Whoever is in control is in charge
As anyone familiar with this slow burn of a show might have predicted, "Waterloo" avoided the potential for big drama (Department of Defensebusting Don! Don is D.B. Cooper! Megan is dead and/or pregnant!) in favor of more subtle fare. Bert Cooper's sudden departure, rest in peace, was of course a notable development, but Weiner & Co. tucked his offscreen death between the moon landing and Peggy's mind-meltingly great Burger Chef pitch, with both events slightly overshadowing the last hurrah of SC&P's founder. In an episode of power shakeups, Roger wasn't the only character losing his leader—or, to cop a reference from the telescope-wielding Neil Glaspie, his guiding star. As much as the Apollo 11 landing permeated "Waterloo," as our young astronomer explained to Sally, there are other things to look at.
Is it cold of me to say that Cooper's departure wouldn't have seemed so sad if not for Roger's pained reaction? Frankly, Bert frequently blended in with the Rothko-outfitted office walls, spare for the occasional barbed quip. While Bert is as outraged as his fellow partners over his name being added to Jim Cutler's "Get lost, Don" letter, he still surprises Roger by admiring Cutler's leadership instincts. Bert is to Roger as Roger is to Don, and hearing your champion tell you that you lack vision would send anyone down a scheming rabbit hole. But to have those be the last words of wisdom you ever hear from your mentor? Be ready to have them reverberate in your ears forever (and ever and ever and ever...). Roger, who has spent much of Mad Men's seven seasons drinking, drugging, and screwing his problems away, demonstrates growth and maturity by actually turning his loss into the agency's gain with the McCann merger. In Bert's final disapproval, Roger finds the guidance needed to take the reins at SC&P and become a leader both in practice, not just in name.
I didn't think that Don and Peggy could pull at my heartstrings anymore than their dance during "The Strategy," but watching DD coach Pegs into becoming her own leader was thrilling—though not as thrilling as watching our girl go well beyond Don's expectations. Her masterful Burger Chef pitch should have settled any doubts about Peggy's ability to give the clients what they want, with her not only gracefully honoring the moon landing (rather than awkwardly ignoring it or trying to outdo it), but also utilizing it narratively to weave together philosophical musings about modern life versus a nostalgic past versus a potentially revolutionizing future. Peggy blew that boardroom away, including her detractor Pete and her proud mentor Don. If you needed any convincing that she's becoming the agency's creative guiding star, look no further than the shift in perspective prior to her pitch. First, we see everything from Peggy's eyes—including an encouraging nod from Don—and then we watch as she hold the room in her sway. Not only that, but Peggy pulls a classic Draper move, utilizing selectively edited sentimentality from her own life (oh, Julio, you popsicle-loving scamp!) to further the client's identification with the pitch
In Bert's final talk with Roger, he outlines two qualities that make a good leader: loyalty and vision. With Don's newfound loyalty to the agency and dedication to being a team member (not to mention his unwavering belief in Peggy), and Roger's late-onset inspiration for the direction of SC&P, our dynamic duo is stepping into the second half of the final season with confidence and moxie. Or is there still time yet for a final downward spiral? See you next half-season!
• Cutler was uber-harsh this episode, no? With his baiting Don to deck him and hardly taking a second to honor Bert, no wonder everyone hated him.
• Way to go, Peggy! You may be losing your bestie to Newark, but I don't think that was the last we've seen of sweaty handyman Nick.And speaking of Julio, how touching was that scene between him and Peggy, which it's hard not to see as colored by the absence of Peggy's own child? Expertly played by Elisabeth Moss, for sure.
Sorry, Harry, we...uh, forgot to bring you a beer. No offense. Really.
The moon belongs to everyone
I'm generally pretty neutral on the subject of surreal interludes in otherwise straightforward narrative TV. But in Mad Men's midseason finale, nothing made more sense to me than Bertram Cooper dying shortly after watching a man walk on the moon, and then returning to sing "The Best Things in Life are Free" amidst a small scrum of secretaries while a bemused Don Draper looked on. The moment was textually on the nose—the Apollo 11 landing proved that the moon did, in fact, belong to everyone with access to a television set—but sentimentally rich with multiple meanings.
That Don is the one to witness Bert's posthumous musical number isn't an accident. At first, this seems off: It's Roger who was Bert's symbolic son, given that his cofounder was Sterling Sr.; it was Roger whom Bert, shortly before his death, lambastes for failing to be a true leader. But Mad Men has always been Don's story, and "Waterloo" was an episode that managed to be all about Don while Don himself was only a small part of it. He cooled his heels while Jim and Joan schemed to get rid of him; he agreed to a termination of his marriage to Megan with only the briefest of exchanges. He gave Peggy the Burger Chef pitch and then stepped back to watch her cast the same exec-enchanting spell he'd done so many times before. Bert's serenade seemed to function as both his own farewell and as a welcome to an irrevocably changed, death-cheating Don. Bert's reminding Don to not forget what he loves about this nutty business of advertising as he transitions into a new era—but, at the same time, to remember that it's all gloriously smarmy act, a sunny, ephemeral little soft-shoe. The scene is basically Don's "Beauty School Dropout" moment, and it works. Oh, Bert Cooper, you Rothko-loving, openly racist, sock-footed dandy and Colonel Sanders of SC&P, we'll miss...some aspects of you.
"Waterloo," in fact, could easily have been the show's season finale, not just the midseason one. Sure, it leaves quite a few unanswered questions: What will Peggy's role be in the new subsidiary company? Can Joan and Don ever mend fences? Where the hell is Ken? But a series finale is no guarantee that all loose ends will be neatly tied up either, especially those as varied as these. (Mad Men: The first series that makes me understand why people write fan fiction.) What "Waterloo" did establish—a new(ish) incarnation of the company, a new account, Peggy's rising star, a newly circumspect Don—is perfect for the viewer who wants things to just be okay in the Mad Men universe. With only seven episodes left, that viewer worries, is there any way that Weiner & Co. can rough them up and resolve them again, or will the real ending of Mad Men be much more unsettled, more tragic, just…messier?
The episode's title is a reference to Napoleon's final battle; Bert Cooper, in their last meeting, warns Roger that "No man has ever come back from leave—even Napoleon." ("Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know he's going to die," notes Roger later.) Just as the moon landing was a self-contained wonder in the midst of chaos—it occurred between the Stonewall riots and the Manson murders, and against the drawn-out backdrop of the Vietnam War—the hopeful events of "Waterloo" may be the same kind of suspended animation for our Mad friends, a brief moment of peace before hell breaks loose again.
• Re: the Joanie-Don frostiness mentioned above. It's difficult to begrudge Joan any of her anger at Don—she slept with [shudder] Herb Rennett to get Jaguar, whom Don fired right before the company went public, making her feel, rightly, that she'd sold herself for nothing. That's some serious bullshit. Still, I can't be the only viewer somewhat terrified that the series will end without offering any closure on a relationship that, for a time, seemed like one of the best on the show.
• Though the connections between the SC&P storylines and those of the Betty Francis and the Draper kids have become somewhat tenuous, I loved "Waterloo"'s Sally plot so damn much. When the houseguest son and his bare chest made the scene, Sally immediately changed, as Betty wryly noted. But despite parroting the teen's arrogant patter about the wastefulness of the moon landing, it was actually seeing the moon through his younger, dweebier brother's telescope that affected Sally. Extra points for Telescope Neil's straightforward post-kiss query: "What do we do now?"
• The Sally plotline also reminded me of my favorite moon landing–related movie, 1999's A Walk on the Moon. If you haven't seen it, you need to get there immediately.
“Maybe that's the way it always should have been.”
This half-season of Mad Men has taken us on quite a ride, from communes to computers, but in the end all roads lead to Peggy and Don. Just seven short weeks ago, the two were at each other’s throats—understandable, since Don ruined Peggy’s professional and personal life last season—but they’ve ended up each other’s champions. When Don tells our Pegs that he wants HER to make the Burger Chef pitch, we know this is about more than just an account. It’s about Don Draper, Genius of Madison Avenue, sharing his spotlight with a true equal, and putting the success of the company before his own. In the past, Don would have swung for the fences on that pitch to save his job. Now though, he realizes not only that Peggy earned the right to make that presentation, but that she’s the best person for the job. And when he says “maybe that’s the way it always should have been,” he’s not just talking about the Burger Chef pitch—he’s acknowledging that he should have recognized Peggy as his equal all along. (And she proves it by crushing the presentation. Way to go, Peggy!)
That idea, of orbiting back to the way things should have been, echoed throughout “Waterloo.” Roger’s primary goal in his dealings with McCann (apart from the boatloads of cash) is to get SC&P back to its original, pre-merger form. He’ll be missing the dearly departed Cooper of course, but an ad agency where Roger’s the president and his go-to staffers are Don, Pete, Peggy, and Joan is familiar territory. As Mad Men comes to a close, it’s trimming the fat (sorry Harry, but you and that computer just aren’t partner material) and keeping the focus on the people we’ve come to know best. While it’s hard to say goodbye to some of the peripheral characters we love (Will Ken write any more short stories? What’s the deal with Ted?) it also means we can look forward to some more meaningful developments in the few episodes we’ve got left.
Sally, too, is coming full circle, looking 100% Betty in her final backyard smooching scene, right down to the hair and cigarette. Though some have argued that by kissing the nerdier brother Sally was rejecting her inner Bets, I disagree. Rejecting a dark-haired hunk—the kind of guy a “teenage anthropologist would marry”—for a quieter, floppy-haired, more intellectual beau? Classic Betty Draper-then-Francis. This is not to say that Sally is doomed to become her mother, but it does look like the two of them are developing more of a bond as Sally gets older, just as Sally and Don are. Again, it looks like the remaining episodes will focus on the strongest bonds on the show, and I’m anxious to see what happens to Sally and her parents.
So far, this final half-season (and can we say one more time how much it sucks to only get half a season?) has dealt with the changing times as reflected in the lives of its main characters. Don started out as selfish as always, but he’s realizing the value in collaborating and connecting with those around him. As top-down, white male power structures were challenged all over the world in the late '60s, Don is second-guessing his own position as a man in charge, as are Roger and the rest of the gang. Don has mended his relationship with his daughter this season, amicably ended his marriage to Megan because he knew it’s what she wanted, and used his influence to help Peggy succeed. He talks Ted into staying in advertising and makes the rest of the team happy in the process. When Bert tells Don “the best things in life are free,” Don can finally see that he’s right.
• It really is ridiculous that we have to wait until 2015 to find out what happens to our pals at SC&P, but at least we can be consoled that, by the time we do catch up with them, Peggy will presumably be getting plenty of hot handyman action.
Cultural references: Apollo 11, obviously.
Inappropriate office behavior: Jim Cutler, you sly dog, come on down! Cutler started out his tenure on Mad Men as a quippy, superfluous Roger manqué but has done an impressive job as Don's flinty-eyed chief antagonist this season. But drafting a letter from the partners before telling the partners doesn't exactly give you a leg to stand on when you're demanding professionalism from others.