Don’t be fooled: Matthew Weiner’s period drama has always been about the future. Warning: Contains spoilers for “Waterloo.”
For a show about the past, Mad Men has always been about the desperate pressing of the future against the figurative glass. In looking back to the 1960s, the show has held up a tarnished mirror to our own society, our own failings, our own future. A moon landing is full of promise; an old man lives just long enough to see the impossible made possible. Old ways — and the literal old guard — slip away. Companies perish and new ones are formed. Alliances, once fractured, are renewed.
This dance is eternal, the combustive pressure between the past and the future, between cynicism and hope. That embrace that occurs toward the end of the episode, between Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), is more than just a hug: It’s a willing and proud acceptance of a new order.
The midseason finale of Mad Men (“Waterloo”), written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner and directed by Weiner, potentially revealed the series’ endgame. (Though, unfortunately for us, Mad Men’s seven final episodes won’t air until sometime in 2015.) “Waterloo” is a superlative piece of television that captures the hope and beauty (and awe) of the 1969 moon landing, juxtaposed against the potential collapse of Sterling Cooper and Partners, as the struggle between disintegration and cohesion takes place behind the scenes.
Much discussion is made of how people react to the future, whether it’s with cynicism (Sally, initially) or fear (Ginsberg, alarmed to the point of insanity by the IBM 360 computer), resignation (Ted Chaough) or acceptance. Influenced by a cute boy, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) initially recoils against the possibilities that the future offers, seeing only a cynical view of the cost of the moon landing, rather than what it means for mankind, sitting on the shoulders of giants. The cost of all things weighs heavily on the show; the characters, after all, are always selling something: a product, the false lure of a happy life, the emblems of happy hearths and childhoods. (Christina Hendricks’ Joan even sold herself at one point.) And the moon landing was an expensive, if seismic, moment in the history of humankind: As we’re reminded, it cost $25 billion, though that seems a small amount for such a monumental leap forward.
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That discussion of the price tag is wholly at odds with the sentiment embodied by the song-and-dance performed by the late Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) in Don’s mind: “The moon belongs to everyone / The best things in life are free / The stars belong to everyone / They gleam there for you and me.” The scene functions as a curtain call for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying actor Morse, a final bow before the door to his office closes for the last time, and a refutation against the cynicism and greed embodied by several characters. Bert, as staunch a member of the old guard as possible, lived to see a man step foot on the moon, but his death in the moments after signal a closing of his time.
Though Bert speaks of Napoleon, the notion of exile — both self-imposed and not — plays out in the characters of Don and Ted (Kevin Rahm). Don, of course, came back from exile to fight for what he believes is his: his company, his job, his vision. Ted has resigned himself to a half-life in California, a palm tree-festooned Elba, and a shocking death wish is symbolized by his descent, sans engine, toward those orange groves. If these two are “one person,” as Roger (John Slattery) says, then one hopes they’ll both emerge through the new deal, which has SC&P becoming a subsidiary of McCann, healed by their respective struggles. Both have been diminished, but it’s Don who refuses to admit defeat. (“No man has ever come back from leave, even Napoleon,” says Bert. “He staged a coup but he ended up back on that island.”) Whether this new deal ends up being Don’s Waterloo remains to be seen.
In his final episode, Bert ends up being the bearer of wisdom in so many ways. Besides the Napoleon reference, there’s the notion of control that he kicks up, one that has implications both for the deal that Roger is engineering and for the show itself. “Whoever is in control is in charge,” says the besocked Buddha himself. But the issue of “control” goes beyond counting the votes among the partners. It’s about a control that exceeds mere mechanics.
Don relinquished authority when he lost control of the room at the end of Season 6, in that disastrous Hershey’s pitch where he came clean about his past. He lost control because he told the truth about himself. He immolated the mystery that surrounded him (embodied by what Harry Hamlin’s Jim Cutler calls a “cloud of mystery”) and destroyed the myth. Like the Great and Powerful Oz revealed to us, people don’t want to see what’s behind the curtain. Jim says that he was “deeply unimpressed” after seeing the true face of Don, “a bully and a drunk… a football player in a suit.” (“The most eloquent I ever heard you was when you were blubbering like a little girl about your impoverished childhood,” as Jim spits with venom at Don.)
But Don regains his influence when he reclaims control of the room: in selling Ted on Roger’s plan. It’s not about Don salvaging his mojo in front of Burger Chef — a task he rightfully bestows upon Peggy — but in playing the role of salesman with Ted in front of the partners. Don can sell nostalgia or fur coats; he can sell the future itself, as he does here. Roger might be the president in this new arrangement, but his reliance on Don, who is essential to the plan, cedes control back to the man from whom the partners removed all agency. Roger needs Don for the deal to work, and he needs Don to win over Ted…and Don once again crafts a narrative of a perfect future in order to win over his former rival.
Likewise, it’s Peggy who is firmly in control of the room during the Burger Chef pitch. While it initially seems as though Don will be the one giving the presentation, an eleventh-hour switch means Peggy’s placed into the position of power here, no longer relegated to being “the voice of moms.” She is a leader in her own right, and she constructs her own personal narrative — both real and mythic — in order to win over the client. It’s not the same words that Don would have used or issued in the same manner; instead, Peggy draws on her own experiences, her sadness, her loss, her interactions with surrogate son Julio (Jacob Guenther) in order to create a compelling pitch. It is, in many ways, her Carousel moment, echoing the Season 1 pitch that Don gives to Kodak. It’s a moment of transformation, of conflating truth and fantasy, of taking control. It’s a huge leap forward for Peggy. She is an astronaut, and the setup to her presentation — a deep, unending silence broken only by the sound of her own coughing — is clearly meant to mirror that of Aldrin and Armstrong.
Peggy and Don have a long and complicated history together and Season 7 of Mad Men forced the duo to work together in a way that felt awkward for them both. But this is a moment of profound growth for each of them and the pride that Don feels in his protégé is quite apparent; their embrace by the stairs of SC&P when Peggy gets the news that they’ve won the account is beautifully wrought: It is not that tremulous kiss on the hand that he gave her when she left the agency, designed to reinforce both her femininity and his male superiority. Instead, their embrace is both proud and honest, a hug between two equals. It is what seven seasons of struggle between the two have led up to, an acknowledgement that Peggy isn’t beneath him but beside him.
And it’s Peggy’s pitch that connects to the song that Bert sings to Don in his final appearance. “The best things in life are free” refers to that dinner table, that sense of connection that we’re so ravenous for, those simple “supper” interactions. (These are at odds with the surprising greed embodied by Joan, who is still smarting from the loss of her IPO money.) The story that Peggy spins is about fantasy, of forging connections at a time when there is an endemic breakdown in familial relations. It’s about looking at Polaris in the night sky, which is “better than TV.” It’s holding onto those small moments of connection and intimacy, whether it’s the family in Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch, looking for an oasis amid the chaos of life, or a chaste and unexpected kiss between Sally and the family friend with the telescope (Elijah Nelson) as she attempts to undo her own cynicism and therefore not become her mother.
To struggle against resignation, Mad Men tells us, is what life is truly about — to find joy in the simple pleasures of life, to look up at the moon and see what is possible. Which is why the conversation between Don and Megan (Jessica Paré) before he leaves for Indiana is so disheartening:
Don: “They want me to move on.”Megan: “Well, maybe you should. Aren’t you tired of fighting?”Don: “Yes.”
It sharply echoes the sense of doom that Ted feels in California, but that struggle — that fight — is the nature of life itself. Don has always been a fighter, but in admitting defeat here, he’s not just talking about the battle within the agency but also within his marriage to Megan. The moving on that he’s discussing isn’t just professional, but personal. The dissolution of their marriage wasn’t a “conscious uncoupling,” but something more insidious and slow, worming its way through their union.
When Don could have moved across the country to be with Megan, he didn’t, instead indulging in the worst kind of self-pity and wallowing in his empty apartment. But when faced with the prospect of starting over in California with his wife, he can’t bring himself to do so. The fight has gone out of their marriage. This is one leave from which he will not be returning. There’s the sense that this has run its course and reached its natural conclusion. Even as he promises to take care of her, it’s the words casually uttered by his ex-wife, Betty Francis (January Jones), earlier in the episode that take root here; Megan, like Betty, has already begun to think of Don as a “bad boyfriend” from another time.
There is a lot of truth there, even as Don and Megan have sidestepped their own issues all season, reduced to being tourists in one another’s lives. But even if Don won’t fight for her or fight to keep their marriage intact, he realizes that Roger’s plan will keep him at the agency he built and will also keep the employees in their jobs, potentially sacrificing his own freedom (if only for five years) for the greater good. “A leader is loyal to his team,” says Bert. “Don doesn’t understand that.” But by the end of Mad Men’s midseason finale, Don finally does come to that conclusion, as does Roger.
Perhaps it’s the sight of a man walking on the moon — or the death of “giant” Bert Cooper — that snaps both men out of their respective reveries, but Don and Roger both prove that they might just have the right stuff to steer the agency headlong into the future. They are not the faded men clinging to hope for a better day but unwilling to act (“So let’s have another cup of coffee / And let’s have another piece of pie,” Roger quotes to Bert), but are instead explorers taking that first step into the darkness. After all, the telescope that appears throughout “Waterloo” (Bobby’s initially still in its box, Megan’s on plain view on her balcony, and elsewhere) points toward the stars, toward the future, toward the unknown, toward the bright and burning possibilities of what comes next.
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