ENTERTAINMENT

'Mad Men' Review: Dancing In The Dark

05/19/2014 02:35 am ET | Updated May 20, 2014
AMC

Don't read on unless you have seen "The Strategy," the sixth episode of "Mad Men's" final season.

So what do you do when you're desperate? Do you settle? Or do you do take Ol' Blue Eyes' advice and do it your way?

Is that even a question? Of course, it's "My Way" or the highway.

Except there's no "of course" about it. Don Draper lost his swagger when he agreed to the SC&P partners' terms, and ever since then -- one or two epic tantrums aside -- he has tried to walk the strait and narrow. He's tried to give Peggy what she wants and be a good boy and settle for the least-common-denominator work that Lou, the account guys and the client will accept. The Don of old would not have given the client what that client wanted; he would have given them what he needed them to have. That Don Draper crashed and burned.

Now Don's trying to be the guy whose work is good enough. There were some highs associated with trying to be better than good, but many lows as well. In the end, Don couldn't quite accept mere competence as the only goal, and neither could Peggy, and that's what unites them. That's what makes them a family: They are bonded by their desire to root out the best, most pure and most kick-ass ideas.

Don can't quite settle for ho-hum/decent work, just as Peggy hasn't quite been able to settle for life as a married mom, just as Joan can't settle for an advantageous arrangement with Bob Benson. They want something more, something deeper, richer and more difficult, and that's what makes these people a weird kind of family, despite their spectacular talent for getting in their own way and tripping each other up.

Of course, Don and Peggy are also bound by some very deep ties, including the fear that they are, on some level, superfluous and maybe even worthless. Hot damn, "Mad Men" made us wait a very long time to give us a lot of quality Don-Peggy interactions, but "The Strategy" was the answer to many a fan's prayer. Don and Peggy argue and aggravate each other, and they goad each other in innumerable ways, but those two also completely get each other (and they enjoy much of the goading as well). Don confides in Peggy that he sometimes wonders if his entire life has been a waste of time; he worries that he "never did anything and that he never had anyone."

Peggy, for her part, is deeply aware of the fact that she is an outlier: She's 30 years old, not in a relationship, professionally ambitious and economically self-sufficient. All this talk of a mother's guilt and needing permission from male authority figures -- these things are daily hurdles for Peggy. She wants to be free of those rules, but it's a struggle, and some days it seems like the whole world is against her.

Of course, the elephant in the room during Peggy and Don's late-night bull session is the baby she had all those years ago, and spending weeks looking at families in station wagons didn't exactly make her feel less self-conscious about the limbo in which she lives as a woman who gave birth to a child yet who is entirely unattached in her personal life. No wonder she resisted the idea that the ad had to come from a place of guilt and submission. Lou is all too happy to play the dictatorial patriarch in Peggy's professional life, doling out permission and appearing to give her choices when she really doesn't have any. (Does anyone really believe that Peggy ever truly had a choice about who would pitch the client? Please.) No wonder an ad campaign based on supplication and submission made her twitchy and unable to sleep.

Both Don and Peggy want to do great work, but their status as outsiders comes from different places. Don's sense of being an unwanted exile is innate, while Peggy's is, to a large degree, imposed by a world that isn't ready for women like her. Put another way, Don tends to create problems for himself out of self-hatred, and though Peggy likes herself more, the world seems determined to paint her into a corner and make her feel ashamed of her choices.

Yet they end up in similar places: They are outcasts. So Don and Peggy -- two lonely, isolated people who love their work, who are endlessly curious about that work, who will never connect with lovers the way they consistently connect with each other intellectually and platonically -- well, they danced together, and it was terrific.

Go back to every season of "Mad Men," and you can find some incredible scene in which Jon Hamm has no lines but just floors you with a non-verbal rendition of whatever Don is going through. In this half-season, that standout moment will surely be Don's face as he embraced Peggy during their dance. Part of that look was "the pain of an old wound," to bring things full circle to the Carousel pitch from Season 1. Don's primal wounds ensure that he will, until the day he dies, keep on wondering if anyone really loves him and if he's truly capable of love. But every so often, he gets a reminder that, yes, he is a human being and he is able to give and receive selfless devotion and deep affection. The dance in "The Strategy" constituted one of those reminders, and the look on his face showed just how much he needed that.

Peggy also needed the comfort that moment brought. After months of going it alone and feeling afraid and besieged, she relaxed into Don's embrace as if she could finally breathe again. That moment of reassurance enabled her to assert a new level of confidence when she, Don and Pete went to Burger Chef to pitch their new idea. Don not only reminded her she had an ally, he helped her go back to the source of her inspiration and find an approach that resonated for her.

Don knew she needed to feel connected to the pitch, and it wasn't going to feel right to her unless it was not about guilt, fear and needing permission from a man. No matter what else is true about Don -- and about Peggy, too -- their work ultimately is about finding hope through connection. Their best work is usually clever, elegant and modern, but there's something more to it -- you could call it sentimentality, but perhaps it's simply optimism. The new Burger Chef ad was about finding a space that was welcoming and free, about finding a respite. That wish didn't come from a place of shame and doubt; it came from a place of energy and hope.

Perhaps the idea of respite is an illusion. Megan, for example, wanted to find a place away from L.A. and New York, somewhere the world wouldn't pull at her and Don, but they both know that place doesn't exist. Maybe the idea of respite has to be enough. Maybe thinking that kind of sanctuary is possible provides the comfort that desperate people need in this uncertain world. In any event, as "Mad Men" has often implied, it takes broken and isolated people to imagine places of warmth, comfort and acceptance. Don and Peggy's work is so good because it's full of all the things they long for.

No wonder they dream of a calm, inviting place: A sense of sweaty desperation and even panic hung over this episode. Pete wanted to assert ownership over both Bonnie and Trudy. Don could feel his bond to Megan slipping away. Cutler and the guy from McCann made Roger feel deep unease about SC&P's future. The car executive tried to keep his gay identity secret. Peggy had to fight to be taken seriously as a professional, a full decade into her career.

Almost every character was in the uncomfortable "place of not knowing." But what sets Don and Peggy apart is that that's the norm for them; they've long since learned to use that unease and make it work for them. They may screw up everything in their personal lives, thanks to their tendencies to ignore or evade difficult issues, but when it comes to work, they try to get at the core of their emotions and use their deepest fears to make their pitches sing.

But there's always the temptation to find a port in a storm and just get by. Bob Benson tried to rope Joan into a scheme that would allow them to "comfort each other in an uncertain world." But if that comfort is based on a lie, wouldn't it curdle and go sour?

That's certainly what happened with Pete, who has settled for Bonnie, who is far too independent for him. As we saw in Cos Cob, Pete has an ugly desire to dominate the women in his life. Trudy has long since moved on from her unsatisfying marriage to Pete, and once all the paperwork is done, that life will be truly over for him. Pete can't accept that, and he almost literally marks his territory by leaving a beer bottle in Tammy's cake. He's desperate to make either Trudy or Bonnie bend to his petulant will, but he has a habit of being attracted to very strong women (including Peggy) who don't have a lot of time for his antics.

But women having to put up with condescension, chiding and second guessing from oblivious, fearful or ignorant men was a strong theme in this hour. Don, who has often been Peggy's champion at work, could barely contemplate the idea of a working mother ("What's her profession?" "That's too sad for an ad."). Lou, Ted and Pete basically railroaded Peggy into accepting that Don would do the Burger Chef pitch, because men connote authority while women convey emotions (obviously). Peggy, who tried to stand her ground, pretended to Don that the idea was hers. It was a nice attempt to save face, but she was clearly humiliated. And she was angry, too, having heard Pete declare that she was "as good as any woman in this business." (There was practically an explosive thought bubble above Peggy's head in that moment, one that said, "I'm as good as any man in this business too, for God's sake!")

Peggy knows the world is changing -- the assumptions of 1955 aren't going to work anymore. Bonnie wants to pay her way, at least partly, in New York, and she doesn't want to be paraded around Pete's office as his accessory. Trudy has no time for Pete's nonsense and gives no ground to her ex. Joan feels no particular need to participate in a sham marriage with Bob. Peggy grits her teeth and endures the latest round of condescension from the guys she works with, and she stays in the office all weekend to come up with a better pitch. Part of her thought process involves questioning the existence of the perfect family -- the smiling, happy people who are not watching TV but are breaking bread in a spirit of joy and positivity. Do those people exist, she wonders to Don?

Sure they do, but there's a pretty good chance they're not related by blood. After seven seasons, the pattern is clear: The strongest relationships on this show don't have much to do with sex. Sure, attraction and sex may have been involved at some point in the key relationships, but the ones that are deepest and the most long-lasting have everything to do with friendship, comfort and intellectual kinship.

Bob, Joan, Joan's son and her mother are a kind of ad hoc family. Maybe that unit won't survive intact after Bob's awkward proposal, but Bob and Joan may find a way to keep that friendship alive. With Joan, Bob doesn't have to pretend to be a hot-blooded man interested in her curves, and with Bob, Joan gets to simply relax with a man who treats her well and doesn't want anything but friendship from her. Those aren't things to be lightly tossed aside.

Megan and Don can't quite make it work together, nor can Pete and Trudy. (At this point, is the only functional marriage on the show between Lou and his unseen wife, "the card"?). But all is not lost: Stan and Peggy get each other, and Don and Peggy most assuredly do as well. Even Joan and Roger can be semi-friendly allies of a sort, when the chips are down.

That family at the end -- Peggy, Don and Pete -- have often treated each other badly, as family members do. Each of them has been selfish, unkind or oblivious in one way or another. They know exactly what buttons to push in order to hurt each other, and Peggy and Pete have the pain of their own complex history locked away in the back of their minds.

But they broke bread together, and they found comfort in the fact that not one member of that trio wanted to settle for what was easy. "Mad Men" often depicts acts of selfishness, nastiness and calculating cruelty, and those frequent displays of cynicism, dislocation and status-seeking can start to seem a little wearing.

But what keeps me devoted to "Mad Men" is that every so often, it circles back to the ideas that people can find common ground and are capable of altruistic acts. The show's depiction of self-flagellation and desperation can be riveting at times, don't get me wrong, but I like that "Mad Men" occasionally implies that people can follow the better angels of their nature and find comfort in doing so.

Life can be dark and depressing, but occasionally you come across clean, well-lighted places. Sometimes friendship waits there. Or at least some hot fries.

Hail of bullets:

  • Bob Benson! It was great to see him again, and it was a relief to see that he didn't get put through the same hell that Sal Romano endured. I'm not saying Bob's life is necessarily easier than Sal's, but Bob's encounter with a closeted executive ended up being a net positive for Bob's career, not a heart-churning disaster.
  • Every time I see Bob, I want him to be wearing his short shorts. I can't help it.
  • Next week is the last "Mad Men" episode of 2014, and it certainly appears as though big things are about to happen: SC&P might get a shot at Buick, and the war between Jim Cutler and Roger Sterling and their two factions looks like it's about to come to a head. If I know my "Mad Men," the show is gearing up for a whole lot of exciting office politics next week.
  • It can't be good for Megan and Don that Peggy's new secretary didn't even know Don was married. Also, Megan clearly hadn't been told that Don now worked for Peggy. Everything about Don and Megan's reunion in New York felt strained. They tried to put a good face on it, but Megan's misgivings were all over her face in the balcony scene and elsewhere.
  • Much of this episode cemented the idea that Peggy had pretty much become Don: She went to work on the weekend, where she smoked, drank and obsessed about a pitch, and she even occupied Lou's office -- which used to be Don's office. Her ordering Don to describe his thought process while sitting behind the desk in his old office was quite a turnaround from where the show started. Who would have thought that scenario would ever happen back when Peggy started in 1960?
  • "Trudy, it's immoral! You have a child!" Pete may live out in California now, but his censorious Puritan streak is not buried all that deeply.
  • It's telling that Bob had a closer relationship with Kevin than Pete had with Tammy. Pete's not about to get the Father of the Year award.
  • Whoa, F bomb alert. I can't recall how many times "Mad Men" has used (and bleeped out) that curse word, but Bonnie's use of it is only among a handful of times I can recall (not) hearing it on the show.
  • "Whenever I'm really uncertain of an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need, and then I take a nap." #DonWisdom
  • Joan looks pretty with her hair down.
  • I am certain Lou's wife is not a card.

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