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“It’s about family.”
If the first half of Mad Men’s final season had ended with “The Strategy”(hell, if the final season itself had ended with last night’s episode), it would have been a deeply satisfying and appropriate conclusion. Seeing Don, Peggy, and Pete break bread as this sweetly dysfunctional family while their own personal/family lives are in less than perfect states is purely sublime. Whether they know it or not, they have become a family unit over the years and it is so rewarding to see the show acknowledge that strange bond. It is a perfect endnote to an exceptional hour of television.
Following the pattern set by the series, the episode before the finale is chock full of poignant and meaningful interactions and character moments. Though usually the penultimate hour delivers momentous events (Lane commits suicide in season five, Don writes the New York Times letter in season four, Pete tries to blackmail Don in season one, etc.) “The Strategy” does not necessarily offer shocking turn of events or big revelations, but does provide a substantial amount of emotional weight. Practically every notable moment is a result or pay-off of conflicts explored since the early days of Mad Men and ongoing struggles the characters face.
Peggy fights to balance her sad personal life with her thriving professional one and faces yet another bout of casual sexism in the workplace, Don deals with the idea of his life slipping away from him, Joan is confronted by her own insecurities/fears about love and the sate of her life by way of Bob Benson, Pete is conflicted by his feelings about both Trudy and Bonnie, and most importantly, Peggy and Don finally bond over work. The sense of history in the series is astoundingly impressive. The writers have created such an immensely rich world that every moment is imbued with countless layers of meaning and poignancy making it an entirely captivating and compelling viewing experience. Echoes of “The Suitcase” (arguably the best episode of the series and a definite fan favorite) permeate the hour. This episode is all about Don and Peggy and their long-awaited reunion. Seeing them at such odds this season has been seriously painful, unlike past rough patches in their relationship, it seemed like perhaps they had really gone their separate ways. But alas, it is not so, thank god.
Their relationship is undoubtedly the most engaging of the series and most likely the deepest connection either character has to another human being. Sure Peggy and Stan enjoy a nice rapport, and Don does love Megan, but neither of them open up in such ways with anybody else as they do with each other. They allow themselves to be completely vulnerable with the other person and relate to one another in a truly special way.
And the way the writers construct their eventual reconciliation is masterful. They come together through their work, as they have so many times before. Beginning with the resentful and uncomfortable dynamic they have developed this season to Peggy essentially breaking down and asking Don for help. Because regardless of the tenuous state of the hierarchy in the agency and the fact that Peggy is the lead for the Burger Chef account, Don still has the power to push Peggy. He makes her make her second guess herself and strive to do even better work. Something that Lou Avery surely never did and will never do. Knowing that Don was “noodling” around with the concept eats at Peggy because she knows that it means that he isn’t entirely convinced what they have is the best she can do. Even after all this time, she wants to impress him. Peggy’s storyline not only addresses the deep-rooted issues between the two characters but also addresses the changing of the times in a great way and how that affects their approach to advertising. “Does this family even exist?”
No longer are they pandering to the ‘mothers’ of America, Peggy recognizes how the world has changed in her own dissatisfaction with her life, there are single thirty year olds (like her), there a single working mothers (like Joan), families of divorce (like Don’s and maybe Pete’s) and they all need a place to belong. Whether that place is Burger Chef or not is another issue, but she will be able to sell the hell out of that idea. And she came to it by herself with Don’s encouragement. Peggy’s moment of realization is played beautifully by Elisabeth Moss, it is a great scene, and then when we think it couldn’t get any better, the writers push it even further and “My Way” comes on the radio and Don asks Peggy to dance. This moment is everything. It is such a simple way to show the characters’ relationship, how comfortable they are with each other, how much they mean to one another, and how great it is that they have reached peace. I could watch them dance for hours.
“The Strategy” is one of those episodes that beautifully highlight everything that makes Mad Men one of the best television series of our time. The rich characters, the layered storytelling all come together perfectly to create an outstanding hour of television that leaves us completely fulfilled. With only one episode to go on this first half of the final season, hopefully the finale could follow the heels of this episode and be the prefect cherry to top this near perfect sundae.
What did you think?