"Mad Men" was so sneaky sad during the first portion of its final season that it's no wonder the soul-crushing mid-season finale ended in a musical number. The drama this year was second-level stuff, the kind of sleight of hand usually reserved for card tricks. It's the "Wizard of Oz" in a snazzy grey suit: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
That's been the crux of "Mad Men" from the beginning, of course. The pilot ends with Don Draper returning to his previously unseen, unreferenced family, this after a day spent in bed with Midge, among other things. Don is literally another person. He's a costume, one worn by Dick Whitman to acquire the things that were foreign to him as a child: money, power, women, status and respect. Don's always toyed with the notion of changing -- he's dried out and written op-eds -- but it has been just that: playtime. Why would Don change when that gap in his soul was still thirsting for everything?
Don's journey took its first real meaningful turn at the end of Season 6. The lies, cheating and moral compromises became too much for him to bear and led to Don's epiphany during a pitch meeting with Hershey. Leave it to "Mad Men," however, to make Don's honesty his ultimate undoing: it sent him into a bottle, out of the company that was his anchor and further damaged his relationship with Megan. The truth may eventually set Don free, but not before he crawls through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness.
That crawl was the first seven episodes of Season 7. Don's reconnected with pretty much everyone during this portion of "Mad Men" -- his work, his daughter, his friends -- but it wasn't necessarily all sunshine and rainbows. His relationship with Sally is often perfunctory, so much so that when Sally casually said she loved him, it broke Don's heart. Joan hates him. Jim Cutler hates him. Bert thought he was a pain in the ass. Megan finally gave up on him. Betty thinks he's nothing more than a bad ex-boyfriend, a memory of another life. Don spent the 1960s torching almost all of his relationships. There's nothing left but ashes and a weary smile from Peggy, the one person with whom Don has salvaged something.
It's a notion Don verbalized throughout this season. He said as much to Neve Campbell's Lee Cabot (remember her?) in "Time Zones," the season premiere. In "The Strategy," Don told Peggy that he was worried his life meant nothing. To this point, he's right. Don is a locust: he's stripped the land of what he needed and it's still not enough.
Which is why the last moments of "Waterloo" played out like devastating moment of self-realization for a character who so often talks about other people's problems as a way to mask his own. There was the recently deceased Bert Cooper visiting Don's subconscious to sing "The Best Things In Life Are Free."
All of the good things. Everyone one of the better things. The best, best things in life, they're free.
Don's in his 40s and, soon, twice divorced (three times if you count Don's "marriage" to Anna Draper). He's locked into a contract with a company he doesn't want to work for, in a job that has outgrown him and vice versa. (Don's all name at this point; "horse flesh," as Pete called him. He still has game, but so does everyone else.) Even after six months of trying to do the right thing -- doing the work, as Don told Ted -- he's still alone. Bert wasn't necessarily lying to Don; he was taunting him. The better things continue to be out of Don's reach, despite the millions in his bank account. The worst part is Don knows that all too well.
"I picked that song and Bert's death during the moon landing from the beginning of the season to make a statement about the fact that this has been a striving for success on Don Draper's part in a very new way," creator Matthew Weiner said in an interview with Denise Martin at Vulture. "I wanted to add a little coda on the end of this event of selling the company. It's Don saying to himself, I guess in some weird way, money isn't everything."
Taken at face value, Weiner's comments could mean Don is on the path toward some final redemption during the show's last seven episodes. Let's hope so: Love can come to everyone, as the song says, even someone who has previously ignored it all his life.