If we can put a man on the moon, then surely at least some of the major characters on “Mad Men” can finally, at long last, demonstrate some personal growth. That seems to be the theme animating “Waterloo”, the midseason finale episode, as Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk—and a cross section of what passes for the characters’ families watching this seismic event with a sense of wonder, awe and the opening of new possibilities—is the framing device for most of the episode.
As Peggy Olson says to the Burger Chef execs during the pitch that most Mad Men devotees assumed that Don Draper was going to make, things will never be the same after this. And the same could be said for many of our protagonists. Take Peggy herself, whose nascent maternal instincts bubbled to the surface during her heartbreaking scene with Julio, when we learn how much she truly cares for the taciturn little boy and how much he cares for her in return when she learns that he’s the latest in a long line of men who will be bailing on her.
Take Don Draper, who has been humbled by his demotion to copy jockey and in this episode finally given his walking papers by his once-devoted wife, whose love for him has been purged out of her by his faithlessness and inattention. Don willingly and gladly takes a back seat to Peggy at the pitch, and watches with pride as his protégé does a brilliant, Draper-like presentation that weaves together the moon landing with what’s happening to society at the dinner hour and then delivers a winning concept with emotional resonance.
But then there’s the surprise of the night- Roger Sterling, the wise cracking Peck’s Bad Boy who has made a career out of living off his charm and his preternaturally adroit client relationship skills, stepping up and making the giant leap that not only will save his friend Don’s tottering career, but also make all of the SCP partners exceptionally wealthy. And, doing it in a way that outsmarts his nemesis Jim Cutler and foils Cutler’s attempt to remake the agency in his own image, starting with ousting the problematic Draper and then elevating Harry Crane to some kind of savant status when it comes to buying media. John F. Kennedy had a vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade; Jim Cutler has a vision of selling data mining services to other agencies’ clients.
Roger takes matters into his own hands, after being stung to the core by long time friend and mentor Bert Cooper’s harsh but true assessment of his less than stellar leadership skills, and later heartbroken by the older man’s demise. He works out a deal to sell 51 percent of SCP to McCann, in return for his remaining president and keeping autonomy as a subsidiary of the larger ad firm. And, he stipulates that Draper be part of the package. Then, he outmaneuvers Cutler in the partners’ meeting, as the dollar signs in the partners’ eyes assuage any ill will they may feel toward Don. Whether working for “The Man” again will be close to being as romantic as starting your own business and working for yourself remains to be seen. But while Bert Cooper’s ghost at the end of the episode may say “the best things in life are free”, money still talks, and sixty-five million dollars with 1969 buying power speaks very loudly indeed. Loud enough for the conniving Cutler to vote with the rest of the partners for the deal, once he sees that his bloodless coup has come to naught.
What starts out as Don’s “Waterloo”—returning from exile to rally the troops, only to lose, and ostensibly be sent back to the furrier business where he started as a copy editor (perhaps a bit more prosaic than ending up with Napoleon at Elba)–becomes Cutler’s, when his brazenness at unilaterally sending a separation letter to Draper based on the latter’s busting in on the Commander cigarette meeting (and ostensibly thereby breaching his contract)—becomes a bridge too far for the other partners. Even Joan, who supports Don’s ouster, tells Cutler ominously that he shouldn’t have done it. Cutler’s gambit animates Roger and leads to his bold move—he’s no Neil Armstrong, but perhaps he has more leadership potential in him than old Bert was willing to admit.
However, Roger would lose and Jim would win, were it not for the one pitch that Don does take on during the partners meeting before the vote on the McCann merger. It’s the pitch of Don’s life, as it keeps him at the firm and makes him very wealthy at the same time. His one-time nemesis, Ted Chaough, is the tie-breaking vote, and he is a broken man, clearly miserable about his marriage and his estrangement from Peggy and burned out by the advertising business. Earlier, Ted essentially threatened to kill his Sunkist clients by purposely crashing his plane on Route 66 with them in it, and seems to have no passion left for anything or anyone. Don trots out a variation of the Freddie Rumsen “do the work” pep talk that ended the first episode of the year, and strangely enough, it works. The work—and all that comes with it—may be the most genuine aspect of Don’s character, his evocation of what the work means to both of them seems to resonate with his miserable partner. Ted votes against Cutler and for the third time in eight years, SCP will change ownership.
But Roger’s Armstrong-like seizing of the day is far from the only surprise in the episode. For at the end of a fast paced (for Mad Men, that is) 47 minutes Matt Weiner demonstrates that he not only has a firm grasp on the period in which his characters exist, but also the history of his own star performers. For those of us who remember Robert Morse as a young, boyishly good looking and energetic song and dance man in the late 50s and early 60s, his parting scene was more than appropriate. Morse pulls off a version of “The Best Things in Life are Free”, complete with dancers from the secretarial pool, and he does it in character and in his stocking feet. It is an inspired bit of business, and a fitting tribute to both his character and Morse himself. It’s a very considerate and entertaining way for a consummate pro to exit from the Mad Men stage.
After Bert’s death, it becomes “game on” for the principals who Bert leaves behind. Even more fitting is the timing of the old man’s death—he has just watched the moon landing and heard Armstrong’s immortal words, uttering “bravo” in response to the astronaut. Now that he’s heard what he may have considered the perfect line of advertising copy, all that’s left for him to pass gently into the night. There have been more shocking and emotional departures from Mad Men, but this particular one was handled with great sensitivity and panache.
As always, there are questions that linger at the end of this mini-season, some of which tantalize this reviewer more than others, to wit:
Why is Don so dejected after Bert finishes his song and dance number? Is it sinking into him that he’s about to go back to working as a captive of a larger agency, once again losing control of his own destiny? Does he think Roger won’t sustain his own interest and they’ll miss the old man more than they think? Or did he just have some bad pizza for lunch?
Will Mona and Roger get together and become surrogate parents to their grandson? Or will Joan and Roger reunite and become a nuclear family with their son? With Roger’s big move, it’s highly likely that the free love-fest that has taken up residence in his hotel is history.
What happens if SCP doesn’t get the Chrysler business? Jim from McCann is seemingly buying them based on the promise that they’ll get the business, which is really an odd basis for forking over more than 30 million dollars to a group of people. Never underestimate the machinations of Bob Benson, who is already upset at Joan’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and is the new ad director at Buick.
Will someone take Ted’s pilot’s license away from him before he kills someone, possibly himself? Will his return to New York resurrect his career, as well as his relationship with Peggy?
Will Megan finally land a part? She was reading a script when she had her “Dear Don” phone call. She’s getting dangerously close to her “sell-by” date for a starlet, and Don has offered to put her on the Draper payroll until she starts to see some money coming in. But perhaps there’s more than going to movies and hanging with her various actress friends in her future.
Will General Motors remain the colossus of the automobile industry? Will NASA continue to up our lead in the dominance of space? Will Burger Chef redefine the family dinner experience for a new generation of Americans? Sadly, we don’t have to wait until next year’s final episodes to know the answer to these questions.
Since this is my last post for a very long time, here’s a bit more for your blogging dollar, based on some additional observations:
- Roger watches the moon landing with his ex-wife Mona (John Slattery’s real life wife, Talia Balsam), his son-in-law and grandson, rather than the hippies who have been cohabitating with him. Perhaps this is another sign of Roger’s belated maturity. It’s probably also a sign that Marigold (Margaret) isn’t coming back any time soon.
- If Megan’s unexpected but long overdue kiss-off of Don is the last we see of Jessica Pare, she, too, will have had a great exit. Her pause to take a gulp of wine before saying goodbye to Don was expertly played and exactly the right touch. We all held our breath for just a moment, along with Don. And then, all of us (including him) were relieved.
- I’m sure the irony is not lost on anyone that the two people with the most screwed up family situations were the ones pitching the creative for the Burger Chef pitch (actually, throw Harry and Pete in there, and you’ve got a foursome of family dysfunction). It does underscore the point– driven home by the four of them watching the moon landing together in their hotel room– that families are indeed changing.
- In area of personal growth, Betty continues to be left behind. She’s a perplexing character, who doesn’t deepen with continued familiarity. Here in this episode, she’s given very little to do, other than dish with one of her college pals about Don being like an old, bad boyfriend. Where we are going with this character is anyone’s guess. Probably nowhere.
- Speaking of Betty, raise your hand if you saw a flash of her in daughter Sally’s insouciant, off-handed and self-conscious cigarette smoking at the end of the great telescope scene with the smart, nerdy kid staying with the Francis’s. The has a bit of Betty’s style, and more than a touch of her mother’s manipulative side, as she knows exactly what she’s doing when she kisses that star-struck kid.
- Note to Henry: the 50s is calling and it wants its short sleeved polo shirt back.
- Meredith’s clumsy and inappropriate pass at Don was more than a bit ridiculous. Taking her in small doses is fine, but that scene was beyond the pale. I suppose this passes for comic relief for the series.
- I wonder whether Roger’s gambit was as much about denying the annoying Harry Crane a partnership as it was outmaneuvering Jim Cutler and saving Don in the process. It appears that other than parenting a child that doesn’t know that Roger is his father, the only thing that Joan and Roger share these days is a visceral dislike of Cutler’s favorite media buyer.
Back at you next year! Please post!
Harlan R. Teller