05/27/2014 11:10 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Mad Men To the Moon: Classic Series Returned To Form in 2014

After a couple of seasons which sometimes found me grinding my teeth in frustration over my decision to write about the show, Mad Men's seven-episode 2014 season-let, officially Season 7, Part I, has been very satisfying. That was especially so with this year's finale, "Waterloo," set around the communal celebration of a high point in human civilization, ending in dramatic success for our heroes and heroines.

Which brings us to the episode's title. Why is an episode about victory named after one of the most famous defeats in world history? Is it because the crushing blow to Napoleon proved to be a smashing victory for the British Empire and its allies? Is Roger Sterling the Duke of Wellington? Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon's career, the fall of his empire, and the beginning of decades of peace in European international affairs. Does this mark the end of major conflict in Mad Men, at least on its business side?

Or is it an ironic note from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, a reminder that success in one realm can mean failure in another? Perhaps an echo of a film shooting as the Moon landing took place, the Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North-penned Patton, which ends with the warning that "All glory is fleeting."

The Sterling Coo crew watch the Moon landing.

A number of folks have knocked AMC's decision to change what was to have been a 13-episode seventh and final season for Mad Men into a 14-episode season airing in two separate years. I've never been one of them. It seemed to me that it could be a spur to make a show that is really a novel for television, and one that has sometimes erred on the characterological and atmospherical end of the story equation into something in which more actually, well, occurs. Not that it had to be 24, mind you. But it did have to be something that no longer lingered over the seemingly ever-impending doom of Don Draper which logic told me would never take place. He's always been too talented and far too much of a survivor. And the show's opening titles, depicting the freefalling besuited figure passing alluring images of American consumerism, have always been part of a metaphor not nearly so simplistic in its conception.

This season has not disappointed in that regard. As Weiner told the Hollywood Reporter, we've gotten "a season's worth of story in those episodes."

The 2014 finale delivered a raft of corporate maneuverings, the successful return of Don Draper to the top ranks of Madison Avenue, the rise of Roger Sterling to a position of real leadership, a maturing Don placing the spotlight of presentation on Peggy Olson (who came through with heartfelt brilliance), a new start for the Sterling Cooper agency, the further enrichment of most of our leading characters, the end of Don and Megan's marriage, Sally Draper choosing hope over cynicism, and the passing of Bert Cooper, all of it wrapped around the dramatic first landing of astronauts on the Moon.

Bert Cooper, born in 1889, was in the early years of his advertising career when RMS Titanic, then seen as the epitome of Edwardian era technology, sank in 1913. That he lived to see the Moon landing was fitting acknowledgement of not only the extraordinary amount of change he navigated through during his life but also the chiding act of future-oriented leadership he offered his old founding partner's son when he told Roger Sterling that, for all his qualities, he wasn't really a leader. Which merely prompted Roger to slough off his most familiar role of recent seasons as decadent court jester to defeat Jim Cutler's plan to enshrine machine-oriented mediocrity at the heart of the agency.

In so doing, Roger has become the leader he never really was on Madison Avenue (but may have been in the Navy), where he was always in the shadow of both his late father and a surrogate father, in the form of dad's fellow founding partner Bert Cooper. He has also saved Don Draper, whom he may or may not have hired in the first place -- it's never been entirely clear whether or not the young Draper conned the then heavy drinking Roger into believing he had hired him -- but has always viewed as the creative core of the agency.

Cutler, it turns out, not only wants Draper out as part of his scenario for controlling the agency, he wants him out because he hates him. Threatened by his creative brilliance and masculine cool, Cutler finally reveals that he sees Don as a football player in a suit. Even though Don was hardly the BMOC that Cutler clearly fears and disdains from his own boyhood.

He overreaches in using Don's impromptu talk to a prospective tobacco client as grounds for issuing a letter declaring Draper in breech of contract with his partnership thus rendered null and void. Roger and Pete Campbell are outraged and Bert Cooper is very displeased, leaving only Joan Holloway, a longtime Draper friend still miffed over how his unilateral firing of Jaguar as a client wrecked plans to take the agency public. (Not that she had bothered to tell Don of that plan, which certainly would have given him pause in dealing with the odious head of the Jaguar dealership association.)

Cooper's death after witnessing Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, an event depicted in a wonderful montage of our characters in a variety of settings, all united, as the country and much of the world then was, in this signal achievement for humanity by simultaneously viewing it on television, however places Don's future at the agency in doubt. Rather than deliver a crucial pitch to prospective new client Burger Chef himself, as planned, he defers to Peggy. And though they've discussed it thoroughly, she gives her own pitch, as he suggests. Peggy comes through in smashing fashion, evoking the fundamental changes of the time made glaringly obvious by the Moon landing and positioning the friendly convenience offered by Burger Chef as part of a solution to the seeming chaos overtaking and displacing the traditional nuclear family.

Don marshals his forces against Cutler, but Roger has already come up with a much bigger play that not only secures Draper's return to a leading role but also enriches them all, placing himself in overall charge as president of a boutique agency with an agency at industry giant McCann Erickson, which first tried to lure Draper back in Season 1 when it hired Betty Draper to star in a modeling campaign.

Will the Sterling Coo crew really have their promised independence? Well, history shows that some boutiques within a conglomerate flourish. And some do not.

That question may well be central in the final seven episodes next season. As will larger questions about the characters themselves. Does success bring happiness? And what constitutes success? Is it as fleeting as glory?

Getting real "up-wing" with Howard Stark. In 2010, there was no better choice to play the father of Tony Stark in telling video flashback scenes in Iron Man 2 about leadership and the future than the man who plays Roger Sterling, John Slattery.

It will all take place in a country that, transfixed by the Moon landing in 1969, achieving the poetic vision laid out by John F. Kennedy, seemed bored by space flight less than a decade later. Of course, awesome as the achievement seemed, going to the Moon was supposed to be only the next big step in a long history of exploration, albeit a dramatic step at that.

I believe we should go not only to Mars but to the stars. But excited as I was by the Moon landing -- I viewed it with my parents at the already otherwordly locale of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, a much more exotic venue than those in which we see our avidly viewing Mad Men characters -- repeated trips to the Moon and slow-motion efforts to build orbiting space stations seemed anti-climactic. And the space shuttle, for all its drama, wasn't just rather late in arriving. An example of Richard Nixon's prose style in politics, it was essentially a space truck designed more to do chores than to explore.

And worse still was what was to come. Though some leading world powers came together to create the International Space Station, with the end of the US space shuttle program America currently has no way to get astronauts into orbit without hitching rides on Russian rockets. The Obama Administration talks about missions to the asteroid belt and ultimately to Mars, but our position on the Ukraine crisis throws even our role in the International Space Station into doubt.

For our characters, of course, all that is real history far in the future. But the fleeting nature of glory, for the space program and perhaps in general, may not be all that far off for the Mad Men crew.

Which is perhaps why the end of the show for this year was highlighted by Don Draper sighting Bert Cooper doing a wonderful musical number with "The Best Things In Life Are Free." Actor Robert Morse was that toast of New York in the early '60s in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and that song was his musical signature.

The moon belongs to everyone

The best things in life they're free

The stars belong to everyone

They cling there for you and for me

For now, Don Draper is a pretty happy man. Because what Don Draper really cares about is the work. He defines himself in action by that at which he is best, creating advertising. That's what is more important to him than the trophy wives and postcard family, the impressive homes, the money, the girlfriends, all the trappings of success with which he has surrounded himself over the life of this series.

Like a great ad filled with powerful illusions, sad Dick Whitman eschewed his hardscrabble beginnings and, working with little more than the good name of the Army lieutenant whose death he accidentally caused and whose life he deliberately assumed, spun up the appealing persona of "Don Draper" and made him into a major figure.

Are the best things in life really free? Is anything? Will Don's newfound riches secure him more than a heightened measure of material contentment? Will the work be enough? Or will the money and the distractions of the advertising action block him from deeper connections?

The stars await, clinging there for you and me. Having reached, as I expected, destination Moon, we'll get a better sense of whether or not that is an illusion next year.

William Bradley Archive