I’d like to tell you that the last Mad Men midseason finale was subtly brilliant, full of masterful performances, major plot developments, and quiet nods for patient, loyal viewers.
I’d like to tell you all of the things…and I can. “Waterloo” is episodic drama at its best, an hour that can count itself among the show’s finest, a perfect setup for the back half of the final season.
If You Believed They Put a Man on The Moon
It’s July 1969. The episode opens with Apollo 11 taking off toward the moon, uncertain of success. Bert Cooper watches his television (alone) in wonder as the vessel rises to the skies; we cut to Ted Chaough flying the Sunkist guys around in his plane. He’s depressed, disinterested, and nearly crashes the plane into the ground out of ennui: he’s done with advertising, LA, and all the things Pete Campbell loves. Cutler tries to talk him out of quitting – lemme get this straight…Don has a little girl cry in front of a major client and it’s Helter Skelter, but Ted tries to kill some dudes, and he just needs a hug? Your consistency is impeccable, Jim.
In perhaps Lou Avery’s last scene, he barges into Cutler’s office to let him know that Commander Cigarettes is dead, along with any chance the old man had with SC&P. Surprisingly, Cutler sees a silver lining, noting that companies will now know they’re back in the tobacco game. Avery cares very little, choosing to think of his own job. Cutler barks him out of the office noting that the company owes him nothing; he’s just a “hired hand.” (Good Riddance, Mr. Cleaver.) Unfortunately, where Commander Cigarettes goes, there goeth also Don Draper. Jim uses the perceived loss of business to find Don in breach of contract and sends a letter (unbeknownst to the other partners) via the company attorney that Don must part.
When his ditzy, blonde secretary Meredith hands Don the letter the next morning, he is obviously struck unawares. She pats his hand like a mother hen, and then plants a wet one on Don’s mouth, “Tell me, what can I do?” He strikes her down immediately with carefully articulated words, as if he is speaking to a mentally challenged child, “You can get my attorney on the phone. And we can’t do this.” It’s a splendidly-timed comedic moment in the midst of all the drama, but it left me a bit puzzled. Is Meredith sharper than she would have us believe? She knows things with Megan have been rocky, and frankly, when Don is backed into the corner, beginning an inappropriate relationship or even marrying his secretary is exactly the kind of thing Draper would do. Keep your eye on that one.
Don calls an emergency meeting with all the partners to squash the proposal immediately. He escapes with his job, but just barely, as Joan votes with Cutler and Ted (by proxy) to get rid of Don. Though she is with Jim and Chaough, Joan notes that it shouldn’t have gone down that way; it should have been handled without the blindsiding.
Don, not feeling quite safe, calls Megan with the news of his impending icing. There’s a silver lining, though: he could finally attempt a fresh start in Los Angeles, but his proposal is met with silence. Without overtly spelling it out, the two finally acknowledge what we’ve known for several episodes: their marriage is over. Don promises to take care of her, but Megan assures him that he owes her nothing. It’s quite a sweet ending for a relationship I never completely bought into. Megan was an idea, never really something that Don truly wanted, but the two are left better for having been with the other. (For those of you never impressed with Jessica Pare’, please repress the compulsion to belt out, “Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead.”)
Corky’s sister Kellie Martin guest stars as Betty’s old college friend who visits the Francis residence with her husband and two sons: an older know-it-all jock who gives Sally all the feelings and a slightly younger science nerd who speaks wisely beyond his years. Sally – who has taken a summer job as a lifeguard – bats her eyelashes at the older boy. Betty notes that Sally has never worn lipstick to the pool before; she obviously approves as her daughter is finally showing signs of adolescence the mom can understand.
The families gather to watch the moon landing, and Sally regurgitates the older boy’s indifference to the situation when her father phones. Don lightly scolds the young woman for her views. When she escapes outside, the science geek is looking at the sky through Bobby’s never-used telescope. He introduces Sally to the stars, and she plants a sweet kiss on his lips. “What do I do now?” is his only response. That little lothari-a is way more like her father than her mother, and she’s on a quest to prove just that. I know it would be easy to assume that the writers were up for a bait and switch here, inferring that Sally was always into the younger, safer of the two brothers, but I think these two scenes prove a slightly more sophisticated plot point. If Sally alters her affections due to her father’s disappointment, isn’t it a more interesting turn? It could be read either way, but I choose to see it as the latter.
Miracles Happen, Everyday
With the moon landing serving as the backdrop for the episode, Peggy, Don, Harry, and Pete are headed to Indianapolis for the Burger Chef pitch. They pray the moon landing goes well, because the pitch is the next day. If the event is unsuccessful, there goes the business! Nice to see our upstanding characters have their priorities in check. (Spoiler Alert. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed safely on the moon July 20th, 1969. “One small step for man…” and all that.
Don’s looming uncertainty about his job security obliges him to offer Peggy the slot as pitchman. He notes to her that if he wins the business and is forced to leave the company, Burger Chef is likely to walk, as well. Peggy, mortified at the prospect of having to prepare her pitch in only a few hours without any alcohol (as they are bunking in a dry county), freaks out, but Don’s gentle hand guides her to success. Who is this selfless, caring, mentoring man and what have you done with Don Draper?
Speaking of our favorite shrinking violet, everything is coming up Peggy. She arrives home after a long day to find a sweating, hunk of a man repairing her ceiling tiles. Nick – he offers his name with a smile and a nod – gives her his number, should she need anything the general contractor cannot fix. And how. The pitch goes off without a hitch, after the moon landing was a success, and Peggy wins the business, seemingly on her own.
Sadly, however, Julio – her ten year-old neighbor – announces that his mother has gotten a job and must move the boy away from Peggy’s building. He hugs his surrogate mother, not wanting to leave. Elizabeth Moss flexes her enormous talent here as she holds the boy, a tear escaping her eyes. This moment is not about Julio alone but obviously resonant with the loss of her own son, given away for adoption years prior. She was provided the role of “Mom” in the Burger Chef pitch, thrust into it when Julio attached himself to her, and taken willingly as the owner of her own building. Peggy is a caretaker, no matter how hard she tries to fight it. Even giving her son up was the right thing for her in that moment; it was because she loved him so much, even as she tried to deny it.
The Best Things in Life are Free Cost A Cool Mil
While watching the moon landing with his family, Roger gets a call that Bert Cooper has passed away. Full disclosure, when I heard the phone ring in this scene, I was sure that Margaret/Marigold, Roger’s daughter, was dead, so color me shocked when it was actually the ailing Cooper. Joan meets Roger at the office and gets started with notifying clients and penning an obituary. Jim Cutler, even before the body is cold, points out that without Bert’s vote, Don is now toast.
Roger doesn’t take defeat that easily and at a breakfast the next morning, offers McCann 51% of the company, as long as Don gets to keep his job, and Roger gets to be President. The partners – a meeting closed to Harry as he is not a partner, yet…that guy is always (hilariously) missing out — must convince a reluctant Ted, however, to take the deal. McCann wants the whole team that won Chevy. When Don offers a glimpse into what it would be like if Ted left the biz, a bleak look into Draper’s last year, Chaough accepts. Even Cutler takes the deal, noting that “it’s a lot of money.”
When Don heads back to his office during the announcement, he sees a vision of Bert, shoeless natch, singing and dancing to “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
It’s a running theme in the episode: the moon landing cost 25mil, what a waste of money; Cutler tells Avery the company owes him nothing; Don offers to take care of Megan forever, or at least until she’s on her feet financially; Joan only wants Don gone because he cost her a million dollars when they couldn’t go public; everyone wanting to take the McCann deal because of the money. Sheer brilliant writing.
Turn and Face the Strange
It is important to note – and offer credit where credit is due – the strong character development displayed in “Waterloo.” Creator Matt Weiner trusts that his audience is smart enough to appreciate character arcs and changes without having to implicitly state the moments of alteration or growth. Every movement is subtle, real, earned. We are faced with people that are changing through time, as real people do. A statement said clearly and simply enough, but often, as a show winds down or sustains on television several seasons, the heavy hand of exposition and ridiculous twists color it forever leading it down a path to destruction. Even clever dramas with superior writing and cast wane when the creators do not trust that the audience will understand: I’m looking at you The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey. Rarely do we see a show like Breaking Bad or Mad Men that matures with age and stays smart.
Peggy: A once naïve ingénue turned bitter shrew, Peggy has waded through the tough times and come out stronger, having learned from Don, her mentor, to master her strengths and overcome her weaknesses. This episode detailed her final acceptance of the loss of her son, her willingness to connect with another man, and her ability to confidently trust her creative strengths to win business for SC&P. This is what a Creative Director looks like, people.
Joan: When we first met Joan, her confident attitude was obviously a mask to hide her desperate love for Roger Sterling and her need to be taken care of. Now able to stand on her own, rejecting a misguided proposal from Bob Benson, she is an ad-(wo)man and partner at SC&P. However, the bitterness she harbors from the way she had to earn her spot manifests itself in mistrust of Don, the one man who stood opposed to her selling herself for the company. When given the opportunity to set her family up for life, she invests in Don, once again, learning to be in for herself, and herself alone.
Roger: Who would have expected to see Roger holding his grandson in his lap, flanked by his son-in-law and ex-wife watching the moon landing, together as a family? Attempting to make up for his failures with his daughter Marigold and son with Joan he cannot acknowledge, Roger is fully invested in his family. Time was, it would have been Roger wearing the NASA helmet his grandson sports in the scene, under a pile of twenty-somethings passed out while the moon landing played on the television juxtaposed with some Led Zepplin on a turntable (They formed in 1968; I’ve got my dates right. No need to Google it).
Betty: A family woman no longer defined by the man with so many lies, Betty…Okay, Betty is still Betty, but her thoughts on her first marriage are spelled out so brilliantly, and she seems to have let go of that anger.
Sally: After her father finally came completely clean, Sally is on the road to repair that relationship. She now cares more of his opinions and wants to make him proud. A young woman growing to be the best of both of her parents, letting go of the petulant child routine, embracing feminism, but still smoking. Because it’s cool.
Don: The man we all love has changed the most but truly has come full circle, to the child neglected by his father and witness to the horrors of the Great Depression and war. The final scene in the episode, Don’s visions of a gleeful Bert singing “The Best Things in Life are Free”, is a departure from the haunting visions of his dead brother or ailing father. Don is truly witnessing the death of the past, turning his back on greed and gravitas. He does not need to revel in victory of keeping his job; he just wants to get back to work. Instead of rallying against those who’ve wronged him, he embraces his responsibility, doesn’t schtoop his secretary, and gives Peggy an opportunity to shine.
“You don’t owe me anything.” – Megan
Reflecting on marriage with Don, “I’m starting to think of him as an old, bad boyfriend. Someone a teenaged anthropologist would marry.” – Betty
“That’s a very sensitive piece of horse flesh. He shouldn’t be rattled!” – Pete
“I’m tired of him costing me money.” — Joan
“No man has ever come back from leave, not even Napoleon.” – Bert
“I should have realized it was the end. Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re going to die.” – Roger
“Pete’s pregnant. He has to do what we say.” — Don
Episode Grade: A+
First Half of Season 7 Grade: A
** An ending that is seemingly full of glee leaves me with an ominous feeling for those who willingly accepted the McCann proposal. “The Best things in Life are Free…” Do Joan, Pete, and Roger really know this? We’ll find out in the back half of season 7, Spring 2015.