Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Waterloo" (season 7, episode 7 / part 1 finale)

Mad Men - "Waterloo" (season 7, episode 7 / part 1 finale)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 25, 2014/written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner; directed by Matthew Weiner): "Waterloo" begins with liftoff. Bert - our oldest character - is glued to his TV as the Apollo 11 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral; upon ignition he's practically purring like a cat. Everyone has the moon on their minds in this mini-finale (Mad Men would only resume again after another year, although the official numbering marks this as a continuous season). On the night of July 20 as Neil Armstrong takes his one small step, we watch not just alongside Bert - who murmurs, simply, "Bravo" - but also the Francis clan (plus Betty's old college pal and her family) in Henry's Rye estate, the Burger Chef team in their Indiana hotel, and, back in New York, Roger's mixed-up family (an ex-wife, a soon-to-be-ex-husband-in-law, and an abandoned grandson). Don, Harry, Pete, and Peggy are particular worried about the fate of the astronauts on the eve of their big pitch meeting, and not just for the sake of national/humanitarian honor; if something terrible happens in outer space, their fast food deal will be completely soured the next morning. As it turns out the Apollo 11 crew will be just fine, but plenty of more earthbound drama will unfold by episode's end.

Wray and Weiner supply several fake-outs and surprises to keep us on our toes; one of the smallest but most delightful belongs to Sally, who appears to be making eyes at the jockish Sean Glaspie (Charlie DePew) who arrives for a visit with father Richard (Barry Levy), mother Carolyn (Kellie Martin), and his nerdy, space-obsessed little brother named, naturally, Neil (Elijah Nelson). The shot/reverse shot cutting may be messing with us, however. Ultimately it's Neil who Sally kisses after gazing through his telescope. This is a cute analog to the broader reversals and left turns in play in the central story. Don is, from all appearances, on his way out of SC&P. Cutler - best to refer to Jim by his last name now given the other Jim in play - even tries to boot Don by arguing that his disruption of the Commander meeting placed him in breach of contract. However, this plot is botched when Cutler claims the other partners are behind him but only Joan is (even she smirks, "You shouldn't have done that" while he sputters). Nonetheless, Don is a marked man and something that happens the night of the moonwalk seals the deal. Bert passes away while serenely watching the lunar landing, and Cutler wastes no time in declaring that now he has the votes to cut Don loose. Only Roger has the wherewithal to play the cavalry.

Before he dies, Bert has a few things to say to Roger including the titular reference. ("Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon," Roger remarks, "you know they're gonna die.") He also wounds Roger by telling him that he has talent and skill but is not a leader; Cutler, on the other hand, does have "vision" even if he's not on Bert's team. It's no accident then that when Roger meets with the other Jim - the devilish Hobart of McCann Erickson - he cites his own vision for the company, which involves rescuing it from Cutler. Hobart wants the whole Chevy team under the McCann umbrella in order to keep Buick from bolting, and Roger suggests that they buy a 51% share in SC&P as an independently operated subsidiary. Don, Roger, and Pete are of essence to the deal alongside, more troublingly, Ted, who has been taking clients on near-suicidal skydives and pronouncing to anyone who will listen that he wants to quit advertising. This is where Don comes in handy. With a stunned Cutler playing the devil on his other shoulder (or is it vice versa), Ted listens as Don coaxes him into acceptance by recalling the downfall of '68, and what it took Don to climb back. Dump the responsibilities of partnership, Don pleads, and return to the pleasures of pure creative work at the agency. "Does this mean I could come back to New York?" Ted brightens up. He's in and, ultimately, so is even Cutler ("It's a lot of money!"). Don's job is saved.

And Peggy is just getting started. When Don learns of Bert's passing and his own imminent departure, he decides to flip Pete's plan back again. Peggy will make the presentation to Burger Chef after all, so it will be easier to keep the client if Don goes. After a nervous night, she speaks from the heart as she only could with the new strategy she's invented, even adding a touching note (which takes Don and others who know her by surprise) about a 10-year-old who will be waiting in her apartment, watching TV, when she returns. She's not lying. Julio has visited her, weeping, before her departure to the Midwest to let her know that his mom is moving to Newark and he'll miss the landlady he bickered with for several years. She'll miss him too. Pulling at the heartstrings by evoking familial bonds for her prospective clients (while drawing upon nonconventional "familial" bonds of her own), Peggy knocks it out of the park. "Family Supper at Burger Chef" is a hit (I love the way the camera dwells on the Middle American-looking George Payton's absorbed expression as the barometer of her success). If this is her Waterloo, then she's the Duke of Wellington.

The episode ends on a bubbly note, following the thread of Don's redemption and Peggy's ascension rather than Megan's final farewell (more on that in my response below) or Bert's demise. That said, this cheerful conclusion involves Bert directly. Popping out of the ether for an apropos song-and-dance number - "The moon belongs to ev'ryone!" - a spectral Bert serenades a stunned, bemused, and ultimately queasy Don. This is a gorgeous spurt of surrealism, as much a winking tribute to the boss of all bosses over seven seasons - or at least the actor who played him (Robert Morse is a Tony-award winning musical man going back to the era that Mad Men takes place) - as it is an ambiguous if momentarily uplifting message for Don. It's certainly a marked contrast to the words Cutler spits at him early on: "You know, Ted and I, whenever we would hear that your agency was involved, we'd always be so intimidated. What was that man up to? Such a cloud of mystery. Now that I've been backstage, I am deeply unimpressed, Don. You're just a bully and a drunk. A football player in a suit. The most eloquent I've ever heard you was when you were blubbering like a little girl about your impoverished childhood." The venom's been removed, but the bite still stings.

My Response: This is our last season finale - the next time Mad Men wraps things up it will be for the whole series. As such, it's worth noting a pattern that emerges at or near the end of each season (initially, this climax occurred just before each finale although in later seasons it was usually located in the last episode). Don always finds himself in a hole either personally or professionally, often both. His mistress rejects him and a colleague discovers his true identity as they both go for a promotion; his pregnant wife is estranged and he has gone AWOL as the agency makes a major decision without him; he's getting divorced and the company is about to be bought out; he's single and struggling and the business may fold; his second wife wants his help in her career and he discovers a business partner has cheated him; his wife leaves for California without him after he has a breakdown at work. How the closing episodes deal with these crises varies but if the personal situations often collapse, the professional ones almost never do (even if they are punted to the next season). The sole, partial exception is when SC&P places Don on indefinite leave at the end of season six, but season seven showed he could claw his way back even from that. More often, the crisis at work not only doesn't end his career, it resolves itself in a miraculous resurrection which may actually improve Don's status.

"Waterloo" doesn't quite go that far - if anything Don is demoted back to the scenario he desperately fled in season three. But he's fallen so far until this point that mere survival (not to mention rather substantial personal enrichment) seems like a stunning victory. In that light, the bizarre Bert song-and-dance is the perfect whimsical capper. Like "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." - the finale this most resembles - Don's professional comeback accompanies the recognition that his marriage has ended. The writers handle this second divorce much differently than the first. For one thing, the word "divorce" is never mentioned. When the earlier Drapers separated, there was an entire ritual to observe: children gathered on the couch, a house and assets to be divided up, an angry confrontation hinting at years of battle to come (which Don decided to give up at the last minute). That was an earthquake; this is the last lonely leaf falling to the ground. When these Drapers offer their final farewells, they are recognizing that they've been slowly separating for years and there's nothing left to do or say. I've found this entire relationship touching in a surprising manner, because it often felt like Megan was getting short shrift (season seven may actually have offered her a bit more juicy material than season six). Now that the last punctuation has been given, the entire arc looks beautifully constructed.

There have even been some sleights of hand along the way. Initially it seemed that Don's tendency toward adultery was the primary threat - the temptation to be avoided and, when it wasn't, the sign that he'd chosen to detonate something valuable rather than struggle to keep it intact. In retrospect, however, this was never really the case. Infidelity was at most a symptom. Thanks in particular to the previous season's insights (especially the flashbacks in "The Crash" which made the observations of early seasons more visceral), we have more insight into the nature of Don's complex - the degree to which it revolves around not just his mother's abandonment but her professional identity and how it has shaped him. It's more clear than ever that the turning point was Megan's departure from SCDP and decision to pursue a career that Don didn't understand. This already appeared consequential at the time - I noted how Don needed a sense of control over and proximity to Megan - but it looked like a dangerous door was opening that Don could or couldn't walk through at his own peril (hence the empty elevator shaft). Now, however, it looks more like the moment when a door closed, leaving him alone in a room no matter what he decided to do there. He simply isn't capable of committing to someone whose lack of complete dependence upon him reveals his own desperate dependence upon them. Recall Faye, whom he left for Megan in the first place.

And so we're left with the unexpected triumph at work, which for once Don himself has almost nothing to do with - it's Roger of all people who saves his skin. As such, the uplift appears even more arch and cartoonish by comparison. Advertising is as much an escape for Don as consumption is for his audience, a way to retreat into a fantasy of momentary excitement, upward mobility, and cheerful stylishness - the American Dream as a drug to medicate a deeper existential angst. The shiny surface of Mad Men has always been in robust, fruitful, unresolvable tension with its more troubled spirit, never more so than in this mini-season (in which you can practically smell the offscreen hype leaking into the frame). The shorter episode run results in a tighter narrative but also a more energetic delivery as if Weiner and his collaborators have been liberated by the less relaxed format - The Sopranos' innovation of splitting a final season in two (something to do with contracts, apparently) tends to give cable drama a real shot of adrenaline near the end. But we did not know what destination our narrative train was barreling toward, and I'll admit real surprise at the destination. That's not to say I am disappointed; there's a certain sense of relief in watching Don and Roger triumph over Cutler (to the point where even Cutler himself happily surrenders). Even Ted's crisis seems resolved. And Peggy, above all, gets to shine in a way that fulfills an arc for both her and Don as his marriages never can for either party (although Peggy's real breakthrough was in the prior entry).

And yet. I really don't envision show wrapping up its final stretch with Don solidifying his position as an industry stalwart, accepting that he'll never find personal happiness but that his job will always give him purpose. Or, let me correct myself, I can potentially see the show ending this way but only if it puts Don through one more extended wringer. The next episode is, ominously, titled "Severance". I have questions and speculations for other characters too but - despite Roger's, Sally's, Megan's, and especially Peggy's importance to "Waterloo" - this finale has left me in a very Draper-focused mindset. My hopes for the mini-season titled "The End of an Era" are as follows: I hope Don goes on a personal quest that makes his California sojourn of season two (one of the series' most thrilling escapes) look like mere anticipation; I hope we see more flashbacks from his youth bridging the gap between the Dick stuck at that miserable whorehouse in adolescence and the one who left for Korea in the early fifties (for one thing, what was up to in World War II and why didn't he serve when he turned eighteen?); I hope we're still in '69 when the season opens, that it makes use of the broad-based Moratorium movement, and especially that Dow Chemical and Ray Wise are finally put to good use (if they aren't, I will consider this the show's greatest missed opportunity by a long shot); and I hope that, if the show does conclude with a semi-cynical wink, as this episode arguably already does, it also allows us a fleeting glimpse of whatever else is out there from the corner of our eye.

Delightful as the Cooper vision may be - and I can imagine critics and viewers going absolutely bananas on social media afterwards - Don doesn't look bemused. He looks horrified. If the best things in life are free, then what the hell has he been up to for the past fifteen years?!

Next (active on January 24, 8am): (Season 7 Part 2: The End of an Era premiere) "Severance"Previous: "The Strategy"

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