Do not read on unless you have seen the seventh episode of "Mad Men's" final season, "Waterloo," which also serves as the show's 2014 finale (it returns with seven episodes in 2015).
We all know that when a "Mad Men" episode is heavy on business intrigue and office politics, it's usually a winner. But even by that standard, "Waterloo" may have been entirely too much fun. Jim Cutler pulled his big moves, and you know what? The late Bert Cooper was not Napoleon in this episode, Cutler was. The man with the big glasses overplayed his hand, and he ended up with very little to show for it.
Speaking of Bert Cooper, what just happened?! Did he just do a song-and-dance number with a group of prancing secretaries? I do believe that actually did happen. All righty then! "Mad Men," never stop surprising me!
I'll write more about what Don's vision of Bert meant in a moment (spoiler alert: He wants Don to be free), but first, a question: Why does the moon orbit the Earth?
Now, you may think that I've been watching a lot of "Cosmos" lately (and you are correct). Of course, we know the answer to that question, but for thousands of years, people didn't know. They came up with conjectures, ideas and myths -- they crafted various kinds of stories, some great and some loony. But, obviously, the truth is that gravity binds these two bodies together. We can't see gravity, we can't taste it or touch it, but, among other amazing things it can do, it can make enormous objects that are otherwise separated by a vast stretch of icy space influence each other in multiple ways. The Earth and the moon are bound by invisible bonds -- they are cosmically connected, forever.
As are Don and Peggy.
There were twin sources of driving tension in this episode: Would the astronauts make it back from the moon, and would SC&P land the Burger Chef account? Both of these things mattered greatly, and yet, they also didn't matter.
Of course, everyone wanted the astronauts to come home safely. (Kudos to "Mad Men" for threading that storyline with genuine suspense and excitement, even though we knew the outcome of the astronauts' return.) The thing is, whether or not their re-entry went perfectly, the astronauts had still accomplished something historic, something truly awe-inspiring. The astronauts (and the NASA teams behind them) had put human beings on the moon -- an important symbolic step for the maturation of our species.
That accomplishment would always stand, regardless of what happened afterward. The same is true of another enormous but more personal landmark -- the maturation of Don Draper.
Think about all the things that happened to Don before that pitch meeting with Burger Chef. His wife decided that their marriage was over. It had been over in all but name for some time, but just before leaving for Indiana, he got the final death notice from Megan. For Don Draper, here was another failed attempt at intimacy and commitment.
On the work front, Bert Cooper died. He and Don weren't close, but he'd had Don's back enough times for it to matter, and Don felt bad for Roger and everyone else who cared about the old coot. And of course, Cooper's death altered the balance of power inside the agency, something that Cutler didn't even wait 30 seconds to point out. (This week in Lou is the worst: Lou is not actually the worst -- that honor this week goes to the odious Cutler. ) When he got that call from a distraught Roger, Don had every reason to believe that all that he had worked to regain was now gone. He'd have to start over again, with no wife, no allies like Roger and Peggy in the background, no real friends to rally around him. He was as isolated as we've ever seen him.
So what did Don do at this very low point? How's this for momentous: He didn't pull a Don Draper. He didn't hobo out to the Coast or make some other self-destructive decision. In a miraculous development, he didn't think much about himself at all. He made a strategic and personal decision -- in the wee, small hours, he decided on a course of action that made sense from several different perspectives. He saw that mission to its completion in a selfless and focused way. He helped Peggy deal with her nerves, he made her believe in herself, and he made damn sure the pitch meeting went as well as humanly possible.
This is connection. For Don, this is landing on the moon.
What is true connection but an ability to see someone else's point of view? What is connection but a desire to put someone else's needs or a larger goal first? Don didn't need to let Peggy land the account. He could have gone out on top and garnered the Burger Chef account as a final "screw you" to everyone on Team Cutler. But he didn't do that. In one of his darkest hours, he didn't fall down a rabbit hole of self-absorption and pain. He didn't crawl into a bottle and drown in narcissistic angst. On his way out the door -- which is where he thought he was headed -- he tried to help his protégée attain a meaningful achievement. He got nothing from that, aside from a powerful rush of pride.
To me, the center of the episode was the look that passed between Don and Peggy when she stood up at the end of the first part of her pitch. Don knew she had nailed it, and she knew it too. Don may not be much of a husband or father, let's face it, but he knows how to do the thing that Peggy just did, and sharing that moment with her -- a moment of real and well-earned triumph -- was sweet indeed. A collective effort at NASA got men on the moon, and a team effort at SC&P had brought them all to this point -- but Don and Peggy were the ones who set foot on that spectacular terrain.
Don and Peggy have orbited each other forever, exerting strong influences on each other; she started out as the satellite and then he took that role, but none of that really matters now. As we saw last week and saw again this week, that connection is more tangible and real than ever. Don didn't give Peggy talent -- she always had it -- but he helped her hone it, he pushed her, he toughened her and he made sure that when the moment came, she nailed the pitch. And she taught him too -- about friendship, loyalty and persistence. They love each other in all the ways that matter. Like gravity, you can't see that love, but it's undeniably there. Don Draper, Dick Whitman -- it doesn't matter. He's no longer an asteroid, floating through the cold darkness of space on his own, and he knows it. They both do.
Don also knows that there will always be office machinations -- it's just unavoidable during these tumultuous times. But does the end result have to be selling out to McCann? Unlikely. The moon, Bert crooned to Don, belongs to everyone. Why can't a new firm -- one begun by SC&P refugees -- belong to everyone he cares about? "The best things in life are free," apparently, and Don really wants to be free, once and for all.
Coming on top of a generally wonderful episode, Bert's shoeless dance number was the icing on one tasty cake, but it also set up the final run of episodes quite efficiently. Don could accept the large sum of money on the table and sell out to corporate overlords, or he could take off in a rocket to the moon -- a risky journey, of course, but he'd have Peggy, Roger and possibly even Pete by his side. Let's face it, Cutler's technocratic beliefs and even Roger's practical/desperate maneuvers don't truly constitute vision. Don and Peggy have that -- can they also be leaders? We'll see.
I wouldn't bet against those two. But we will have to wait until 2015 for the answer to all these questions, and that makes me sad. As many have observed -- even creator Matthew Weiner made this point -- the show generally pulls off a big series of moves at about the mid-point of a typical 13-episode season.
In this 14-episode final season, the show stayed true to form by doing just that kind of thing in the seventh episode. But now, it's likely that nearly a year will elapse before we see the end to this series of personal and professional moves. AMC has done "Mad Men" no favors by stretching out the exit of a show that thrives on ambiguity and atmosphere. "Mad Men" typically marinates in certain themes and ideas before turning on the heat in the home stretch, and that wait between half-seasons will drain a lot of the momentum out of the show's final run. But it is what it is, and we'll have to deal with it.
As it happened, there was a lot to savor in this lovely yet energetic episode: We got a vintage Don Draper pitch (he was very smart in the way he reeled in Ted Chaough, who sure seems clinically depressed at the moment); we got a couple of subtle and evocative reminders that Peggy is indeed a mother; and I just loved the series of family tableaux that constituted the lyrical middle section of the episode. It was a brilliant visual representation of the Burger Chef "family supper" pitch: Roger, Mona, their son-in-law and grandson were an odd kind of family, and yet they shared the wonder of the day together. Betty's family and her friend's brood represented a range of viewpoints and ages, but they were united in their attention to the blue glow of the television. And in the end, Sally didn't kiss the cynical athlete, she kissed the nerdy boy who made her feel a bond with something beautiful. Ted, Roger, Julio, Sally and of course, Don -- they were all looking for connections, for bonds that weren't just practical but emotional.
Numbers, data, surgical accuracy: That's what Cutler advocated, and that's the kind of cold, precise science that NASA workers had to use to make the moon shot successful. But the journey to the moon wasn't just about trajectories, angles and engineering calculations. It was also a story people told themselves (with help from Neil Armstrong's memorable pitch: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind").
"Mad Men's" particular kind of humanism -- one that loves individuals, outliers and emotional connections more than insiders, blowhards and reliance on data -- was all over "Waterloo." And the moon landing was a brilliant vehicle for that kind of collective resonance and personal accomplishment. What this episode was after was a sense of wonder, and who wouldn't feel that after seeing Don Draper act like a normal, compassionate, responsible human being. For once, Houston, we did not have a problem.
Cutler's the only one who couldn't see that there's only so much you can do with number crunching and data. People want to be moved, and they were moved by the moon landing -- in part, as Peggy noted, because everyone who watched it shared the same range of emotions.
Of course people enjoyed that story of progress and wonder, that tale of connection with a faraway place -- they'd been starving for it.
A final hail of bullets and favorite lines:
- First things first: Ryan McGee and I recorded a podcast with very special guest Tom Fitzgerald of the site TomandLorenzo on Monday. You can get this week's podcast on the Talking TV site and on our iTunes page. The podcast is also available in its entirety below.