May 262014

The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me.

I guess it’s a good thing Don Draper hasn’t joined Roger Sterling on an acid trip. As evidenced by the ending of Mad Men episode 7.07: Waterloo (the mid-season finale), he really hallucinates enough on his own.

There were so many ups and downs in Waterloo that it felt a bit hallucinogenic, without being at all trippy. I mean, this episode had some horrifying suicidal behavior, an exquisitely on-point presentation that touched on longing and intimacy, some tragic losses, one of man’s greatest achievements, and a musical number, complete with soft shoe (or soft stocking, I suppose). How do you even define that? Yet, until the musical number, it was pretty grounded. No The Crash tonight.

This mid-season “finale,” a half-finale, calls back to many other episodes, including every other finale. Like Season 3, Season 7.1 ended with Don’s marriage dissolving, and with a caper to save everyone’s jobs. Like Season 1, it ended with Peggy letting go of a child she loves. Like Season 2, it ended with everyone focused on a world-changing event in the news. Like Season 4, it ended with a focus on tobacco advertising, and on Don’s relationship with Megan. It shares with the Season 5 finale Don’s hallucinating a ghost, and it shares with the Season 6 finale Don’s receiving of high-handed news from the partners. In essence, the entire episode is geared around the notion of wrapping this thing up, of showing us where we’ve been and where we’re going. The step into the future and the step into the past. One small step for man…

I am not going to try to unpack this whole episode in one sitting. I doubt that my usual 1200 words will do it justice. While not as overall wonderful as The StrategyWaterloo was fascinating, complex, very, very human, touching, and dense. Instead, I will focus on some key, pivotal moments, and see what can spin out from there.

One of the things that was really important in Waterloo was Don’s doppelgangers. Each takes the reins in enacting the episode’s themes and articulating pivotal points of connection.

Don’s first doppelganger is Sally. Betty’s friend arrives for a visit with two sons; handsome, college-bound Sean, and nerdy Neil. Sean is disaffected and shows no passion about life. Sally is attracted to him, because DUH, he’s gorgeous and walking around shirtless. Watch how he complains about the cost of the space program, and she immediately echoes the sentiment to Don on the phone; she’s into Sean and mirroring his language. Don asks, do you really want to be that cynical? Do you want your brothers (of whom she is protective) to be that cynical? Then Sally goes outside and finds Nerdy Neil looking through the telescope. He doesn’t want to watch TV and he doesn’t want to be cynical, he wants to enjoy, and share with Sally, a natural wonder. When she kisses him, she’s making her choice: Cynicism loses to wonder.

The second Don Draper fill-in is Peggy. She literally fills in for Don, giving the presentation she thought he’d give, while he gives the introduction, almost word-for-word, that she intended for him. And the presentation is about intimacy and connection, it’s about fulfilling needs we didn’t even know we had. The starvation of spirit that Peggy talks about is a lot of what the two quotes from Time Zones alluded to. This entire season has told us we’re starving for lack of the simplicity of Shangri-La. Nixon’s inaugural, so pivotal to Don’s existential pain at the beginning of the season, explicitly mentions the moon program in contrast to “empty lives, wanting fulfillment.” Now Peggy brings it full circle, talking about the way that the moon landing actually managed to create a moment of fulfillment, because everyone was watching together.

Let’s pause to note here that Peggy opened with an extended improvisation about the moon landing. Don sat back in wonder as she tied it elegantly in with her presentation. This is called “going off-script” and was what Don was ordered not to do. The partners had every reason to perceive Don as a loose cannon, but going off-script is part of what the job is.

Finally, there’s Ted Chaough, who, like Sally and Peggy, has been serving as Other Don for quite some time now. In the impassioned speech Don delivers in the final partner’s meeting to persuade Ted that he wants to work, we hear Don’s step-by-step discovery of who he really is. Don isn’t fighting for SC&P, for the company he built, for money, or for pride. Don is fighting for his own understanding of who he is as a human being. And in that fight, he sees Ted as his alter-ego, a younger version of the driving creative force. Don knows that Ted blew up his own life. He knows it from the outside, looking at Ted, and from the inside, looking at himself. He knows that marriages and affairs can rise and fall, and will, when you’re kind of a shitty husband, and kind of depressive, and kind of prone to leveraging your personal issues as an excuse to disconnect from your wife. And Don also knows that the creative force, the drive to work, is at his core. In just this one episode he lost his job and his marriage; he had a chance to see what it all really meant to him, and what it meant was let me work. Don gambles that Ted has that same inner drive, and he’s right.

It’s all about stepping into the future, after all. This episode of Mad Men is deeply concerned with how we do that. Permeated at every step by the moon landing, the ultimate optimistic futurism, each scene is asking us how we enter our futures. Cynical or hopeful? Connected or disconnected? Creative or embittered? Loyal or cutthroat? The computer stays the enemy, which is ironic as I sit here and write on one, but the notion of precision demographics replacing the kind of creativity that moved Pete’s Burger Chef buddy to say “That’s beautiful” is the enemy. The notion that a beloved colleague’s death is an excuse to recount votes is the enemy.

And no, the future isn’t Shangri-La. Bert Cooper dies. Julio moves to Newark. Don’s marriage to Megan is over. There’s no way to keep it pretty or innocent. The losses will continue to pile up. But if you know who you are, you can enter the future with your sense of wonder and connection intact; you can move forward without starving.

I can’t end this without talking about Bert Cooper. I’ll miss Robert Morse going forward, but the man had one of the best deaths on television.

When the episode began with Bert transfixed by the moonshot, I recalled that he was the one who called Ida Blankenship an astronaut. He died an astronaut himself, witnessing the future in his final moments.

I cannot begin to explain the final musical number, except to say that I suspect Matt Weiner couldn’t resist: It’s Robert Morse after all! The number is a direct homage to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Robert Morse’s most famous role. It was hilarious and hopeful, and just as it seemed light as a feather, Don walked over and sat on a desk, and I realized that yes, that was the desk where Ida Blankenship died. Full circle. And not Shangri-La.

We are now going to be bullety:

  • After a good bit of speculation, we know now that Joan still has 5% of the company, and Pete has 10%.
  • My hope for Ken at the beginning of the season was for naught; the eyepatch appears to be permanent.
  • Quote of the week was tough. The first half of the episode was devoid of quotable wit, then I was hit with an embarrassment of riches. Peggy was endlessly hilarious (“There’s no liquor”) but Roger wins again, as he so often does: I should have realized it was the end, every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon you know they’re going to die.
  • Meredith. Holy shit. You are funny, girl.
  • “The Best Things in Life Are Free” was introduced in the 1925 musical Good News.
  • The song that Roger quotes is Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” from 1932′s Face the Music.
  • Harry doesn’t get to be a partner. Fuck Harry.

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