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
It’s almost always frustrating when reality fails to match up with our hopes, dreams, and the images we construct for ourselves in our minds. I bet Don felt like Megan would be happy to see him when he surprised her in California. I bet he visualized his return to SC&P as some kind of triumphant event where he’d come riding in on a white horse and drop-kick Lou Avery out a thirtieth-story window. It seems pretty clear that at least a part of Betty Draper dreams of becoming the perfect mother. Unfortunately, in ‘Field Trip,’ none of these things work out the way these two characters had planned. In fact, they don’t work out at all.
Megan is happy to see Don at first, but things quickly turn sour when she finds out that he’s really in Los Angeles to check up on her per her agent’s request. She expects the worst from Don when he’s back in New York by himself. He’s always away from the phone when she calls the office. When he calls back it’s always quiet—her guess is that he’s probably off cheating on her while consuming copious amounts of Canadian Club whiskey somewhere in a midtown Manhattan hotel. Megan’s about a season too late with the accusations of adultery, but somehow when the truth comes out about why Don’s never around his office phone it’s even more painful. The fact that Don had been lying to her about his work situation for months, the fact that he clearly doesn’t want to move to L.A. to be with her, makes her reevaluate everything. Last week, honesty led Don to the smallest ray of light. This week, it threw him back into the darkness. Maybe this is where it ends for Don and Megan.
Meanwhile, something sparks inside Betty while she’s having lunch with her old Ossining friend, Francine. While both used to be housewives, Francine’s now working as a travel agent, a job she calls a “reward.” Betty responds by claiming that her place is at home with her kids. Apparently, she really sells herself on this idea, because as soon as she gets home she volunteers to go on a school field trip with Bobby’s class to an upstate New York farm.
Everything about the trip feels weird. Betty’s sitting on the bus talking with her son about the Wolfman and Dracula. Bobby’s teacher isn’t wearing a bra. The class gets off at the farm, and Betty volunteers to drink cow’s milk straight from a pail. What?! Betty’s actually being a pretty good mom for once, until she lashes out at Bobby during lunch time for trading her sandwich for some gumdrops. Betty wanted so badly to prove to herself that she really was a good mother, but in the end, the reality of it is that she just reverts to being Betty.
I give Don some credit. He could’ve used his fight with Megan as an excuse to go on a forty-eight hour bender or something, but when he gets back to New York he seems clear-headed and hungry. He’s still being courted by other agencies, and in this episode he finally gets a formal offer from one. This matches an offer he gets from a random blonde girl who claims to know him (random question: Was I the only one who thought that this girl looked exactly like Anna Draper’s niece—I believe her name was Stephanie—who we met briefly in season four? I was sure it was her when she appeared onscreen last night). I thought Don might take the bait (from both the girl and the new agency), but he really just used the offer as leverage during an impromptu meeting with Roger. Don wants to come back, and maybe it’s because he doesn’t want his BLT to get cold, but Roger tells him to return on Monday.
But on Monday Don is that kid who invited himself to the party (rather than the guy strolling in on the white horse). He’s the man in the corner who’s left alone while everyone talks
behind his back. Ginsberg and Stan might be happy to see him, but the partners are not thrilled to say the least. Jim Cutler even thought that they had fired him. Ultimately, the partners decide to bring Don back, not because they particularly like him or respect him, but because it would take too much money to buy him out (and the agency’s eyeing a new computer!) His return is based on several conditions, however: he’s not to be alone with clients, he must stick to the script in meetings, he can’t drink in the office, and he has to report to Lou. Oh yeah, and he gets to take the office where Lane hung himself. Can Don Draper really change? We’re about to find out.
From Don’s first day back, to a possible Stephanie sighting, to Betty and Bobby’s country excursion, much of ‘Field Trip’ seemed like it took place in a weird kind of off-kilter reality. Sometimes when you step away from things and later return, everything seems like its upside down. I guess it’s only fitting then that this episode closes with Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 were 9.”
By John Andrew Fraser
Don Draper’s apartment is kind of like mine. Alright, his is way nicer, but we both have cockroaches that periodically scurry around our kitchens, and judging by the fact that he’s eating a meal that consists of Ritz crackers, I’d guess that our cooking abilities are roughly equivalent as well. Last week Don enlisted Freddy Rumsen to be his mouth while he was on leave. This week we learn that Dawn, his old secretary, is his eyes and ears at SC&P. He’s also taking lunches with other ad agencies, although they’ve heard the news—he broke down and cried in a meeting about chocolate or something like that.
Speaking of SC&P, things seem more fractured and disorganized at the office than ever. Is it possible that the sum of the agency’s parts no longer add up to a greater whole? The communications between California and New York are disjointed at best, and everybody seemed to want to fire their secretary in this episode. I noticed this last week, but I think it’s worth saying now—It really feels like all the old SCDP partners are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Obviously, Don’s out of the agency completely, and I don’t think we got one scene with Roger in the office last week. This week Jim Cutler tells Roger that he doesn’t want him to be an adversary (a.k.a. step aside old man). It’s worth asking just how long it might be until Roger and Bert Cooper are put out to pasture just like Don.
Yet, as SC&P might be beginning to burst at the seems, Joan and Dawn come out as real winners in this episode. Joan got no love last week, but finally Jim Cutler (of all people) notices that she has actually been working two jobs ever since she became a partner—she’s head of the secretaries while managing accounts. Cutler gives her a second floor office and tells her that she can pick someone new to head up the secretaries. Dawn was a perfect fit for this position and the scene where she inherits Joan’s office was one of the episode’s best. Lou Avery sucks (he can’t even buy his wife perfume when he’s supposed to), but Dawn might never have gotten that promotion if Lou didn’t blow up at her for not being at her desk when Sally unexpectedly arrived at the office. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
While things were looking up for Joan and Dawn, Peggy still seemed to be stuck in the mud. For a second, I thought she was going to have another breakdown like the one at the end of last week’s episode when she found out that those flowers she thought were from Ted were actually for Shirley, her secretary. Nobody at SC&P really seems to be on Peggy’s side anymore, and she’s become increasingly isolated, drinking and brooding in her office during the day like she was channeling the ghost of Don Draper. So many fans thought that Peggy would be the female character on the show to finally break through the glass ceiling at the agency, but at this rate I wouldn’t be completely surprised if she ended up pursuing something else entirely as the series’ ended.
While the office politics were interesting, the real emotional core of this episode for me involved the scenes between Don and Sally. Those who thought that Don’s confession and cautious glance he shared with his daughter at the end of season six would magically mend the cracks in their relationship were wrong. Mad Men and real life don’t work that way. However, even though the two characters still have a lot healing to do, there was progress here. While Sally catches Don in another lie, when she visits the office and finds out that he no longer works there, he owns up to it and tells her that he was fired for telling the truth about his past at
a very inappropriate time. The two also speak openly about his affair with Sylvia for the first time. When Don asks Sally what he should write in a note to her school explaining why she would be late getting back, and she responds “tell the truth,” she’s talking about so much more than just the letter. At this point, it seems like Sally sees her dad for who he really is, flaws and all, and although she may be disappointed, she has gained a tentative level of acceptance. When she says “I love you” to Don at the end of the episode, it might be the most uplifting moment Mad Men has had in about two seasons.
Overall, I’d say that ‘A Day’s Work’ left me feeling a little more optimistic than last week’s ‘Time Zones.’ Still, there were a ton of death references to work with here. The reason that Sally pops into Don’s life is because she’s attending her roommate’s mother’s funeral in the city (and Don appears to be weirdly interested in the fun, eral). Pete Campbell (who seems a lot more like the old Pete Campbell in this episode), says that ever since he moved to California he feels like no one notices him. “It’s like I’ve gone to heaven, or hell, or purgatory,” he tells Ted. Ted’s response?—“You’re going to die someday. Just cash the checks.” What’s all this setting us up for? Mad Men is a pretty morbid show most of the time, so I don’t know if we can really even guess yet. But for now, it’s just good to know that on Valentine’s Day a simple and genuine “I love you,” is almost always more meaningful than the stuff that the Don Draper’s of the world try to sell us. I think even Don himself realized that on some level tonight. That’s progress, right?