This week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Strategy” reminded me of what the Emmy-winning drama is like at its best: focused, truthful writing, driven by compelling characters. The folks in the Mad Men crew are among the strongest storytellers that have ever worked on television, and they are never better when they let the characters rather than the plot details drive the destiny of the show. Even by the its languid standards, “The Strategy” was a low-key episode, filled with long conversations and little in the way of tying up loose ends from previous episodes in what has been a somewhat scattered start to season seven. However, this week, Mad Men made up for that by delivering some of the sharpest, strongest two-person scenes the series has offered in recent memory.
The episode comes from director Phil Abraham, a man who began as a cinematographer on The Sopranos and Mad Men‘s first season, before he became one of the show’s most impressive directors. Therefore, it is fitting that the final shot of “The Strategy” is one of the best closing shots of any Mad Men episode. It is a zoom out from Don, Peggy and Pete diving into their fast food meals at Burger Chef.
Peggy has contemplated over the past hour whether to stick with her original idea for the Burger Chef campaign. She wants to frame the commercial from the mother’s perspective, perhaps inspired by the market research we see in the opening scene. However, she considers abandoning it for something else. She was confident with her pitch to the creative team at the start – Elisabeth Moss gives a hypnotic performance during the presentation – but when Don mentions she should try it a different way, Peggy gets flustered. If he is brainstorming other ideas, is there a better way to do things? He was the creative director for several years, after all, so he has to be on to something, Peggy thinks. Don’s suggestion undermines her and makes Peggy realize her worse fears: that she still is not quite up to her old boss’s level. She may be more of a figurehead, but Don still does not act like he works for her.
Pete, meanwhile, is not having his best weekend either. Arriving back home with the hope of showing his lovely new arm candy around the city, he is instead bombarded with reality. His daughter, Tammy, who he initially refuses to see, refuses to see him as her father, shying away from Pete when he appears with a wrapped gift. Trudy (Alison Brie, we have missed you) is out with another friend and reprimands her ex-husband when she arrives back at the house: “You’re not part of this family anymore,” she roasts. Meanwhile, Bonnie (Jessy Schram) is not pleased that her boyfriend’s schedule becomes more about trying to patch things up with his family, even though it was her idea for him to visit them. Things between those two can turn hot at an instant, but it can turn cold just as quickly.
The final shot of “The Strategy” coalesces two of these characters’ problems with that of Don’s. The emptiness he felt in the season’s first episodes was not just due to his lack of employment, but his distance from both of his families. Even though things between him and Megan can be testy, he still really loves her and needs a friend to support him every day. With the folks at the office treating him with more difference, he could use that personal connection even more.
So, Peggy and Don shape up an idea together to turn the Burger Chef ad from one focused on a mom to one focused on family. This is, of course, aided by a man who misses having dinner with his wife and kids. When the shot zooms out to see the three characters eating together, amidst a collection of rowdy families and excited couples, we see that the trio have a special relationship. Peggy and Pete, on some level, represent a daughter figure and a son figure to Don, while both characters have looked up to their creative director for a decade in the way young kids hope to impress their parents. They are a cohesive unit and few episodes of Mad Men have so explicitly dealt with the relationships among this triangle of characters.
Pete looks up to Don in a funny way, as he has actually emulated many of his boss’s qualities. Externally, his girlfriend is a near carbon copy of Betty, and the distance he treats Trudy with in this episode harkened back to the dismal relationship between Betty and Don after they split up. Pete has always cared for work more than his family – while the true cannot always be said for Don, Pete probably thinks that Don puts work ahead of family, and so he is trying to do the same. For him, business comes first, family comes later. Pete probably sees a universe where, in several years time, he is a new replacement for Don, taking over the business as if he inherited it with honor.