Mad Men’s ‘The Strategy,’ With Peggy and Don’s Late-Night Powwow, is S7’s Best Episode (So Far)
The final episode before the mid-season finale offered an embarrassment of riches, along with some heavy allusions to the finest hour in Mad Men history—Season 4’s ‘The Suitcase.’ [Warning: SPOILERS]
The sexiest thing about Don Draper, the swinging-dick protagonist of Mad Men, isn’t his steely gaze, perfect jawline, or the way he makes every other fella in a suit look like a guttersnipe by comparison. It’s his air of mystery. His vulnerability. And nobody can bring out the suave ad man’s soft side quite like his kindred spirit, Peggy Olson.
In “The Strategy,” the sixth episode of the show’s seventh (and final) season, and the final one before the mid-season finale, there’s an important moment that harks back to one of the most pivotal episodes in Don’s life. Megan, Don’s dishy second wife, has paid him an unexpected visit. After rifling through their closet in search of a fondue pot and designer treads to haul back to California, a copy of The New York Times’ infamous issue, dated Nov. 23, 1963, lies on their bed. Don glances at the cover, which reads: “KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER AS HE RIDES IN CAR IN DALLAS; JOHNSON SWORN IN ON PLANE.”
To Don, the JFK assassination is inextricably linked to the collapse of his first marriage—his being forced to come clean to Betty about his deserter past as Dick Whitman, his inability to connect with Betty’s grief over the death of the president, and Betty’s subsequent request for a divorce. The Don we see in Season 7 is very different to the Don of Season 3. He’s trapped in an unhappy bicoastal marriage to his ex-secretary, has little contact with his children, and is no longer a partner at SC&P but a member of middle management. In short, he’s had his balls cut off and his heart cut out, which leads to yet another late-night commiseration session between Peggy and Don (more on that later).
“The Strategy” opens with two different strategic approaches. There’s Peggy harassing customers in the parking lot of Burger Chef with survey questions, and then there’s Pete’s latest squeeze, Bonnie, who—for god knows what reason—wants a ring on it. She’s disturbed that Pete refuses to introduce her to his daughter, Tammy, let alone finalize his divorce from his wife, Trudy. “I don’t know where this is going. I don’t want it to fail on account of delay,” she tells him during their in-flight movie. Then, she puts her hand down his pants and whispers, “Meet me in the restroom in sixty seconds.” “I’ve… always wanted to do that!” Pete replies.
Don, meanwhile, has implemented a more subtle strategy—to bring those who worship him into the fold, gathering troops for his showdown with the duo of Lou and Cutler, who are hell-bent on bringing him down. The first is Pete, who all but appoints Don point man in the Burger Chef deal, saying, “Our success would be further assured if Don delivered the presentation… Lou, you’ve never seen Don at his best. It will be a tearjerker.” After Ted chimes in and agrees from L.A., Peggy agrees to assume the role of—duh—the mother during the presentation, while Don will play the role of the man because he’ll give it “authority.” “You know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business!” shrieks Pete, reinforcing Peggy’s glass ceiling.
Meanwhile, Bob Benson has returned from Detroit—accompanied by Chevy exec Bill Hartley, played by the douchey villain from The Wedding Singer. Hartley gets pinched (and the absolute crap kicked out of him) by the fuzz for trying to put the moves on an undercover male cop, and then has a heart-to-heart with Benson in the back of a taxicab. “I’m gonna miss having you around,” he tells Benson, alluding to their past relationship, before coming clean that SC&P are losing Chevy, and Benson will be offered a job with Buick.
The whole episode springs to mind another event in Season 3—the firing of the closeted Sal from Sterling Cooper after he refuses the sexual advances of Lee Garner Jr., a shady Lucky Strike exec. Hartley concludes the chat by telling Benson he’ll take the day off tomorrow, adding, “My wife understands… thank God.”
This gives ladder-climbing Benson an idea: why not propose to Joan? Like the closeted Hartley, if he’s to become a bigwig at a major company like Buick, he’s going to need to portray the proper image. So, he pops the question, kissing her.
“You don’t want this,” says Joan. “Bob, you shouldn’t be with a woman.”
“I know I’m flawed, but I’m offering you more than anyone else ever will,” Benson replies.
“No, you’re not, Bob, because I want love, and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement,” she says. “And you should, too.”
As we’ve seen, Joan will do anything for love, including stay with her rapist Army husband and turn her back on the charismatic Roger Sterling, whom she knows will only leave her in pieces.
Meanwhile, Pete gets into a hypocritical row with Trudy over her heading out on a date, yelling, “It’s immoral… you have a child!” After chastising him for being an absentee father—their daughter, Tammy, barely recognizes him—she tells him, “You’re not a part of this family anymore.” This sends Pete into a funk, and he bails on a date to see Oh! Calcutta! with Bonnie. He tries to put the moves on her to make up for it.
“You’re not gonna f--k your way out of this,” she angrily replies.
Because it’s cable, the “f--k” was bleeped out. Interestingly enough, the first time the F-word was bleeped on the show came during the fourth season episode “Hands and Knees,” when Roger blames Pete for torpedoing the deal with North American Aviation (Pete was, of course, protecting Don from a government background check).
Here, Pete’s come to Don’s rescue again. And, when Joan reveals to the other partners that the firm is losing Chevy, Cutler proposes they issue press releases touting their credentials, and naming Harry Crane as a partner. Joan, of course, disagrees—since the sexist Harry’s openly mocked her for the way she made partner—while Don is game because it boosts another person on Team Draper into a position of influence for the pending Don/Roger vs. Lou/Cutler battle.
After taking in a screening of I Am Curious (Yellow), the notorious Swedish softcore porn that was briefly banned in Massachusetts in 1969 on obscenity grounds, and features a strange cameo by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Don and Peggy gather in Lou’s office to discuss the Burger Chef presentation. The scene is a nod to arguably the best episode in Mad Men history, Season 4’s “The Suitcase,” where Peggy and Don, while whipping up a presentation for Samsonite, discussed her baby with Pete, and Don broke down in tears after being informed of Anna Draper’s death. That episode ended with Don taking Peggy’s hand in his—which contrasted with the series premiere, wherein a nervous Peggy, after screwing up on her first day as Don’s secretary, came on to Don by placing her hand on his.
The Burger Chef conundrum leads to another poignant exchange between the two lost souls. Peggy asks, “What the hell do I know about being a mom? I just turned 30, Don.” But Don comforts her, replying, “I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about you.” Peggy wonders what Don has to worry about. “That I never did anything, and that I don’t have anyone,” he says despondently. Then, she brings the talk back to Burger Chef, and the surveying she did in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. “I looked in the window of so many station wagons,” says Peggy, tearing up. “What did I do wrong?” Don hands her his handkerchief. “You’re doing great,” he says.
Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” starts playing on Lou’s radio, and the two begin to slow-dance.
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…
Peggy and Don, two trusted confidantes who’ve been both been dealt rotten hands—Don’s whorehouse roots, Peggy’s struggle to succeed in a man’s world—but have endured. Ultimately, the trio of Peggy, Don, and Pete gather at Burger Chef, where Peggy says they’re rejiggering the plan. The presentation won’t be about moms, but about family—the one thing that’s eluded Don, Pete, and Peggy.