In this Mad Men episode, we see social forces in 1960s America combine to begin to expose the lie behind the highly idealized, romanticized male-authoritarian model of family that was previously considered the gold standard. As Peggy searches for an ad campaign that links the universal desire for happy family life to buying Burger Chef meals, we observe a broad array of real-life family situations among characters that differ significantly from the standard. Meanwhile, we see women who think for themselves and refuse to be bossed around by men. Additionally, a variety of co-worker and competitor relationships take on a distinctly familial tone.
When Peggy interviews the woman in the Burger Chef parking lot who is taking her kids home in a station wagon, we learn that the woman is afraid of her husband arriving home before she can get his dinner on the table. Although countless families around the world throughout history have been held together by the fear of their family patriarch more than by love and understanding, a shift occurs in 1960s America as more and more women – like Peggy, Joan, Trudy, Megan, and Bonnie – stand up to this trend. These strong women work hard to determine their own destinies, even if it means not getting married as expected and dreamed of. Yet characters like the woman in the station wagon remind us that the trend towards women’s liberation was not very far along at that time.
The real-world family situations we see in this episode are revealing. Don and Megan are a passionate but tumultuous family, yet his kids live elsewhere because neither Don nor Megan have enough time to be good parents. Pete still clings to his marriage to Trudy, though she fully intends to go through with their divorce. Ken smiles and talks about his baby to the Chevy executives, representing the small percentage of people in truly happy families. Bonnie hopes for marriage and family with Pete, but this possibility seems less and less likely. Bob Benson proposes marriage to Joan despite his being gay, thinking he could be a good father to Kevin and could support the family while keeping his sexual activities private. Joan lives with her mother and her baby son, but their family life is more work and stress than joy. Peggy can’t relate to her actual family members from childhood, and Don doesn’t have any actual family members from childhood.
On the bright side, Peggy and Don have developed a father-daughter type of relationship that helps both of them feel good about themselves. Additionally, Peggy and Stan relate mostly as if brother and sister, talking truthfully with each other and challenging and helping each other both personally and professionally. Pete relates to Don as if Don were an older brother that he admires and yet feels jealous and competitive towards, whereas Don, like the favored older brother, looks down on Pete as if he’s just a kid who still needs to grow up. Roger, who’s estranged from his ex-wives and his daughter, relates to competitor Jim McCann as if they’re brothers, but brothers that are too competitive to develop any depth of brotherly love. On the other hand, Roger and Don have enough commonality to relate as friendlier brothers, as do Bob and Bill Hartley from Chevy. It appears from this episode that family roles adopted at work may, even when never formally acknowledged, have the power to help people in business organizations function.
Americans in 1960 watched TV shows like Bachelor Father and Leave It to Beaver, which depicted family units in which the father figure is always wise, right, and ultimately respected. Yet in 1969, the year in which The Strategy is set, television was just two years away from the premiere of All In the Family, with Archie Bunker playing the foolish, out-of-touch, bigoted patriarch who no longer commands respect or obedience within his own family.
The Strategy reflects various stages of this breakdown of the old patriarchal family paradigm in two ways. First, it reveals its diverse characters’ family situations, most of which are far from the ideal. Second, it shows that male characters who assume it’s their birthright to play the voice of authority with women tend to fail in this effort when they talk to women who have learned to listen to their own inner authority. But refreshingly, this episode also depicts the new paradigm for family relationships through Don, the authoritative man who now understands how to support women’s personal development (Peggy, Megan) rather than telling them what to do all the time. And finally, it shows how people adapt to regain a sense of family through other relationships, whether at work or while sitting around a table at a fast-food joint like Burger Chef.
Are you ready for the final Mad Men episode of 2014?
Be sure to watch AMC on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.