"The Strategy," Mad Men's penultimate episode of 2014, was a very important episode about work and relationships. And in the best tradition of Mad Men, it showed that, for these folks, the most important relationships revolve around work while the best work is about relationships.
There's quite a lot going on in this episode, in which we see a still unconscious sort of sexism coming to the fore as the true dawning of feminism in the 1970s -- most of which we are destined to miss in Mad Men because of its '60s setting -- is about to begin.
Easily lost in the shuffle as the relationship between Don Draper and his one-time secretary and protege Peggy Olson again snaps to the fore is that there is a struggle for the soul of Sterling Cooper underway. And Don, aligned with Roger Sterling, is right in the middle of it. Hence, I suspect, the title of this episode.
Frank Sinatra performs "My Way" as part of his big return show in 1974, Sinatra: The Main Event , held at Madison Square Garden in New York five years after the events of this Mad Men episode.
It turns out that the Chevy Vega, the new car which led to the merger between rival agencies last season, is lost as the car's advertising is about to go (disastrously, as it happens, in real life) in-house. But General Motors likes Sterling Coo -- or at least the Sterling Coo which won its business, which means Don Draper -- and the Buick may well be beckoning.
Media chief and one-time junior copywriter under Don Harry Crane is at last a partner and we see over the course of the episode that LA-based partners Pete Campbell and Ted Chaogh want Don in the middle of things creatively even as Ted's old comrade-in-arms Jim Cutler and current agency creative director Lou Avery are trying to usher him out the door.
the return of several critical characters -- day one leading characters Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway, key recurrer Trudy Campbell, and latter-day figure of intrigue Bob Benson --
But the core of the episode came into sharpest focus late in the game, with Don Draper, Peggy Olson and, yes, Pete Campbell. Having set up the landing of new client Burger Chef, Pete insisted that Don be brought in to work with Peggy on the campaign and in fact to make the pitch himself.
Don doesn't always have better ideas than Peggy, but he is clearly superior at delivering a pitch. Even Pete's evident sexism can't distract from that.
More to the point for our purpose, Peggy is looking for some mentoring from her old boss. She demands that he explain how his mind works, which he sort of does. Then she reveals her worries about herself and he, showing his supportive side, tells her she is doing "great." Well, except for all that unproductive badgering of staff and all, which he does not say.
The reality is that, even more so than many biological families, these characters have more that unites them than divides them.
Don tells her that creative advertising is about "living in the not knowing." He truly is the existentialist he seemed in the brilliant series pilot, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." And all this other stuff, when he plays at being the cookie cutter success model his looks set him up to be -- traditional family man, conventional executive -- is really stuff that gets in the way even as it has provided him cover to be far more of a bohemian hiding in plain sight than others usually realize.
Don tells Peggy: "You can't tell people what they want. It has to be what you want."
Advertising is about selling a comforting and satisfying illusion to make a confusing and not infrequently threatening life seem better. It is the job of the ad exec to structure and sell a successful illusion
Don takes his feelings, his needs, the projection of his aspirations, and presents them through a created prism, usually of sentiment, to convince the client that consumers will view the purchase of their product as the key to happiness.
Which makes Don's own deepest fears, at least as he expresses them, more than a little ironic.
Don worries that he will never have accomplished anything, that he will never have had anyone really in his life
But what is he really accomplishing by conning people into purchasing palliatives, by distracting them into embracing consumerism as a substitute for living?
In the midst of their discussion, Don and Peggy dance to what is to become Frank Sinatra's signature tune of arrogance, defiance, self-confidence, take your pick, "My Way," which has just become a smash 1969 hit despite, or perhaps in part because of, the reign of rock music.
Later, Don and Peggy and Pete, dining at Burger Chef, form a sort of supportive family group to bring the episode to an end, even as their spouses and significant others have scattered.
Elsewhere in the episode, we see the unraveling of some principal personal relationships and the return of Roger Sterling to operational competence.
Roger is in the process of ferreting out some complex internal and external corporate politics which will no doubt loom large in the end game of Mad Men while his once again bro/ally Don is playing good soldier at Sterling Coo and dealing with may be the winding down of his second marriage.
Megan has come to New York, returning the favor from last episode of Don's visit to LA. They get on well, but it's clear that neither is engaged by the life centering on the other's work. Fortunately, Megan is able to pick up some more of her stuff to take out to LA.
Pete has brought his spiffy LA realtor gal pal Bonnie to the Big Apple. But in classic Pete Campbell mode, New York turns the Cali-entranced Knickerbocker into the morose fellow we've come to know and, well, not love. He still has a thing for soon-to-be-ex-wife Trudy and that picture in his head of a perfect family life, even though Trudy picks the time of his visit to be elsewhere and their daughter barely knows him.
Get back on the plane, Pete, before you convince Bonnie that the person she notably does not like in New York is the real you.
And there is the saga of the mysterious Bob Benson and his dear friend Joan Holloway. After bailing a closeted General Motors exec out of trouble after the closeted fellow offers to fellate an unamused New York undercover cop, it strikes Bob that he needs a nifty wife to aid in his rise, either in advertising or, as suggested, at GM itself.
So he proposes a marriage of convenience to Joan. But pragmatic as she can be, and as fine a friendship as she and Bob actually do have, Joan holds out for love with all the trappings.
Ah, Joan. We are running out of time in the life of this series, not to mention time for new characters. Unless ... there is a next act for a certain silver fox with his name on door. Or another double-d character appears in an altered light.
One more episode to go in 2014 ...