By John Andrew Fraser
A little over a week ago, I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library just outside of Boston. There, I was reminded that it was Kennedy who initially wanted to put a man on the moon. He presented this goal at the beginning of the decade, when Peggy Olsen was a secretary, when Don Draper was hanging out with his bohemian girlfriend in Greenwich Village, and when Roger Sterling was puking up oysters. Nobody could have predicted the twists and turns the decade would take at that point—Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the beginning of the Nixon presidency. Yet there we were on July 20, 1969, fulfilling Kennedy’s dream (in many ways this event tied the tumultuous decade together). The way we got there was strange, but it happened. Like the times in which they live, Mad Men’s characters’ lives are often unpredictable, but they, like us, can always count on the past morphing into the future without advance notice. Time waits for no man and the future inevitably leaves people behind, and nothing says “the future” quite like the wide open possibilities of space.
More than anything, ‘Waterloo’ feels like an ending. Torches are being passed all over the place in this episode. I guess it’s fitting that Bert Cooper died right after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon—he always loved astronauts (remember his eulogy for Ms. Blankenship in season four?). But Bert also represents the last of an old generation that has faded away. He was someone who Don and Roger looked up to, now they take their place as the next in line to kick the bucket. When Bert told Roger that he wasn’t a leader, it seemed to shake Roger from his eternal childhood trance. This led to the McCann deal, which seems like it will lead to the sale of Bert’s company mere days after his death. Like I said, the future often ruthlessly replaces the past without warning. Time waits for no man.
In many ways, Jim Cutler represents this relentless rush toward the future more than anyone else on the show. He’s one part stone cold pragmatist and one part villain, and his attempt to oust Don from the agency leads to another great torch-passing moment in this episode. With Don’s job hanging in the balance, he decides to hand the Burger Chef pitch over to Peggy at the last second. It seems like Don’s really letting go and realizing that other people need to fill the shoes that he once filled. The agency really is just one big ecosystem where some people die out or move on while others move up the food chain and assume their positions like it’s a law of nature (In this way, the Mad Men world reminds me of the streets on The Wire). Peggy proves that she’s more than ready for the moment here. Her pitch is so good that it harkens back to Don’s famous carousel speech in ‘The Wheel.’ Was there any doubt that SC&P was going to pick up Burger Chef’s business after that? I’m pretty sure I even saw a tear beginning to form in one of its executives’ eyes as Peggy was wrapping things up. One of the best things about this half season of Mad Men has been the way Don and Peggy have mended their relationship. It has been well documented that one thing that may truly “save” Don going forward is his role as a mentor and friend to Peggy.
Finally, there’s the deal with McCann Erickson. This plot point sets up so many interesting questions for the final seven episodes of the series. It certainly creates an existential crisis for Don. He has had various opportunities to work at McCann, literally since season one, and has always been deeply unimpressed by the opportunity to work for such a huge agency where he’d be just a cog in a machine. However, I think the first couple episodes of this season showed us that Don really needs to be in the business or he loses his sense of purpose (he even tells Ted as much in this episode). The fact that his relationship with Megan seems to be beyond repair only serves to further drive this point home (side note: I don’t think Don and Megan will ever officially get divorced, at least on the show. They’ll just remain separated and very distant). At the end of the day, selling the agency to McCann will make all the partners very rich, but will it make them happy? Will they still have purpose?
In several interviews, Matthew Weiner has said that he intended for the first half of this season to be about the material world and the second half to be about things beyond the material world, such as happiness, spirituality, and personal fulfillment. With this in mind, it seems that Don’s vision of Bert Cooper’s bizarre dance routine was a strangely appropriate way to lead us into the show’s homestretch. “The best things in life are free,” Bert sings. We hear this a lot, but what will it mean for these characters, as we prepare to leave them forever next spring? I can confidently say that I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.
In closing, I want to thank everyone who has read my posts this season. I’ve had fun writing these, and I hope that I’ll be able to write recaps for the final seven episodes of this great show in the Spring of 2015. I’d also like to thank Colin for agreeing to post my recaps on his blog every Monday. Whenever he gets a free second at work on Monday mornings he’s making sure that things look good and that they’re ready to post. Without his hard work I’d just be a guy sitting at a computer.
By John Andrew Fraser
As Mad Men’s final season draws to its halfway point, it’s only fitting that many of the show’s characters are looking back on the choices they’ve made as they continue to try to move forward into a future that looks absolutely nothing like the world they once inhabited in the early 1960s. Above all else, ‘The Strategy’ is an episode where Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Don Draper, Joan Harris, and even Bob Benson examine the choices they have made and the choices they will continue to make. Specifically, they consider how many of these choices—most involving their work lives—have effected their family lives.
There’s a reason why I listed Peggy’s name first in the above paragraph, as she is very much the center of this episode. It’s been well documented that Peggy has had a pretty horrible season thus far. She’s been underappreciated at work, and she seemingly doesn’t have many people to turn to in her personal life. Things don’t start off much better for her in ‘The Strategy’—she’s pitching a commercial for Burger Chef to a visiting Pete Campbell. The commercial is selling pure nostalgia—a woman bringing a fast-food meal into her home to feed her family—the kind of thing the old Sterling Cooper used to do so well, and Peggy nails the pitch. Pete is impressed, but he still thinks that Don should be the one to present the idea to Burger Chef. As far as we’ve come in the Mad Men universe, it’s still a man’s world. Pete even describes Peggy by saying “you know she’s as good as any woman in this business.”
Peggy looks like she might be on the verge of a Michael Ginsberg-style breakdown after this most recent setback. She’s unsatisfied with her original Burger Chef idea and ultimately decides to abandon it. She’s waking up in the middle of the night to piles of scattered research papers and calling Don on Saturdays to complain that his ideas aren’t good enough. Finally, the two meet on a weekend night in the empty SC&P office and it’s here that they, perhaps out of a feeling of mutual loss and frustration, start to remember why they made such a good team in the first place. This scene reminded me of the brilliant season four episode ‘The Suitcase,’ but in reverse—Peggy is spiraling downward and Don (even though he has plenty of issues of his own) is there for her in a time when she probably needs it the most. Don might be the only person in the world who truly gets Peggy, and Peggy might be the only person in the world who truly gets Don. When she tells him that she just turned thirty, that she’ll never be the mom in the Burger Chef ad, and that she doesn’t even know if that kind of mother or family even exists anymore, Don must agree with her on some level. After all, that family never existed for him. It’s only fitting that the two start dancing to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ after all, both Don and Peggy have done things their own way, but sometimes things can be lonely at the top.
‘The Strategy’ also marks the return of Pete Campbell and Bob Benson (Beloit College, Wharton MBA, Don Draper-esque fraud). While Pete’s in the tri-state area to visit his old family, Bob Benson’s in town to start a new one. In a business full of opportunists, Bob might be the biggest one of them all. After learning from a Chevy-executive that SC&P will be losing the XP account and that he’ll be moved in-house at Buick, he asks Joan to marry him, even though dating women isn’t exactly Bob’s thing. “GM wants their executives to maintain a certain type of image,” Bob explains to her. According to Bob, “it would be realistic,” (Bob might be an opportunist, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be a romantic). There’s an underlying feeling of sadness to all of this, especially when Bob reminds Joan that at her age she might not get a better chance to take her son and live in a Detroit mansion. But while guys like Bob Benson (and Don Draper) thrive on fraud, Joan’s looking for something more authentic, even if it means that her son might not ever have a true father figure. Bob cares about family for the sake of work, Joan cares about family for the sake of family—that’s the choice she’s made.
Speaking of kids without father figures, Tammy barely recognizes Pete when he returns home to Cos Cob, and Trudy is nowhere to be found. Work (plus some of his other choices) has pushed Pete to California, and now he’s very much a stranger in his own home. When Trudy does finally return, Pete illustrates his frustration by sticking a beer bottle into a cake that’s sitting out on the counter. It’s not quite a nail in the coffin, but I’m pretty sure Trudy’s getting that divorce she wanted. To make matters worse, his messy family life and his duties at the office don’t allow Pete to spend much time with his new girlfriend, Bonnie, and she ends up going back to California early. In the end, he’s really only left with SC&P (kind of like Peggy).
In the end, this is what makes ‘The Strategy’s’ final scene so perfect. Peggy’s new pitch involves selling the idea that Burger Chef is a place where people can go to commune. It’s a place where you can forge a bond so deep that your dining partners become your family. It’s only fitting then that Peggy, Don, and Pete—three of Mad Men’s most interesting, complex characters—end this episode by sharing a meal together at Burger Chef. Both Megan and Bonnie have left for LA (on the same flight no less), but Pete and Don are left behind with their work family. These characters share connections that run so deep—Don is Peggy’s mentor, and Pete and Peggy literally had a child together back in season one. The three of them might not have a lot right now, but they have each other. Once again Mad Men has given us something that looks a little bit like hope. Is it going to take that away from us next week?
By John Andrew Fraser
Normally, an episode of Mad Men will follow two or three (or maybe four) of the show’s characters through their respective worlds over the course of a couple of days, or a week, or some other roughly equivalent amount of time. Sometimes very little seems to happen to these characters on a surface level during this amount of time, but there will almost always be some thematic element that ties these stories together. Characters’ lives will run parallel, or contrast, or connect in some way. I’m not quite sure that ‘The Runaways’ is that kind of an episode. From the beginning, it was almost bursting with plot points, and a ton of characters were involved. This made for a sometimes chaotic, yet very entertaining hour of television. You know something weird is going on when there’s a scene involving a threesome on Mad Men and it doesn’t even come close to the episode’s craziest moment.
Lou Avery is even more lame than we could have possibly imagined. I was a big Underdog fan growing up, and I can tell you, Scout’s Honor is no Underdog. Who wants to watch a weird monkey cartoon when they could watch an awesome dog fight crime? When Lou weirdly equates himself to Bob Dylan after the rest of the creative staff finds out about his cartoon ambitions, it only makes him look more pathetic.
Remember two weeks ago when I suggested that the girl who approached Don during his business meeting with a rival ad agency might have been Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie? Turns out I was wrong, because Stephanie shows up in this episode seven months pregnant and looking like she belongs on Marigold Sterling’s commune. Apparently, you could take cross-country flights like it was nothing in 1969, because when Stephanie calls Don at the office, he tells her to go to Megan’s house in Laurel Canyon and to wait for him. On the surface, Megan does all the right things when Stephanie shows up. She cooks her steak, gives her clean clothes, and lets her take a bath, but there was definitely still the sense that Megan couldn’t wait to get Stephanie out of her house. She’s hosting a party for her acting friends, and she doesn’t want Don’s messy past to get in the way. Ultimately, Don never even gets to see Stephanie. She’s probably the most literal runaway in this episode—it appears she has tuned in and dropped out—but really this episode is full of young people thumbing their noses at the older generation, from the “flag-burning snots” that make up SC&P’s creative team to Sally Draper.
Speaking of Sally, she sure knows how to land a blow where it will hurt the most (and in this way she’s probably more like Betty than she’ll ever admit). After Betty rightfully gets upset with Henry for leaving her in the dark with regard to his political views on Vietnam and for generally treating her like a child, she receives a call from Miss Porter’s—Sally’s bruised her nose (while sword fighting with golf clubs…). When Betty starts to lay into her daughter, Sally points out that Betty would be worthless without her perfect looks. This had to cut Betty deep, after failing to be the perfect mom on Bobby’s field trip earlier this season and then leaving Henry hanging at the progressive dinner here, she must be wondering, “what exists beyond life as a trophy wife?” I’m interested to see where Betty goes from here. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to her that she’s not content with her current life and that no one really values her. Maybe she’ll go to work with Francine.
Back in LA, Megan gets to have her party. Everyone’s getting high and listening to Blood Sweat and Tears until Harry Crane shows up. Don’s tired of watching Megan dance with some other guy, so he asks Harry if he wants to go out and grab a drink. At this point, we’re about forty-five minutes into the episode, but that doesn’t mean that Matthew Weiner and co-writer David Iserson can’t drop a bomb on us—Harry tells Don that Lou and Jim Cutler are actively pursuing Phillip Morris’s Commander cigarettes and that if they land the account, Don will be out of a job at SC&P, since he famously told off American Tobacco in the New York Times after Lucky Strike dropped SCDP as a client back in season four. Don is so floored by this news that when he returns to Megan’s later that night, he can’t even seem to enjoy a threesome with Megan and her actress friend, who looks like Julianne Moore. Don’s mind is on work. Plus, he really wanted to hang out with Megan and Stephanie while in California, the extracurriculars with Megan’s red-headed actress friend aren’t going to fill that hole.
Sensing what’s on the line, Don shows up to the Phillip Morris meeting unannounced. Even though neither his “partners” at the agency nor the Phillip Morris guys really want him there, Don pitches himself as the ultimate tobacco salesman, someone who saved cigarettes from the gallows. Someone who told off American Tobacco, which just happens to be Phillip Morris’ biggest competitor. Whether this pitch works for Don or not remains to be seen, but it might be the most “Don Draper thing” he’s done since about season four.
Okay, so I saved the weirdest for last. I always thought that Michael Ginsberg seemed like kind of a strange guy, and some of his comments have been especially off-color this season. When he sticks tissue paper in his ears in an attempt to drown out the computer’s humming, he looks like the alien he always claimed to be, but nothing could have truly prepared me for Ginsberg’s fate in this episode. It was crazy enough that he felt like the computer was going to turn everyone in the office gay and that he tried to have sex with Peggy, but the “nipple gift” has to rank right up there with Mad Men’s weirdest moments—it’s alongside Peggy stabbing Abe with a makeshift bayonet and the lawnmower accident in the season three episode ‘Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.’ This has to be the strangest way that a character has ever been written off a show, and poor Peggy, as if her life hadn’t sucked enough already this season, she had to be the one to call the mental facility to come take away one of her co-workers (plus, she had to look at a severed nipple).
Lou Avery and Jim Cutler might be the closest thing Mad Men has ever had to bad guys. I kind of liked Cutler’s final words to Don, “you think this will save you?” It seemed so evil and a little over-the-top for a show that doesn’t usually do those kinds of things. But I can’t say that I’m not eagerly anticipating some kind of ultimate showdown between Don and these two. Lucky for Don, he’s known the secret of tobacco all along—it’s toasted.
By John Andrew Fraser
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters on April 2, 1968—about a year before this episode of Mad Men takes place. In that film, monkeys gathered around a mysterious black slab as they learned to use bones as tools. That same black slab reappears in one of the movie’s final scenes as an elderly Dr. David Bowman reaches out to touch it while he is on what appears to be his death bed. That monolith was infinite, just like the one Lloyd, the Lease Tech guy, describes to Don.
Like 2001, ‘The Monolith’ is full of little nuggets concerning man’s past, present, and what exists beyond. When Lloyd asks Don for a light he muses, “the perils of technology; man can’t make fire.” Ginsberg’s angry because SC&P’s new computer is presently pushing the agency’s creatives to the side. Meanwhile, Roger and his daughter gaze up at the moon, and she wonders if we’ll ever put a man up there.
While the episode’s title is obviously referring to the large, upright slab that is the agency’s new computer, it’s also a reference to the large and increasingly impersonal corporate structure that has taken over at SC&P this season—of which the computer is really just the latest symptom. Volatile creative geniuses, like Don Draper, have been replaced by adequate, yet boring, middle managers like Lou Avery—not only at SC&P but all over corporate America. After watching ‘The Monolith’ it’s hard not to think that everyone at the agency is really just a cog in the machine. After a certain amount of time, they’ll all end up in the dump right next to a pile of out-dated IBM models.
It didn’t take long for Don to break the rules at work. To be fair, Jim Cutler and the other partners seem like they’re trying their best to make him fail. Don is the kind of employee who doesn’t receive agency-wide memos, he’s basically left to play solitaire in his office by himself all day, and when he is finally given an account, he’s forced to work under his former-protege who currently hates him. When he goes to Bert Cooper with the idea to present to Lease Tech while their in the office installing the computer, Bert basically tells Don that he’s about as valuable to SC&P as Lane Pryce’s rotting corpse. That’s the last straw—Don’s pouring out the coke and downing the vodka.
Perhaps the one partner who could have actually helped Don through his rough couple days at work was out of the office dealing with his own problems for most of this episode. The apple sure doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Sterling family. While Mona was rightfully turned-off by her daughter’s commune lifestyle, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised (given the commune-like atmosphere in his own hotel room) that Roger decided to stick around and smoke some weed with Margaret and her cult friends. After awhile, I almost felt like Roger was just going to stay on the commune and leave the ad world behind (would anyone at SC&P, besides Don, really even miss him at this point?). But after he sees Margaret sneak off with some hippy in the middle of the night, his paternal instincts kick in, and he tells her that she needs to be at home with her son. But Margaret’s just like her dad. He was never there for her when she was a child, so why does she need to be there for her kids? Roger suggesting otherwise just makes him a hypocrite. Who’s to say that if Roger Sterling hadn’t been born thirty-years later that he wouldn’t be living on a commune in upstate New York too? Where do Roger and his mud-stained suit go from here?—maybe to beat up some rednecks in a bar?—I’m guessing that the answer isn’t going to be good.
Despite all his stupid decisions, on some subconscious level, maybe Don knew he wanted to save himself from officially getting fired from SC&P. He calls Freddy Rumsen—maybe the only guy capable of talking some sense into him. Freddy’s hit rock bottom. He’s the ultimate cautionary tale from advertising’s golden age and he can see that Don’s halfway down the same path. He delivers a harsh but necessary message to Don, “start from the bottom, because that’s really all you can do at this point,” and the episode ends with Don promising Peggy his twenty-five tag lines by lunchtime. I think that there’s something to the fact that Don promises the tags, rather than I actually delivering them.
As we’ve learned from Mad Men and its predecessor, The Sopranos, real change is often difficult and painful to achieve. Don Draper spent a lot of this episode back-sliding, but things seemed to end with him preparing to get back on the right track. But how long until someone finds that empty bottle of vodka in his office? How long until there are more empty liquor bottles in Don’s trash? How long until Lloyd tells someone about his strange encounter with boozy-Don? How long until Don’s replacement is no longer Lou Avery, but HAL 3000?