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'Mad Men' Recap: We Are Family

Things fall apart — but as this exemplary episode reminds us, love and hamburgers make the world go round

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson on 'Mad Men.'
Courtesy of AMC
May 19, 2014 1:15 AM ET

Mad Men's last couple of episodes have been consumed with anxiety about the future, culminating last week with Michael Ginsberg's self-administered nipplectomy. But with the decade, the season, and the show itself moving closer to the end, this week's installment — titled "The Strategy" — looked ahead and saw that, to cite the theme song of an iconic Seventies heroine, we're gonna make it after all. There are still eight episodes remaining — one this year, seven to come in 2015. But there were at least a couple of moments in this one where Matthew Weiner could have pulled the plug and fans would have gone home happy. As one fan remarked on Twitter, "dayenu."

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We open with Peggy Olson and John Mathis polling a Burger Chef customer, a mother whom they have to bribe with a $10 bill to keep from driving off. They ask broad, thematic questions and she gives them bluntly practical answers: Why do you eat at Burger Chef? "Because it's near my house." Peggy approvingly murmurs "Convenience" and goes back to her clipboard, but by the end of the episode, she's ready to hear what the mother is actually telling her: She does it because it works.

Don Draper and Pete Campbell are still looking backwards: Pete heads back from the West Coast, his skin a tad more fried than tanned, to spend an afternoon with the daughter he barely knows and the wife he's divorced in all but name. His girlfriend, Bonnie, already a divorcée, drops hints that she'd like to get serious, but admitting defeat isn't one of Pete's strong suits. When Trudy is conspicuously absent from his home visit, he waits around, stewing in his own juices and whatever liquor he can find. At first, he's furious to find that she's apparently coming back from a date, but he somehow manages convince himself that she's arranged the date in order to make him jealous — a sign that she still cares (because her actions, of course, can only be about him). A truly baffled Trudy cuts through the haze and informs him, "You are not part of this family anymore."

Don's reunion with Megan seems to go much better: He awakes in bed to see her out on his balcony, the site of his frigid moment of desperation in the season's first episode, "Time Zones." But the window through which he sees her makes the scene feel like a staged tableau, a picture that's too perfect to be true — one of many framed and frozen moments throughout the episode. He doesn't seem to grasp it, but the fact that Megan's looking for her fondue pot and wants to see Don the next time on neutral territory seems like a sure sign that she's getting ready to leave him.

The only intact family unit in "The Strategy" exists inside the storyboarded frames of Peggy's proposed Burger Chef ad, where a harried mom like the one she polled in the first scene shows up at the fast-food restaurant and plants a kiss on a strange man. The fictional stranger turns out to be her husband, a bag of burgers and fries already in his hand — as if such nuclear parental units and their kids came prepackaged like Happy Meals. "It's nice to see family happiness again," enthuses Lou Avery, evidently not yet famous as the creator of the gut-busting patriotic comic strip Scout's Honor, and winning his approval is a sure sign that she's failed. Pete, who can't (or won't) grasp that Peggy's moved up the ladder, asks for Don's take on the ad, and he answers with a pallid compliment that anyone who understands him would recognize as a profound insult: "It's right on strategy. It’s exactly what they wanted."

Staying on strategy hasn't helped SC&P with Chevrolet, who it turns out were using their campaign as a way to beat the bushes for new talent; they're pulling their business, so critical to the agency's reputation, and taking Bob Benson with them. In addition to a knack for duplicity, Bob turns out to share with his Chevy counterpart the fact that he's a closeted gay man, which he finds out after bailing the latter out of jail, beaten bloody by the undercover officer he tried to suck off. Given Mad Men's dislike for dramatizing historical turning points (and especially now that Bob's off to work for Buick), it's doubtful we'll see too much of the Stonewall riots, but the scene between the two men as they rode away from the station was a powerful encapsulation of their life in the shadows. At least Bob's counterpart has a wife who understands. In what may be his last scene on the series, Bob asked Joan to marry him: GM, he explains, "expects a certain kind of executive" (i.e. a straight, married man), and beside, she's almost 40 — the way he sees it, he's as good as she can get. But Joan, who's forced herself to be a chilly realist at work, won't make the same compromise at home. It's love or nothing at all.

Peggy, meanwhile, has just turned 30. ("Shit," Don exclaims.) She's still alone, though apparently Ginsburg's crazed advances have at least briefly put her off pining for the distant Ted Chaough, who comes through as a distant voice on a speakerphone. But the dream of fulfillment lives on, at least in her Burger Chef ads, where, she admits, it still looks like 1955. "Does this family exist any more?" she asks Don, with whom she's sharing late-night whiskey and brainstorming ideas. "Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?" That cathode-ray appliance, often the only light in Don's darkened bachelor cave, has played a major role in Mad Men's seventh season: as a companion, a window into another world, and here, as a destroyer, the thing that keeps families from seeing one another. "What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV? And whoever you were sitting with was family?"

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Like the concern that screen time diminishes family intimacy, Peggy's discovery of families of choice feels like an idea that has more to do with the present than the past, as did the debate about workplace gender dynamics that sprung up when Pete suggested that Peggy should cede the Burger Chef pitch. "Don will give authority," Pete explained. "You will give emotion." Peggy countered: "I have authority. Don has emotion" (and boy, has the show borne that out). With its heartbreaking shots of Don and Peggy dancing to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and the brightly lit pull back from the duo plus Pete Campbell eating at one of Burger Chef's infinite "family tables," "The Strategy" offered an uncharacteristically sentimental assurance that things were going to turn out all right. They can't, at least not yet — which means, really, that this can only be the calm before the storm. If Don, Pete and Peggy have found common ground, they're inevitably about to find themselves defending it with everything they've got.

Previously: Sex, Drugs, and Self-Mutilation

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