This weekend was a kind one to Don — it saw him win the lead in a Burger Chef pitch and entertain an unprecedentedly agreeable visit from Megan. But Mad Men has no interest in this brand of kindness, using the façade of the perfect weekend to showcase just how vacant everything in the man’s life seems to be. Well, almost everything.
The real victory, beyond occupational leaps or oases of marital harmony, is that long-awaited smile from Peggy: the establishment that once again, these two are in this wicked run together. Coming to form at the head of such a (deceptively) smooth episode after a seasonal throughline of potent animosity, the ultimate achievement at first feels like a bit of a forced utility, rushed into production in order to satisfy Mad Men’s seven-episode semi-season.
But a well-placed scene from Joan exemplifies just what Peggy’s smile truly means, to Don and to us. Back in New York after a successful stay in Detroit, Bob Benson awakens to the callous face of homophobia — his Chevy rep, likewise a gay man struggling to hide his identity from friends and colleagues, winds up in at the courthouse after an attempted sexual encounter with an undercover cop. Bob retreats further into his own folds of secrecy after seeing just how unforgiving the world (or maybe just New York) is to men like them and springs a marriage proposal on his beloved pal Joan. Sharper than he, and just about everybody on this planet, has given her credit for being, Joan rejects the arrangement, identifies Bob’s true desires, and spells out the fact that they should both wait for true, organic happiness instead of forcing the fates in their favor.
Again, her diatribe comes off a little heavy-handed for the likes of Mad Men, at least on first viewing. But the sequence is masterfully situated between Peggy’s initial smile at Don, who has joined her in the otherwise empty office on a Sunday afternoon — him lamenting his dead-from-the-neck-up marriage to Megan and her writhing in the inadequacy of her Burger Chef pitch and, more so, the fact that she has nothing else to care about — and their devolution into eye-welling, throat-quavering admissions of desperation for one another, at least at this point in time.
Just as we might have felt at the forefront, Peggy’s grin is rather forced. And that’s because as uninterested as Mad Men is in giving its characters perfect lives, it is even less interested in giving them perfect moments. We have been waiting for Peggy to hinge herself to Don once more; Don has been aching for this emancipation from her contempt. But nobody has suffered more from this period than Peggy herself, manufacturing a connection to Don over his espousal of lessons that seem like they should have come at the very beginning of her career (“Here’s what you do when you have writer’s block…”).
Unlike Joan, Peggy is willing to push her way into the embrace of a hand-crafted happiness. She is willing to redefine what “family” means — both for herself and her Burger Chef clients, centering her revised pitch around the reappropriation of the word — in order to make her days a little more livable. But unlike Joan, Peggy has something in the man kneeling before her. The man who insists on a dance to the radio’s broadcast of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
Both victims of the job who have seen everything else in their lives suffer its merciless bite, they are reminded this week that neither one is on this course alone. They just happen to be traveling in opposite directions. In the Benjamin Button story of Don’s corrosive decline and Peggy’s bumpy ascent, this week might well mark their “meeting in the middle” moment. A stark reversal to the series favorite “The Suitcase,” we see Don returning in part a heavy favor owed to Peggy: validation. Validation of the idea that all this time spent huddled over a desk, spilling guts into the work, relegating oneself to the parameters of a business card might very well have meant something to somebody. He could instead be teaching her that a life might be better off spent anyplace else, but in Peggy Don has somebody else that could never comprehend such a fallacy.
The episode is arranged in such a way as to excel on two levels. At first, we see everything play out perfectly: Don reclaims his position in Peggy’s heart, she snags her ingenious pitch, and the both of them, and Pete Campbell (having scared his daughter, accosted his ex-wife, and disappointed his Angelino girlfriend), form their own brand of family over a Burger Chef meal. But Mad Men, and this episode about would-be perfect moments, is better than perfect: it’s human, knowing that the turn of true value isn’t Don, Peggy, and Pete finding “the family they were seeking all along” in one another, it’s the admission that what they’ve been seeking all along might no longer exist, if it ever did. But, unlike Joan, they’re willing to put up the front if it means not having to dine alone.
Episode grade: A, with bonus points for Pete Cambell merrily shouting “I’m drinking rum!”