by: L.P. Hanners
Mad Men soft-shoes its way to its mid-season finale with its most alluring episode in years…..
Mad Men has always excelled as a show keenly self-aware in its ability to capture critical moments in history and their effects on the populace of the time. It is in these re-tellings and re-evaluations of historical moments where the narrative scope is deepened and character is revealed. At its best, these junctions in time, whether it be Reader’s Digest reporting on the dangers of smoking or Martin Luther King’s or Kennedy’s assassinations, compel us to reconsider our relationship to the past. What Mad Men does that no other television show has pulled off with this degree of finesse, is filter history through the characters, essentially utilizing them as sensors of the times, and ultimately allowing Mad Men to render its own perspective upon history. It’s a hell of a trick they pull off, time and again. And in the mid-season finale of this concluding season, entitled “Waterloo,” this aptitude was emphasized with grandeur. There has never been a more thrilling moment shared on television than when we landed on the moon, and Mad Men nailed the opportunity to let us live vicariously through the character’s for this event.
One character ‘s reaction to that “giant leap for mankind” lingers particularly poignant, as our beloved, yet curmudgeonly grandfather of SC&P, the longtime leader of this ragtag crew, Bert Cooper, sits in awe of the accomplishment. “Bravo,” he utters with absolute enchantment, the final words we will ever hear from him alive. Bravo, we too echo, at the achievement of this fine installment of television, one that was as bitter as it was sweet.
In what was the highlight amongst highlights of the evening, Peggy delivered an impeccable pitch. A moment built up to with spine-tingling tension as we see from her perspective, a room rife with the brand of businessmen that certainly underestimate the power within Peggy, and woman in general. Yet Peggy delivers, and in this crowning achievement, we experience what Mad Men fans will refer to as her “Carousel” moment, a reference to Don’s most memorable monologue. And much like the “Carousel” pitch, Peggy’s delivery was “delicate, yet potent.” A true sight to behold, and a rewarding moment for all of us who have labored with Peggy as she battled to succeed in a world that assumes she doesn’t belong.
Peggy’s career successes in this episode were surprisingly ameliorated by events at home. Peggy’s sadness at the loss of her neighbor Julio to the wastes of Newark were less about her losing a reliable acquaintance, and more about the fact that she had a brand of motherly love submerged within her she wasn’t aware of, the sort of love she possibly wasn’t capable of until this very moment. It’s heartening to realize that there is perhaps a future for Peggy, one that could fill the emptiness that resides within her. But for now we can relish in the moment when her mentor, Don, smiled with unmitigated pride in her success.
Sally, this week, started showing shades of her father, reminding us that her last name is indeed Draper. In an unpredictable sequence of events we follow Sally as she openly drools over her teenage houseguest scene after scene, and then shares a sincere moment with his nerdy younger brother which ends in a kiss. Although the motives behind her change of heart remain unclear, in the aftermath of this awkward teenage embrace we watch as as she lights a cigarette and crosses her arms in a suspiciously familiar manner, emphasizing that she has just as much Betty in her as she does Don, for better or for worse.
Yet it was a gorgeous scene involving Sally and her father earlier in the episode that lingers, when he calls her out for being cynical over the moon landing. It’s everything you don’t see in the scene that makes it great. The layers of tension in their relationship have always been thick, and even before Sally learned the truth about him she was still a confused adolescent held deeply within the stifling embrace of teenage rebellion. Sally, always the one to be sassy, talks to Don respectfully here, and even like he’s a close friend. Don has grown, Sally has grown, and the honesty between the two of them proves, again, that Don has been “doing the work,” in his personal relationships as well as in his career. It’s as healthy a father-daughter moment as they have ever shared together, reflecting the much needed repair in their relationship.
In hindsight, it’s troubling to dwell on the confrontational final encounter between Roger and Bert. It seemed so harmless as it happened, yet with the passing of Bert it manifests itself gut-wrenching. Roger is reminded that he isn’t fit to be a leader, a departing gift of reverse psychology that haunts him immediately following his longtime partners passing.
Roger has always lost more than he has won, and this holds true both in his personal life and in career conflicts. But in an empowering development Roger realizes what he must do with his position at the agency, and he triumphantly steps into the shoes of the person Bert challenged him to be. Roger began the season in a sexual orgy (literally), but ended it in a financial one, the “climax” occurring when all the partners are assembled to discuss firing Don, only for Roger to suddenly announce that he has turned the company into a subsidiary. With Bert gone, Roger finally assumes his places as the captain of this unsteady ship, and proves that he had the capacity to do so the entire time.
“Waterloo,” as most Mad Men episodes do, revolved around the characters strengths and weaknesses. It celebrated humanity. It contemplated the urges to strive for something greater as the mission to the moon provided the backdrop for the episode. Now that we are a mere seven episodes away from the end of the series, summarizing the show is clear – it’s about life. It’s about American life, the burdensome grind of the people who work at an ad agency on Madison Avenue. It’s just that simple. There’s nothing fantastical or hard to digest about the story, and it’s easy to relate our own goals with the goals of the characters – love, money, and legacy. The latter ties in directly with the moon landing this week. The result drove the narrative so far beyond, advancing our characters motives and fascinations so dramatically, that one might say it lost its gravity.
The season began with Freddie Rumsen giving a Don Draper pitch, and ended with Peggy Olson giving one. We still have no idea what the endgame looks like, but there is true comfort in knowing Don is sharing himself with the world now. I think most of what has made him a better man this season was reflected in his speech to Ted; a speech so damn good that it would have made the most ardent quitter sign that five year contract. But I never would have guessed that Don and Peggy would step so closely into each other’s lives again, and with such success and mutual admiration.
Season’s 7 Don is unlike any we have seen, and we sure have had our share1. Don Draper’s legacy, prior to these years, has been built upon a foundation of ruined lives and disappointment. He has lived a life of self-indulgence and avarice and now, he is actually making other people lives better (possibly including Megan following their conscious-uncoupling). How far we have come in these six and half seasons.
In the final moments of the show Don has a vision which not only contained a pertinent message for him as we move forward into our final act, but one that functions as a grand farewell to our fallen leader, Bert Cooper. This sentimental showcase for the departing Robert Morse, who starred in the popular 1961 Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the 1967 film adaptation, was a departure and a grand indulgence for a show that has reached the point where it is capable of a degree of extravagance. Bert whisks us into a surreal fantasyland with a song and dance number to the tune of “The Best Things in Life are Free.” The message here to Don is simple – life is bigger than business. And thus, a man with little in life besides money and a thriving career is reminded of where true happiness can be found. The question now is, does he heed that advice? Time, and a mere seven episodes, will tell…..
- He is “an old, bad boyfriend,” the kind of guy “a teenage anthropologist would marry.” He is “a bully and a drunk,” a “football player in a suit,” “a sensitive piece of horseflesh,” “a pain in the ass” – a slew of unsuited definitions of Don we heard this week alone! [↩]