Thanks to AMC’s obsession with splitting up the final seasons of beloved shows, we’ve reached what they’re calling the “midseason finale”. Yeah, it’s going to be a year before any new episodes air which sounds more like a season finale to us. But whatever they want to call it, “Waterloo” is a huge episode of Mad Men in which we say goodbye to a favorite character, SC&P takes its next big step, and, oh yeah, people walk on the moon.
While I’m less than pleased that we have to wait almost an entire year to see how the rest of this unfolds just as it was really picking up steam, this was a great episode to wrap 2014. It felt like we left the group at yet another turning point in their business lives, but with things looking up (maybe) and many of the fractured relationships mended, or on the right track at least. Roger and Joan, for example, may not be as distant as I’d thought last week, though I don’t think much has changed. Of course, everyone still thinks Harry’s a doofus, but that’s nothing new.
Another doofus extraordinaire is Meredith, Don’s current secretary. When she handed him an envelope looking concerned, I wondered if it was a telegram about something awful happening to Meghan. It wasn’t, but you had me for a sec, Weiner. In reality, it was letter of termination signed by all the partners in absentia, spearheaded by Jim Cutler. Of course, Don’s barging into the Commander Cigarettes meeting was a violation of his contract, but he’d clearly convinced himself that it was going to work out. Cutler has different plans. Meredith’s dopey look and her planting of a kiss square on the mouth of an utterly confused Don was a laugh out loud moment. Is this the first time Don’s truly acted like a grown up in one of these situations? Not exactly; he has his chance with Neve Campbell on that flight earlier in the season and he didn’t take that either. Someone is making strides. But he’s also furious.
He demands an impromptu partner meeting in the hallway to ask who knew about the letter. Looks like only Cutler and possibly Joan, who is seething. Once Don sees that he can prevail upon the group to give him and his important pitch time, he takes his victory and retreats. Joan yells at Cutler for what he did and explains to an exasperated Roger that’s she’s tired of Don costing her money. So, all her anger is over them not going public? I don’t totally buy that.
Bert and Roger have a heart to heart about the situation, reminding us that this is where we started, with Bert as more than a figurehead, and Roger learning to lead and working hard. For several years now, it’s just been both of them going through the motions. Bert reveals that he thinks Jim has more of the skills necessary to lead the agency into the future than Roger does, and they end their chat on that note. Later, when Roger is suddenly faced with Bert’s death and Cutler’s opportunistic ways, he’s suddenly inspired anew. He arranges an early morning meeting with the head of McCann, telling him all he knows about Buick’s plans and offers to allow SC&P to be a subsidiary of the larger agency, giving them a controlling share of the company. It will operate independently and keep all its clients, but he’ll have secured Don’s job, foiled Cutler’s grand plans and made every partner either rich or richer.
When he gathers the partners (no, not you, Harry! You snooze, you lose!) and tells them that McCann wants 51 percent of the agency, everyone is astounded and excited at the prospect. Well, all except Cutler and Chaough, the latter of whom looks like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. That’s when Don uses all the Draper magic that didn’t get used on Burger Chef to convince Ted that this deal is what will bring him out of his funk and make him love advertising again. The irony here is thick for several reasons. First of all, Don is telling Ted the truth. He did feel rudderless without his career, and he did find some salvation in getting back to basics, writing tags and coupons. He’s doing a great sales job, but he’s not bullshitting anyone for once. It’s also ironic to realize how many times this little agency has been salvaged by either pulling away from a bigger competitor or merging with one. I guess we’ll see how this all works out for everyone in the new year. My hope is that it coming at the midway point of the season means we can put business aside for a while and spend the last seven episodes focused mostly on the personal lives of the characters, confident in the fact that their careers are secure. But I realize that’s most likely wishful thinking.
The Burger Chef pitch was a chance to see much of the original core group working together and it was a delight. Pete making everyone rehearse, but not wanting Don to waste his “A” game in a dry run; Peggy being nervous but Don completely and unselfishly having her back; Harry being an indecisive geek about his partnership offer (apparently, his wife is all set to divorce his cheating ass, but is now waiting to see what kind of money is on the horizon). It’s all just gold. Even the brief scene of their flight to Indianapolis was good stuff. Go to AMC’s website and check out the chat they have with the show’s costume designers to see what lengths they went to in nailing every last detail of what it was like to fly TWA in 1969. It’s fascinating.
Once there, the group watches the moon landing together in a hotel room, Peggy and Don now in full “work wife” and “work husband” mode; perched on the edge of the same bed, drinking the beers she procured only for the two of them. The intimacy never feels romantic, nor does it feel forced. They are finally truly comfortable with each other as peers and friends. Later, when Don has received Roger’s call about Bert, he feels fine with going to Peggy’s room late at night and telling her she should do the pitch. He realizes that with Bert now gone, Cutler may in fact have the votes to oust him and then a client won with his pitch could just as easily decide to fire the agency. He doesn’t say any of that to Peggy, though; he just tells her she’s ready.
And she is. Not only is she most radiant and put together she’s ever looked, she’s got the true confidence of someone who believes in their idea and knows their mentor believes in their abilities. Once she skillfully ties the communal feeling of the moon landing into the idea of everyone gathering around the supper table at Burger Chef, she’s got ‘em. One of the clients even mutters, “That’s beautiful!” after she reads her tagline. Turns out that pitching a client in the wake of such a moment of national pride is as helpful as pitching them in a moment of national sorrow would have been a disaster.
Once back in New York, Peggy finds out the business is theirs first, since all the partners were busy meeting about Bert’s death…and the money they stand to make in the buyout.
“She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”
That was Bert Cooper’s contribution to Ida Blankenship’s obituary, so it’s appropriate that his own death coincided with the moon landing.
It isn’t the first time that the cast of Mad Men was brought together by a historic event. Previously, we’d seen the reactions to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., but this was the first time we’ve seen everybody drawn to a moment of triumph instead of grief. Which isn’t to say that it fixed everything of course. The Sterling family gathered around the TV, but daughter Margaret was missing. In the Francis household, there’s a kid who’s too intent on being cynical to appreciate what’s happening. The SC&P delegation is made up of people who’ve lost their families in one way or another and before the night is over they end up disbursing to their separate rooms and watching history unfold alone. Even as man walks on the moon, their main thought is for the Burger Chef presentation. We know there’s a ten-year-old boy watching TV alone in Peggy’s apartment. Only Bert Cooper seems to be complete in these moments.
It’s strange to watch these scenes. I was born in the seventies, and whenever the whole country was watching the same thing on TV, it was because something terrible had happened. I remember being home alone when President Reagan was shot and not really being able to process it. There was the Challenger disaster, the first day of the Gulf War, the white Bronco chase, September 11… I can’t remember a time when good news united the country. (Not that I mean to compare O.J. Simpson to 9/11 – they’re just both cases when we were all watching TV because something bad had happened.) The closest I can think of is Baby Jessica getting out of the well. I can’t imagine that sensation of knowing that everybody else is looking at the same thing I am and welling up with pride at the best of humanity.
To follow the thread that’s been running for the last few episodes, walking on the moon represents the next stage in our evolution. We, as Peggy put it, touched the face of God. We laid hands on the Monolith and became the giant floating fetuses we were meant to be. I’ve never lived in a world where we hadn’t gone to the moon, but it’s crazy to think that now the Mad Men characters live in this world. Photocopiers were out of reach when the show began. It seems like it would be impossible to watch Neil Armstrong take that first step and not think “this is the future”. We’ve watched as the world changed around Don Draper for seven seasons, but so many of those changes were gradual. This is a moment. It’s a clear line in the sand.
But the one thing we don’t see is anybody deciding that maybe their own problems are insignificant. The world changes around them but Ted Chaough is still fighting depression. Landing on the moon doesn’t make Peggy any less lonely, it doesn’t make Cutler any more human. Nobody wakes up the next day with a fresh perspective. In a way, the audio we hear where Armstrong describes the surface of the moon as being fine grains of sand speaks to the general mindset. Yeah, we landed on the moon, but it turned out to be made of dirt. They entered the future, but that didn’t fix anything.
One thing I really like is the way everybody seems to be struggling with what they’re supposed to feel. They know this is a significant thing, but they don’t know what it matters in terms of day-to-day life. It’s clearly important, but how? Important in the grander sense doesn’t always translate to a personal level of importance. It’s a big deal, but does it affect the Burger Chef pitch? I love the way people invoke the moon landing in a way that feels like they expect the other person to fill in the blanks. It feels like Roger just wants to start his meeting with “moon landing, am I right?”, which would maybe be the only thing funnier than Pete yelling “The clients want to live too, Ted!”
I feel like Bert would have put things in perspective for them the next day – just look at Robert Morse’s reactions whenever he’s watching TV. He would have given a rousing speech about what this means for the company and for them as people.
Sadly, Bert Cooper died that night. You know how really old married couples often die within a few weeks of one another? I like to think that Bert was holding on just to see this. He was born in the nineteenth century. If Ida Blankenship was an astronaut, what did that make Bert Cooper? Assuming that Bert and Robert Morse are meant to be the same age, Bert would have been born in 1886. The automobile was first patented that year. His life spanned from the first days of the car to the Apollo 11. That’s amazing, and he seemed like the kind of guy who would have appreciated that.
Obviously, Bert’s death has an immediate effect on the company, with Cutler swooping in like a vulture almost immediately. But there’s the long-term effect, too. Is Roger a leader? I love Roger Sterling, but I don’t think he is.
And there’s that final scene. Now, I was out on Sunday night, so I watched Mad Men at two in the morning. The next day, I had to go back and make sure I didn’t dream Bert’s farewell performance. And while a song and dance from beyond the grave might seem like something that would fit better on Scrubs or Six Feet Under, I think it’s actually perfect. Remember, Don also saw Anna Draper after she died. Whether or not ghosts exist in Mad Men, the important thing is that Don is experiencing this. It can be a stress hallucination or paranormal activity, or what have you. Don watches it happen, and that’s what matters.
I really love the performance, and I think it’s very cool that Robert Morse got to have some fun in his last scene. But look at Jon Hamm here – he’s fighting back tears. Yes, in the last forty-eight hours his marriage ended; he saved his job, lost it, then saved it again; he watched the moon landing; and he watched his protege Peggy really lead on a pitch for the first time and absolutely kill it. It’s been a big couple of days for Don. But I like to think this really is about Bert Cooper.
Their relationship has had its ups and downs over the years, but there was a mutual respect. And perhaps most important, Bert was the one who told him that it didn’t matter. Back in the first season, when Pete threatened to expose Don’s secret life and past sins, Bert took in all of that and asked “Who cares?” To Bert, it didn’t matter that Dick Whitman stole a dead man’s name. What mattered was what he did with it. There’s no way that wasn’t a huge moment for Don. Bert Cooper knew the truth about Don and it didn’t matter. Sometimes the best thing a person can do is to simply not care about the thing that’s wrong with you. Bert was, in his way, probably the closest thing to a father figure that Don ever had. That’s why he’s holding back tears at the end. That’s why I’m holding back tears at the end.
And now, just to close out the season with a few stray thoughts.
-I feel like the split season means this episode happened a little earlier than intended. Mad Men has never been shy about making big changes midseason, but they clearly need a big plot event to end the half-season. I suspect that if it were going to be one single block of episodes, there might have been a Ted-centric episode to set up his depression and maybe Ginsberg’s breakdown would have happened a little more gradually. Maybe this episode would have been eight or nine instead of seven.
-The way Peggy loses it when Julio talks about moving just breaks my heart. At this point, he’s sort of her only friend outside of work. When she promises to come visit him that’s not just something she’s saying to comfort a kid. In that moment, she intends to make plans.
-Along those lines, I just realized that the baby Peggy gave up would be almost nine years old now. Just about Julio’s age. There’s no way Peggy hasn’t thought about that.
-And still along those lines, the look Don gives Peggy when she talks about having a ten-year-old boy at home is hysterical.
-I’m a little disappointed that Joan has been mad at Don over money this whole time. I mean, sure. We’re talking about a million dollars in 1969 money. That would be hard for me to forgive, but I always assume that Joan is a better person than I am.
-Harry Crane is maybe my favorite secondary character, but I never feel sorry for him when bad things happen or, say, he loses out on that partnership money.
-Pete Campbell is hilarious in this episode. Remember back when we were all waiting for him to shoot himself with the rifle in his office? And now he’s the one yelling at Ted for being depressed. It’s great.
-Cutler is the worst. I love the bit where he takes exactly one sentence to go from calling Don a “bully” to mocking him for “blubbering like a little girl”. Still, “It is a lot of money” made me laugh really hard.
-Seven episodes aren’t nearly enough, right? I want this show to last at least through the Watergate scandal.
See you next year!