Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mad Men 7-6: The Strategy

I hadn't really thought about it until now, but "Mad Men" is a show full of broken families. In fact, you could even say it's about the breakdown of the American family as much as anything else - or, viewed another way, its evolution from the Kodak-ready family of 1960 to the odd, makeshift work family at a burger joint in 1969.

If I've said it before, I've said it a hundred times: contrary to popular belief, "Mad Men" is not subtle, not really. It will pound a theme into the ground, and this week's episode was a perfect example of that. But what it may lack in subtlety it makes up for in power, and this week's episode was a perfect example of that, too.

There's an attractive coherence in focusing on the dissolution and reconfiguration of the show's various families that stood in stark contrast to the chaos of last week. It helped that the central axis of the episode was the ad campaign for Burger Chef, which served as a kind of Rorschach test for the characters' views on family and the working woman. Don, who's always yearned for the ideal nuclear family he never had as a child and failed - twice - to construct through marriage, brushes away the image of the working mom who's too busy to cook dinner as being "too sad." Pete, grappling with the realization that his marriage is truly, permanently over and that he's a stranger to his own child, pushes Peggy into the role of "mother" and remains fixated on having the ad turn on mothers. And Peggy, after enduring broadsides of casual sexism from both men, broods on the path not taken - marriage, children - before reaffirming that the idyllic vision of family she's trying to shoehorn into the ad isn't the right fit at all, either for the ad or for herself.

Or, for that matter, for Don and Pete, though both men resist that conclusion: Don still holding wistfully onto the beautiful fantasy of domestic bliss with Megan, even as she drifts further and further away, taking the physical reminders of her presence with her; Pete, for all his glee at showing off the hot blond realtor girlfriend from his new life, still hung up on the woman who ejected him from the old one. It's no coincidence that we later see Bonnie and Megan on the same plane back to L.A., leaving behind the men who can't quite accept the idea of a non-traditional partnership with a fully independent working woman. And yet it's also no coincidence that the very last shot of the episode is of those two men at dinner with the show's most important independent working woman. Whether or not they like it, whether or not they admit it even to themselves, the three of them have become a more stable, if hardly less contentious, family than their own respective families.

The episode also saw the return of Bob Benson and with him, a fleeting image of another kind of non-traditional family - the single mother, her mother who helps out, and her gay BFF. Bob pushes his luck trying to make the arrangement more traditional, at least on the outside, undoubtedly inspired by the less-than-inspiring example of the Chevy/GM man with the wife who "understands." Joan's right to reject his proposal, of course, and gracious enough to be sympathetic rather than offended. But the whole encounter made me wonder how often women in her situation would - and did - knowingly accept just such an offer, and how uncharacteristically naive it was for her to advise Bob that he, too, should wait for love. "I'm just being realistic," he tells her, heartbreakingly, even as his expression reveals how dim his hopes are of finding happiness in the institutions of marriage or family. The culture may be changing, but not enough for men (or women) like Bob Benson.

Random notes:

-It's been a while since we've seen Don and Peggy have an extended, emotionally intimate scene together, and I could feel the "Mad Men" fan base collectively squeeing as the pair moved from sniping at each other to collaborating together, like old times (with roles slightly shifted - they're on a more equal level now, even if Don is still the mentor). It was a wonderfully satisfying sequence, right down to their tender dance to "My Way," which felt for all the world like the daddy-daughter dance that neither of them has ever had. Yet some part of me felt skeptical - as it has in the past with similar scenes - that the two of them would move so quickly and neatly from hostility to reconciliation and creative inspiration.

-On the flip side, it's sad watching the slow crumbling of Don and Megan's marriage, especially since you can tell they still care for each other. You could see the pain on Megan's face at that secretary's casual comment that she didn't even know Don was married.

-Everyone loves Don and Peggy, but in some ways I love the Peggy-Stan dynamic even more. I cracked up at their telephone exchange, especially Peggy's tart "Hey baby yourself."

-Pete, giddy as a school boy at the prospect of joining the Mile High Club: "I've always wanted to do that!" Of course he would.

-I would have liked Pete's championing Don for the Burger Chef pitch more if it hadn't been at Peggy's expense. Still squirming at the insufferable condescension of "every bit as good as any woman in the business."

-Harry Crane, partner? Have to admit I had the same knee-jerk reaction as Joan and Roger, although as I've said before, he probably deserves the promotion when you measure his overall contribution to the firm. But maybe not if you balance it against his douchiness.

-I didn't pick up on all the plot machinations relating to GM and the rival firm (McCann) that seems worried about losing Buick to SC&P, but I'm guessing they will play out further in next week's so-called "mid-season finale." Will Bob Benson going to Buick help Roger poach that account? Or is there something else afoot? Whatever it is, I'll be delighted if it gives Roger leverage over that shark Cutler.

-Line of the week: Don to Peggy - "I worry about a lot of things, but I don't worry about you."


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