'Mad Men' recap: Don and Peggy share a moment in 'The Strategy'
Grab a cigar and pour yourself an Old Fashioned. Each week, Times TV mavens Michelle Stark -- a young go-getter in the Peggy Olson mold -- and Sean Daly -- the Roger Sterling-esque, smiling-through-the-chaos smartaleck -- will vigorously debate Sunday night's episode of Mad Men.
Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
It’s episodes like Sunday’s "The Strategy" that make it easier to overlook last week’s more off-the-rails hour, to cope with the silly idea to split this final season in two. Moments like last night’s final, unforgettable image of Don and Peggy dancing to Frank Sinatra’s My Way that make all of Mad Men’s ups and downs worth it.
Don and Peggy haven’t been that honest or open with each other since they stayed up all night in season four’s "The Suitcase," hands-down one of the series' finest hours. So to see them talking as equals as they try to come up with a better idea for the Burger Chef pitch, trading thoughts on life and loneliness and years gone by, was exquisite. Don and Peggy are the show’s two central figures, and it’s great to see their reconciliation is giving the show a focus as it wraps the first half of this final season. It's also great to see the two interacting on a creative level. For a show about an advertising agency, we haven't seen much of the creative process behind the work lately, something that seems intentional as Lou reigns and Don has been out of the game. (Missing entirely this week: the ramifications of Don's cigarette-meeting shenangians. We've got to see more of that in next week's finale, right?)
For me, the Don-Peggy dance is one of the show’s most poignant, cathartic moments ever (yes, there were tears!). I found myself wishing the episode, heck even the season, had ended there. Where do they go from here, Sean? How do they top that? What about that perfect music cue from Ol' Blue Eyes?
Sean: Indeed, Michelle, after last week's sick, sinister nip-o-rama shocker, this ep was often so poignant and heartbreaking and real -- the prevailing theme was loneliness, the universal malaise that unites them and us -- that I grew a little misty-eyed, as well. (Funny, Mad Men has been so twisty and jaw-dropping in its final five minutes this season, I was worried that Don and Peggy were going to slow-dance right into a smooch. But that wasn't the point, thankfully.)
In fact, as we watched almost every pretty person in the cast battle with alienation and isolation (Bonnie Whiteside and Megan opted for solo flights, an interesting twist), it was the hour's ultimate shot that moved me even more than the Sinatra shuffle: Pete (like a kid, with crap on his face), Peggy and Don (the two adults across from him) at the "family table" in Burger Chef. They're a dysfunctional crew to say the least, and yet for the first time in this final season, I really felt that showrunner Matthew Weiner was moving in the direction of closure. That table shot, with that sweet gentle instrumental playing, was a beautifully framed tribute to the characters, the actors and also the viewers. What a moment.
WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE
Michelle: Not to get too real on you, Sean, but this was an eerily timely episode of Mad Men, with Peggy’s struggles to be seen equally in the workplace falling during the week one of the country's biggest newspapers is dealing with controversy over one of its former top female execs. It makes that scene between Lou, Pete and Peggy (and Ted on the phone!) depressingly on-point. There’s lots of casual sexism on display in "The Strategy," from Pete telling Peggy she should be the 'emotional' half of the Burger Chef presentation, declaring she’s as good as "any woman" in the business (ouch!), to Don telling Megan he’s going to take her shopping as if that’s all she’s ever wanted. Sure, Mad Men takes place in an entirely different era, but when someone as powerful and commanding as Peggy is one of our protagonists, it’s easy to forget how far women still had to go (and, ahem, how far they may still have to go) to be considered equals.
Sean: Great point about the Abramson parallels, Michelle. I thought the same thing, and Mad Men has always been bold in hightlighting gender inequality and the staggering BS that comes with it -- then and now. That said, I thought the episode overplayed the dialogue waaay too much; okay, we get it, when you lean too far forward, you lose your pop. In fact, the most subtly effective move the episode made in that regard was Peggy's dress and hairstyle and presence in the final shots: the dance with Don and that absolutely beautiful restaurant scene. Peggy looked thoroughly MODERN; she could have been from 2014, which, I imagine, was entirely the point. Brilliant stroke, there. We've come a long way, baby -- and we still have miles and miles to go.
DON AND MEGAN
Michelle: Sean, I have to ask: What is up with Don and Megan? Isn’t it odd that we haven’t seen any sort of fallout between them? Is she just using him to grab her fancy clothes and take a first-class flight back to California? He seems totally smitten with her once again, but why is she putting up with him if she’s lost interest? Something’s up with her. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Charles Manson.
Sean: Although I believe Megan is genuine when she says she loves and misses Don, there was an obvious sea change in her last night -- as if seeing how much HE NEEDS HER (has Don ever looked at someone that way?!) gave her a confidence to move forward, regain some of her strength, let the matrimonial cards fall where they may. Her poise on that return flight was palpable; Bonnie (with her dirty city feet) and Megan don't need shaky, lost men to define them. It all goes back to self-worth and self-empowerment and a cushy seat in first class.
BOB BENSON WATCH
Michelle: Mad Men’s all about perfect timing this week, with Bob Benson’s return coming the week CBS officially canceled actor James Wolk’s sitcom The Crazy Ones. Not sure if we’re ever going to see Bob again, but I thought this was an especially affecting episode for the character and Wolk. Loved all his stuff with Joan (“My face doesn’t please you? I don’t believe it.”), who know he’s gay, proving he’s just as screwed up as everyone else on this show. I would have actually loved to see an entire arc about him, as a gay man, navigating the business world in the '60s. His plea to her that they get married so he can appear a certain way to GM execs and she, an almost 40-year-old woman, can get out of that apartment was heartbreaking (and, again, a little sexist!).
Sean: The Bob Benson storyline definitely felt like a goodbye to that character, someone once enshrouded in an eerie mystery, now revealed to be a man desperate to live in two worlds at once. BUT: Mad Men was all over the place with that character. THEY didn't even know who he really was. That cab scene was shot in an odd, distracting way -- didn't love it. And the proposal to Joan felt wrong to me -- that was more about her character than his. Which Bob is it going to be, folks? There was a lot of heavy thematic cargo going on last night; Bob's arc was socially vital -- he was terrified to wind up like his beat-up pal -- but mishandled by the writers.
MVP OF THE NIGHT
Michelle: Between his sage wisdom (“There’s always a better idea”), his aptitude for bananas and his “Thanks for the subtitles” sarcasm, it’s got to be Stan. Also, major points to the return of smarmy, NYC Pete Campbell; no one could say "I've been waylaid in Cos Cob " like Vincent Kartheiser.
Sean: Yes!!! Gotta go with my boy Pete, an inherently comical mess who's nonetheless believable and, strangely enough, lovable. Good lord, man, you strut like a Mile High Club stud ("I want you shopping all day and screwing all night") then absolutely shatter in the face of a kid who's afraid of you and an almost-ex-wife who is absolutely OVER you ("You've seen your daughter for the year. Don't you have a plane to catch?"). I get the feeling Pete will never change; his inner-life is scant. And yet, he may someday stumble on the right path, presumably sans Bonnie Whiteside.
Michelle: I could quote the entire last ten minutes; everything between Don and Peggy was gold. Particularly loved this:
“1955 was a good year.” -Don
“I don’t remember. 1965 was a good year.” -Peggy
Sean: "I worry about a lot of things. But I don't worry about you." -- Don to his unlikely dance partner