In revisiting Mad Men five years after its conclusion, the natural instinct is to present an overview of the series at large, highlighting its momentous moments and in Mad Men’s case, its endless qualities.
However, this essay instead focuses upon two episodes from the final season, which encapsulate perfectly so much of what made Mad Men an exquisitely subtle and emotive series and illustrate why I believe it is the crowning glory of television's golden age.
There is a great deal to unpack in Season 7 Episode 6, the disintegration of a marriage, a new relationship and potentially a company. However, like many a great Mad Men episode and as the episode title suggests it is fundamentally anchored by the idea for an ad – in this case, Burger Chef.
The episode ostensibly focuses on the relationships of three characters Don, Peggy and Pete and how they are directly and indirectly affected by their work. Pete arrives in town in a stable relationship which for all intents and purposes seems to be a perfect match, and his life in Los Angeles seems to be going swimmingly - but his arrival back in New York changes those dynamics quickly.
Peggy showcases her idea for Burger Chef with its focus on family happiness, the idea is met with approval from all parties – Don included. However, Pete decides that Don should deliver the pitch and delivers the news to Peggy in a particularly condescending manner: “Don offers authority, you offer emotion”. It is not clear why Pete does so, is it loyalty to Don or further insecurity about his role in the company.
Peggy attempts to maintain face by delivering the news to Don, he’s reluctant at first but ultimately happy to be back doing what he does best. However, as Peggy leaves, he mentions that he’s been ‘noodling’ around with a new idea for the ad. Peggy dismisses the idea and leaves, but the seed of doubt has been planted.
Peggy quickly becomes dissatisfied with the current strategy and insecure about her position, she calls Don from the office to tell him that his new idea is terrible and doesn’t work – but it doesn’t help the gnawing feeling inside telling her there is a better idea. Stan attempts to reassure her, telling her that “There is always a better idea” but this does little to placate her concerns – if there is a better idea, then she wants to come up with it.
Meanwhile, as Megan packs up not just her summer clothes but a great deal more to take back to California, Don realises that their relationship is in its death throes. Elsewhere, Pete has a particularly vindictive interaction with his soon to be ex-wife Trudi after spending the day with his daughter, the residual toxicity of which quickly spills over into his new relationship with poisonous consequences.
It shows how art is an outlet for that which is too painful to express by any other means
However, the key scene of the episode is yet to come, Don arrives at the office to help Peggy. Initially she lashes out at him and laments the inadequacy of their ideas. She asks for Don’s help – forcefully, wanting to know how he comes up with an idea. They start from the beginning again and soon fall into a deeply personal conversation – vividly recalling their conversation in The Suitcase. In fact, it feels like a continuation of that conversation and further expansion of their relationship.
Peggy reveals that she recently turned thirty and how talking to mothers as research for the ad, has led her to wonder what she did wrong. Don comforts her telling her he worries about a lot of things, but not her. He tells her that he is scared that he hasn’t done anything and doesn’t have anyone. In light of their painful revelations, Peggy questions whether this quintessential family they want to show in this ad exists or if it ever did.
Then it happens. The spark. Her eyes light up through the recently dried tears: “What if there was a place you could go…where you could break bread and whoever you are sitting with is family.” The simple shot reverse shot set-up allows us to drink in the common realisation they share, each of their faces subtly turns from melancholy to genuine joy. “That’s it,” Peggy says, wiping her tears. Don hears the radio – which has been playing Frank Sinatra’s My Way quietly for the last thirty seconds or so unnoticed. He stands up, offers his hand and they dance slowly as the music plays.
This scene as well as being emotionally revelatory and further examining these characters' relationships to each other and their families and partners – is also a remarkable exploration of artistic creation. Both Don and Peggy care deeply about the quality of the work they produce – they readily dismiss both their colleagues and their clients approval of the work because they deem it inadequate. They know that it isn’t good enough, that there is a better idea and that is all that matters.
It shows how art is an outlet for that which we are unable, or it is too painful to express by any other means, are innermost fears and desires. The advert they come to create reflects both their love for their work, their striving for perfection and the costs associated with doing so. Their passion for their work and the insecurity that comes with it has led to the position they find themselves in, alienated from those they love and the fundamental inescapable feeling that they fear they will always be alone.
The episode closes in a Burger Chef restaurant as Don informs Pete that they are changing direction, Pete is resistant, but Don convinces him. Pete lets slip that his new relationship is in troubled waters. Peggy sits down with their food and explains that she wants to shoot the ad, here, in the restaurant: “Every table here is the family table.” Pete resists, saying he hates even the word family and that the previous idea was stronger – he looks to Don for agreement. Don quickly shuts down his protestations: “She’s doing it the way she wants to do it – do you want it right or not?”. Peggy can’t hide her smile.
In the final shot of the episode the camera dollies away from the restaurant's glass exterior to showcase families and people at every table inside and out – enjoying their meals. In the centre of the shot are Don, Pete and Peggy sat together happily eating and continuing their conversation. Three people desperate for love and family who can’t help to deny themselves it by their own hand – ultimately in favour of their true passion, their true love – their work. The only true family they are able to find is each other.
There has been a tremendous amount of great writing done in reference to this episode (the mid-season finale of Season 7) and with good reason. The episode is framed - as many of the most beloved episodes of the series are - around a momentous historical event: in this case, the 1969 Apollo moon landing.
Mad Men regularly utilises history to devastating effect, using it to craft and provide context to the intricacies of the intimate lives of its characters. In Season 2 the Cuban Missile crisis proves revelatory for Pete in a number of ways, not least in an act of loyalty toward Don, in Season 3 the Kennedy assassination marks a culmination for Betty and Don as she reveals her true feelings and in Season 6 the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr provides Don with a revelation of true affection for his son, as they watch Planet of the Apes.
However, as important as the historic moon landing undoubtedly is to the episode, as families makeshift and real all huddle around the television to witness history be made, upon revisiting the series as a whole, there are other moments of this episode that now stand out for their subtlety and poignancy.
As the moon landing happens, Don, Peggy, Pete and Harry are on hotel beds the night before a pitch for Burger Chef. Don later receives a phone call from Roger telling him that Bert has passed away, meaning that in all likelihood their attempts to save Don’s career will fall short. Don heads to Peggy’s room and tells her she will be delivering the pitch to Burger Chef – not him. He does so because he knows that if he wins the business and is then sacked, Peggy will be left with nothing to show for all her hard work. Don doesn’t use the moment to deliver a classic Don Draper pitch to win over his nay-sayers, he instead makes a quiet sacrifice.
Peggy wins the business with an eloquent, emotive pitch taking inspiration from her mentor and simultaneously stepping out of his shadow. Roger reveals to Don his plan to save him and the business from Cutler’s grasp and put themselves back in control. Roger informs the partners and Don delivers one more sales pitch to win over Ted Chaough and pull him back from the brink.
Everything is saved – but something isn’t quite right.
An episode and a moment that truly encapsulates a feeling of kinetic ambition
When Roger arrives at Don’s apartment with a plan, one’s mind is immediately returned to the Season 3 finale and the palpable energy that runs through the characters and the episode as Don leads a charge of escape from British rule to the forming of a new agency - the parallel to America’s own independence is quite clear. It is an episode and a moment that truly encapsulates a feeling of kinetic ambition that is intoxicating as a viewer and it makes good on Don’s famous response to the question of what it is he does: “I blow up bridges”.
But things aren’t the same now, that energy doesn’t have anywhere near the same fervour here and what there is of it barely lives past the partners meeting. Don doesn’t stay for the announcement of good news, instead he congratulates Peggy and then heads back to his office telling her he has work to do. As he returns to his office, the voice of Bert Cooper calls to him.
He turns and witnesses Bert Cooper deliver a dance-routine replete with secretarial chorus girls – the song’s refrain “the best things in life are free”, Don’s face turns from bizarre pleasure to bewilderment to crushing sadness – one so palpable that as Bert disappears he can barely stand and has to lean against a desk to support himself.
He’s alone again now – in a wide shot, unable to stand he can do nothing more than bow his head. This isn’t the independence of Season 3, this is the ending of The Bridge on the River Kwai, this is Major Warden looking out over the river - the mission complete, the bridge destroyed but everything lost in the process.
It’s a repeat, one in which even what was pleasurable before turns sour in the mouth. His second marriage has disintegrated just as the first did - although this time with a greater degree of civility - and the promise of a new challenge in the business world no longer holds any joy.
In passing the torch to Peggy, someone in whom he recognises so much of himself, it seems that Don has lost his final joy – his work and at the same time another revelation has found him, an existential one - what does any of this really mean?
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