Mad Men season 7 episode 7 review: Waterloo

Review Frances Roberts 26 May 2014 - 17:04

After seven years, Mad Men is delivering its very best and still capable of surprising us. Here’s our review of the midseason finale…

This review contains spoilers.

7.7 Waterloo

“What is happiness? The moment before you need more happiness.” That season five line typifies the cynicism that, previous to Waterloo, I’d taken to be Mad Men’s essential perspective.

Over six and a half seasons, Matthew Weiner’s show has been a circus of disenchantment and unfulfillment. Against a backdrop of social discontent and ad-land lies, we’ve seen Don’s death wish, Joan’s compromises, Pete’s frustrations, Peggy’s loneliness, Kinsey’s failed ‘enlightenment’, Lane’s fate and more. “What is wrong with you people?” Megan once asked Peggy. They’re Mad Men characters is the short answer; unhappy people whose job it is to create more unhappiness.

Then came this year’s midseason finale.

Not only did things actually happen in Waterloo (the perennial complaint of the non-Mad Men fan), but good things actually happened. Peggy pulled a blinder at Burger Chef, Roger won the battle for Don Draper, Joan and Pete are going to be millionaires and the astronauts made it to the moon. America touched the face of God, and Bert Cooper died smiling.

And singing. Given Robert Morse’s background as a Tony-winning Broadway actor, a song and dance routine must have always been on the wish-list for Cooper’s character. Now in its final season, Mad Men is finally getting to open all of its gifts, and what a gift that scene was. Bert’s song was all the better for being a surprise. Ken’s tap-dance aside, we’re not accustomed to seeing its cast shimmy and sha-la-la around the office. It was beautiful in its warmth and incongruity, and impossible not to feel moved by.

Prior to Bert’s soft-shoe shuffle off this mortal coil, Waterloo was marked by other goodbyes. In a unexpectedly touching scene, Peggy lost surrogate son Julio to Newark, and Don finally lost Megan to LA. The Drapers’ last phone call was classic Mad Men dialogue: a lesson in subtext. “They want me to move on,” Don told Megan. “Maybe you should. Aren’t you tired of fighting?” she replied. The topic of conversation evidently wasn’t just Don’s soured marriage to SC&P.

Speaking of which, it’s apt for a drama obsessed with carousels that Sterling Cooper, after passing through its PPL, SCDP and SCDPCCG iterations, has returned to its original name in time for the final season. They may be jumping into bed with McCann Erickson, the company whose takeover bid precipitated the exhilarating start of SCDP in the first place, but as Roger says, a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then.

The moon landings were another gift Mad Men was finally able to unwrap this week, an event heavy with symbolism that Matthew Weiner must have been itching to put on screen. Like the television in Peggy’s pitch, telescopes were omnipresent in the episode, in Cutler’s office, on Megan’s balcony, in the Francis garden… Bert Cooper’s desk was ornamented by a small red and black model of the Earth, while Ted’s globe bar was on display in his office (what better image for Mad Men than a world split in half and stuffed with booze?). The characters were looking to the skies, and swallowing their fears about how the mission would play out.

Usually Mad Men’s audience are the ones anticipating tragedy the characters don’t see coming, but this week, it was the reverse. Peggy and co. braced themselves for a disaster we knew wasn’t going to happen and it made for a cathartic episode.

Just as season six’s The Flood succeeded by making us feel the shock and pain of the assassination of Martin Luther King - an historical moment insulated from emotion for us by both familiarity and distance - Waterloo made us see the Apollo 11 mission through the characters’ eyes. As such, it was unusually moving. Even if we knew Sally’s “we’ll be going there all the time” estimation to be wrong, we could momentarily forget the hindsight and share in the awe. It was one of the few occasions that Mad Men allowed its audience to be inspired and not shamed by the past.

The landings themselves were exquisitely handled, Weiner’s camera travelled from lounge to hotel room, from family to ersatz family, all struck dumb by the magnitude of what they were witnessing, save for the occasional “hot damn”. (Was Bert’s “bravo” at Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” applauding the human endeavour or the pithiness of its slogan?)

Don’s phone call to Sally was a key exchange for the episode. He chided Sally for parroting hunky Sean’s teenage scorn about the moon landings, prompting her to admit they weren’t her real feelings. By kissing Sean’s dorky younger brother (the aptly named Neil) Sally chose optimism and awe over easy cynicism. Attagirl. Is it optimistic however, to note that smoking in the garden and gazing into the sky, Sally - as noted by Betty’s visiting school friend - was the spit of her mother? What’s next for Sally, one wonders?

For that matter, what’s next for all of them? Grief over losing Bert hadn’t dulled Roger’s wry insight when he exclaimed, “Neil Armstrong, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”. After the moon landings, everything else seemed a bathetic punch-line. When you’ve touched the face of God, as Peggy poetically put it, whatever else follows is anti-climax.

Whoever wasn’t talking about the moon this week seemed to be talking about Don Draper, or at least, offering an opinion on him. Everyone, from Betty to Cutler to Pete Campbell to Bert Cooper, gave a definition of Don, from “an old bad boyfriend”, to “a football player in a suit” to “a very sensitive piece of horse flesh” to “a pain in the ass”. To secretary Meredith, whose crush on him went unrequited in one comic scene, he was a vulnerable puppy. Which is it? All of the above, probably, but we should add decent human being to that list.

Seeing the bullet coming for him at SC&P, Don’s response wasn’t to save his own skin, but to ensure Peggy’s future at the firm. He righted Pete’s wrong of the previous episode, and gave the Burger Chef pitch back to his former protégé, offering her the spotlight. The slow-motion look of complicity exchanged between the pair before she took to the stage to fight in her own personal Waterloo was a wondrous thing and the closest Mad Men has come to an air-punch sports movie ending. “The Don Draper Show is back from its unscheduled interruption” was Pete’s touching vote of confidence in Don earlier in the episode, but he was wrong. Don had switched channels to The Peggy Olson Hour.

Finally, Bert Cooper, that crafty old racist and master of Zen, deserves our last words of this half-season. An Ayn Rand-reading ad-man bowing out singing The Best Things In Life Are Free is an irony to savour for the months we have to wait until Mad Men’s return. To the agency’s founding member then, ladies and gentlemen, we raise our glasses. Jim Cutler called him a giant, but if Cooper wouldn’t mind the theft, let’s steal the epitaph he gave Mrs Blankenship and call him an astronaut. 

Waterloo was a stunning end to a superb half-season, and, despite the divorce and death, an uncharacteristically optimistic one. It felt momentous enough to be a finale while leaving a great deal yet to be explored. To steal another of Bert's lines: bravo. 

Read Frances' review of the previous episode, here.

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Great review. Bravo.

How is the odidous Pete becoming a millionaire remotely a good thing?

How is the odious Pete becoming a millionaire even remotely a good thing?

Okay so a great episode but I do have to question the song and dance routine at the end - what are we supposed to make of it? Is it a sign of Don having a mental breakdown? does he have a brain tumour from smoking too much?? Or was it simply a fun send off for Bert Cooper? And now we have to wait another year to find out... that's just not fair!

I think it's hinting at while everyone is about to be rich, they aren't going to be closer to happiness, suggesting the final half season is going to be filled with less than perfection for Don.

Also, it was a fantastic way to send him off.

I took the 'bravo' line as referring to 'one small step' and it was wonderful. The song and dance number was unexpected, surreal and also very moving - what a way to bow out.

And what a way to take a mid season break, the wait till 2015 is going to be agonising....

One thing, when did Joan so totally turn against Don? Was there a trigger I've totally forgotten or has it been gradual?

And Harry misses out again :D

She's hated him since he stopped SCDP from going public, stopping her earning around a million dollars. It makes you wonder if, now he's been a vital part of ensuring she now gets more than that, she might start liking him again.

Great review, seriously. Your level of analysis week in week out has informed me of things I didn't quite first catch (the world split in half, filled with booze etc). Incredible stuff.

And isn't Harry just as odious?

I think this might have been one of your finest pieces yet. Bravo!

Seb is right, but I think it started because of a slightly different thing at that same point. Don fired Jaguar because he was sickened by making Joan prostitute herself. Joan was resentful that since she could deal with him after his sleeziness, that Don still fired jaguar. Coupled with losing her a butt-ton of money

The whole Ayn Rand thing has been omnipresent from the get go. I thought that it was Roger who first mentioned it to Don, not Bert, but if Don Draper was not an impressionist ' s sculpture of Howard Roark for the the first few seasons, then I don't know what he is supposed to be. Pete Campbell was his obvious foil as the anti - hero who got to where he is by sheer lack of talent and by going to the right schools/having the right last name. He's the guy that Roark would reply, "I don't think about you at all" when he was asked, "what do you think about me?"
I was immediately reminded of the 1st season of "Girls" where the Jewish stereotype asks the other stereotype which woman from "Sex and the City" she most identifies with. It was almost like the writers thought that they wouldn't have to apologize for ripping "Sex and ghetto City" off so much due to the mere acknowledgement that it was indeed a show that they were ripping off.

That was not supposed to read "Sex and Ghetto City"
Stupid auto-correct.

The episode was so optimistic that it made me feel terribly pesimistic. Particularly because of its name. With an episode titled "Waterloo", I couldn't help but feel that this was the victory before the defeat.

Thanks, Frances, for intelligent and insightful reviews, week after week.
And I absolutely agree, Waterloo was a great episode, a fantastic ending to one of Mad Men's best (half) seasons.

This whole season was about Don realizing he had lost his one true love aka the agency and his fight to get it back. Bert's character has always been about reminding people what is important. So it was apt for his final advice to Don to be "The best things in life are free"

Joan is nothing but practical. She realizes that Don is costing the agency a lot of money to write copy and the time wasted just dealing with it has sucked a lot of resources. Now that Don is back doing his real job she will probably ease off. Especially now Harry missed the boat becoming partner.

She nailed it with Cutler. Even though she agrees with him that Don should do, he really should have not done that.

Lovely review, as ever.

When Cooper started dancing I was sure Don was going to pass out at the end and probably start bleeding at the nose. He'd just got what he wanted, but it wasn't happiness, or health. Not sure what to make of it for now. But looking forward to next year.

Great review, what a great episode with a classic send-off to Bert. So many layers...

Cause he's been charging around like a drunk Godzilla, ruining everything. Let's not forget that she's a single mum nearing 40 who is starting to realise she can't rely on marriage for her financial future and it going to have to get it for herself, but her own skills are quite limited despite her experience and longevity at SC&P.

She badly needs SC&P to succeed for her own sake, and for what she's invested in the company - if it fails the men will be OK, but she will find it a lot harder to start again.

Don's uselessness during season 5, when he spent most of the time shagging and drinking and not much working, meant they needed Jaguar and put the path in place towards her prostituting herself. Yes, he tried to talk her out of it, but he didn't do anything to stop the deal and when he talked to her it was already too late.

Then, as the PPs have said, he scuttled the IPO deal and fired Jaguar, without consulting with anyone, not only preventing her from getting a windfall but making her prostitution all for nothing. He did it again when he did the deal to merge SCDP and CCG behind everyone's back, which brought a whole new pile of drama, while continuing to be lousy at work.

He kept on making bad decisions that affected her (not deliberately, but without much care or thought), yet until he got fired he continued to be feted by everyone. She just got sick of him and the risk he posed to her plans and those of the company. They were never close friends anyway, and when she lost professional respect for him, there wasn't much left.

Because he'll find more expensive ways to hate himself. There'll be more impotent rage, but this time with added entitlement. He'll probably fall down the stairs again. You know you're going to want to watch that!

Great review, thank you! And your keen eye for symbolism inspired me to go back and see them myself - I am not sure, but I think there's also a globe on the bookshelf in Cutler's office (scene: Cutler + Campbell talking on the phone with Ted).

Advertising is about BUYING happiness! Bert imparted the wisdom of the ages: The best things in life are free!

It's the first time I read you
Frances Roberts. That is great writing.

Wow, that was an awesome review! I realized all of those globes and telescopes but you just made sense of all them.

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