The penultimate episode of the first part of the last season “The Strategy” is easily the best episode in what is already a strong set. Fans of the show get what we’ve been waiting for since a few seasons ago: a Peggy and Don episode. Not since “The Suitcase” in season four did we get a chance to see just how deep Don’s friendship is with Peggy. For the past two seasons, all we saw was the rancor – Peggy eyes Don warily, especially when he returns to the agency, because any professional autonomy that she’s managed to build up can disappear in a moment when Don starts to show off. And Don for his part is nonplussed by the newly promoted Peggy, who now is calling the shots. He’s also been humbled this season, forced to slink in like a chastised schoolboy, even if he’s a partner and a superstar ad man. So it’s understandable that the two didn’t have a heart-to-heart, and instead were circling each other like suspicious dogs in an alley.
It all starts with a humiliating order from Lou and Pete – Peggy’s Burger Chef idea is aces – one of her classic moments of inspiration, and she’s riding high with the praise from everyone, including a coolly civil Don. But to cinch the deal, Don is going to give the presentation – Peggy’s told it’s her choice, but she’s being leaned on, and with hurt feelings and pride, she pretends to Don that it’s her idea to have him to do his Don magic on the Burger Chef folks. But things aren’t right with Peggy, even when they’re going well. I’ve complained in the past that the writers are too content in pushing the female characters into victim roles with way too much relish. It’s clear that even with all her considerable professional successes, she’s still “the girl” – just as Pete condescended to her by crowing that Peggy’s ” as good as any woman in this business.” Peggy’s still dealing with the talking dog syndrome and it’s chafing her. But interestingly enough, because Peggy’s looking at motherhood, particularly motherhood in the late 1960s, I got to thinking about Peggy’s choices in life. She could’ve been a mother and she could’ve gotten married. She doesn’t regret her life decisions, but at the same time she understands that she’s an anomaly; like Joan, she’s had to carve out a life for herself, and is still trying to make a narrow-minded world fit into her life. It’s not easy, especially with patriarchal pricks like Lou, Pete, and even Don sometimes. She feels undermined and thinks that she’s being set up to fail, so that Don could rescue her. That is why it’s all the more poignant when Don and Peggy finally have their breakthrough because each realizes that the other is truly the only person around who really knows who he/she is…Think about it: Don’s double life bonds him with Peggy who also harbors her dark secret: her pregnancy. It’s all the more sadder because her whole pitch for Burger Chef is about moms, and she can’t help but look at her life and wonder: “Is that all there is?” (even though the show ended with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” the Peggy Lee classic would’ve been a nice touch, too).
And Don needs Peggy as much as she needs him. I have to call it: his marriage is over. Megan’s visit to New York is brief, and she’s moving more of her stuff back to L.A. Also I’m a bit suspicious that her double life is started to set and Don isn’t part of it; when he reminds her of his impending visit to California, she bristles at the idea and suggests a different meeting place. Very interesting. But like the viewers, Don knows his marriage is limping to a sad and desolate ending, and it’ll only be a matter of time. It’s depressing and Don needs someone to reach out to – someone like Peggy…I don’t think the two will have heart-to-hearts over milkshakes, but their frank admission of mutual failure and insecurity is bracing because for too long they were trying to play catch up with their lives and work.
And like Peggy, Joan is also living in a world that just doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. She forged a little life for herself, living in a nice apartment, being a single mom with her mother. She has her work, like Peggy, and like Peggy, she’s often misunderstood and underappreciated. And like Peggy and Joan, Bob Benson is also a square peg trying to fit into a circle. Bob Benson is back – I guess because The Crazy Ones got cancelled, James Wolk was available. Bob’s back from Detroit, and after bailing out a closeted Chevy exec, he thinks that his life will be doomed like that of Sal Romano – clandestine trysts in parks, with periodic humiliating arrests. So he proposes to Joan, hoping to normalize their lives and inject some stability. It’s not a great proposal and it’s insulting – he points out that Joanie is approaching middle-age and is a single mom, not exactly a dude magnet, but she rightly points out that it’s better to be alone, waiting for the one, than giving up. She also urges Bob to find someone himself – and this is where her privilege is showing because gays were still viewed as abominations, and the opportunity for Bob to find someone is clearly very unlikely.
With Pete, we saw a total return to his priggish, petulant, childish self. He’s like the male Betty. We also got a welcome return of Trudy – like Wolk, I think Alison Brie had more time on her hands because Community just got axed. Pete’s not sure how to deal with the women in his life, because unlike Don, his lovers don’t collapse into a tizzy around him. Bonnie’s great – and she loves him. But it’s clear that she’s her own woman and won’t stand for his nonsense. His reunion with Trudy is (too) brief and once again he’s reminded that she’s not one to be messed with – I love Trudy and think she was one of the most interesting characters on the show – and wish she was on longer (though even a tiny bit of Trudy was awesome).
What I think worked best with this episode is that we see an optimistic light – a tiny one, mind you, at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Don and Peggy will have to come to some sort of understanding. What’s so beautiful about their confrontation is that they’re allowed to spill their guts out without worrying about being undercut for being vulnerable. Don’s worried because his position has been severely compromised – both at work and at home. His marriage is not at all solid, and but he’s too terrified to do anything about it (because to do so would be to admit that there’s a problem); his fathering has been sporadic, at best; and at work, he’s been humbled, defanged and professionally neutered. He knows that lots of folks around him want him to fail and are waiting to see his Achilles tendon and strike.
And Peggy is saddled with similar issues. She’s isolated herself with work and her single-mindedness, and a healthy relationship looks more and more improbable; her work colleagues are either threatened by her, or they treat her like a doofy little girl. Like Don, Peggy’s also afraid that she’s being watched and she knows that there are forces in the agency that hope she falls on her face. Flat. So the two share some deep insecurities and fears. And deep pasts. When Sinatra’s “My Way” starts to play and Don offers her his hand, the two share a slow dance together, and it’s simple yet a powerful scene – both relax and are themselves. Peggy even puts her head on his shoulder and he discreetly kisses her on top of her head – it’s a beautiful scene that benefits from Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm – the two seem incapable of giving sub par performances.
Next week’s episode wraps up the first part of the final season. I’m hoping we get a final dose of Betty and Sally – both of whom made big impacts this season. Sally, especially, brought out shades of Don – but more importantly, she brought out a hope of redemption. In this episode we saw the Don of old – the creative guy who loved his work. We also saw him rebond with the Peggy of old – the ambitious workhorse who wants to do great work (as opposed to merely competent work, like most of her colleagues are satisfied with). All in all, a masterful episode.