Monday, May 19, 2014

"My Way"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Six, "The Strategy" (or "The Suitcase," Part Two?)

The "strategy" of the title is, on the surface, a reference to that which those characters on the Burger Chef team are trying to figure out: how to approach the would-be client to secure the account. But beyond that, it's what Don and Peggy are trying to accomplish: how can they establish a strategy to work well together again after Don's betrayal of Peggy and Ted the year before and their new turned-on-its-head working relationship of Don reporting to her and then Pete's insistence that Don pitch the campaign to the burger people? But even more deeply, it reflects that which a number of these characters need if they are to negotiate the world of changing family dynamics and women's roles: Pete and Trudy aren't sure how to relate to each other as they're divorcing (though Pete seems to think it should be the same way they had it set up when they were living together--Trudy is always there and chaste, while Pete gets to sleep around); Tammy doesn't seem even to be sure who her father is after his long absence. Peggy, having recently turned thirty while spending time in field research to determine why mothers turn to Burger Chef to feed their families, has looked into too many station wagons in Ohio and Pennsylvania and wonders what she's "done wrong." In the meantime, she can't get Stan to come in to work on the weekend because he has a lover with whom he has plans and she's feeling the lack of someone in her life. Don smiles fondly at Megan on his balcony and claims to be happy she's there, but later looks unsure as he watches her clean out a closet. The long-distance marriage doesn't seem to be working for them as much as they try to pretend. And, most sad of all, Bob Benson needs a strategy to appear the "certain kind of executive" that Buick requires, e.g. not gay; family structure and possibilities of roles for people to play hadn't expanded THAT much yet in 1969, though the Stonewall riots were just around the corner later that month in Manhattan.

The most interesting thing about this episode to me, though, is how it leads us back three seasons and four years of Mad Men time to "The Suitcase," the seventh episode of Season Four--one of the most poignant and beautifully written and acted hours of "Mad Men" they've produced. As it turns out, it was exactly at the center of this series: three and a half seasons had already aired and three and a half seasons were to come. But more, it was also central to the show conceptually. This has always been a show that is at its best when focusing on people's work lives and the office. "The Suitcase" brought Don's and Peggy's complicated personal lives into the workplace. It's a perfect episode to re-turn our thoughts to as they again struggle at work to make sense of the personal, and try to figure out what it means that they both lack meaningful connections with family. In "The Suitcase," Don and Peggy spend a night working together, honestly discussing their lives and regrets--including Peggy's baby--and Peggy helps Don through a difficult crisis, the death of Anna Draper. That night of Anna's death was on Peggy's birthday. This time around--a couple of weeks after Peggy's 30th birthday--Don has it a bit more together and he helps Peggy through an existential crisis--wondering if she will ever know what it's like to be a mom, while she also struggles to assert her authority at work. In both episodes, we see the process of them creating an ad campaign. Alone, they're not doing so well. Together, they come up with something inspired. When I wrote about "The Suitcase" at the time, I commented on how much I enjoyed seeing how their minds work. In this one, a frustrated Peggy, not sure if she can trust Don, says, "You really want to help me? Show me how you think!" And he does, and she smiles, and their connection is re-forged. At the end of both evenings, Don and Peggy share an intimate moment: in "The Suitcase," Don falls asleep on the office couch with his head in Peggy's lap. It is while he sleeps that the shade of Anna passes through, bestowing a last smiling glance on him. In this episode, they dance to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as it plays on the radio. Peggy rests her head on Don's chest and he looks--what?--almost afraid, uncertain, confused, but then kisses the top of her head. From the time each woke up that morning and chose what to wear, they were apparently meant to have this moment of working out their differences and honoring the kindred spirit in the other because they were color-coordinated, the orange in Don's tie matching well Peggy's shirt. While Joan can't accept Bob's proposal and re-vision of marriage that he offers ("We could comfort each other through an uncertain world"), Don smiles on Peggy's redefinition of family: "What if there was a place you could go where there's no TV, you could break bread, and anyone near you is family?" With his one failed and second failing marriage, he too needs a new way to conceive of family. And who better than Peggy to suggest it, the one with whom he has so much in common? They both live for their work--with all the negatives and the positives that way of being brings to their lives, to their families and to themselves (it was in "The Suitcase" that Peggy said to Don, "I know what I'm supposed to want. It never seems as important as what's in that office.") Why not finally expand the view of family to include their work companions?

And so it is that at the end, we see Peggy with Don and Pete (the two people outside her circle of mother and sisters who know about the baby she had and gave up for adoption), breaking bread (or French fries to be more accurate) at the place where "every table is the family table." Leave aside for the time being that as the camera pulls back from their table to show us other families at Burger Chef and the bright, rather garish red and white building, we're also seeing the way the creativity of people like Peggy and Don helped persuade us Americans to become the 'fast food nation.' It's a complicated, ever-changing world and strategies pursued to resolve one problem can often lead to others. As Don tells Peggy, it's part of their job that they can never know which is the right approach. Don seems to be getting to a place where he's more okay with ambiguity.

No comments:

Post a Comment