Peggy Does It Her Way, Finds “The Strategy” in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Six
It was all going so well. Megan and Don, back in their Manhattan pad together, making love and eating breakfast on the deck and acting for all the world like the happy couple they were a the beginning of their tempestuous and maddeningly inconstant marriage. Don might have been keeping the fact of his marriage so far under wraps that the new employees at SCP don’t even know he’s married, but no matter. He still seems newly engaged and determined, yet again, to make things work with his French Canadian siren.
And then, at the end of a long and frustrating day, Peggy Olson utters what is undoubtedly the most cerebral come on you’ll ever hear on this or any other day, when she invites erstwhile mentor Don Draper to “show me how you think.” After she follows his advice, which is essentially to drink many scotches, lie down on the couch and then try to come up with something better than she’s got, she figures it out—just in time for Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” to waft into her office. Perhaps a bit heavy on the symbolism, given that she’s a working woman who is meeting life on her terms and, rough patches notwithstanding, is winning. But with just a bit of ambiguity, because, after all, she came up with the new idea doing it Don’s way.
What happens next will undoubtedly be the subject of intense and conflicting conversations all across Mad Men Nation, at least until Matt Weiner settles for all of us what actually happened. It’s a scene that literally blotted out the previous, excellent 40 minutes of an episode just packed with meaning for so many characters, representing a profound meditation on the nature of family and relationships in the remaining embers of the tumultuous sixties.
Just before the light goes on in Peggy’s creative brain, she and Don have a prescient conversation about the breakdown of the nuclear family, even then showing the signs of fraying that has become endemic in the modern era and the omnipresence of the television that has disrupted the family dinner. Peggy and Don turn to themselves, with Peggy confessing that she just turned thirty and is starting to become one of “those women who lie about their age.” Peggy asks Don whether he ever sat down to dinner with his family, and after Don deflects what is surely a painful recollection of his joyless family past, he tells her that he worries about a lot of things, but never Peggy. The younger woman smiles at that—protégés tending to enjoy the approval of their mentors, no matter how many unflattering and compromising situations they have found them in over the years—and then asks the older man what he worries about. And, then all the pretense of Don’s dalliance with marital fidelity falls away, as he confesses that his worry is about never having done anything and not having anyone in his life. From that very personal and uncomfortable confession from her reflective creative partner, Peggy shifts somehow to the core creative idea that sticking her head into the cars of women homemakers across three states and asking them probing questions about their meal preferences couldn’t help her with. Cue Sinatra, and then cue the slightly worn and rumpled (and a bit out of shape) Draper.
Don asks Peggy to dance, and after she hesitates slightly, she rises to the bait and he begins to squire her around the office, Frank doing his immortal voicing of Paul Anka’s song (written expressly for the Chairman of the Board) in the background. It’s all very awkward, like a couple of adolescents at a school dance who have never held each other before and are a bit embarrassed about it. And then, it happens. The booze and the relief of having unlocked the key to the Burger Chef creative strategy having relaxed the increasingly prickly and frustrated copy chief, Peggy lets her head fall onto Don’s chest. Don, a bit surprised by this, has a wave of emotion pass ever so slightly across his face and then—in a gesture reminiscent of his impromptu (and unscripted) kiss of Peggy’s hand years ago—he bends down and kisses her head. As the camera moves out and away from the two, we are left to wonder what comes next, because if Don Draper loves anyone other than his struggling and sassy eldest child Sally, it is certainly his thirty year-old protégé Peggy Olson.
This is great artistry, done to perfection by two consummate professionals (Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss) who literally have come to inhabit these two characters and the complicated relationship they have enjoyed from the very beginning. It is also something that is only possible on episodic television, where the twists and turns of their relationship have been given ample time and room to breathe, ripen and mature. And, still, the scene is played with such nuance that by the end, we really still don’t exactly know what we’ve just seen. For those of us who have been perplexed and a bit stymied by much of what we’ve seen this season, the Don/Peggy scene, coupled with the final scene of Don, Peggy and Pete in a local Burger Chef, in essence making Peggy’s point about family being where you find it, is truly a money shot.
When the three ad pros sit in a booth and the camera pulls away to show that the restaurant décor is a facsimile of a house, you realize that Peggy is onto something. The burger chain, which closed its doors in 1996 but was still going relatively strong when SCP was pitching the business, does seem architecturally to share Peggy’s intuition about the changing dynamics of the American family and how places like Burger Chef (and its far more successful competitors) were appealing to this dynamic. We of course know that whatever great creative Peggy was able to come up with, wouldn’t ultimately save Burger Chef, which fell behind, was ultimately rebranded as Hardee’s, and disappeared from the scene in 1996.
This is a kinder, gentler Don Draper during this episode, and it wears very well on him. He is trying very much to be a team player, so when earlier at Pete’s behest he sits in on Peggy’s highly polished yet somewhat banal reenactment of a domestic scene featuring a mom buying Burger Chef for her family, he lays back despite obvious doubts about the premise of the campaign. But he can’t help being Don Draper, and in an effort later to provide a thoughtful suggestion to Peggy (actually a bad idea, which is to focus on the kid rather than the mom), he inadvertently plants a seed of doubt in Peggy about the validity of her own handiwork.
What makes Peggy great—and Draper such an admirer of her—is that she won’t settle for what’s convenient or easy, in contrast to her boss, Lou Avery, who is smitten with the original campaign because it reinforces his own prejudices about what an American family should be. Don and Lou are from the same generation, but while Don is allowing himself to be dragged kicking and screaming into a new era, Lou is very comfortable being stuck in time, which is why Peggy’s paean to 50s domesticity, represented in her original work, is so appealing to him.
We also find out in this episode that Pete is still in love with his wife and willing to let his smoldering girlfriend, Bonnie Whiteside, cavort alone and unescorted around Manhattan (dirtying up her sandaled feet in the process) while he lies in wait in his former suburban house for Trudy (the great Alison Brie) to return from a date. It seems that everyone acts differently when they’re back in New York, perhaps yearning for a time when things were different, and Pete is definitely in a New York state of mind.
But Joan seems much more interested in Bob Benson’s news that SCP is losing the Chevy account than in entertaining the younger man’s proposal of marriage, clearly a marriage of convenience that the possibly well-meaning but manipulative Benson sees as his ticket to upper middle class bliss as a newly minted executive at Buick. (If his offer of a Platonic relationship were not unsettling enough for the still vibrant Joanie, his exhortations about the joys of living in Detroit would probably be enough of a turnoff, even if back then they could have afforded a mansion and now could probably buy an entire city block).
But the big winner of the night is the absent Harry Crane, who is voted in as partner as a response to the loss of the Chevy business. Jim Cutler proposes the idea, and it’s right out of the Don Draper playbook- as he has said many times, if you don’t like what’s being said about you, change the conversation. Cutler wants to change the narrative about SCP, from struggling mid-level firm that can’t keep a car account, to forward looking visionary who has a new computer run by its favorite nerd. I still struggle to see how focusing on media selection in a creative business is a winning new business strategy,but Don- along with most of the other partners- votes Harry in, based on his “loyalty” (an irony, since Harry showed more loyalty to Don than to the firm in the last episode), and Roger and Joan find common ground in thinking it’s a bad idea. But they’re both compromised- Roger missed the signs given off in the sauna by the McCann guy about potential changes at SCP involving a key person, and Joan failed to give Roger a heads up that she knew about Chevy. Roger dismisses Joan in a way we’ve never seen him do after retreating to his office for some liquid reinforcement, and she stalks off. Obviously, the New York state of mind does not extend to these erstwhile lovers, although it remains to be seen whether they end up teaming up as allies as the firm begins to fracture into blocs.
Meanwhile, Don and Peggy will always have Sinatra, and Burger Chef. And in a world that is upside down and starved for love and affection, doesn’t that feel like some consolation?
Harlan R. Teller
Writer’s note: Did anyone else see the irony in the use of “My Way”, given that one of Burger King’s more successful ad campaigns years ago was “Have it your way?”, focusing on the difference between it and McDonald’s? And, will Kevin Rahm have anything more to do by the end of next week’s episode than look forlorn and kibbitz a bit on transcontinental conference calls? Might a potential Don-Peggy coupling break him out of his season-long torpor?