There’s no point in not starting with the greatest bit of Mad Men insanity, is there? Of course there’s not. Apart from being the best imaginable sendoff for Robert Morse (1), Don has a habit (2) of seeing dead people (3). It was a bit of lovely soft shoe (4) and at the very least should reassure Don that he’s on the right track. Bert is happy because Roger is a leader and Don has discovered how to stick up for his team. But Matthew Weiner said he really wants us to pay attention to the lyrics, so maybe there’s more:
The stars in the sky
The moon on high
They’re great for you and me
Because they’re free
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 flowers in spring
The robins that sing
The sunbeams that shine
They’re yours, they’re mine
And love can come to everyone
The best things in life are free
The moon, as it does, figures prominently in this episode. Look at Bert’s last word: Bravo (5).
He says this in response to Neil Armstrong’s famous tagline for humanity: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” (6). So we have a man quite literally surrounded by wealth (7) at the end of his life singing (8) about how love and the moon and the stars are among the best things in life because the best things in life are free.
Now, let’s move back about 40 minutes, shall we? We might even go all the way back to the beginning of the season. Even the show.
First of all, it’s cogent to note that this episode both began and ended with Bert Cooper. Part of this was a fond farewell to both the wonderful character and the incredible actor, Robert Morse. But more important to the story is that we finally see in this episode that Bert really has been controlling things with an invisible hand. It is his cool and biting and cynical remarks that shape people (9) and his company.
What is more interesting, however, is that the season began and ended with interlocutors for Don. In “Time Zones,” Freddy is speaking for Don because Don is forbidden to speak for himself. As he tells Ted in the partners’ meeting where SC&P is finally sold to McCann (10), he knows what it is to have no work which is, along with being alone, his real fear (11). In this episode we have Bert speaking most likely for Don’s subconscious, both affirming Don’s newfound loyalty and underscoring the fact that at least one of his fears is likely to come true—but only if he is viewing love as something physical and sexual. Don has love—but it is the love of his peers.
Visually and thematically there were callbacks to previous episodes and previous seasons throughout “Waterloo.” It was in the costuming: Megan’s shirt looked like Neve Campbell’s shirt from “Time Zones.” Betty’s breakfast dress was the same color scheme and look as her infamous “cupcake dress” from season two’s “A Night to Remember.” It was in the themes: Harry’s constant rejection as a partner, Don’s secretary making an awkward pass at him (12), Roger meeting folks in secret at his hideaway restaurant.
It was even in the emotional and perfect pitch. While nothing on the show has compared to Don’s Carousel pitch, Peggy’s Burger Chef (13) pitch is the clear silver medalist. Beat for beat they follow the same path: history of the world and the word, rejection of the expected path, the inclusion of personal detail, and the great tagline.
These callbacks served to show us not (as I feared prior to the season’s beginning) that our characters would have to just run away from who they were, but to highlight how, in the same life, our characters have grown (this was my hope at the end of the “Selling Mad Men” essay).
Let’s take Sally, for instance. Up to this point she has been channeling her inner Betty. When Sally picks up Don’s call, she’s aping the attitude of Spike Stripe-Pants (14) there. “Oh daddy, the moon landing blows because we have hungry people and this sexy boy.” When Don calls her out for being callous and unreasonable, she gets all pinchy and bitchfaced, but how else is a teenage girl going to react when her dad calls her out on her own bullshit? The key point of growth is how she acts later that night, going not for the imported football hero but for his nerdy brother, Neil (a lovely and obvious name choice). I’ve seen some write-ups that say Sally here is rejecting “the Don type” but we all know what Don was like as a teen, and a football player confident bro he was not. Sally here is taking her dad’s advice and rejecting Betty—and putting some awkward moves on the telescope kid (15).
No one grows more, however, than Peggy, Don, and Roger. Just like Sally, they grow in ways that are reasonable and meaningful developments of who we fundamentally know them to be. Peggy is a peoplewatcher. She may be the smartest person on the show now that Bert is dead. She is certainly the one who is most aware of what other people are doing. While everyone else is still glued to the television (17), Peggy knows that what’s really going to be important is how everyone reacts to the moon landing. That’s “of essence” (18) to her morning pitch.
At the first impromptu partners’ meeting, Don is still a bit of a bully. It doesn’t matter that we all agree with him; he’s riding roughshod over everyone here (19), which is a huge part of why Bert calls him “a pain in the ass.” But by the time Don realizes that he has or will lose everything (everything being Megan and working at SC&P), he realizes that the time has come to pass the torch.
And he has to pass that torch to Peggy. The old Don would have burned everything to the ground if he was going to be cut out (20) without regard to the others involved. But Don who is looking at a hopeless world (21), Don who is now in a world where Bert Cooper has spoken aloud (though not to him) that what he lacks is loyalty, finds it within himself to be both generous (which he arguably always has been) and loyal (which he never has been—though he valued it in others ).
Peggy, through her perfect pitch gains the one thing she has never had: confidence. We see it in her pitch, in her looks to Don, and in her triumph at earning the business of Burger Chef. With Don healed and Peggy confident, little will stop them.
The most impressive growth of this episode, however, is that of Roger. We see him move through the shock of Bert telling him he isn’t a leader and his grief at the loss of Bert, to a confident and fully actualized leader. Always a bit superfluous, Roger finally demonstrates his value to SC&P, to the delight of all who have been made millionaires (23).
Bert’s speech to Roger about loyalty and leadership unties a knot I’d had with this season. In episode four, “The Monolith,” Bert tells Don he “has a fundamental misunderstanding of what went wrong” and that Don started the agency “along with a dead man, whose office you now inhabit.” It seemed incredibly callous and cold at the time. But here we hear Bert’s rationale: He defended Don after Cutler (24) had a breach letter sent because Bert is “a leader and a leader is loyal to his team” and, most importantly, “Don doesn’t understand that.” Don doesn’t understand what went wrong because Don wasn’t loyal to anyone.
That, actually, could be a hell of a better summary of season six than “moving on when you’re stuck in a rut.” When has Don ever been loyal to anyone or anything, including himself? That’s what leads Jon Hamm to describe him as a terrible person. That’s why, under all the brilliance and charm, there is still a seedy underbelly. Don is fundamentally disloyal—or at least he has been until now. This half a season has really been about characters who change dramatically (and mostly for the good ):
Don learned how to be loyal; Peggy learned how to be confident; and Roger learned how to be a leader. Regarding our fourth character, Pete, I think he has grown the least—but he did a lot of painful growing last season. Pete understands that he is very good at being an account man but he’s not good at much of anything else. Tom and Lorenzo have written at length that Mad Men is about accepting who you are and what you can do in that role. But that misses the point. As I wrote earlier, Mad Men is about accepting change. Our characters are on an arc to improvement, but part of what makes Mad Men the greatest television show, the one that unquestionably rises to the level of capital L Literature, is that the arc isn’t wrapped up with a thirty-minute laugh track. There is no formula. Nothing is clean. These are people.
I said before the season started that watching Mad Men was daunting. It is. Art should be daunting. We have followed these characters through a decade of their lives and seven years of ours. The denoument of Mad Men will be learning how these characters cope not with the change in the world around them but with the change in themselves.
Now that they have accepted their new roles, it remains to be seen how they will handle them in season 7.5. That’s Weiner’s brilliance. I could speculate on what will happen (26), but it won’t really matter. He doesn’t just give the power of improvement and accepting change to his characters; he makes them live through the realities. And reality is notoriously difficult to predict. The consequences are often greater than the results. That is where Mad Men sings.
(1) Morse is a noted stage musical actor whose big break was the lead in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. This scene could easily be straight from the musical, though “The Best Things In Life Are Free” is from the eponymous movie musical.
(2) Anna Draper’s Ghost
(3) His family members
(4) Soft sock, really
(5) Pollock’s paintings were approaching the neighborhood of a million dollars at this time. Bert has a lot of money and has invested wisely. If we are to guess that Bert is older than his secretary, Ida Blankenship (b 1898) and was at least thirty when he founded Sterling Cooper (1923), we can surmise he was born about 1890, making him 79 at his death. That’s probably close to accurate. He could even be a few years older. If his older sister (Alice Cooper) is still alive, she would be very old indeed. Bert has no children and neither does Alice (it was implied she was a lesbian living with a “companion”). It will possibly be “of essence” to season 7.5 to know what is happening with both Bert’s money and his art collection.
(6) Armstrong wrote this as “one small step for ‘a’ man” but no one heard it that way. Also, Armstrong did apparently actually write this brilliant line. Bravo, indeed.
(7) Even his food is rich: I bet that’s whole milk he’s drinking.
(8) Hallucination or vision hardly matters. I mean we’re seeing it, so it’s what Matt Weiner wants us to take away from this half-season.
(9) Some good: Roger and Don and Pete; some bad: Harry (whose transformation to bottom-line mercenary was set in motion by his experience with Bert’s Rothko).
(10) My wife literally jumped for joy when Roger told Harry the meeting was “none of his beeswax.” Besides loving that phrase, she harbors a real hatred for Harry Crane (which is odd as her brother bears a strong resemblance to Rich Sommer who is, by all accounts, a nice fellow and doing his job very well to engender such strong feelings) and was delighted to see him get a bit of comeuppance.
(11) As told to Peggy Olson in “The Strategy.”
(12) I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but Stephanie Drake does an incredible job with Meredith. She has quickly become my favorite minor character on the show. “Look at you; you’re so confused.” Love. Her.
(13) I’d be remiss not to point out that in 2014, both Burger Chef and the Kodak Carousel are wholly obsolete. Burger Chef as a result of late 1970s and early 1980s mismanagement (though if someone doesn’t try to capitalize on the popularity of Mad Men and reopen or revamp a Burger Chef, I’d be surprised), and the Carousel by the technology so sagely touted by its engineers in “The Wheel.” But that hardly matters. We all know we remember and love commercials. It’s the pitch that sticks, not the product.
(14) Pretty sure the other older dude (Sylvia’s son) that intrigued Sally was a striped pants wearer as well.
(15) Insert penis joke.
(16) Man, you kiss her back. If you’re reading this and you don’t know that is the answer, let me tell you that at like 15, you might be a bit young for the headrush that is Mad Men but, more importantly, if a pretty girl kisses you, all things being equal, you kiss her back. Dork.
(17) Take a few minutes and watch over all the scenes this episode (and this season) where we are being watched by the actors. Unnerving and brilliant.
(18) I want to use that phrase all the time. But I want to say it like a Skeksis.
(19) Of course, so was Jim.
(20) Which is what he tried to do with Rachel Menken and really what he did both with creating SCDP and merging to form SC&P. And Jaguar. And. And.
(21) The last time Don was really hopeless, Sally stepped in and healed him. This time he heals himself through giving.
(22) Both Harry Crane and Pete.
(23) The best things in life may be free but several million dollars is also great.
(24) It was incredible how clumsily Cutler handled this. He really isn’t ready to be a leader, irrespective of what Bert says about his “vision.”
(25) No comment on Megan and Marigold.
(26) I mean, I will of course: Don and Peggy and Pete are going to find love (though not with each other). Ted will begin his personal process of healing. Lou will be shunted off to somewhere in McCann hell. Megan will not go gentle into that good night, neither will Marigold. Betty and Henry will implode gloriously. You *know* Sally is going to Woodstock (same month: will we hear about the Tate murders?). Ken will do something really cool. My Lai and the Draft lottery will be important. Don won’t die.
G.M. Palmer lives on a poodle farm in North Florida. Find his work at www.gmpalmer.com.