There are no insignificant details in Mad Men. Which is why it must be important that mid-way through“The Strategy,” Don is reading, with furrowed brow, the New York Times from the day Kennedy was shot. (Here’s a reproduction of that page.)
Megan unearthed it from the closet while looking for some things to bring back to California, which means Don has been carrying the newspaper around with his things since November 22, 1963, when he was still married to and living with Betty and his children. That’s the episode called “The Grown-Ups” (season 3, episode 12)—the show’s first major turning point. The end of Camelot. The end of Sterling Cooper. And the end of the unified American house.
All this doesn’t quite add up to a coherent strategy. But there is one.Just before “The Grown-Ups,” Betty found out that Don was actually Dick; in the episode, she decides to leave him for Henry. Ken is promoted over Pete, Margaret Sterling gets married (we saw a few episodes ago how that went), Joan and Roger are still close (and Roger and Jane are still married), and everyone is in shock. In the next episode, they stage the coup that leads to the formation of SCDP.
Because of that clearly planted newspaper, I have the nagging feeling that “The Strategy” may pair with “The Grown-Ups.” It’s now summer 1969. Nothing is like it was six years earlier. None of those families or relationships are intact anymore—Roger and Jane (and the goodwill between Roger and Mona or Roger and Joan), Don and Betty, Peggy and Duck, Margaret and Brooks, Trudy and Pete—the list could go on. Lane is dead. SCDP is SC&P, and about to add another partner. Inter-office hierarchies are topsy-turvy. The house is very much divided.
But the show seems to be indicating that something big is coming.
As I (and many others) have said, Mad Men gives us mirrors of our most basic fears and desires, two things that are intricately linked, not least in effective advertising. When it works, advertising tells you what you’re afraid of, then instructs you in what you want.
Scene by scene, “The Strategy” works out those twinned gut-level feelings, the two so tightly linked you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins. Bob Benson fears being found out; he wants, as he tells Joan, someone to comfort and be comforted by “through an uncertain world”—he wants to make the best approximation of a family he can muster. Joan fears being trapped in another friendly but loveless marriage; what she wants is romance. Bonnie fears being taken for granted, and wants to know she’s not. More than anything, Megan fears failure—she’s said as much a couple episodes ago—and wants to be able to throw herself into whatever she chooses to do.
Pete’s fear all along has been that he’ll be erased, professionally and personally, tossed aside or simply vanished. His father, remember, died in a plane crash; his mother literally lost her mind; the woman with whom he had a brief affair in season 5 had her memory of him erased in shock treatment. In this episode, he doesn’t know the nanny, his own daughter doesn’t remember him, and Trudy decisively informs him, “You’re not part of this family anymore.” He simply doesn’t exist.
But he’s lost himself, a bit, in California. He’s been so weird all season, and not without cause: stranded all the way across the country with the increasingly boring Ted, and with his business continually handed off to others, his greatest fears are becoming reality. When he gets to New York, he feels like himself again. (Bonnie: “I don’t like you in New York.” Pete: “Then you don’t like me.”)
Don’s fears are not much different than Pete’s, but here is the difference that’s rapidly becoming apparent: Don is older and maybe, maybe, a little wiser. He has been through the ringer. 1969 was tough on him. While he’s excited to be inching back, he is a soberer man both literally and figuratively, one who is genuinely excited to see Megan in the morning when she visits him in New York (what a smile), and one who is actually willing to help Peggy sort out her problems at work. (The episode even emphasizes his age. Don: “1955 was a good year.” Peggy: “I don’t remember. 1965 was a good year.” Don: “I got married that year.”)
As he tells Peggy, who is furious that she can’t figure out whether or not the strategy is good: “That’s just the job . . . living and not knowing.”
Don has always really just wanted to be needed. He’s at his best when he is called upon to be a man, whatever that looks like. This is why he mentors Peggy, and why he’s bailed her out of difficult personal situations, too. He’s done the same for Joan, and even Betty. He was happiest helping Anna Draper and, in the last episode, her niece. And he’s at his best in this episode, helping Peggy find her way toward a good Burger Chef strategy.
Don is afraid of something very specific, as he tells Peggy: “That I never did anything, and that I don’t have anyone.” But he knows who he has—Peggy, who has been an unhappy mess this season so far, possibly because she’s turned thirty and is feeling that life has passed her by. According to Don, in advertising you don’t really tell people what they want. You tell them what you want. Peggy has no family and few friends anymore. And what she really wants is a clean, well-lighted place, where whoever she’s at the table with is family.
Which explains why we get Don, Pete, and Peggy at a table together at the end, a sort of visual apologetic for what a family really is. After all, Pete and Peggy have a child together—but it looks like having reproduced doesn’t make you a family. Don and Peggy have bailed each other out of scrapes—but fixing someone’s problems doesn’t make you a family. It’s a slipperier word than that, as Pete grumbles.
The thing about being family is that you don’t get to choose who is in your family, and you don’t really ever get to get rid of them, even if you want to. You know the very worst and very best of your family, and that’s what you get. You stick together. (I looked up the definition of “family” on Urban Dictionary for kicks: “a bunch of people who hate each other and eat dinner together.”)
Whatever their connections, these three have been through a lot together. They have hated each other, loved each other, and stabbed each other in the back. They know each other’s secrets. They’ve known each others’ lovers. And when everyone else fades away, they’re stuck with one another, for better or worse.
So, then, just what is the titular “strategy”? There’s all kinds of workplace politics humming beneath the surface of this episode. Pete has some angle he’s working—he is being eerily nice to Don. Bob discovers that SC&P is losing Chevy and he’s going to be moving on. Jim tells Roger to “stop thinking about Don and start thinking about the company,” which has been a weird two-headed monster since the merger anyhow—recall Don’s comment a few episodes ago about the presence of three creative directors. And they’re still pursuing Commander Cigarettes, without a clear picture of whether Don’s hail mary from last episode actually worked. The house is decidedly divided.
All this doesn’t quite add up to a coherent strategy. But there is one. This show never really lets us in on what’s going on until it happens. But I think we’re getting clues: Don and Peggy, dancing to “My Way,” and the little family at the table at the end.