Never let it be said that Mad Men doesn’t know how to deliver a crowd-pleaser. After five straight frustrating, depressing episodes, full of drunken meltdowns, Draper humiliations and the occasional sliced-off nipple, this episode dedicated itself pretty much entirely to delivering on what its fans wanted to see. There was the triumphant and long-awaited return of the mysterious and enchanting Bob Benson. There was the even-longer-awaited (on my part, anyway) and even more triumphant return of Trudy Campbell. And, finally, there was the grand Reconciliation of Don and Peggy.
The climax of the Peggy/Don plot line — in which they quietly slow-danced to “My Way,” of all things, and Don delivered a fatherly kiss to her head — was cheesy beyond all measurement. Those song lyrics were so on-the-nose I was rolling my eyes: Get it? Don and Peggy have carved out their various careers! In a way that was quite unconventional; specific to themselves, even; a way you could best describe as their way! And now they’re friends again! It was over-the-top and openly sentimental. And yet, if the explosion of gratified Tweets on my dashboard was any indication, it worked. It was one of those great TV moments that builds on years of identifying with the characters, and wanting the best for them, so that even a few seconds of happiness is enough for the show to grab your heartstrings with both fists. For all of the toxicity and workplace BS that Don and Peggy have put each other through — or, to be fair, that Don has put Peggy through — people really do want to see those two crazy kids together.
But first, this episode gathered up all of the scattered characters — Pete from the LA office, Megan from her Laurel Canyon apartment, and the till-now-invisible (but much-mentioned) Bob Benson from Detroit — and plunked them down in the New York offices of Sterling Cooper.
Pete has come to check up on the Burger Chef account, currently under the creative control of one Peggy Olson. Everyone loves what she’s done — a campaign that allows stay-at-home mothers to feel less guilty about getting fast-food rather than cooking dinner, by positing that Dads love Burger Chef — and even Lou is remarkably supportive of the work. (“I’m glad to see family happiness again,” remarks Lou, because Lou is like Mr. Rogers, if Mr. Rogers were a cardigan filled with poisonous snakes.) Only Don seems mildly reserved, if polite. But Pete has an amazing and very Pete-like idea: Why not just pretend that Don did all the work, by letting him do the presentation, rather than Peggy? After all, Don is just so great at presentations. The Abominable Lou backs up this decision, and all the assurance Peggy gets that she is “as good as any woman in this business” — but, crucially, not as good as any person—can’t distract her from the fact that she is, once again, getting shafted so that Don Draper can shine.
Meanwhile, in Pete’s personal life, he’s still having truly disconcerting amounts of sex with his Malibu Barbie girlfriend, whom he’s brought to New York for a vacation. But none of this keeps him from wanting to see his soon-to-be-ex-wife Trudy, or from becoming deeply and personally offended when Trudy avoids him as he comes to pick up their daughter for a visit. Pete resolves this by hanging out in her house, getting increasingly drunk, and then calling her a slut when she gets home. She deals with this in the efficient and masterful way that only Trudy Campbell can: “You’ve seen your daughter for the year. Don’t you have a plane to catch?” (The truly depressing thing, of course, is that this is likely the last time we’ll see the perpetually wonderful Alison Brie on TV for the year. Oh, Community, I miss you already.) Pete sticks a beer bottle into Trudy’s cake, because of course he would, and then goes and gets himself dumped by his new girlfriend, who’s not subjecting herself to slimy, disgusting Pete Campbell sex just so that he can stay hung up on another woman.
Meanwhile, Megan is there. No, I don’t know why either. This marriage progressed very quickly from “I never want to see you again” to spontaneous office visits, and at this point, Megan’s look of perpetual disappointment could relate to Don, or to the fact that her plot line stopped making sense a year ago.
But, in the midst of all this, there is one person we do want to see: the miraculous Mr. Bob Benson, coffee-sharer, Joan-befriender, dark-secret-concealer and Chevy account man. He’s just thrilled to be back in New York, because Bob Benson is always just thrilled by everything, and he wants to hang out with Joanie and her family ASAP. The visit acquires even more urgency than usual when he learns that Chevy is moving their advertising in-house, away from SCP, and that they’d like to hire Bob to work on advertising for Buick.
Bob goes to Joan, and makes perhaps the least suave move in his very suave history: He proposes. She shuts him down. (“Does my face not please you?” Bob wonders aloud, perfectly capturing the wonder of the character, which is that he always sounds a bit like an advanced robot programmed to simulate the world’s happiest dude.) Joan clarifies that it isn’t his face, which pleases us all; it’s the fact that he’s gay, and they both know that, and while she likes him tremendously, she’s not about to undertake the project of affirming his heterosexuality to General Motors.
“I want love,” Joan tells him, “and I’d rather die hoping for it than make some arrangement. And so should you.”
It’s a little easier to be a wealthy single mother who looks like Christina Hendricks than it is to be a gay man in 1969, but Bob doesn’t point this out. He just recedes from our view, perhaps forever. Goodbye, Bob Benson, and may your life be filled with professional success, true love, and as many cups of coffee as you can carry.
And so, at last, we come back to Peggy, who’s been needled by Don’s quiet dislike of her campaign — and the experience of one more gender-based professional humiliation — into the conviction that all of her work to date has been garbage. She’s stuck in the office, and she and Don are stuck in that late-stage toxicity wherein they both believe that everything the other person does is always wrong: She snaps things like, “Why are you always undermining me?” he snaps things like “From now on, I won’t express myself,” and that level of headache-inducing, perpetual conflict has, for these two, come to be the norm.
But then, Don does the one good thing he can do, and actually starts talking with her about the work: weighing pros and cons, pitching her different angles, asking her what she thinks. He is demonstrating the respect for her talent that no one else seems to extend anymore, and he is also, crucially, treating her like an equal. He’s no longer in a position to give her orders, and she’s no longer keeping him at bay by treating him like an underling. So, with only the work between them, they’re in a position to give each other more respect than they ever have, to date.
That’s what fixes it. Don admits that “I abuse the people whose help I need,” and that he’s scared that “I haven’t done anything, and I don’t have anyone.” Peggy — after pitching a brilliant campaign, in which “the mother” of the ad needs to get fast food for her kids because she’s coming home from work; Don rejects it as too “sad,” but actually, it’s just ten years ahead of its time — breaks down and admits that she’s sick of trying to write a campaign for mothers, because she knows nothing about being a mother, outside of giving her own child up for adoption. She’s 30, she’s single, and she’s left wondering “what I did wrong.” And on top of this, the ad is crap because it’s pitching to an idea of the nuclear family that’s wildly out of date: “Does this family exist any more? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?”
And there’s the slow dance. And, despite all the relationship decay we’ve seen, it is in fact moving. But then comes Peggy’s Draper-worthy insight: There are no TVs, Peggy realizes, in Burger Chef. People actually do have to talk to each other there. And so that’s where we close: With Don, Peggy and the skeptical Pete, in a Burger Chef, eating dinner together. This is where the ad needs to be shot, Peggy explains, because “every table here is the family table.” We pull away on the three of them, perhaps only reconciled momentarily, but reconciled at last.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.