May 19, 2014

Mad Men: “The Strategy”

By Josh Oakley

One of the main things that sets television apart as an art form is longevity. It’s not inherent, as any one-season wonder will tell you. Yet the depth generated over a number of years remains a unique and powerful experience that not even series of films or novels can capture in quite the same way. TV is powerful, and Mad Men’s “The Strategy” is a uniquely striking episode for the ways that it both embraces and rejects emotional staples of the medium. This is an hour both predicated on the knowledge the viewer brings and dismissive of the easy comforts that the repetition of time inherently generates.

While the importance of many characters have waxed and waned over the years, four have always stood as the central tenants of Mad Men’s thesis. Don is the focus, the man finding himself fading between generations and identities. Roger has always stood for the old guard, the type of person already largely wiped from importance, desperately grasping at ways to stay relevant. Peggy is the younger generation, wrapped up in combing the lessons of yesteryear with the opportunities of tomorrow. And Pete has been stuck in limbo, marred by tragedy and short-sightedness, never fully aware of the path forward or just how much he was following the steps taken by those before him. “The Strategy” appropriately gives all of these characters some semblance of spotlight, especially for Don, Peggy and Pete. “The Suitcase” will likely always be my favorite, and maybe the best episode of Mad Men. This, however, may end up being the episode of the show, the one that viewers can point at and say “this is what the show was doing all along”. This could have been a series finale in many ways, encapsulating the themes, characters and relationships in a specific and perfect way, delivering on the promise of seasons that came before and the handful of installments left to experience.

Though “The Strategy” rejected television is a significant way, the methods of dramatic tropes it embraced were perhaps the most fascinating. Don and Peggy have the single most fascinating relationship on television at the moment. Their dancing to “My Way” could have felt like fan service in any lesser hands but instead was treated like a culmination, one that carried plenty of baggage. Their positions of power in respect to one another have shifted dramatically over the years, most obvious in the aforementioned “The Suitcase”’s reinterpretation of the pilot’s hand-touching moment. Their dynamic has been altered by the ways in which they’ve differed from one another, yes, but mainly by their wicked, repetitious similarities. At this point they’ve been at the bottom and the top of the corporate food chain, though Pete is quick to remind Peggy that her success will always be curbed to some degree.

Don and Peggy also share the understanding of being an iconoclast, though they’ve faced the walls this throws up as much as the opportunities. Think about Don’s “It’s Toasted” pitch from the pilot episode; that wouldn’t fly in an environment more defined by practical experience, and one covered in bridges he’s spent years burning. Mad Men is fully aware just how much these characters have grown, and the ways in which those decades carry pain as much as reward. Look at the years both Don & Peggy long for, 1955 and 1965 respectively. Yes, they’re significantly dissimilar, with the latter offering more, though still measured, feminine power. The former was a trainwreck in many ways, but one concerned with presenting a pretty picture. That’s what makes this scene work, rather than dipping into a moment where Don simply saves Peggy from a downward spiral. Both of these characters are wrong to some extent, glorifying experiences that look much better when tinted with rose. But in this divergent unification, Don and Peggy find each other yet again. They dance in the way a father and daughter would, but not unlike how lovers might sway. Their relationship is not simply defined, but a complex web of history that the medium of television is uniquely qualified to present.

Funny then that this brilliant scene also rejects television in a way the season has a been building up to. As written about in last week’s review, the TV set has been used a lazy escape for many characters throughout the season. It’s so easy to dive into a device that was tailor-made for distracting people from their actual problems of the day. Peggy's eventual idea for a Burger Chef pitch involves the romanticism of leaving the TV behind and spending time with the family. It may sound nauseatingly meta, but it is instead a meditation on what exactly it means to connect with those around us. We know these characters because we love the television. They can only love each other when they do not spend hours fingering the remote. The changing times have morphed communication, and though it seems like a scary world, the general sentiments will always remain. Now we have smart phones that offer constant distractions from those around us. But we’ll always have a burger and a person across the table to share that burger with.

Roger doesn’t have nearly as much screen time here as his counterparts, but he too is still looking for a way to break from the expected, devising a plan for getting an important client after losing a vital one. And Pete’s story may not be as immediately arresting on the surface as Don and Peggy’s, but his relationship with his daughter has cratered due to his lack of diligence. He blames his nearly ex-wife for going out for one night, but he’s never around at all. The history of his character informs this entire plot, as the man-boy remains too caught in the past to really be a new man. Who are these people but the collection of moments that they’ve been presented as over the years? Roger and Pete may have shifted in ways, but we know these men. And yet that final image of Pete is so mundanely joyous, somehow celebrating the tenuous connections between him and those he has suffered the company of over the years.

And of course this is a family. Not in the typical sense, but the kind that is lit by the jaded, fluorescent lights of a fast-food restaurant. The camera pulls away, revealing the numerous collections of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, collected in patterns unrecognizable to those around them. Here we have two people who had a child together, and another who has acted as father to both in convoluted and gorgeous ways. Here we have a family, just not the kind that one would expect to see when turning the pages of a magazine or flipping between channels late at night, waiting for yet another escape from the harsh, dull light of false existence presented by a television. The same machine, in fact, that provided us with an hour like this. “The Strategy” set forth new paths for these characters, in the subtlest of ways, while reminding us who these people were when their journey began.

Grade: A

  • I listened to “My Way” on repeat while this review was written. As one should always do.
  • Bob Benson’s story here was also excellent, and a potent reminder of how things have changed. Joan would likely not have told Sal to come out in the early 60’s had their relationship been the same as the one here.
  • Roger in a nutshell: “You’re still here.” “That’s your opinion.”
  • “I want to see you somewhere when there’s nothing else going on”
  • “They keep playing this song.” “You think that’s a coincidence?”
  • Out-of-context Pete: “OK, Hemingway, as long as it’s still about moms.”

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