The Low Down: The Burger Chef pitch is in full effect. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has her idea locked down, but when Don (Jon Hamm) casually floats her another idea, her confidence is absolutely shot. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) returns to New York for the Burger Chef campaign with his girlfriend (Jessy Schram) in tow. Pete must first head home to Cos Cobb to see his daughter and have an awkward moment with Trudy (Alison Brie). Megan (Jessica Pare) has come back East to see Don and Don likes having her back in the house. Bob Benson (James Wolk) returns to the series and his life is radically changed.
The Bed and Booze Count: Plenty of booze gets drunk throughout, particularly by Peggy. Don and Megan presumably do it, the Chevy rep is released after trying to service an undercover cop and Pete joins the Mile High Club.
Favorite Performance: Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olsen. If you’ve ever read this writer’s criticisms of Mad Men you’ll know that my disgust with the Peggy Olsen character knows no bounds. It’s been stuck in the same emotional state for years and it’s made her character one-dimensional and annoying. Tonight, we finally got to pull back the character and go beyond the whining, the foot stomping and the eye rolling. We got to see Peggy’s real insecurities, her real emotions. Her interactions with Don in the second half of the episode were some of her best scenes in a really, really long time.
The Supporting Scene Stealer: James Wolk as Bob Benson. Ah, the mysterious Bob Benson. Last year we reading conspiracy theories how Bob worked for the CIA or was a Russian spy or he was gay and in the closet or he was just really, really weird. Whatever it was, no one could put a finger on the always smiling, always chipper Double B. Tonight, in his return we get a massive real. Spoiler Alert. Tonight, we finally get the admission that Bob Benson is gay. His scene in the car with the GM rep who was arrested was super tense as Bob unconvincingly kept denying his own sexuality by saying, “I’m not of your stripe.” But then there’s the moment when the GM rep says, “There’s so much temptation here [in NYC]” and Bob admits that there is, we say the heartbreak and devastation in his eyes.
Then there’s his extremely sincere yet awkward (classic Bob Benson) proposal to Joan (Christina Hendricks). It’s an absolutely desperate moment from a desperate man…it kind of reminds me of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) in a lot of ways, desperately clawing at anything in order to make his life work. Joan’s reaction to the whole thing is perfect — she wants love, real, true love and not just a comfortable situation. Now Joan a few seasons ago may have not said the same thing, so a nice little nod to her there.
In the end how could you not feel gut-shot after watching Bob Benson walk out of the apartment completely devastated, his entire world and life exposed? Wolk executed all of this to the highest degree. He showed us a dark, tortured side of Bob (the lighting in a number of scenes perfectly complemented this). In a series that sometimes discards its supporting characters, having Wolk go all out tonight was something the series desperately needed, especially after last week’s nipple slicing treatment of a supporting character.
The Best Part of The Episode: While the proposal scene was great, it was Don and Peggy’s scenes together that made this episode probably the season’s best to date. These are scenes of character breakthrough for Don and Peggy individually and as a unit. Don is finally learning how to become a teacher and not just a boss. He’s able to walk Peggy through the creative process, something we’ve never seen him do, in order for her to find the result she’s looking for. Normally, Don is a man who takes the world on his shoulders and finds the answers himself with a definite sense of martyrdom attached to it. Tonight, he showed a more likeable, more wise and in many ways, more fatherly character. The shot with Don and Peggy slow dancing together to Sinatra was a nice almost father/daughter dance moment, where the two have put differences aside and that bond we saw from them oh so many years ago has returned.
But, this being Mad Men, that will soon all change.
The Part We Could’ve Done Without: The Pete and Trudy fight was rather silly as it suffered from “Betty Draper Syndrome.” This theory which we just literally made up is a Mad Men scene/episodic storyline just reinforces something we’ve known for the series’ entire run (e.g. how many times do we see scenes in which Betty is a terrible mom? No new ground is broken, just a reminder that hey, she sucks). The fight, while a nice way to get Alison Brie back on the show one more time, is just a reinforcement of the fact that Pete Campbell is a douche bag.
The Little Thing We Loved: “Well, he’s loyal.” A nice little line from Don about Harry Crane, particularly after Harry clueing Don into Lou and Cutter’s attempt to get Don fired in order to get Phillip Morris.
Final Thoughts: “The Strategy” is probably the best episode of Mad Men’s final season to date. In some ways it had a feel good vibe to it particularly with Don and Peggy. The final scene where Don, Peggy and Pete sit at “the family table” in Burger Chef and Don wipes ketchup off Pete’s face is awesome. As a wise person stated to me as the credits rolled, “They are their own little family of misfits and rejects.” And in so many ways they are — the job, their insecurities, their ego — all of it has contributed to their lonely state, yet they find solace with like-minded and like-wounded people over a plate of cheeseburgers.
Then, at the same time, the episode was pure heart break. The Bob Benson storyline has been maddeningly vague (in a good way) and “The Strategy” gave us answers and most likely closure. The character is moving on to Buick for a full-time gig and honestly, there’s no better way to write him off than this. It’s a much more satisfying end from a storyline perspective, but from an emotional standpoint this is as harrowing as when Sal (Bryan Batt) made that emotional phone call from a payphone in a seedy part of town after he was fired from the agency after rebuffing Lee Garner Jr.’s advances.
The frustrating part of “The Strategy” is that this is Season 7, Part 1’s penultimate episode. This season just felt like it was starting to be about something, to actually go somewhere. In other respects if Mad Men had closed forever on this episode, from an emotional standpoint, that would’ve been okay with this reviewer (from a narrative perspective there would be a few too many loose ends).
This was Mad Men at its best — raw emotion filtered through a polished lens. Next week’s mid-season finale has got to deliver on a grander and more intense scale than this because the audience needs to care about the final seven next year.