‘Mad Men’ Season 7 Episode 6 Recap: “The Strategy”

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What makes up a family? Is it a sense of longing, of reaching for something you can’t have, a legal bond, the happenstance of blood? The bonds fray this week, elegantly, as we watch the Mad Men definition of family (spoiler: it’s the workplace, of course). But the workplace is a choice that leaves a lot of people alone in the wind; fired for being pushy; an imitation of the uberman, reaching for that big brass ring of WASP perfection.

What do choosy moms want? Peggy is at the local Burger Chef, all fluorescent and chrome like an Edward Hopper painting or the local homey drive-through movie theater, quizzing the mom in the car about her burger choices, getting nowhere interesting. What does Peggy want?

“It’s nice to see family happiness again,” says dorky man-of-the-past Lou at the Burger Chef pitch practice meeting. This particular June weekend is full of visitors to New York City, ready to do something with their hastily improvised families. Pete and blond Bonnie are on a plane, discussing the shopping that she’ll be doing. Eventually Pete lives the dream: a chance to enter the mile high club, back when flying on a plane was full of honor and glamour. Don and Joan also seem to be expecting guests; Joan is chided by her mother.

At the SC&P Burger Chef pitch meeting, Peggy crushes it. She tells a story how Burger Chef is a “special treat made with love” for moms who don’t have the time. Don plays the good corporate lackey. But Peggy’s glow of success is short lived; she’s brought into a meeting with Pete and Lou, where they suggest to her that to really, really crush it, Don should be the one pitching SC&P’s Burger Chef vision. Peggy’s working hard, leaning in, and yet when it comes to getting all the credit, she’s a liability when she’s in the same room as the Great Don Draper. “Don will give authority, you emotion,” Pete says, and Peggy replies, quietly, “I have authority.” But she’s outnumbered, even by the ghost voice of Ted on the phone and Don will be doing the pitch. That’s what happens when you’re every bit as good as any woman in this business.

The return of Bob Benson, making a special date with Joan!

Peggy leaves this vaguely humiliating meeting and goes to Don’s office, informing him that he’s going to give the pitch. He thinks it’s dumb, but he’s also clearly a little thrilled — it is a sign of acceptance, after all. A slight move up the ladder from Partner Pariah to functioning worker. Megan, resplendent in purple and a fall, comes to visit at the office, surprising a secretary who blurts, “I didn’t know he [Don] was married!” Megan makes a face. She bonds a bit with Peggy saying, sooner or later she’s going to get Don’s office, the politics not quite clicking. But: women in the 60s talking about work ambition, that’s pretty cool.

Jim and Roger joust face-to-face. Roger says, “The brand commander of commander brand” about some advertising so and so and Jim orders Roger to “stop thinking about Don and start thinking about the company.” God, it’s going to be so good when these two fight-fight beyond the secrets and lies of office politics. It’s coming, like a storm in the air.

Late night, Bob Benson is awakened by a call from the police. He’s picking up a Chevy executive, who was arrested for fellating an undercover officer. The policeman mocks the two on the way out, “ladies” and whatnot. The executive is embarrassed, saying that he wishes he was back in Detroit, telling Bob that there’s a future job offer coming his way from Buick. Looking out at the streets of New York, he says, “How did you live in this city? So much temptation.” Bob agrees. “It was hard.” The Stonewall riots happened in June of 1969 — this plot is the closet we’ll get, I think. The education of Bob Benson feels familiar and sad in the way that it’s an ongoing strategy of lies, omission, and cobbling together a life that will make other people happy, not you. It’s a story of what happens to some closeted gay men in the late 60s, and it’s heartbreaking.

Peggy awakes, late at night, and does some work. Boring.

Don awakes. The bed is rumpled (sex) and Megan is on the balcony, making a nice breakfast. He nuzzles up behind her, grabbing her waist. For a moment they seem like a beautiful, real couple, and not the shell of two people way the fuck over each other trying to make it work for the sake of appearance. I get it, it’s done, let’s move on and spend more time with Betty and Sally, Matthew Weiner. The character of Megan is remarkably unrewarding, compared to the rich tapestry of everyone else. Eventually Megan makes a mess, pulling out her summer clothes for L.A., saying she misses her things. She proposes a real vacation, where Don and she can reconnect in a place that isn’t NYC or LA. Suggestion: Dollywood? (Circa 1969, it was called “Rebel Railroad,” FYI.)

Pete is in Cos Cob, trying to make his broken family work, wearing a summer cut Madras plaid blazer. His daughter Tammy will barely talk to him, hiding behind her nanny. Trudy is “out” in a way that seems like she just doesn’t want to see him. When Pete returns Tammy back to her house, Trudy is still “out.” Pete waits for her return, and then argues with her about why she’s going on a date: “It’s immoral,” he says. “You have a child.” Trudy counters with “you’re not part of this family anymore.” Pete sticks his beer in the middle of a freshly baked cake and huffs out the door.

Bob Benson, also in Madras plaid — the plaid of summer but also rejection, it seems — visits the House of Joan. He’s great with the kid, Joan’s mom loves him, and they decide to have the perfect day: “it starts with pancakes and ends with an ice cream sundae.” YES. I would marry you, Bob Benson! Cue up “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed! But when Bob gets Joan alone on the couch to make her an offer she can’t refuse — marriage, a mansion in Detroit, the chance to be the wife of a Buick executive — Joan refuses it, as she should, because Bob shouldn’t be with a woman. He says “we could comfort each other in an uncertain world,” and when Joan’s no persists, he gets mean, saying Joan is too old for marriage, she’s nearly 40, she’s an old maid that nobody will want. Joan tells Bob that he’s wrong, because she wants love. And she’d rather die than make an arrangement. So even if Bob and Joan feel like a makeshift family at points, they’re not going to be one in real life. It’s a sane choice, and a painful one. Bob is very alone.

Pete escapes Cos Cob and finds some refuge by sitting in his hotel room, working. Bonnie returns from shopping with some Californian complaints, wearing a bright print of Marimekko. Her sandaled feet are filthy. She tells Pete: “I don’t like you in New York.” Whether its the person Pete is in New York (working, dealing with family, stressed), or just Pete being in New York, remains a mystery.

Peggy is working on the weekend, asking Don to come in and help. He had just gone to see I Am Curious (Yellow) with Megan, a dirty Swedish film that was banned in Boston (sigh, of course), but totally a must see amongst the intelligentsia of the time (the 12th most popular film in the U.S. in 1969, you pervs!). From the Roger Ebert review in 1969: “If your bag is shelling out several bucks to witness phallus (flaccid), then I Am Curious (Yellow) is the flick for you… [it] is not merely not erotic. It is anti-erotic. Two hours of this movie will drive thoughts of sex out of your mind for weeks.”

Peggy and Don banter over this Burger Chef pitch, and it gets a bit existential. “What’s your job?” “Living in the not knowing,” Don says. Peggy asks Don to show her how he thinks, and he says the key is not giving them what they want, but giving them what you want — good writing advice that leads to idiosyncratic weirdness, the sort of how did this happen that produces the best art. Or advertising, I guess. (That Don and Peggy are artists in the field of advertising is one of the tragedies of this show, correct?)

Peggy has taken to drinking and thinking, lying down on her office couch, so similar to her mentor Don. They discuss 1965. “A good year,” Peggy says. (Season 4 of Mad Men, where we have The Suitcase, Peggy is at the beginning of it with Abe and the beatniks and lesbian Joyce who is now Shosh on Girls, and Peggy saves the company by getting Topaz Pantyhose.) Don says, “I got married.” He and Megan fell in love during an October trip to Disneyland, but the terms of their actual, legally-binding contract remain mysterious. When did they do it? When was Betty officially done, thanks to the Reno divorce game? Details remain blurry.

Peggy and Don talk about family. Peggy tells him that she just turned 30, that she’s beginning to lie about her age. “I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about you,” says Don. Don worries about the state of his life — he never did anything, he doesn’t have anyone. Peggy asks what she did wrong. She’s “looked in the window of so many station wagons.” (Damm. Perfect writing.) Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” comes on, and these two idiosyncratic New Yorkers, liars and hustlers and far too married to their work, have a dance. It’s sweet. Don kisses the top of Peggy’s head. She’s his best work, really. It is a weird line between father-daughter and, say, maybe something could happen in the future. Who knows.

Yet — there is more episode! Bonnie and Megan are both on the same first class ticket out of town. Bonnie is crying, Megan is stoic, maybe even satisfied, possibly done with Don forever. I’ve been fooled before, though.

A partner meeting leads to the horrifying proposal of Harry Crane as the next partner. Roger and Joan protest, and then they actually talk.

And back at Edward Hopper’s Burger Chef, Peggy, Don, and Pete have a burger in a clean, well lighted place. It’s about family. Every table is a family table, and the camera pans out on the heart of our Mad Men family, Peggy, Don, and Pete, eating the most American of all meals, chewing happily.

Next week: Season 7A’s Finale. Only eight more episodes to go. My feelings are all over the place about that. What are yours?