This review contains spoilers.
“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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