Mad Men The Strategy

AMC

There once was a time when Paul Anka, sitting somewhere among the streets and cafes of gay Paris, heard a song. A song that would change his life. A song that, according to Anka, was really shitty.

“I thought it was a shitty record, but there was something in it,” Anka told The Telegraph in 2007. Harsh, yes, especially if you’re Claude Francois, whose 1967 hit “Comme d’habitude” is the toilet-quality (honestly, it’s not that bad) piece of music in question. But there was something lurking within “Comme d’habitude,” and Anka would eventually scrape that something out of its French pop shell.

Years later, Anka would be hanging out with Frank Sinatra, doing those usual Frank Sinatra-adjacent things — dinner, drinks, casual association with members of La Cosa Nostra — when the Chairman of the Board dropped a truth bomb on Anka and the various mobsters present. He was out; he was done; the music biz was a fickle mistress and Frankie wasn’t playin’ her games no more. Anka was stunned, but he knew what to do. The only way to respect Sinatra’s decision to quit the music industry was to write him the biggest hit of his musical career.

So Anka found his old copy of “Comme d’habitude,” which, conveniently, he had purchased the rights to after hearing it in France so long ago. And he picked it apart and he put it back together and he wrote a whole new set of lyrics that were much more in line with an old cantankerous Italian stereotype. Stuff like “I ate it up and spit it out,” and “the record shows I took the blows” and other things you’d say either directly before or directly after punching some guy in a dive bar.

And thus, “My Way” was born.

You know the rest from here. The song became a runaway success and will be forever linked to Sinatra; it was covered by every artist under the sun; it remains a popular song choice for the tipsy middle-aged man who exists in every karaoke bar on the planet. How does that guy even get there?

“My Way” was released on June 14, 1969, and thus we know that “The Strategy,” last night’s episode of Mad Men, has gotten us at least as far as mid-June. Probably not too far afterwards, considering we hear the song issuing from someone’s radio. Sinatra’s old-fashioned crooning means a lot to this particular episode; not only because it coincides with the emotional high point of the hour, and not only because it probably cost an astounding amount of licensing fees to get it on the show, but because “The Strategy” caps off with a holy trinity of characters, all having found a brief moment of happiness that was only attainable by following Sinatra’s surly instructions.

More on that later. Let’s start with one of this Mad Men trifecta, Peggy Olsen. All season long, I’ve been waiting for something good to come Peggy’s way. Something. And it almost seems like the opening of this week is her big win. Sure, getting out to survey real live Burger Chef customers in a real live Burger Chef doesn’t bring in much, but the pitch is worth it. Peggy’s cool and confident, and everyone in the room is grinning like a buffoon. Even Lou is ready with a compliment, for Chrissakes (the first genuinely nice thing to ever pass by Lou Avery’s lips). This is a slam dunk.

Except that a woman can’t possibly be a voice of authority in a pitch, so Don Draper has been hand-picked to do the pitching. And Don Draper will be doing the undermining, whether intentionally or not, because one quick last-minute gripe about the strategy sends Peggy back into a tailspin we’ve seen her trying (and failing) to pull herself out of all season.

That’s the bad. The good is that for once, Peggy’s humiliation and subsequent lack of self-confidence has an antidote, and that antidote is sitting in the office right next door. A la perennial Mad Men favorite “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy stay up into the wee hours of the morning, hashing out that perfect string of words that will convince the public to buy a new, top of the line suitcase and/or hamburger.

“The Suitcase” was high tension. Don and Peggy’s road to the Muhammad Ali of suitcase advertisements was littered with death, spilt secrets, fistfights, and a man doing something unspeakable upon another man’s desk. “The Strategy” is not so ambitious, and this all-nighter is just a lot of very sad, very lonely talk. But lonely is good — that is, if it leads to the perfect Burger Chef pitch and a rekindling of that fondness these two used to share for each other.

And then “My Way” starts to chime in, Don takes Peggy’s hand, and blammo. We’ve got another of those indelible Mad Men moments. Don pitched Kodak carousels and shut off The Beatles halfway through, and now he’s got a dance with Peggy that the two of them (plus several million viewers at home) will always remember. It’s a beautiful moment; first Peggy’s a little hesitant, but then she puts her head on his chest and now he’s the one taken aback by the level of intimacy. Jon Hamm‘s face struggles to find the right emotion, eventually settling on something almost fatherly. And they dance on.

Now for something slightly less endearing: Pete Campbell. Bonnie doesn’t like the old, New York-tainted Pete, and there’s really no reason for her to do so. East Coast Pete is an unreasonably huge jackass, from the way he blows up at Trudy for the crime of maybe seeing someone else (Bonnie, of course, doesn’t count for magic reasons that will be left unsaid) and for leaving their daughter alone with a nanny whom she seems to like more than her actual father.

Also he ordered room service while Bonnie was out. Not as big a crime as the first two, but a crime nonetheless.

There is one positive thing New York City seems to bring out in Pete, and that’s his old SC&P shine. Pete genuinely seems to be having fun at the office; he’s drinking rum during a meeting (Lou’s wife is such a card), and he steps up to fight for the still-kind-of-a-pariah Don on multiple occasions (something I doubt the old Pete would ever do). As much as Pete professes his love for our westernmost coast, there’s definitely something in him that still craves the New York life. But which calling is stronger? This isn’t like the Draper household, where man is unabashedly East and woman is unabashedly West. Bonnie’s an LA gal, but Pete could go either way. We’ll have to see whether this trip is really just a trip, or if it’s the precursor to another cross-country move.

And the final piece of this holy trinity is Don Draper, who isn’t moving many big pieces in “The Strategy.” He’s still weedling his way back into a SC&P position of power: note the fist-pump when he’s given Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch, and that he’s just another one of the partners (no noticeable shunning by anyone, not even Cutler) when voting on Harry Crane.

His marriage is trailing in the exact opposite direction. Megan shows up for a surprise office visit (both Pete and Megan get big hugs and warm smiles from everybody at SC&P, which underscores just how uncomfortable it was when Don first reappeared to get his job back three episodes ago). And though Don and Megan eat all the meals that a loving, caring couple would, with a homemade dinner ripe for Peggy interruptions, and a romantic balcony breakfast, they’re not feeling so lovey-dovey.

Because:

  1. Megan’s stripping his apartment bare of all her old possessions, which is just about the last thing you’d do if you planned to stay there regularly.
  2. During Don and Peggy’s competitive sad-off, Don mentions the crippling fear that he “[doesn't] have anyone.” Not the kind of thing a happily married man might say.

It makes the Draper open-air breakfast, plus Megan’s somewhat ominous-looking flight back home, seem very finite. At this point, it seems all but guaranteed that Don and Megan are splitsville, and a mid-season finale would be the perfect time to drop that particular bombshell. Conveniently, we have one of those coming next week.

To cap things off, our three heroes meet up in a Burger Chef to talk a little strategy and munch a few burgers. And as the camera slowly pans out, it becomes oh so clear what director Phil Abraham is trying to say. Pete, Peggy and Don, all sitting in a Burger Chef, happily chowing down on fast food as Peggy wipes a ketchup stain off Pete’s face — Burger Chef is for the modern family, and these three are one Sofia Vergara away from their own wacky ABC sitcom. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re surrounded by other families, all eating Burger Chef with the same amount of cozy warm enthusiasm.

Pete, Peggy and Don are living the Burger Chef pitch. They’re forming a deep, sentimental bond with the product before our very eyes, which, according to a much younger Don Draper (via the Carousel pitch in “The Wheel”), is kind of the whole point of advertising. Right now, the SC&P office is kind of a nightmare, and I’m guessing that promoting Harry Crane and igniting a bloody management war between Roger Sterling and Jim Cutler will not drastically improve anyone’s work environment. But these three have managed to find happiness in advertising, by going their own way.

Pipe in a little Sinatra here too, and it’d work just fine.

There’s one character who gets a fair amount of screen time during “The Strategy” but has nothing to do with the strategy in question. Bob Benson is back, because actor James Wolk‘s CBS series The Crazy Ones was cancelled a week ago, and human beings need money in order to buy food and not die (yes, Wolk almost certainly filmed “The Strategy” before last week, but The Crazy Ones does explain his absence this season).

Bob’s got a big sob story for everyone tonight. It’s, understandably, extremely difficult to be both gay and alive in the 1960s, and a potential job offer from Buick means Bob would need to look the part of a high-ranking ad exec. Wife, kids, not being attracted to men, etc. So he asks Joan for her hand in a loveless, sham marriage that would come with a giant Buick paycheck and a house the size of a small town.

Here’s the thing. Bob Benson, for most of last season, was mostly a puzzle for people to try and solve. He was there to torment Pete and make Roger slightly uneasy and to act out the 1960s version of Will & Grace with Joan. Outside of that, he was basically an M. Night Shymalan plot twist, given human form.

Now, “The Strategy” asks that we suddenly develop feelings for this man, despite not having feelings for him in the first place, and after five episodes of zero Bob. It doesn’t quite work out. Also, what he’s offering Joan is really an awful deal, which doesn’t make him seem any more sympathetic.

But at least Bob’s story gave us a quick check-in with Ken Cosgrove. Congratulations Cosgrove! You’re officially nothing more than a vehicle for eye patch jokes. We’ll keep an eye out for your next one. And Bob leaving the company might be the beginnings of a Buick deal, which might be the beginnings of the great Cutler/Sterling war we’ve been building to for a while now. Who will emerge victorious? Who will be reduced to a pile of smoldering ash inside a neatly pressed suit?

If the “Next Time on Mad Men” is any indication, with music usually reserved for the part of a horror movie where a knife-wielding man jumps out of a closet, the mid-season finale is going to be a doozy. Kiss that cozy, burger-eating tranquility goodbye.


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