(Spoiler Alert this describes the episode “The Strategy”)
I fall into the camp that believes that Mad Men is one of, if not the best television show of all time. The final analysis to keep it in the all-time greats is how it will end. We have eight episodes to go for the brilliant Matthew Weiner to tie everything together and satisfy his legions of fans.
I thought the most recent episode, “The Strategy,” particularly its conclusion, was one of the strongest of the series. The quiet conversations, especially between the show’s leads, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) seemed both appropriate for the time period, the late 1960s, and yet so very timeless in their simplicity.
Draper and Olsen are “ad men” noted for their creativity in developing campaigns for clients. Olsen is far more precise and methodical, and Draper, her mentor, has the panache and confidence to pull off the magic that clients long for. They are able to tell a story to sell products, and their skill in doing so is what makes this show so fascinating.
Mad Men’s genius is that we are watching the early stages of American consumerism being fed to us by brilliant engineers of language and imagery. We are rooting for the Mad Men team to land clients, while simultaneously, we are well aware, with the benefit of hindsight, that this will lead to an era of widespread commercialism that we now accept as a part of modern life.
What we saw with “The Strategy” was our favorite characters coming to terms with some of the earliest stages of the disintegration of the “traditional” American family. Peggy and her team interviewed customers leaving the Burger Chef with white paper bags filled with a quick meal and found over and over again that the women felt embarrassed about taking a short cut to feed their families. So, she pitched a campaign that was meant to “give permission” to mothers to grab a meal on the go.
Peggy, who began as a secretary and worked her way up to copy chief, considered focusing her campaign on working women, pressed for time balancing career and family, a very modern conception indeed. But her male co-workers quickly dismissed this idea. Instead, they went with a traditional approach where the father lends credibility to the notion that fast food is an appropriate substitute to a home cooked meal.
Peggy asks Don, who has been married twice, whether the conception of family that they were eagerly depicting in the advertising campaign was just the stuff of fantasy.
She asks, “Does this family exist anymore? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other without watching TV?”
This felt massive to me! My husband and I did a double take; because we have had this conversation on numerous occasions. If we are tired at the end of the day, how can we ensure continuity for our family by gathering to eat dinner around the dining room table?
Apparently, in 1969, we were already grappling with a decline in family togetherness and an over-saturation and dependence on television as a substitute for conversation. Or that is the way the writers wanted to depict that period.
Ultimately, Peggy scraps her proposed campaign in favor of a new look at families. She said, “What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family?”
Peggy gives us the first inkling of “families of choice” or non-traditional families who come together wherever one might be. Not surprisingly, the early seventies usher in an era of workplace situation comedies, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, or WKRP in Cincinnati,where the newly configured “family” gathers around a water cooler or in a conference room.
My dream is that the drumbeat for family values would be replaced with a notion of valuing family. Through a sea change in our conceptions of balancing home and work, we can make way for people to spend time with whoever their “family” might be. To me, this episode was a very modern depiction of the need for family-friendly policies and flexible work schedules. Peggy’s commentary was like a canary in a coalmine.
There was still a chance for families of all kinds to come together around a meal. The episode ends with Peggy, Don, and their erstwhile co-worker Pete sharing a meal at Burger Chef. “The Strategy” reminds us that there really was a time when a dinner on the run was an aberration.
Is there space for that idealized notion of “the family dinner” without sacrificing the major strides we have made toward true equality? We have miles to go toward redefining family, but making space and time for nurturing those relationships would doubtless be a step in the right direction. By taking us back in time, Mad Men has often been quite successful in depicting how we might imagine our future, and “The Strategy” was no exception.