May 26, 2014

Mad Men: “Waterloo”

By Josh Oakley

“All of us were doing the same thing at the same time.”

In my review of this season’s premiere, I stated that Mad Men was a show about doors. I stand by that (especially given how this episode ends), but I was using a metaphor to look at how the show perceived death and fate and choice. What Mad Men really is about is, at its core, what nearly all great television should be about: people. Last week’s “The Strategy” utilized the tropes of the medium to explore how these relationships have grown defined over the years. And “Waterloo” seals the message with a death in the family and a musical number that reminds us of something important: We are indeed defined by our past. But our past is not one singular, monolithic thing. The past is malleable. Just not while we’re living it.

That this episode is structured around the moon landing is no surprise; that was one of the most powerful events in American history that conveniently happened in the middle of the year this season is looking to encompass. That Bert Cooper died when that fateful step was taken is also less than shocking; the metaphor is obvious, but in step with the best of Mad Men, the depth of that metaphor is stirring and cohesive. These are the two major events that shape this season finale, the best since season three’s “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” They are diametrically opposed, both a tragedy and a human-generated miracle occurring at the same time. One of these happenings, the loss, is personal, affecting only the characters we know in ways both subtle and over-bearing. The other, the victory, is an achievement that unifies the world, or at least the country, standing as a pillar of what hope and hard work can achieve. This balancing act represents where Mad Men has stood since last season’s finale, “In Care Of”. There is a delicate line between improvement that matters and shifts in behavior that wind up meaning nothing, and “Waterloo” sublimely delineates between the two.

As far as clear forward momentum, one of the most obvious example falls on the shoulders of Sally. The Francis family has house guests for the summer, and among them is an almost hilariously-strapping young gentleman who repels shirts like mid-00’s Matthew McConaughey and has a cynical streak like True Detective Matthew McConaughey. In the early scenes involving the two, the plot’s path forward seems obvious: Sally loses her virginity, or doesn’t lose her virginity and that means something. Either way it seems like the show is headed for a large, explosive moment. And then, the pivot. Sally instead kisses Neil, the nerdy kid obsessed with his telescope. The reason behind her decision (and the show rightly keeps all of her story here within her sense of agency) is beautifully played, subtly sneaking up on the character as much as it does the viewer. Whereas the attractive older boy sneered at the moon landing, Neil offered a direct glimpse at the hope that exists beyond the atmosphere. He can’t stand to listen to what he considers little people grappling with a larger issue: instead he wishes to view it himself, capturing the quiet rebellion that Sally often encounters. Sally isn’t a cynic, as her father reminds her on the phone. There are miracles, even if they come along rarely.

Another wonder comes in the form of the show’s best pitch since season one’s “The Wheel”. Peggy has struggled all season to define herself in the context of loss, both of a lover and the power she presumed she would acquire. She hit rock bottom in her narcissistic view of the flowers delivered to her secretary, but this was merely to prove a larger point about how adrift we all can be at times. Here, she is given her moment to shine, and she delivers a monologue that encapsulates the fears and triumphs of the late 60’s in only a minute or two. The speech defines her character, and Don, and plenty of others scattered throughout the show. The emphasis on family last week was not a glancing look. This show is fascinated by the ways we connect with one another, and how tenuous those relationships can be. Peggy and Don have gone through battle both together and against one another, but they can coax something from each other that no one else can. Peggy is capable of that speech without Don, but he helps to inspire the passion in her that only he may share. One of the show’s most memorable early moments featured Don telling Peggy “It will shock you how much this never happened.” They’ve been through nearly ten years since then, and the tides of time show. Gone is the protection, but the guidance remains. These two have grown as individuals, but also as a unit, and Don no longer needs to tell Peggy what must be remembered and what must be forgotten. As her pitch betrays, she knows the hollowness of being alone all too well herself.

And here is Don, and here is Roger, and here is Bert. Each man is younger than the one before, but not younger enough. When Roger calls Don to relay the news of the original partner’s passing, there is an obvious passing of the torch, as death readies its new victim and a new man enters the on deck circle. Roger certainly takes the passing of his old friend into his hands, collecting his emotions and rearing his head in the battle for control at SC&P. His play to become a subsidiary of McCann/Erickson is seemingly wise, a way to regain power and ensure the longevity of the company. So what to say of the fact that this is technically a step backwards, a return to a path once left behind? Maybe open doors can never close, and maybe, as Roger once posited, those doors never change much of anything at all. But instead, perhaps, this too can be seen as a net positive. Compromise is not a bad thing, and survival and companionship can be as vital of a cause of a power struggle as anything. Too bad, then, that we’ll never hear Bert Cooper’s thoughts on the matter. He is lost to time, like so many before and so many to come, born in an ancient era and dying in what looks like a sci-fi-tinted future. For the young to be born, the old must die, and though this is not lost on the partners at SC&P, it does not make the suffering easier. Roger is affected by the loss of a friend, yes, but also by a staunch reminder that this too shall pass. “This”, of course, being life itself.

Along with Roger, the partner most affected by the loss is Don, another person who has grappled with death many times over the course of the show. His brother and surrogate wife passed in two of the show’s most vital episodes (“The Wheel” and “The Suitcase”, making me kind of wish this episode was titled “The Burger”, but, you know, I get it). Visions of the past dance around him, and he is often haunted by the invisible ghost of Lane Pryce. The fact that Don is so ready to give his pitch to Peggy, to give her the chance to flourish, says everything about how successful his journey has been this season. He is investing in another’s future because he realizes how short his may be. And this comes to a head in the final scene of “Waterloo”, one that rivals any the show has done in both shock and power. Bert Cooper sings “The Best Things in Life Are Free” because Don now knows this to be true. It is the affection of his daughter, the mutual respect of Peggy, the commiseration of Roger; these are the things that actually mean something, when all of the physical possessions ad men sell are torn away. Beneath the façade of stuff is human connection. And that connection is hard, and will only grow more difficult over the decades to come. Which is why Peggy is so right in her pitch to Burger Chef: we all need a place to call home, even if it’s just a booth in a restaurant for half an hour. Hell, a makeshift dinner table worked wonders for Don and Sally earlier this season. The late, somewhat-wise and somewhat-curmudgeonly Bert Cooper said that nobody survives Waterloo. Yet here Don is, at least for now.

As that look Don gives as Bert closes the door one last time proves, change is hard because it inherently means leaving something behind. Maybe that thing in the rearview mirror is an old friend on his way to another life, or perhaps a planet called Earth receding, shrinking until it is obvious what all of this was in the first place: just another door to walk through, impossible to see what exists on the other side. 

“Waterloo”: A
Season 7.0: A

  • We all know Jon Hamm is an incredible actor. But, and excuse my language, holy Jesus shit fucking Christ almighty, that look he gives as the music number ends. In one expression the hope that the song captures and the loss that the man singing it represents is laid completely bare. In case we still needed reminding, this is one of the all time great performances in any medium.
  • Peggy tearing up at the thought of Julio moving is also some stunning work from Elisabeth Moss, as is the pitch which is second only to that for the Carousel. But that scene with Julio is great, as Moss extends the corners of Peggy’s character to capture how her loneliness and her willpower feed off of one another.
  • “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re gonna die.”
  • We will all be using a gif of Peggy saying “We have no liquor” for years to come.
  • This was an episode packed with perfect moments, so I didn’t even get to the one where Peggy, Don, Pete and Harry practice the pitch. It almost reached meta-levels of commenting on the characters while also doing some great foreshadowing.
  • I could say something about Pete here, but he said it all himself when he one-ups Joan: “I’ve got ten percent!”
  • “Armstrong On Moon”

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