Monday, May 19, 2014

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x6)

"Does this family even exist anymore?"

Often times on Mad Men, the pitch presented in the episode is working to demonstrate the overall themes found within the hour itself. Sometimes the pitch strengthens whatever is happening to the characters, and sometimes it's a ironic nod to how different the "real" world works. In this weeks episode, "The Strategy," the pitch is the latter. This pitch, which will be presented to Burger Chef, is way too complex for a TV ad and has an almost overly romantic (read: old fashioned) quality to it. Burger Chef (which my mom tells me was a real place) wants to get more moms to visit the franchise for their dinner, but the housewife of 1969 feels guilty for not cooking dinner that night. As Peggy says later on, "mom's job is to make dinner and Burger Chef's job is to stop her." The pitch, then, revolves around the idea that moms can get permission from their husbands to pick up Burger Chef for dinner instead of having a home cooked meal and it will be a special treat served with love. As Lou says in the middle of the presentation, "it's nice to see families happy again!" Because that's the great irony of this episode--there are no families like this anymore. Don doesn't go home every night to a roast and a waiting wife and dutiful children. Peggy isn't simply passing time until she gets married and has babies. Joan is a single mother who's ex-husband is not her son's father, and Peter is getting a divorce and his own daughter barely recognizes him. The episode walks us through just how unhappy these supposed families are until Peggy (drunkly) stumbles onto the right idea: family is what you make it. 

Let's start with Pete. For the first time this season, we find Pete Campbell back in New York City. And despite his sunny demeanor back in California, Pete hasn't changed all that much and it shows once he lands in the Big Apple. He's still ruthless and cold and somewhat oblivious. He can't even see how telling Peggy that she's "just as good as any other woman in this business!" is a slap in the face.  Pete expects that, when he gets back to NYC, his little family will be waiting with open arms, even if he doesn't want to be part of it anymore. He expects that Trudy will be in their former home, waiting to at least say hello and make conversation, and that his daughter Tammy will be excited to see her father and rush at him with open arms. But it doesn't work that way. Pete's been gone too long and in a way, he never fit into that life in the first place. He never wanted to be in the country and he resented being forced to live outside of the city. Walking back into a life he never really wanted, expecting that everything would be peachy, is an unrealistic expectation. But because the theme of this episode is that family is what you make it and that the cliche family of yesteryear no longer exists, Pete's family's reaction to him shouldn't be a surprise. The Campbell family could have been the family in Peggy's ad: the housewife mother, the little girl, and daddy who expects a dinner on the table after he spent all day providing for them. But these characters don't live in that world anymore. Instead, Trudy makes sure that she is out whenever Peter comes over and Peter resents Trudy's absence. The interaction between Pete and Trudy at the end was delicious; she's trying to be polite and Pete is being, well, Pete. It was even shot like a typical family scene, except for the angry dialogue. She's dressed up and looking gorgeous, he's just come home and is having a drink, there is even a cake on the table. It looks like this might be that perfect little family, but it's not.

And what's worse is that this little reminder that Pete does not have a happy family, blows up his relationship with Bonnie. How odd is it that Pete has actually found someone with whom he is well suited? Trudy was never really his type because she was aggressive when need-be but she was also too independent, with her own money. Bonnie is assertive and aggressive and like Peter, she is a shark. She resents sitting at home and being told to "wait" for Pete. Which brings us full circle with Peter and his women--Trudy no longer sits in her house waiting for Peter to come home and Bonnie refuses to sit around and wait for a sullen and grumpy Peter. Is this the end for Bonnie and Pete? Part of me says yes; Bonnie is far too independent and self assured to let Peter play with her like this. But the other part of me saw how sad she looked on the plane back to LA, staring at the seat in which he should have been sitting. So much for the happy Campbell family.

Bob! Who knew we'd cheer when seeing Bob Benson again? Bob has been in Detroit handling the car account but has come home to see his "family," which mainly consists of Joan, her mother, and Joan's son Kevin. I love the irony here that Peter shows up at his former house to see his biological daughter and treated coldly, but Uncle Bob comes in to a warm welcome and hugs from Kevin. Note that they are both wearing plaid jackets and a tie, but that Pete's is decidedly more "cold" in color, while Bob's jacket and tie is sunny and warm. He's the one being greeted with joy. Perhaps it's because Bob is no threat to this family; he doesn't seek to upset the balance. At least, Joan doesn't suspect it of him. He's just Bob--her gay friend who keeps his life to himself for fear of persecution. There is little doubt in my mind that Joan knows plenty of gay men. She lives in the Village, right around the corner from where the Stonewall Riots will occur (and it's no coincidence that they brought Bob back at this moment; the Stonewall Riots are, if our calender is right, about a week or so away from happening literally right outside her door). If there is one thing to remember about Bob, it's that he's much more comfortable than our previous gay character, Sal, of the earliest seasons. Sal was totally closeted, deep in an unhappy and arranged marriage, fighting who he truly was. Bob knows he's gay, is fine with it, but also knows that he has to keep it to himself for fear of bodily harm and professional harm. In 1969, you could be fired for being gay, and as Bob is about to be reminded, the cops weren't going to take pity on you if they caught you trying to have a gay liaison.

 One of the GM executives is gay. In a city like Detroit, he maintains his image of being a "normal" guy with an arrangement with his wife and just being careful overall. But in NYC, with the amount of temptation right in front of him, he forgets how to stay safe, and winds up trying to solicit a NYC cop. I cannot emphasize enough how much danger a gay man was in, if he were caught. The cop's suggestion that the GM exec should see a counselor is on point and very typical. Homosexuality was viewed as a disease of the mind and something that could be cured. Beyond that, the cop clearly has no qualms about the fact that a member of his force brutally assaulted the GM exec and the exec himself knows he can't complain or go to the hospital because--point blank--very few people are going to care that a man trying to have a same sex relationship was beaten to a pulp. This is a wake up call for Bob, especially when he hears that GM is going to promote him to an executive himself. What should an executive have? A family. A good, clean, honest family. Enter poor Joanie.

For Bob, Joan is the perfect solution to his problem. With Joan, he can have the happy life that will be expected of him as a career man, but because she already knows that he's gay, he can live the life he wants without fear of repercussions. It's a nice tidy arrangement. But it's also not what Joan wants. I have to wonder what Joan's answer would have been had Bob asked her a few years ago. Our Joanie has grown quite a bit since season one when she was just waiting for a man to propose so she could leave her job and be a mother and wife. That was the ideal; working for S & C was just to pay the bills and let her live a single life while waiting. But now, Joan has moved up quite a bit. She's not just the head secretary; she's a partner and an account woman. She's become a modern woman that, 7 season ago, she would have scoffed at. Joan settled for a man who raped and abused her once; she won't settle again. Her magnificent speech to Bob hit the nail on the head: "I want love. And I would rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement." The fictional family is just that: fictional. Also, notice that in this situation, Joan is much more concerned that SC&P are loosing the car company, not this marriage proposal out of left field.

Joan has a more personal reason than most in not wanting to loose the car company. Remember, this is the account that was only won after Joan prostituted herself to the head of the dealership back in season 5. For one night with Joan, the car company would belong to SC&P. Unlike the other partners, Joan didn't earn her partnership through hard work; she used sex to get where she is and it has bothered her ever since. Loosing the car, and making Harry Crane a partner to boot, further de-emphasizes Joan's importance to the company as a whole. With every new partner or brilliant worker, Joan finds herself in danger of becoming just the secretary again. And of course they finally make Harry Crane a partner. He's been vying for it for some time now. This company is very fractured family. The patriarch, Bert, spends his days reading the paper and not much else. Jim and Roger are conducting a silent war of wills, trying to outdo the other (Jim is clearly winning as Roger spends his days drunk and waiting for permission to go home. Jim brought in the giant computer, at least). Pete has run away to California with a depressed shell of a man known as Ted. Don has been sidelined due to bad behavior. And now Joan feels more threatened with the addition of yet another partner. Not so long ago, this company, though flawed, at least knew how to speak to each other and work together. Now, this little company family, is just as torn as the biological families that make it up.

Megan has finally found her way back to NYC. And wow, she is miserable. I think every single part of Megan hates being back in this city. She's much more suited to LA living. The visit stars off poorly when Peggy's secretary makes the big mistake of saying she didn't know Don was married. That's twice in two weeks that a stranger to Megan has been shocked to learn that Don has a wife. To Megan, it means that she is a non-entity; so unimportant in Don's life that no one even knows she exists. And so this little reminder that Megan doesn't exist in Don's world is what kicks off their incredibly depressing weekend together. Now, I have to give them credit where credit is due. Unlike Betty and Don, who at this point in their marriage were fighting and arguing and making threats, Megan and Don put on a nice little show of still being in love and wanting their marriage to work. She's up early, making breakfast. They kiss. Megan says she misses him and even makes the suggestion that they get away together, someplace that isn't NYC and isn't LA. But underneath it all is an awkwardness and a resentment that neither can avoid.

The romantic breakfast Megan makes? Overshadowed by Megan's refusal to admit that she missed "all of this" (meaning NYC). The kisses? Brief and perfunctory. The suggestion that they get away together? Only comes after Megan is literally caught trying to pack up her things and take them to LA. There was a lot of hidden depth in the hallway scene. It starts with Don reading an old newspaper, published the day after Kennedy was shot. And what was going on in the Draper life at that time? Betty was packing up and leaving. It was the Kennedy assassination that finally gave Betty the strength to demand a divorce and leave Don once and for all. So the fact that Don, several years later, is looking at a paper reminding him of that is not good.  This is followed by Megan becoming alarmed at the idea of Don flying out to LA at the end of July, before remembering that Don always comes out at the end of the month. Yet another broken family; the first year of their marriage was a good, if sometimes fraught with drama. They were in love and happy; but now, I think they both know it's over but can't bring themselves to say it. Megan is accustomed to her life, even if she wishes she could be more free spirited. Don doesn't want to loose yet another woman to his never ending pile of issues. But there is just nothing keeping them together anymore. Megan wants her things out in LA, Don wants Megan in NYC, and there is no middle ground. They can't go someplace where it's just them because a change of scenery isn't going to help the Draper household. Like the miles that separate LA and NYC, so to does it separate Don and Megan.

So what is family now? Well it's not married couples. And it's not a well structured businesses. It's what you make it. Family is who's sitting at the table with you. At this point, does Peggy even have a family? She has no boyfriend or husband. We never see her mother and sister. She gave up her only child. All that Peggy had was her work, and it turns out, she's good at it (brilliant even) but she's not a man. Pete recommends letting Don handle the pitch to Burger Chef and letting Peggy be "the voice of moms." First off, Peter, this is just cruel as you know very well that Peggy gave up your child and has no idea what being a mom means. But that's how men saw the world: all woman have that maternal instinct and can just be motherly when called upon. Peggy agrees to let Don handle the pitch, but you can tell how uncomfortable it makes her--to the point where she wants to change the entire strategy. Peggy knows there is a better idea out there, but isn't there always? That's the job, "living in the not knowing." And so, on a Sunday afternoon, Peggy and Don find themselves alone in the office, Don trying to show Peggy how he thinks so that she can come up with a new idea all on her own. I really appreciated the way Don actually sits down and tries to show Peggy how he comes up with his brilliant ideas. Don, of several season ago, would never have done that. He would have told Peggy to just take her paycheck like a good little girl and do whatever he said in terms of work. But now, they are more equal. And that's when magic happens.

I have so much love for this scene. Drunk and depressed, Peggy and Don hash out their own individual problems that the pitch is forcing them to confront. For Peggy, it's that she's 30 now and has nothing outside of her job. "What did I do wrong?" she asks. Nothing, Peggy Olsen. You've done nothing wrong. For Don, it's that "I've never done anything and that I don't have anyone." Peggy, meet Dick. For just the smallest of moments, Dick Whitman rears his head. John Hamm is such an amazing talent, that he snuck just the tiniest bit of an accent change to drive home that this was Dick Whitman speaking, not Don Draper. Neither one of these two has that traiditonal family anymore (or perhaps ever). The difference is that for Don, this strategy of the happy family seems more real than the reality he's living in. When Peggy says, off the cuff, that instead of the mom returning home from errands, she's coming home from work, Don scoffs and asks, "what's her profession?" And that's when it hits Peggy: woman work. This pitch shouldn't be about taking dinner home where the TV is and trying to recreate some sort of nostalgic yesteryear. The traditional family is gone for most of the customers. So instead, "what if there was a place with no TV. Where you could break bread and whoever you were sitting with, was your family." This is revolutionary in advertising; this is the idea that you don't have to pitch to the "traditional" family because you recognize that there is no such thing. Both Don and Peggy know they've just stumbled onto something that's perfect and then they have this wonderful little moment where they dance to "My Way" by Frank Sinatra. Now, please don't misunderstand. This isn't romantic. Don hasn't found himself a new mistress. This is season 2 when Peggy woke up to find Don sitting by her bedside in the psych ward and he told her, "this never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened." This is season 4 when Don learned that Anna died and Peggy was the only person around and they comforted each other. This is Peggy and her mentor/father figure getting past some of their grief and heartache and regret by being a family. I have so much love for this scene.

From one perfect scene to another one. Sitting down and breaking bread. It's what families do. Pete is hesitant to agree to this new strategy of shooting in the resturant and emphasizing "family" over "mom" because family is more vague. But that's rather the point of the episode, and in the end, the pitch. There is no "mom and dad and two kids" anymore. Family is defined by who you sit down with. And here's Don Draper and the family he's chosen. And in a way, it makes a lot of sense. If Sally is the most important person in Don's life, Peggy is the second, and Pete, though they often been at loggerheads, is quite close to the top as well. For example, when Don wanted to start Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price at the end of season 3, he wanted Peggy and Pete on his team. Despite all the hardships these three have been through, they would still choose each other. This is lovely and touching scene reminding us that Don and Peggy and Pete are family.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Strategy

--I can't believe we only have one more episode this half. Then we have to wait almost a full year for the conclusion.

--"Say what you want you will, but he's very loyal." The entire boardroom was just BURNED by Don Draper.

--"When we grow up, we're going to kill you and marry your wife."

--I'm not quite sure what is going on with the car companies. The actual business aspect of Mad Men, outside of the pitches and their relation to the themes of the show, never held my interest for long. 

--I love how happy Don gets at the idea of being able to pitch.

--One quick costume note: very interesting that Joan is wearing a purple dress in the her opening scene. Purple is her heartbreak color (she was wearing an abundance of purple when Greg raped her). Not only is she decked in a color that signals doom and gloom by episode end, but she's also decked out in gold jewelry, emphasizing her new wealth and status as partner. But by the end of the episode when she learns that her company has lost the car and now Harry Crane is going to be partner? Only one small piece of jewelry to be found. 

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