There's No Such Thing as a Happy Family on Mad Men

Dissecting "The Strategy," the sixth episode of the seventh season
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AMC

Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller discuss the latest episode of Mad Men.


Heller: This is the Mad Men I’ve been waiting to see. "The Strategy" is a return to so many of the things I enjoy about the show: the intricacies of Don and Peggy's relationship, the hard and soft power of office politics, a truly excellent musical cue, and Joan's gigantic hair. It's also an episode all about family, though not in a way I would have expected. That's because one question popped up, over and over: What does a healthy family look like, and what should it provide?

From the looks of it, the answer includes “nothing like a traditional family.” Just take the Campbells. Or the Drapers. Or the Sterlings. The fallout from Mad Men's nuclear families corrodes every relationship it touches. That's why Peggy had so much trouble believing her Burger Chef pitch. It's perpetuating a lie.

"You can’t tell people what they want," Don tells her. "It has to be what you want." In 1969, at this time and this place, nobody wants a traditional family.

Fetters: Seconded, wholeheartedly, on the truly excellent musical cue. Am I the only one who pretty much didn’t breathe for about 50 seconds during that impromptu late-night office waltz to Frank Sinatra?

More importantly, though: Did it seem to you that Pete visiting Trudy and his daughter, and Bob visiting Joan and her son, were like two alternate, happy and sad Sliding Doors-style versions of the same scenario? They both walk in the door initially wearing plaid jackets—and while Tammy runs away from Pete and straight to her caretaker, little Kevin runs from his caretaker (Joan’s mom) right into Bob’s arms. Verna immediately seems suspicious of Pete; Joan’s mom, meanwhile, immediately fawns over Bob. And while Pete’s visit ends with Trudy announcing that they’re getting a divorce, Bob’s ends with a marriage proposal.

Heller: Oh, that's a great observation. I didn't notice the similarities, but now that you mention it, they really do seem to be equal and opposite.

Perhaps that's why Bob's desperate proposal resonated so strongly, despite his peculiar absence from the first five episodes of this season. He's about to be poached by Buick—yet another company that wants to run its own advertising business, I should add—and he knows they expect "a certain kind" of executive. A heterosexual kind of executive. So he asks Joan to marry him, promising her more than be believes she will ever get from anyone else. She rejects him. Why? Because: "I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens then make some arrangement. And you should too." Joan knows the pitfalls of traditional family all too well. She wouldn't fall into that trap again. Bless her.

What trips me up about all of this, though, is Peggy. She realizes that the Burger Chef family is a myth, but she still craves the support it represents. "Does this family exist anymore?" she asks Don. "Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?"

That family doesn't exist. As Mad Men has shown, it never really did. A family doesn't have to be the people who watch TV at home with you. A family can be the people who support your ambition, who help you succeed and improve yourself. Which invites the question: Is Don Draper the closest thing that Peggy has to family?

Fetters: This episode did seem very aligned with the old chestnut that “friends are the family we choose”—that is, even if the families we're born into are rotten, we can always hand-pick our own support systems. So if we’re defining a family as a “support system” or a group of “people who are in your corner,” then yes, it’s very possible. While Peggy does, of course, have a mother and a sister out in Brooklyn, they don’t seem to be supportive in ways that are meaningful or useful to Peggy. Don isn’t always Peggy’s No. 1 cheerleader, either (exchanges like the one that memorably ended in “That’s what the money is for!” come to mind), but at least when he extends some encouragement or wisdom her way, it’s the kind that's worth something to Peggy.

But while “The Strategy” ended with Don and Peggy sharing that lovely sort of father-daughterly moment, I thought this episode took them through a truly impressive variety of relationships and workplace power dynamics.

At first, for instance, they take on the postures of the tense workplace-star-and-underappreciated-coworker relationship: In the Burger Chef meeting between Pete, Lou, and Peggy, it became clear that even though Peggy is technically, structurally higher up on the ladder than Don is, Don’s still the one who wields more influence and gets more credit. Then, briefly, there was the surprisingly functional boss-and-obedient-employee stage: Don assures Peggy that he’ll do whatever she wants.

But when Don asks Peggy, seemingly as an afterthought, “What if we did it from the kids’ perspective?,” there’s a new hint of psychological menace; suddenly Peggy’s getting up in the middle of the night to rethink a pitch she thought she was sure of, and even she begins to suspect she’s a victim in Don's perverse quest for power. Then, for a moment, they exhibit the kind of festering animosity that inevitably exists between a dazzlingly gifted slacker and his or her envious, much more dutiful coworkers—just before sliding back into the roles of the supportive mentor and the bright, promising, but somewhat insecure protégé that are so familiar from the early seasons of the show.

This spectacular array of interpersonal dynamics, of course, wouldn’t be possible without wonderful acting by Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm. But what I’m especially impressed by is the fact that so many of these subtle shifts are made clear just through subtext. Peggy’s accusation—“Why are you undermining me?”—is the single moment in which the dialogue most explicitly addresses their constantly fluctuating power imbalance. Beyond that, though, much of their chatter about the Burger Chef account stands in for what they’re really saying about their roles in relation to each other. And that’s some damn good storytelling.

Heller: It really is. The finest moments of this show have been about Don and Peggy, so I'm glad to see it pivot back toward them as it approaches next week's "mid-season" finale. (Sidenote: What can we do to put a stop to AMC's year-long breaks? By the time Mad Men comes back in 2015, the only thing I'll remember is Ginsberg's nipple.)

Since we've only got a week left, I'm curious to see what you're expecting. The finale is called "Waterloo," which suggests a massive failure. I just can't figure out whose it'll be. Don's? Peggy's? Freddie Rumsen's? (It will not be Freddie Rumsen's.) Or… could it be the agency's?

Fetters: Well. I’ll refrain from making too snide a comment about how perhaps a couple of tweaks to the Emmy eligibility rules could squash AMC’s new habit of dragging out their final seasons. (I'm not saying... ! I'm just saying.) But in the few minutes I spent just now doing some extra-credit research (read: Wikipedia searching) on the Battle of Waterloo, I was reminded of something: Waterloo was a massive failure on Napoleon’s part, but it marked the end of years of turmoil in Europe and the start of an era of peace.

Maybe that’s worth reading into, and maybe it’s not at all; Matthew Weiner, after all, moves in mysterious ways. But let’s entertain the possibility. Whose massive failure could ultimately end a period of upheaval and chaos on the show, or at Sterling Cooper?

Probably not Freddie Rumsen’s.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Chris Heller is an associate editor for The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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