Mad Men purists loved “The Strategy,” because it had all the hallmarks of a classic Mad Men episode: a fabulous New York setting, slices of home life mixed with plenty of office drama and business intrigue, and sudden gut-punching reminders that for people who fell outside the lines of the straight white male paradigm, 1969 could still be the dark ages.
Like the good old days of Mad Men, Don, Peggy, and Pete, the Young Turks of Season 1, were all working together on an account pitch, and there was even a Sinatra serenade instead of the rock and roll we’ve been hearing so much lately.
Don’t get me wrong, while hardcore Mad Men fans wiped away tears during Don and Peggy’s platonic slow dance, I got up and fed my cat. I have no use for the mushy stuff.
To be honest, “My Way” is not even that great of a Sinatra song, but it’s symbolic like the ’69 Mets were symbolic. We’ve seen how much and how quickly society changed in the late ‘60s, especially with music and film. What had been sacrosanct a few years earlier was now hopelessly square. Probably nothing was a better indicator of this than the status of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. If you were part of the Sixties generation, you disliked everything about them: the suits and ties, the cigarettes and booze, the politically incorrect banter, and of course the music itself. Orchestras and crooning? Not groovy, not heavy, and not cool.
At a time when Frank Sinatra wasn’t getting many movie parts, and Nancy Sinatra was having more success on the music charts, this totally anachronistic song was dropped into the mix of 1969 among the go-go boots and mini-skirts to become a massively successful single, and the de facto theme song of the latter half of Frank Sinatra’s career.
When Bob Dylan prophesied in late 1963 in “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that the losers now will later win, and the first one now will later be last, could he have imagined that by Spring 1969, the old order would have changed so much that a maudlin piece of musical self-affirmation by Frank Sinatra would be embraced as an anthem of defiance by the Fred and Ethel Mertz generation of Americans who all of a sudden felt like outsiders in their own country?
THE GAY ’60S
What would have really made the OG Mad Men fans happy would have been the return of Sal Romano, who was such an essential part of the early seasons, and whose closeted gay status in 1960 New York made such a great counterpoint to the old boys network. Sal, of course, was drummed out of the firm cruelly and unfairly. and was last seen telling his wife from a payphone that he would be late coming home for dinner as he was surrounded by gay men about to head off into the woods.
Instead of Sal, we got the return of Bob Benson.
That reminds me, with all the 1969 social upheaval playing out on Mad Men this year, I managed to completely overlook one other game-changing event that is totally about to happen on the Mad Men timeline, and in New York City no less: The Stonewall riots.
Throughout the 1960s, cops routinely raided gay bars and had carte blanche to treat patrons with Gestapo tactics. This week’s episode of Mad Men effectively illustrated the powerlessness of the gay community to react to the status quo, even on their home turf, and even in the case of successful business executives visiting from Detroit.
In this episode, Peggy tells Don that her 30th birthday happened “a couple of weeks ago.” The Internet informs us that Peggy Olson was born on May 25, 1939. Assuming that she and Don are in the office on a Sunday, two weeks after her birthday would place the date as June 8, and the humiliating police beating incident of Bob Benson’s associate would have taken place the Friday or Saturday night before, June 6th or 7th.
Just three weeks later, on June 28 1969, in the wee hours of a Friday night/Saturday morning, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a counterculturish gay bar in Greenwich Village. For the cops it was just business as usual. A few patrons would have been rounded up, perhaps a business executive visiting from Detroit would have been among them, and they would all have been given the usual treatment on their way to the slammer.
But this time it would out differently. Spontaneously, a crowd formed and resisted the cops. As word spread through the Village, more and more people came out to join the protests, and again the next night, and several times after that. Nothing changed overnight, but this marked the beginning of the “Gay ‘60s,” if I may coin a phrase, when gays began organizing and protesting for their rights, as women, minorities, and draft-age youth had been doing in recent years.
The immediate result was the establishment of bars where gay people could meet openly without having to worry about being raided by cops. So although this Mad Men episode was light on the pop culture innuendo, it gave us a rather effective reading on what was about to go down in New York City. Just a couple of months later, Bob Benson and the guy from Detroit would be able to go out to their bars in peace.
As I watched this episode unfold, I thought that maybe Ginsberg had passed the crazy onto Peggy. All season long she seemed to be quietly going nuts, and this episode she stopped being quiet about it. Of course, we later learn that Peggy has secretly turned 30, which explains a lot. It isn’t like today where 50 is the new 21. Back then, 30 was Logan’s Run for unmarried women. If you were still single at 30, life was pretty much over. From there on out, Peggy would have to treat her age like a closely guarded secret.
Plus, Don always makes Peggy a little crazy.
Peggy and Don end up being back on the same page again, and with Ginsberg conveniently out of the way, they can go back to being the firm’s dynamic duo of creative talent.
After five episodes of Don being the consummate lonely guy at his apartment this season, we’re back in beautiful mode at the Draper Penthouse. You’ll notice Don isn’t sleeping like a vampire this time. He’s on his belly and his hair falls rakishly over his eye as he wakes up to see Megan setting up breakfast on the balcony. Don appears youthful again. He doesn’t look like end-of-life Jack Kerouac anymore.
New York in early summer is like Paris in the spring. But come August, the city sweats like a pig, and getting sprayed by an open fire hydrant on 127th St. feels like being bathed in the mist of a tropical waterfall. But for now, on “The Strategy,” New York is perfect. And what a contrast it is with the first episode of the season, when Peggy was wrapped up in her mustard colored outfits and Don’s patio door thwapped forlornly in the sleety wind while L.A. radiated in golden sunlight under Dodger blue skies.
But to everything there is a season, and now is the time of year when L.A. is a little too hot, the Santa Ana winds begin picking up, and there is crazy in the air. In New York, it is that narrow window of time just before high summer when the last traces of winter have vanished and the city has perfect balcony weather. Don goes out and wraps his arms around Megan and says, “tell me it was all a dream,” meaning their separation, her exodus to L.A, and perhaps his period of prolonged banishment from Sterling Cooper, as well. Don is happy again. This is what he wants, to be gainfully re-employed as an ad man and to have Megan softly silhouetted in the patio sunlight making him breakfast.
But this is exactly how Mad Men would trick you with a balcony scene, wouldn’t they? The bad stuff doesn’t happen when Don Draper’s out there alone in his boxer shorts shivering in the dead of winter, it happens when the sun is out and you think everything is good.
By this episode it seems we all agree–we like Bonnie. Not only was she the inspiration for Hot Dog on a Stick girls everywhere, but she’s got tremendous drive, her smile is contagious, and she’s no dummy. Unlike Pete, she knows how to be socially appropriate. And when she steps into the offices of Sterling Cooper for the first time, she knows right where to find Don. Megan had trouble finding Don at the office. Bonnie had no trouble at all.
Bonnie’s not a New York girl. Her feet get all dirty when she wears her California sandals in the Big Apple. But other than that, she did much better in New York than Pete, who failed on every count. He has no idea how to be a father or a husband. He shows up after a year’s absence and expects his wife Trudy to be waiting there for him in the kitchen, and when she isn’t he assumes the worst and becomes verbally hostile to her.
Meanwhile, Pete’s got his Mile High lady, Bonnie, stashed back in the hotel, and he doesn’t appear to see any inconsistency in his behavior. Pete didn’t think things through very well at all. He brought Bonnie to the Sterling Cooper office because he wanted to show her off to the other Mad Men. Bonnie wasn’t too interested in being shown off, but she did manage to find her way to Don’s office pretty quickly, and in doing so subtly put Pete back in his place. That’s why we love Bonnie. That, plus the way she chirpily told Pete, “I don’t like you in New York.”
I’m not sure how Pete thought he was going to juggle the wife, the girlfriend, and the kid for the weekend, and apparently Pete didn’t think about it either. He failed spectacularly on all fronts, and managed to lose them all.
Both Don and Pete seem stuck in the grooves of a Frank Sinatra song, lingering in an era when men could placate the women in their lives by announcing that they were taking them shopping. In this instance, Bonnie and Megan aren’t particularly interested. They have their own careers to keep them busy, and as the curtain closes, they are jetting back to L.A., one fondue pot richer.
Maybe this really is the end of Don and Megan’s marriage. The last two times we got soap opera Megan, first with her dramatic pronouncement that “it ends here…you need to leave this house now.” Then it was hormonal Megan weeping into the breakfast dishes as her man effed and ran again.
But this time, it’s nonplussed Megan trying to sneak her fondue pot back to L.A., telling Don, ”You don’t mind, do you?” when he catches her in the act. And when Don wraps his arms around Megan on the balcony and lays on the Draper charm, she just kind of shrugs and sighs. That’s Megan’s body language for “That again? Really?”
It’s pointless to try to get a read on Megan since she changes so dramatically with each episode. All these story arcs are fascinating, but we’ve also got to face the reality that with so few episodes remaining in the series, they’re going to have to start wrapping things up whether we like it or not.
There wasn’t a lot of symbolism in this episode compared to the previous two, but there was that Kennedy assassination callback when Don unearths the newspaper. As I like to say, JFK’s death is when the Sixties began. It’s also when phase two of Mad Men begins, when Betty ends the marriage with Don, and when Don and Roger get new wives. That time Don lost Betty, this time he’s losing Megan. Once again, Mad Men effectively uses history as a tie-in to personal markers.
As Mad Men begins to wind down, one guy I would like to have seen more of was Stan Rizzo. He’s the most likable, and potentially most intriguing, character in the office. But they never did develop his plotline as fully as I would have hoped. In an office full of weirdos and creeps he manages to stay above the fray, while quietly emerging as the coolest non-partner in the building.
A lingering image of the solidness of Stan Rizzo came at the shocking finale of last week’s episode, The Runaways, when Ginsberg was being wheeled out in restraints. Everyone else in the office kept their distance and stared wide eyed with shock or morbid curiosity at their manacled co-worker. But Stan Rizzo walked by Ginsberg’s side the whole way. And as this week’s episode revealed, Stan is the only one from the firm to have visited Ginsberg in the hospital.
We did get a good look at Rizzo at home, when Peggy calls him during her manic phase. It was nice to get a second glance at Rizzo’s life size wall poster of Moshe Dayan hanging over his bed. It’s a visage that seems all the more poignant in light of Ken Cosgrove’s new condition.
Besides Don and Peggy’s “My Way” dance, the other scene that seemed to leave the Mad Men romantics swooning was the final shot of Don, Pete, and Peggy chowing down at the Burger Chef. The three of them form an ersatz family, bantering happily at this fast food joint surrounded by other groups of happy people, with Don even affectionately wiping a spot of ketchup from Pete’s cheek.
Are you kidding me? We just saw Pete earning the A-hole of the Year award, and we are well aware that Pete has already exhibited poor fatherhood by knocking Peggy up when she was a helpless secretary, a shameful secret that Don also shares. But here they are, all back together again, “sharing a moment,” while somewhere out there is a baby they abandoned. But it’s all good, because Don, Peggy, and A-Hole of the Year are a “new family” now, and they are getting back to the family business of psychologically manipulating the general public by first convincing them there’s a major void in their lives, and then persuading them to fill that void by consuming fast food.
So, while everyone else is cooing about the beauty of this scene, all I can think is, “I miss Ginsberg!”
So, what does the title of this week’s episode, “The Strategy,” refer to, anyway? On first glance it would appear to be the strategy for the Burger Chef ad campaign that Peggy is obsessing over. But the meaning of “The Strategy” is actually found a layer deeper than that, Peggy and the gang stumbled onto it almost accidentally. This whole damn series is about the crazy Sixties and how much they changed everything, right? Well, “the strategy” is the coping mechanism that people use to get through it.
The old social order is breaking down everywhere, including the nuclear family structure. Peggy can either be a failure in society because she didn’t get married and start a family by thirty, or she can just go out and form her own family. Same with Pete and Don. Pete has lost his wife and kid, and Don appears to have failed at marriage number two himself. So there the three of them are, exiles from the old order, starting a new one.
The Strategy can also refer to Bonnie’s plan to use the trip to New York with Pete to deepen their relationship and hasten his divorce with Trudy. Bonnie wasted no time getting started either. She went to work right there under the airplane tray table, and later gave Pete the Barbie doll to give as a gift to his daughter, and Bonnie even pressed Pete to meet his little girl so she can get going in the role of ‘new mommy.’.
Bob Benson presented Joan with a strategic offer as well, a marriage proposal. As he explained it, given the relative weaknesses in each of their positions, it was a win/win proposition. Joan, of course, said no way. Her strategy was to hold out for real happiness, not to compromise so cynically and sadly.
And this of course is the glass half full aspect of the Me Decade, whereas Roger’s daughter Margaret choosing to become Marigold and leave her child behind two episodes ago might represent the other half of the bargain.
The most sweeping change of the Sixties Revolution, beyond the flower power and the doobie smoking, was that America went from being a rules-based nation to a rights-based nation. That’s the hidden axiom behind almost every visible difference between 1959 and 1969.
Sometimes we look back at black and white era TV families and yearn for a time when kids respected their teachers, front doors didn’t need to be locked, moms baked cookies, college students didn’t act out, and people generally had better manners.
Other times we look back and see an era when racial segregation was the norm, and dissent against big business, the military, organized religion, or anything that threatened to rock the established social hierarchy was intensely frowned upon. We wonder why men were allowed to maintain a double standard against women for so long; why prominent people in general could get away with all sorts of inappropriate behavior without having to worry about consequences; why Jim Crow rules were allowed to continue for so long into the 20th Century even after we fought Nazism and Soviet statism on humanitarian grounds.
The generation that came just before the Baby Boomers was called the Silent Generation, which is certainly a name given to them after the fact to contrast them with the Boomers, who were the opposite of silent and shook everything up.
Silent is the key word here. Silence = complicity. Plenty of people knew as these things were going on that they were wrong, but they just weren’t the kind of people who would storm society’s sanctuaries and overturn the tables or tip the sacred cows to enact the changes they wanted. You didn’t just go and do things like that. What makes you think you’re so special? Upholding rules mattered more than exercising rights. The Silent Generation were the last graduates of this rules based society.
The good old days and the bad old days were two sides of the same past. The truth is, things weren’t that different back then, before the Sixties. What was different was how people spoke, or didn’t speak (hence the “Silent Generation”) about them. This is especially true in the family dynamic.
Husbands cheated on and abused wives all the time. Children were abused then as now. The difference was, families stayed together in spite of ir. Few people ever divorced. It was more important to maintain the appearance of an intact nuclear family than to air individual grievances and walk away from a bad situation. People had extramarital affairs, and babies were born out of wedlock, the truth was just more thoroughly covered up.
Another thing that usually surprises people about the good old days is that the nuclear families were quite frequently blended families. Sherwood Schwartz got the idea for the Brady Bunch when he read a statistic from 1965 that said 31% of all marriages in the U.S.A. involved people who had a child or children from previous marriages . That statistic makes sense for a lot of reasons: Men went off to war and didn’t come back, or they were killed in work accidents, or they simply went out for cigarettes and never returned. And women had few options besides getting remarried.
One imagines that behind these forced marriage arrangements with all the stepfathers and step-siblings, all sorts of Maury Povich dysfunctionality went on just like it does today . The main difference was that, even more so than now, the victims had to stay silent. The man of the house laid down the law, and unmarried women with dependent children had very few options at their disposal.
When Sherwood Schwartz first met with the network bosses and pitched a family of three boys and three girls that came together when their parents remarried, he imagined that the Brady parents would have been divorced from their first spouses. But the network said that was far too controversial for family TV; they insisted on the Bradys being a widow and a widower. It was less upsetting and controversial to sell a storyline with the parents of young children being killed off rather than having them be children of divorce.
Nowadays it would be more appropriate to sell a heavy drama with those circumstances, but not a family sitcom. And that’s the situation we’re arriving at on Mad Men in “The Strategy.” Instead of enduring miserable compromises in order to preserve a social façade, virtually every mother, from Joan to Trudy to Megan (who is not actually a mother), to Marigold, and now Peggy, is choosing to do it Their Way. Cue the Sinatra.
Even though the show is called Mad Men, it really seems like it’s the women who are faring the best of late. The men all seem to be buffoons who can’t quite evolve, whereas the women have gone from being servile to becoming independent, rendering the men superfluous.
No one embodies this storyline better than Joan. When the show started, she was the most beautiful and titillating woman in the office, and therefore the most powerful woman in the office. Her power derived from being the most eligible girl in the secretary pool. Having the opportunity to marry a rich man is what made a woman successful, and that’s precisely what Joan herself wanted.
She chose a doctor who turned out to be a total dud, and we saw rather poignantly how this woman who could be so intimidating in an office environment was so powerless in her position as wife. And we saw how she sucked it up and adjusted to her fate as a wife in a bad marriage rather than simply opt out and start over. We saw how the first time Joan ever appeared vulnerable was when word got out that she was over thirty, and the men started whispering about her instead of catcalling her.
Joan finally did become a partner, but even that she had to do the old fashioned way, via the casting couch.
We were thrown for a curve on this episode when we first saw that Bill, the auto account executive from Detroit, had been picked up for gay solicitation. Part of the surprise is that we had observed him so smoothly flirt with Joan in the first scene. Bill knew exactly what he was doing. He went straight to the office sexpot and did what every red-blooded male was supposed to do, thus establishing his hetero bona fides.
Bob Benson turns to Joan himself when he goes beard shopping. He propositions her with terms that would have appealed greatly to the old Joan: A businesslike marriage that confers status, security, and respectability upon her. And he points out that in a man’s world, even as an attractive woman she’s considered damaged goods, pushing forty with a kid in tow.
But the new Joan sets him straight (no pun intended). Joan has evolved, and she encourages Bob to do so as well.
I said after “The Monolith” that Don appeared to be in hero mode. Yet, last week, at the end of “The Runaways,” we saw Don appear to be in pure villain mode again, offering his services to big tobacco, shrewdly pointing out that now that he’s worked for the anti-tobacco side, he knows all their secrets and how to counteract them.
But of course, Don was maneuvering to save his job and fight off the evil designs of Cutler and Lou Avery. This act could all have been part of a strategy where the ends justify the means.
Something to keep in mind as the show begins its final wind down is that on April 1, 1970, President Nixon signed into law an act banning all television and radio ads for cigarettes.
Mad Men’s other huge account going back to Season Six, is the Chevy XP-887, better known as the Chevy Vega. This was GM’s showcase car for the future at a time when Detroit was still the reigning king of automobiles and the philosophy was still that what was good for General Motors was good for America and vice versa. Sterling Cooper was so eager to get the Chevy account that they leveraged the firm to land it, merging with longtime rivals, Cutler, Gleason & Chaough.
Unfortunately, the Vega ended up being a poorly designed, poorly executed disaster of a vehicle that almost sunk Chevy. It sold well at first, but required massive recalls and developed a reputation for quickly rusting through. As the Arab oil embargo of 1973 kicked off the energy crisis that would set the tone for the rest of the 1970s, GM’s calamitous Vega seemed to portend the beginning of the end of the centurylong hegemony of the American automobile industry.
Plus, the decision to invest so heavily in that IBM computer might turn out to be a spectacular flop.
And then there’s the continued presence of Lou Avery, who seems to personify mediocrity and the notion of rising to the level of one’s incompetency. Can he possibly be the harbinger of anything good for the firm?
It would appear not, but then again it’s so hard to gauge a reliable reading on a show whose mood zigzags so greatly from one episode to the next and seems purposefully designed to keep the viewer emotionally off balance.
It could very well be that Sterling Cooper gets credited for creating the ads that made the Vega such a big seller despite its many flaws, or that Sterling Cooper counters the TV commercial ban by coming up with a wildly successful print ad campaign for Commander Cigarettes. And maybe the computer will help lure in new clients after all, as Cutler said it would.
Then there’s the future of the firm itself. Lou seems to be on a collision course with all the firm’s creatives. They mocked him for his “Scout’s Honor” cartoon character, and he made them stay after class as punishment. But the real revelation there was seeing just how middle-brow and inside the box Lou is. He’s not a Mad Man who swings for the fences and tries to land big accounts, he’s the kind of guy who submits quips to Reader’s Digest for five bucks a pop and enters contests in the back of magazines. His sermon about how “a guy named Bob Dylan” rose from obscurity to glory because he believed in his dream when no one else did, should seal Lou’s fate as being hopelessly out of touch with the times, and therefore not Mad Men material.
Now that Peggy and Don are back on the same page, and Pete too, Lou seems destined to wind up the loser in any impending showdown. I could never muster genuine dislike for Lou. He seems like a soap opera villain put there just so the audience has someone to hiss at. Now that all the Mad Men stars (literal and figurative) are aligned against him, it surely seems like he’s the one who has to go, but not before a gladiatorial power struggle of course.
As for the rest of the firm, what about its two original founding fathers, Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper?
We almost forget that Roger had a heart attack or three a while back. Maybe the LSD fixed him, maybe not. Roger’s one of those guys who may live forever or may have the big one at any time. Roger is such a great part of the show that he should really be involved in the last bunch of episodes, but Weiner has set the table for something epic to happen in this half-season finale–portentously titled “Waterloo,” so nothing’s off the table.
Then there’s old man Burt. He was born in the 1800s, maybe even the 1700s. He’s not exactly central to any of the week-to-week action, yet his presence is what anchors the firm, regardless of which other partners come and go from the rotation.
But throwing Bert from the balcony seems anticlimactic. He’s barely on the show already and no one would miss him if he disappeared. Instead, Bert’s demise, should it come, will probably be something more lingering and pathos-inspiring, like a debilitating stroke, or something that will lead to juicy partner v. partner infighting at the firm.
We know this much, Weiner spent this whole episode setting the table nice and pretty; then when it came time to show clips from next week’s episode, he did something unprecedented: He showed only highlights from previous episodes. Weinerologists took immediate notice and concluded that he’s going to give us something shocking and surprising next time–so shocking that it will keep us on the edge of our seats until next season; so surprising that to show even a brief preview clip would risk giving too much away.
Here’s a stab in the dark: In a recent interview, Jon Hamm disclosed that in this half-season’s finale, events that occurred last season will resurface to have irreversible effects on one or more characters.
Assuming I understood correctly, and assuming he meant Season 6 when he said “last season,” I can only think of two events offhand, one is Don’s affair with Sylvia Rosen. Maybe her husband finds out and…does what exactly? Takes out our main character? Doubtful.
The other, and more sinister, event, was the alleged murder of Pete’s mother by Bob Benson’s friend, Manolo. Now let’s keep in mind, Pete kind of lost everything this week-his girlfriend, his family, and his dignity, although he’s lost that plenty of times before.
I’m hardly the only one who noticed how uncharacteristically dark last year’s Manolo plotline got. Murder at sea? Pete and his brother discussing whether to put out a hit on Manolo? That’s above and beyond anything we’ve ever seen on this show.
And then there’s Bob Benson. We barely began to scratch the surface of just how shady a character this guy was last season before that whole storyline seemed to quickly disappear. And now, all of a sudden at the end of this half season, Bob Benson returns. Interesting, no?
Plus, I’m obsessed with this idea that Matt Weiner has to start thinning out the herd in order to make the last seven episodes more meaningful for the remaining characters. When you think about Pete, he’s always been somewhat extraneous to the central themes, which involve Don and Peggy. Roger and Joan still have some story arc left to resolve, but it seems to me like Pete’s story came to a head in this episode. How much more could they do with him? He works well as a foil and a villain, but with Don and Peggy now a team of equals and finally on the same page creatively, Pete’s kind of in the way.
Pete could stick around like a third wheel, or he could redeem himself with a hero’s death, and take Bob Benson out with him. Then we could remember Pete for his good qualities–his commitment to civil rights before it was trendy, for example. The only other question then becomes, who else gets hit by the shrapnel?