It’s the second-to-last episode of the season, and it’s a good one. Bob Benson is back, Don and Peggy share the scene of the year, and a grateful nation finally gets the Trudy Campbell return that we’ve been waiting for. Hit the Burger Chef for some takeout because we’re ready to talk about “The Strategy”.
Is this the best mood we’ve ever seen Don in for an entire episode? He’s downright giddy at some points, pumping his fist when he makes Peggy question her Burger Chef strategy; happily ogling Megan on the balcony; and taking on a paternal vibe in one of the very best scenes of the entire series, his slow dance with Peggy to “My Way” in the SC&P offices on a sunny Sunday. It’s like everything’s finally coming back together after it was all but blown to bits. Except for the fact that his wife is obviously preparing to vacate New York permanently and he can’t fathom why anyone would want to live anywhere else.
Even as he tries to get back on top at work, he’s still not rocking the boat much (except for violating that pesky no drinking policy). He is unabashedly supportive of Peggy’s pitch when she runs it past Lou and doesn’t gripe one bit when it’s announced that Harry Crane is being made a partner, going so far as to point out Harry’s loyalty as a virtue. Don clearly feels like it will pay dividends to quietly wait for all the seeds he’s planting to blossom.
Peggy, on the other hand, is still riding the rollercoaster she’s been on all year; one minute her work is being praised, the next minute it’s being undermined by Pete Campbell feeling it’s essential for Don to take lead on the presentation, because he’ll bring “authority” while she’ll bring “emotion”. His ultimate backhanded compliment: “She’s as good as any woman in the business.” That hurts on multiple levels: Peggy knows she’s as good as any person in the business, regardless of gender, but she also can’t believe she’s getting shuttled into a mom role when she is a career woman with no experience caring for a family of her own. (The irony of it coming from Pete is just another crazy detail, but sometimes I wonder if either of them remembers that they conceived a child together.)
This scene, plus Don getting in her head with his “noodling”, sets so many feelings in motion within Miss Olson that they can’t help but eat away at her. She’s unmarried with no immediate prospects at 30 (her age being a fact she’s kept under wraps because she finds it sad); despite devoting herself to her job, she continues to be marginalized in favor of a man, and her research for the pitch had her looking into the station wagons of one too many harried suburban housewives, which had the unexpected impact of making her think she’s just doing it all wrong. If those women can find a man, why can’t she? Well, Pegs, ever since Abe and the forbidden fruit that was Ted, you haven’t exactly been looking, have you?
Don’s view on her suggestion that the ad feature a working woman picking up Burger Chef just compounds the issue. It’s amazing that as he’s looking directly at a woman who works, he almost can’t fathom the concept: “What’s her profession?” he says snidely, before deeming the whole thing “too sad” for an ad campaign. The idea that a woman could balance work and home successfully was still far-fetched to him; as a matter of fact, Peggy is probably proof of that as far as he was concerned.
Despite all of this, Don remains Peggy’s biggest cheerleader, because he knows she has the goods. He knew it when she called him from work on Saturday and he knew he’d find her there on a Sunday, stewing over whether or not her idea was good enough (knowing Lou liked it probably made it worse.) She implored him to “show me how you think. Do it out loud.” They’ve finally come back full circle to the place where Don and his protege can sit down and really work, utilizing the passion they both share for advertising. He encourages her to sell through what she wants, rather than thinking she should tell a client what they want. That’s the Draper magic, the thing that makes him exceptional. The courage of his convictions, if you will.
When Peggy frets over the research trip, wondering what she’s done wrong with her life, she gets back the most important endorsement from her mentor, “I worry about a lot of things; I don’t worry about you.” This is when “My Way” begins to play on the radio, and Don finds it to be divine providence of some kind, offering her his hand to dance in the empty office. These two have shared some pretty powerful moments over the years, and this one may even be more so because it comes at a time of triumph rather than after some personal tragedy or struggle. Both may be vulnerable here but neither are weak; they are ready to claim a victory rather than pull themselves together after a loss.
The familial closeness they share, her head on his chest, him tenderly kissing her head, sweetly underscores what we all know about family; you can be away from each other for a long time, even sever ties for a while, but it’s always possible to work your way back. Then again, the family you grew up with may not be the one you feel most at home with once you find your place in the world, and this is illustrated perfectly by the scene at the Burger Chef that closes the hour. Pete, Peggy and Don all come from less than stellar upbringings. They all have completely different stories and have taken divergent paths in life, to be sure. But they have a bond in their work and all they’ve been through. There’s a familiarity there. They’ve all shared some pretty intense secrets at some point in the last decade. I won’t go so far as to say that either Peggy or Don loves Pete, but they respect him from a business standpoint and know they can trust him. But I think that on some level they do love each other and their respect and mutual admiration goes without saying at this point.
Another person who could be in this little work family anytime she wants to reconcile her complicated feelings is Joan, who I have always felt should have a more abiding friendship with Peggy than she does. They’ve struggled with trust and support, but there is respect and admiration there as well. We’ve seen this season that Joan and Don have had an unfortunate falling out. For once, I was not happy with a Joan and Roger interaction. Roger Sterling may be funny, shrewd and charming when it comes to business, but it’s clear he’ll never get back to being a fixture in Joan’s life or, sadly, his son’s. We’ve never seen enough of what happened here, but Roger’s obnoxious behavior in their brief scene in his office tells me there’s very little love lost at this point.
But kudos to Joan, who has the strength to resist the sweet but misguided Bob Benson’s proposal. It must have been so hard to turn down the security and stability he would give to her life. I’m not necessarily talking about money; she’s proven that she can take care of that part. But the opportunity to provide her son a father whom he loves and who clearly wants to be in his life had to be tempting. And despite the fact that their relationship would remain platonic, they are good friends. Well, at least until he practically calls her a dried up old bag. Her resolve that she’d rather continue hoping she’ll find love rather than settling for some arrangement just made me love her all the more.
After only a week, I already have to revise my pick for my favorite episode of the season. And not just because fan-favorite Bob Benson and EJ-favorite Trudy Campbell made long-awaited return appearances, but that certainly didn’t hurt. Don and Peggy dancing might be my favorite TV scene of the year so far (except for all of the “G.I. Jeff” episode of Community), and the final scene is possibly my second or third favorite. But we’ll get to that.
Pete and Bonnie hit New York and she’s clearly anticipating more of a vacation than he is. He’s there for business purposes and seeing his daughter is a side mission. Mad Men is sort of like an ’80s stand-up comic this year, what with all the differences between New York and Los Angeles, and it’s interesting to see both Bonnie and Megan in the city this week. New York doesn’t live up to Bonnie’s expectation and stymies her footwear choices. But for Megan, it almost feels like she’s not faking it for the first time all year. In L.A., she tries very hard to present the image of a certain lifestyle, but when she’s back in the office, it seems natural.
Here’s the thing that I find myself wondering, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before. Is Megan supposed to be a good actress? It’s really difficult to convey that idea on TV, because when a character is supposed to be acting (and the actor is thus playing somebody who’s playing somebody), there’s always this extra level of artifice. It has to seem less real than when the character isn’t acting, so it automatically seems like the character is a worse actor than the actor portraying them. You need context clues to determine whether the character is doing a good job, and other than Megan’s difficulty in finding work, the show hasn’t really told us if she’s any good.
With that in mind, my interpretation is that Megan actually isn’t a good actress. And then she goes back to the office, where she was very good at what she did. If she hadn’t married well, that’s what she’d still be doing – it’s only Draper money that’s supporting her failed auditions in L.A. (Actually, she’s probably still be a secretary rather than a copy writer, but same difference.) When she’s as SC&P, she doesn’t make the rounds to say hi to her old friends – it’s almost a little shameful for her that she’s there. Compare that to Pete, who has to take his new girlfriend on a victory lap.
I feel like Megan came to New York to say good-bye to Don. She’s there to pick up her stuff. She can justify the summer clothes and maybe the fondue pot, but somewhere along the line she pulled out a copy of the newspaper from November 22, 1963. That’s something people used to do – save old newspapers. Your grandparents and maybe parents have a bunch of them in a trunk somewhere. (Years ago, my girlfriend at the time got me copies of every single newspaper in Colorado that covered Hunter S. Thompson’s memorial service. I still treasure those papers, especially the one with the headline “Thompson Cannonized”. His ashes were fired out of a cannon, see…) There’s no way that Don saved that newspaper, so that has to be Megan’s. She dug that out of the closet and put it on her pile of clothes because she’s taking it with her. There’s no pressing need for a five-year-old newspaper, but she’s clearing out her stuff. Everything must go!
And as for the Kennedy assassination, go back to Season Three’s “The Grown-Ups”. That was the episode set over that weekend and if you’ll recall, it’s when Betty told Don that she wanted a divorce. So for Don, there’s a whole suite of memories tied to that weekend.
The thing is, Don needs this marriage to work. Sometimes it feels like the relationship is more important than Megan as a person. The idea that he can become a better man for somebody is bigger than that somebody is. Or is it? Because there is an amazing moment in this episode where he sees Megan out on the balcony and the way it’s shot makes it clear that this is Don’s version of Shangri-La. For a moment, that seems like everything he wants. And importantly, she’s on the balcony. She’s on the other side of the door that he can’t close. Bravo for not bringing up that stuck door for the last five episodes, by the way. For all the problems in their marriage, Don needs Megan and he’d never be able to pull the trigger on ending their relationship. He can’t close that door.
Unfortunately, I think Megan did. There’s that scene where both she and Bonnie are on the same plane. Bonnie’s clearly been crying because New York Pete didn’t live up to her expectations and perhaps she’s overdramatic. Megan looks very pleased with herself, all of her belongings in tow. And then the flight attendant closes the curtain in a very deliberately framed shot. There’s a closed door behind Megan.
I swear, I want to rewatch this whole season and keep track of when people close doors and when they don’t. It’ll be like when spunkybuddy Larry Young catalogued everything Christian Shephard wore throughout the run of LOST.
There’s very little that’s surprising about Pete’s storyline in this episode. That’s not a bad thing, because we know Pete pretty well by now. Pete’s gonna be Pete. Just Blaze bein’ Blaze, you know? I love the way we get to see Pete and Tammy reunited in the same episode where we see Bob Benson with Kevin. Little Tammy barely shows a flicker of recognition for her father and backs away when he gives her a present. Kevin, though, could not be more psyched about seeing Bob. It’s really cute and funny.
Trudy makes sure to miss Pete’s visit – clearly the plan was not to see him at all. And can you blame her? Kicking Pete out was the best thing that ever happened to her. Really the one surprise about all of this is that he expected it to be any different. We really don’t know how often he’s seen his daughter since last season, but since there wasn’t really a time jump between seasons and still that kid is not sure why the man with the strange hairline is pushing a box at her, I’m guessing maybe once at most. Or never – Trudy makes a reference to Pete seeing his daughter once this year. Taken literally, that’s pretty damning. So Pete’s a terrible dad. But he still expects it to be a big deal that he’s gracing them with his presence. Even better, he’s offended that his ex-wife is dating. (I love that he just throws out a name of a suitor that clearly means nothing to her.) This is the guy who was cheating on her for most of their marriage. They’re not together now, and she still can’t date. That’s about as Pete Campbell as it gets.
I’m going to be honest here – I clapped my hands with joy when I saw Alison Brie in the credits. She is the best, and I’ll fight anybody who says differently. So I’m biased, but still, Trudy is one of my favorite characters on this show because she has such a positive arc. Early on in the series, we saw how hard it was for divorced women. And for a single mother? Even worse. But Trudy flourished after kicking Pete out. A year ago, a disapproving word from Pete would have destroyed her, but no more. He even tries to use her recently deceased father as ammunition, and she doesn’t crack. Trudy forever! At the very least, she could give some lessons to poor Bonnie, who flies home in tears after an argument with Pete.
Myndi is absolutely right about the little family of Don, Peggy, and Pete that ends the episode. And I have to say I loved this interaction so much because of the way they fell into those roles. Pete didn’t get the answer he wanted from Mom, so he tried Dad. And Don signaling Pete about the mustard on his face? Adorable! (And as Britta Perry taught us, it’s much easier to win people over when you’ve got a little schmutz.) I also like the way the camera pulls back into an exterior shot. It’s so reminiscent of the diner scenes on Seinfeld. Mad Men is about a lot of things, and one of those things is TV. The imagery, intentional or not, ties the trio to another great television surrogate family. I love it.
And as Harry Crane’s Number One Fan, I’m delighted that he’s suddenly going to be a partner. Joan is absolutely right to be upset about it, given the circumstances under which she made partner. Plus he really doesn’t deserve it. But Harry is great and I look forward to him trying to convince somebody that the “C” in SC&P stands for “Crane”.
Next week, it’s the season finale! Or, as AMC would have us believe, the “mid-season finale”. Call it what you want, we’re pretty sure it will be great and also that it will involve the moon landing.