Two themes resonate throughout this most recent episode of Mad Men: the growing strength of women and the changing role of family.
In “The Strategy,” we learn why Peggy has been pissy. She recently turned 30, and she’s ambivalent about where she is, what she has, and what she’s missing. Let’s not forget, age 30 in 1969 is The Establishment. And for a single woman, dare I say it… over the hill.
It’s all about a woman’s resolve (and the potential trade-offs), though we see Don continuing to make his comeback even as he and Peggy are patching things up and reconstructing their rapport.
And let me add – the scenes between these two are a pleasure indeed. This is the Mad Men quality we’ve missed!
Peggy on the Tightrope
While the men around them try to undermine their authority, the women are rolling with the punches or simply refusing to play the game.
Case in point: Lou espouses that women get “permission” from their husbands; Betty hardly does so, and neither does Megan.
More examples: Pete wants girlfriend Bonnie for shopping and sex, and for that matter Don in his own way wants the same of Megan. Yet Bonnie refuses to take Pete’s dismissal of her, Megan is increasingly her own woman in LA, and both Joan and Trudy also aren’t having it.
Peggy is the clearest example of a woman exhibiting her strength, and also what it’s costing her. She’s “managing” Don, though she’s aware that she doesn’t have his experience. I think she’s doing an excellent job of walking a very precarious tightrope! She’s anxious about her age and wondering if she’s missed the chance for family. (All those moms she talked to in their station wagons outside Burger Chef.)
Then again, she’s damn good at her job, she reminds Don how many working women are in their office, and her former boss begins to truly acknowledge her worth.
Transitional Times: Joan
Not only is Peggy a strong woman in a transitional era, but Joan shows her mettle over and over again. She’s unequivocal in refusing Benson’s “arrangement” in which she would become his wife (and beard), while he would set her (and the family) up in a “mansion” in Detroit.
Mrs. Harris is all business. She’s concerned with learning the agency is losing Chevy as a client, and she’s unafraid to make her opinons known… Cue her anger in the vote for Harry Crane as partner.
Joan remains a magnificent mix of 1950s sexy and contemporary smarts. In terms of the storyline, if Peggy is 30, Joan must indeed be 35, 36, 37 or as Benson puts it, “near 40 in a two-bedroom apartment with a mother and a little boy.”
Ouch! And adding salt to the wound, following his unexpected marriage proposal, he says he’s offering her more than anyone else ever will.
But she’s not having any of it, in this lovely, girly, very 1960s speech (that even the sitcom romantics of the 21st century must love), as she responds with evident emotion:
“No you’re not Bob, because I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement… and you should, too.”
Speaking of emotion, prior to the Burger Chef pitch, Pete suggests that Don take the lead in the presentation. Lou and Ted are on board with this approach, though Don wasn’t told, and Peggy is understandably miffed.
They say it’s her decision, but if she’s going to be a team player (one of the boys?), she can’t do anything but agree. It’s small comfort to be on the receiving end of this from Pete, as he crows to the others in the office:
You know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business.
Of course the partners have explained that Peggy is more likely to get the win if Don is “authoritative” and manages the major portion of the presentation. Peggy, they explain, should play the part of the mom and provide the “emotion.”
Peg ‘o My Heart is quick to retort that she’s authoritative and Don is emotional!
Strategy? Whose Strategy?
Given the agency shenanigans over Burger Chef, Chevy, competition with McCann Erickson, and Cutler’s idea of making Harry Crane a partner, there isn’t a single strategy at play in this episode. There are many. But shall we call these strategies, tactics, or machinations?
Peggy finds herself wondering if it’s Don’s strategy to allow her to pitch an acceptable but less than stellar campaign, while he sits back and she looks bad. In fact, we may wonder about his strategy, or whether he actually has one.
Then again, in family matters, strategies may be of little usefulness except in an ad campaign.
Lou may refer to “family happiness” when he pictures husband, wife, and kids around the dinner table. But that model, as Don and Peggy are keenly aware, is already out the door for many. Ultimately these two Don put together a Burger Chef presentation that is all about family rather than moms who don’t want to cook. Moreover, Don, Peggy, and Pete – however dysfunctional – are the “family” at the close, because:
… whoever you’re sitting with is family.
Issues of the Changing Family
Peggy realizes that she doesn’t have family and as she sheds a tear, it’s a touching exchange with Don, who offers a handkerchief and says “I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about you.”
She responds: “What do you have to worry about?”
His sincere and raw response:
That I never did anything. That I don’t have anyone.
Bingo. At one point or another, we all want family. Then again, hasn’t Dick / Don been in search of family since we first meet him in Season 1?
We can see Don’s longing for family – not necessarily Megan – in the scene that takes place on his terrace overlooking Manhattan.
After her surprise visit and presumably a passionate session in bed, he embraces the Missus who stands in the breeze like an apparition. All very television commercial. Yet he seems happy, she seems happy. But Don misses “this;” Megan misses him. Talk about a disconnect!
Pete’s family? It’s a shambles.
Joan’s threesome? They may not garner the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but she, her mother, and her toddler son work. And she’s not willing to “settle” for anything less than what she wants. She’s a maverick in that regard, considering the times.
A Note on Costuming
In this episode that is all about these flawed but very strong women, the costuming is terrific. While the fabrics may feature elements of pattern running through them, the overall effect is of solid colors, confidence, and cohesiveness.
Joan is wearing a deep purple fitted dress. Megan is wearing a more feminine version, also in purple. Peggy is in baby blue, yet the use of a dress with tailored details makes a statement of strength and yes, authority.
Peggy is later dressed in a solid olive-colored vest and skirt, while in her brainstorming scenes with Don she’s wearing a bold, red top. Joan is also in fire-engine red in the conference room as she stands and refuses to endorse Harry as partner.
Joan’s flirty dress in her scene with Benson? It’s a glorious soft blue, with feminine details and a small pattern, reflecting her ability to retain her femininity while still staying true to who she is.
The Bust, the Beard, the Bias, and…
We may all have wondered what the story was with Bob Benson. He used Joan, yet befriended her; she wore no blinders on that score. And if we wondered at all about his sexual orientation, it’s clarified in the scene in which he bails out a client who apparently put the moves on an undercover cop and later, with Joan, when he wants her to be the good wife and his calling card to the executive suite.
We may see an SC&P office with black faces at the desks and women more comfortable speaking their minds, but it’s still a straight white man’s world – and will be for some time.
Two other nifty mentions, if you will permit.
When Don finds Megan going through the closet in search of a fondu pot, it’s evident that their marriage is shredded. They’re going through the motions, even if caring and sex remain part of the equation. And this line was startling, as Megan comments on how deeply Don was sleeping:
You were dead to the world.
I couldn’t help but think of Dick, and again of Don and his standing with the advertising world not long before. Dead to the world, indeed.
And like so many others commenting on this show, in the year of the Sharon Tate murders, I can’t help but wonder who it is, before the series comes to an end, that will wind up dead.
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