"It's nice to see family happiness again," says the ever buffoonish Lou Avery toward the beginning of the 84th episode of a show that has systematically destroyed -- or at least gravely endangered -- just about every family it has portrayed.
He's responding to a Burger Chef idea from Peggy positing not only that this fast-food chain is the glue for the harried contemporary family but also something much bigger: that something like family happiness is even possible post-divorce, sexual revolution, Vietnam and media-driven atomization and so on and so forth.
Everyone, Don included, loves the idea, but that doesn't prevent the dethroned creative royal from undermining his once-charge-now-boss in a get-under-your-skin way that only family members can do. It says everything you need to know about the role of the familial unit in "Mad Men."
Last night's episode, titled "The Strategy," plays a lot with alternative ideas of family, the most extreme version of which comes through with the return of Bob Benson. After a trip to the pokey to bail out a GM client, a fellow homosexual who gets caught making a pass at an undercover policeman, Bob is treated to the news he's going to be hired over to the client-side, on Buick.
That'll require Bob to look like a family man. Which entails finding a wife. Which has him proposing to Joan, with an offer that runs something like, "Hey lady, you're getting old. Wouldn't you rather have a gay husband and live in a big house in Detroit than be stuck a single mother in this small Manhattan apartment? Also, I'm handsome." Happily, she takes a pass and gives us this: "Bob, you shouldn't be with a woman."
Things are a bit more complicated with other characters. The episode begins with Peggy quite literally on the outside, looking in on the family situation as it stood in 1969. In a Burger Chef parking lot somewhere in flyover country, she asks those silly, leading ad agency questions of a sweaty, harried mother buying some burgers to sate her hungry kids. When the mother is begrudgingly coaxed into identifying a a Burger Chef benefit, Peggy cheerfully translates it as "convenience" and, voila, she has herself a strategy. (Hence, the danger of letting creatives do strategy.)
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It's significant that Peggy is treating family as an anthropological subject, because, we all know, she could have had a first-hand view of motherhood, had she been able to keep her own never-discussed child. Instead, having just turned 30, she's left with a void. Earlier this season, we've seen her crying on the floor of her lonely apartment. In her better moments, she's chillaxing with the pudgy neighbor boy Julio, a strange little relationship suggestive of but not nearly as fleshed out as Betty Draper's connection with Glen Bishop.
Peggy and Don's relationship has been strained by the events of recent seasons. His having to report to her after his return to the agency only adds another layer -- adversary -- to a complex relationship that has bounced between boss-secretary, creative director-copywriter, father-daughter, and mentor-mentee.
Last night's episode touches all of these as Don works to undermine her, something made possible by Pete's suggestion that Don actually present Peggy's idea. That leads to Don's "noodling around" with other variations of the original and gives Peggy some pretty severe self-doubt. Sample: "What the hell do I know about being a mom?" Or: "Does this family exist anymore? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at people instead of watching TV?"
Set up for us is a long, great scene that results in Peggy altering her idea, a not-so-bad one that actually plays into real, observed frictions: Mothers feel guilty about not having time to make dinner and needing permission from dad to serve the family junk food. Under Don's influence during a weekend work session, Peggy arrives at an approach that feels almost like a synthesis of her and Don's thinking. But not before working through the tensions of the time.
Don's noodling involved the thought of doing Peggy's ad from the child's point of view, which sounds a lot like his award-winning Glo-Coat ad from way back. Peggy trashes it. "It was terrible." Then Don dismisses Peggy's notion that the mom in the ad be coming home from work.
"What's her profession?" Don asks incredulously.
Peggy: "You are surrounded by all kinds of mothers who work."
Don: "It's too sad for an ad."
What they end up is something between a nostalgic, rigid version of family and something more fluid and in keeping with reality. The idea comes almost as catharsis after a long, wide-ranging conversation that saps them both: "What if there was a place where you could go and there was no TV and you could bread break and anyone you were sitting with was family?"
Though this sounds a touch like Don's "Carousel" pitch, it only toys with nostalgia and ends up with a more communal notion of family, a looser definition where it's not defined by genetics or legal agreement but where you are in a given moment. That's something new. And it's Peggy's, a moment of true creativity that gives way to a lovely, prim dance with Don to Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
The idea is played out in the final scene as Don, Pete and Peggy gather in, where else, a Burger Chef for a makeshift family meal. They're all from broken homes. We've seen Pete wrestle with the fallout of his separation in the form of a child who doesn't seem to know him. On a weekend visit, he makes a fool of himself with Trudy and then screws things up with Bonnie, who we last see flying back to Los Angeles by herself. Don has spent the weekend idealizing Megan, trying to lure her back to New York, while all she wants is to find her fondue pot westward. These two are in different time zones both figuratively and literally. And Peggy is living alone, presumably still with feelings for Ted. At that moment, whether they know it or not, all these characters really have is each other.
For a penultimate episode, this was a quiet one. But this particular trio existing in harmony is an interesting development given what else is going on in the agency, namely the impending loss of Chevy and the ascension of Harry Crane to partner on the back of the agency buying an IBM.
It feels a little like coalitions are being formed. We've already seen Harry and Pete's loyalty to Don. Ted Chaough is ineffective in Los Angeles. Jim Cutler and Roger Sterling are set for a showdown over the Chevy loss and Don's role on potential piece of Philip Morris business.
Meanwhile, with the Chevy XP work shifting to Campbell-Ewald, a McCann-Erickson executive acting paranoid and Bob Benson going to Buick, it begs the question: Does the agency have one more run at a car in it? Do we?
One thing to note regarding the real-world historical calendar: Don mentions to Megan that his next trip to Los Angeles will be in late July, which could set up the finale to put him in there sometime between the first moonwalk and the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson family.