Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mad Men 7-7: Waterloo

More and more in recent years, "Mad Men" seems to delight in up-ending its viewers' expectations, and the "mid-season" finale of its final season was an especially pointed example of this trend. I'm not talking about the Ghost of Bert's little song-and-dance routine (though I'll get to that in a bit). I mean, more generally, that the episode took a number of turns I did not see coming, and that every time I thought I knew where it was going it would move in another direction entirely. It zigged where I expected it to zag.

As I watched, I thought the narrative was about moving on - that it was building towards Don's finally leaving Sterling Cooper and resigning himself to that fact, as evidenced by his handoff of the Burger Chef pitch to Peggy. I thought Ted, too, would leave the firm to lick his emotional wounds in peace. When Roger picked up the phone and his face registered bad news, I thought something had happened to his daughter - not Bert Cooper. I thought Sally was going to kiss the hunky college-bound son of her mother's friend, not his geeky star-watching younger brother.

Above all, I most certainly did not anticipate that Roger's power play against Cutler would succeed. Or that it would result in Sterling Cooper getting absorbed into McCann, after so deftly avoiding the larger firm's clutches just a few years earlier.

Was it a victory? A hollow victory? Just another corporate reshuffling, with an even bigger payout for its partners? Hard to say at this point, though on the whole it felt like a muted and ironic echo of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" (still my favorite MM episode ever). Any thrill we might feel in seeing Roger and Don outmaneuver Cutler has to be weighed against the final word on their move: Don's vision (hallucination?) of Bert cavorting and crooning "The Best Things in Life Are Free." As commentary goes, it was as oblique as it was surreal. It could be a warning - a reminder that money isn't everything. Or it could just be a cute nod to the actor playing Bert, Robert Morse, who had a storied career on Broadway long before we knew him as Bert, including a Tony in 1962 for the lead role in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. No question it's that, and yet the tie-in of the song to the moon landing, the event that formed the linchpin of the episode, makes me think it's more than just that.

"The moon belongs to everyone," so the song goes, and so it does - but in the world of Apollo 11, it isn't free, as Sally's rejected boy toy snarks, a party-pooping complaint that seems as insufferable and small-minded today as it probably did back then. Or does it? Given that the moon landing arguably marked the apex of the U.S. space program, rather than the beginning of a major ascension, it may sound a cautionary note for the next phase of Sterling Cooper. "It's a lot of money," as even the defeated Cutler admits, but it's no guarantor of the firm's future. Like the space program, Sterling Cooper may never be valued as much as it is at this moment.

That said, for most of us, at least, what happens to the company itself is less important than what happens to its individual members, particularly - and I never thought I'd say this, given how much he's exasperated me over the years - Don. And it's not all dim there. Just because he's staying rather than moving on doesn't mean he hasn't learned to value what really matters: Loyalty; good work - the kind that matters to him; his family. It was lovely to watch him encourage Peggy to step up and assure her she could do it, and even lovelier to watch her go on and prove him right. I also liked that he called his kids while watching the moon landing, and that he indirectly helped turn Sally's attention from the meathead to the budding astronomer. And even though he clearly had self-interest at stake in persuading Ted to stay on, too, the thrust of his pitch ("You don't want to see what happens when it's really gone") rang true - which is why Ted bought it.

So in a sense, Don has made progress, even if it's still halting and fragmented. It's been a slow journey, but it's almost over - and I can't wait to see how it ends.

Random observations:

-The episode is titled "Waterloo," which strikes me as a bit ominous, especially with Bert's admonition that even after a deposed Napoleon won back his throne, he still ended up back on an island. The analogy was directed at Don, but one can't help wondering if there are implications for Sterling Cooper as well. Then again, per Roger, it could just have been a sign of Bert's imminent demise.

-Gotta hand it to Roger for pulling off the coup, even if it ultimately leads to the death of SC as we know it. I did not think he had it in him. Neither, apparently, did Bert, which might have been precisely what drove Roger to pull it off.

-Of course even an imaginary dancing Bert would still be in socks. Of course.

-I've enjoyed the dynamic between Peggy and Julio, even if the latter felt more like a device/lens for her character than a character in his own right. I did love how Peggy seamlessly incorporated him into her Burger Chef pitch as the "ten-year-old boy" waiting for her at home. That was Peggy to a T - brilliant, almost ruthlessly pragmatic in her calculations, and yet, at bottom, undergirded by sincere emotion. I also liked the bemused reactions of Don and Pete, who probably thought she was making it up.

-But speaking of Peggy and Pete and ten-year-old boys, wouldn't their kid be about that age by now?

-Pete's unshakeable faith in Don is rather touching, even if he sees the man primarily as a high-priced, "very sensitive piece of horseflesh."

-I shouldn't take such joy in Roger's constantly screwing over Harry, but I do. I'd feel bad about Harry losing his partnership, on top of getting divorced, if he weren't such a douche.

-Speaking of the ever-expanding Divorced Mad Men's Club, I also loved that scene in the plane when Pete divines that Don and Megan are splitting. There's a moment of shared, glum commiseration between the three men (Don, Pete, Harry) before Pete spits out, "Marriage is a racket."

-I don't know if this is the last time we'll see Megan. If it is, I have to give props to Jessica Pare, who's really knocked it out of the park this season, even if her character's storyline has never been as compelling as the others'. The whole gradual, gentle decline of her marriage to Don has been quite well done. I appreciate that it's basically been without rancor, in contrast to his split with Betty.

-This was a great episode for Priceless WTF Looks from Don Draper: there's his reaction to dancing Bert, of course, but almost better was his response to ditz queen Meredith's advances. ("Tell me what I can do." "You can get my attorney on the phone.")

-For anyone else who thought Betty's friend (the mother of the two boys Sally flirted with) looked vaguely familiar, that's Kellie Martin, who had a recurring role on "E.R." (as Lucy, the ill-fated med student) and, before that, "Life Goes On." Way to make us thirtysomethings feel old!

-Line of the week: Telescope boy, after Sally kisses him - "What do I do now?"