If you’re a Mad Men fan, join us regularly for Mad Men Musings – a space to discuss selected highlights, low points, or just plain water-cooler worthy moments of each episode.
Perhaps Tolstoy said it best: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In the penultimate Mad Men episode leading to the split season finale, we see the way families shift, self-destruct, and knit together in surprising ways.
Like a callback to Season 4’s “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy reunite as their own kind of family, the tightness of their bond highlighting the empty spaces in their respective lives. Bob Benson (YES!!!) returns and tries to piece a ready-made Erector set fam together, and Pete…well, Pete continues to stomp all over the already broken remains of his relationship to his wife and daughter. One of the primary tropes of Mad Men – this notion of unexpected and created families – is explored with a bittersweet poignancy here, one that lingers in all the right ways.
Burger Chef plays a pivotal role, the eventual ad pitch mirroring real-life; if Don’s taught Peggy one thing, it’s how to eventually stumble upon the right tagline, the one that hits you in the heart. It takes her a while to find, it though. In a cringe-worthy pitch meeting with Pete (who has flown in from LA with Bonnie), Lou and Don, Peggy’s original idea is lauded, but undermined at the same time – seeded with the same old paternal sexism that Peggy always has to deal with.
Later, Pete asserts that Don should be the one to deliver the presentation, not Peggy: “Don will give authority, and you’ll give the emotion.” Peggy’s been reduced to playing the role of the Burger Chef mother (um, awkward much, MOTHER OF PETE’S ILLICIT CHILD??) and this is cosigned by Ted, via long distance. Peggy sucks it up and remains professional, but this new direction is clearly killing her.
Initially, she takes this out on Don—she obsesses how the original idea isn’t good enough and worries that Don will waltz in and perform his usual magic, pulling the perfect tagline out of the ether and destroying her inferior campaign.
Don doesn’t take the bait, though – instead, we see him return to a bygone Don of yore, one that wants to see Peggy succeed on her own terms. Watching him and Peggy put their heads together like this is such a pleasure…a pas de deux of intellect, tenderness and a long and complicated history. Over drinks, the two parse through what family actually means.
Peggy confesses that she turned thirty recently and has been lying about her age; she looks at families in station wagons and wonders where she went wrong. In turn, Don reciprocates with his worry that he “never did anything…that I don’t have anyone.”
Amidst these confidences, Peggy has her light bulb moment – family is what you make of it. More specifically, when you break bread at Burger Chef, every table is the family table. But who cares, because Sinatra’s “My Way” is playing and Don asks Peggy to dance. In that moment, when the two of them are swaying together, I could almost forgive Don for every horrible thing he’s ever done.
As for Don’s relationship with Megan? It continues to limp along. Megan flies out to visit him, and the two are cordial, even affectionate. Megan misses her things and packs up some stuff to take with her to LA, underscoring the continued distance between them. She does tell Don she wants to visit with him in a place without so much baggage, and perhaps a trip like that will finally force their hand.
Pete’s brought Bonnie out to NYC with him (ugh, he joined the Mile High Club en route) and makes a special trip to see his daughter, Tammy. The problem is, Tammy doesn’t even seem to know who he is – Barbie or no Barbie, she wants nothing to do with him. An increasingly bitter Pete waits for Trudy, who classily tries to avoid seeing him by being out.
When she finally gets back, Pete starts in with bitter recriminations, accusing her out being out on a date and hissing, “I don’t like you carrying on like that. You have a child…it’s immoral!” I hate you, Pete, I really do, a feeling further solidified by your little-slamming-your-beer-bottle-into-Trudy’s-sheet-cake tantrum. Trudy does get in a good parting shot, though: “You’re not part of this family anymore.” Pete, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Bonnie can never dance the Charlestown the way Trudy can.
And now, the man that I’ve been dying to see all season: Bob Benson! We get to see more of his interior here, the closeted gay man leading a double life. He’s in town with the Chevy executives and must come to the rescue when one of them gets busted for trying sexy-times with an undercover cop. The exec has been worked over, his face bleeding; he wonders how Bob lived in NYC with “so much temptation.” He also drops a bombshell on Bob: SC&P is losing the Chevy account, and Bob is going to get a stellar offer from Buick.
Bob, being the master schemer that we know him to be, plans accordingly. After a day of flowers and presents for Joan’s mom and Kevin, Bob reveals the largest “gift” of all – an engagement ring for Joan. Essentially, he wants Joan as a beard, to help cement his normative status as a soon-to-be Buick man.
As I watched the two of them on the couch, I was terrified that Joan would capitulate, but I shouldn’t have underestimated her. Bob asks Joan if she wants to continue living in a two bedroom apartment with her mother and points out that she’s pushing 40, with no husband and no father for Kevin. But Joan spurns him outright, for she hasn’t given up on finding a real family for herself: “I want love, and I’d rather die hoping it happens than make some arrangement.” How much do I love Joan? As much as I hate Pete – so, a lot. Whatever’s going to happen, it’s going to be on her terms, no matter how hard it may be.
Lastly, the SC&P “family” seems to have a bunch of things percolating on the downlow. Roger was approached by McCann, asking about Don and Phillip Morris. And when Joan revealed the loss of the Chevy account, Jim Cutler immediately proposes that they start advertising their new computer AND make Harry Crane a partner. Joan and Roger are not amenable to this, but are outvoted. What will this all mean for Don? After all, Lou and Jim still want him out.
Despite all this turmoil, we end on a tender moment: Peggy and Don pitch their new campaign idea to Pete, at Burger Chef. It’s just a crappy fast food joint, and Pete’s like the toxic uncle nobody really likes; still, as the camera slowly pans away from the three of them, past all the other diners, it looks like a real family moment.
Readers: Sharon Tate/Manson truthers, any Megan predictions? How perfect was Peggy and Don’s dance? And what do you think will happen next week? Because this was such a sweet episode, I’m thinking some major drama is going down for the finale…
all photos: via AMC
Amity writes and teaches in Central PA. Her obsessions include: Rodarte (she can’t afford any Rodarte, mind you, but a girl can dream), espresso, books, vintage/thrift fashion and fountain pens. She thinks you should dress like a weirdo once in a while, just to shake things up.