests that it might be beneficial to switch perspectives in the ad, as he’s shown a distinct talent at approximating what its like to be in other peoples’ shoes while only sporadically empathizing with other points of view.
The more overwhelming intimation of the title, however, is the idea of making plans in general, and the unwavering fallibility of said activity. When Peggy blurts out to Don that she recently turned 30, there’s a heft of disappointment in her voice. The exasperated admission of her age is quick and unsentimental, potently evoking just how beguiled Peggy is by the fact that she’s still at SC&P, and still under Don’s authoritative sway. The episode opens with Peggy collecting research data for Burger Chef by questioning a woman about why she patronizes the fast-food chain, unable to hide her uneasy relationship with the classical roles of being a wife and mother.
If Peggy’s outsider blues seemed to weigh heavy on the episode, before finally being relieved in the episode’s astonishing final sequence, she wasn’t the only SC&P employee to see a potential future thrown into disarray. Pete’s decision to bring Bonnie (Jessy Schram), his realtor girlfriend, along on a business trip to NY spurs a discussion of where their relationship is heading, including finding her a place in Pete’s existing family. The conversation goes very well and, as a reward, she initiates him into the mile-high club. Bonnie appeals to Pete through his libido (they plan to take in a production of Oh! Calcutta!) and clearly enjoys playing it up, but when it’s made clear that he still yearns for home, she’s quick to turn her back on the situation.
Bonnie’s trip with Pete had a second agenda, which failed, and the end results of Bob Benson (James Wolk) seeking Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) hand in marriage proved similarly ill-fated. In town with Chevy’s head honchos, who have their own alternative reasons for being in NYC, Bob covers up the fact that Chevy is dropping SC&P, but is able to finagle a new, lucrative job out of the collapsed partnership. Joan outright refutes his scheme to turn her into the world’s greatest beard, and it’s notable how vulnerable Wolk makes Benson sound and look after she lets him down. The tailored image of an idyllic marriage is a lie Joan knows all to well, and she’s not about to return to that illusion, no matter how comfortable Bob makes it sound. She tries to impart this to her friend, who spends a great deal of the episode playing up his version of daddy dearest, but its unclear if Bob is ready to live without depending on the lies. His discussion with a closeted, bitter Chevy boss-man during a late-night taxi ride is, in effect, a conversation between Bob and a cautionary vision of himself in 10-to-20 years, still unable or unwilling to openly accept who he is.
Joan’s refusal is blunt and honest, whereas Megan (Jessica Paré) proved to be a master of calculated evasion. As she begins to pack up all evidence of her existence in New York, Megan uses a planned vacation to distract Don from the fact that she feels removed from his idea of their life together. There’s a great shot about midway through the episode of Don waking up, seemingly alone, with Megan seen obfuscated by a window and seemingly far away on the patio. The episode is about preparation or, perhaps more pointedly, the futility of preparation in the face of genuine personal insight. When Peggy finally strikes on her own unique idea, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” pipes in and she dances with Don, but it’s not quite as dreamy as the final sequence, wherein she explains the new pitch to Pete. In a transporting final shot, we go from hearing Peggy’s concept of Burger Chef as a restaurant full of family tables, no matter whom you break bread with, to seeing her vision. It’s a triumphant glimpse at creative liberation, but also clearly an eerie reminder of the power of the image as the primary utility of selling ideas and their byproducts.
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