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Mad Men Mid-Season Finale Recap: The Moon Belongs to Everyone

The one quality that every great scripted show has in common is surprise. Whatever the show is, when you hear the opening credits you lean forward a bit, anticipating that you'll very likely get something different from but as good as whatever you were expecting, and that there's a chance you'll be gobsmacked by an out-of-nowhere plot twist or style choice. "Waterloo," the midpoint of Mad Men's seventh season, is a perfect example of what I mean. As written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner and directed by Weiner, it's not a pantheon episode in terms of structure — in fact it's rather choppy, and there are points where David Carbonara's score seems to be struggling to create the illusion of cohesiveness; but in sheer variety of startling momentary delights, it's aces, and the final three minutes rank with the show's greatest. 

Let's take the ending first. The firm's original founder and Roger Sterling's mentor and alternate daddy, the late, great Bert Cooper, dies off-camera after witnessing the moon landing, then reappears to Don Draper (in a hallucination, a dream, a fantasy, it doesn't really matter) and sings "The Best Things in Life Are Free" while surrounded by young women, then vanishes into his office and shuts the door behind him with a benevolent wave of his hand. (Is this how Jedi masters bid guests goodnight?) 

A couple of my colleagues have objected to the number on grounds that it breaks with Mad Men's established logic for justifying flashbacks or dreams or other non-present-tense moments. I object to their objections, on grounds that (1) Don is the Tony Soprano of Mad Men, by which I mean he's the character who gets nearly all such scenes, for better or worse, and this is yet another example of us being allowed to enter his mind, and (2) who cares if the musical number is justified? It's one of the most purely cinematic moments in an episode filled with purely cinematic moments (Peggy's point-of-view before the Burger Chef pitch is another). Weiner's staging of the musical number connects it with a long tradition of unjustified musical numbers: The so-called jukebox shorts of the 1940s, music videos, etc. The scene also evokes the musical numbers in The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar and other Dennis Potter dramas. What a good many old-fashioned musical numbers have in common is that they occur in a sort of twilight dream space that's emotionally true but not "realistic" in any meaningful sense, and they're expressing what the characters are feeling, not merely advancing the plot. Bert is looking at Don, whose talent Bert always admired even when he wanted to strangle him. But really he's looking at the camera: at us. This musical number is for us. Don is merely the conduit, or the pretext, for its existence. And it's fun and surprising. When it was over, I said to my high school-age daughter, who watched it with me, "This is what it felt like for me when I was your age, watching Moonlighting every week." The modus operandi of Moonlighting was, to paraphrase the subtext of every statement made by a hippie or beatnik on the show: I don't need your rules, man. Anything goes. 

Elsewhere in the episode — wow, where to begin? So much has changed, and so quickly. 

Jim Cutler sent Don a letter (attributed to all the partners, though not all actually signed off) citing Don for breaching the addendum to his contract by barging into the cigarette meeting two episodes ago."You're just a bully and a drunk," he told Don, the opening line in a verbal flogging that he seemed to hope would set Don off (but that didn't). This unpleasant scene sparked the bulk of this episode's workplace intrigue. I was not convinced by the sense of urgency and personal outrage that motivated it, mainly because the placement of "The Strategy" between this episode and "The Runaways" braked the dramatic momentum of Don's latest improvisation. But it was the opening twist in an episode that was all about people unmooring themselves from their pasts while society, indeed the entire species, did the same, and as such, it served its purpose.

And so men walked on the moon, and everyone with a TV set shared in the moment: one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. We may remember Bert Cooper's contribution to Ida Blankenship's obituary: "She was born in 1889 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut." Bert Cooper died after watching the historic event (his last onscreen word was "Bravo"). Peggy, visiting Indianapolis with Pete and Don and Harry, gave the Burger Chef pitch in Don's place. It was arguably the best, most unexpectedly moving pitch since "The Carousel," and in many ways its bookend. It looked forward where "The Carousel" looked backward, not just to life beyond the earthly plane (Peggy cleverly folded moon euphoria into the pitch itself) but to a future of non-traditional, non-nuclear families — like the one implied in the marvelous final shot of "The Strategy," as well as in the embrace between Peggy and her young neighbor Julio, who'd grown attached to her and was in tears after revealing that his family was moving to Newark. The narrative connections were obvious (Peggy gave up Pete's baby for adoption years earlier, and the decision allowed her to have the accomplished and unencumbered life she's now enjoying) but not forced. I like Elizabeth Moss's authentically conflicted tears here, and the way the episode lets it all play out without explanation, correctly deducing that we know the show's ongoing story as well as the characters do. I also like the way Peggy used Julio in her pitch: opportunistically, because she's an artist and businesswoman, but also sincerely. It's that sincerity that marks her as the heir to Don Draper. She has Don's knack for zeroing in on authentic fears, desires, and needs, and she correctly figured out that the chaotic and nontraditional blue-collar home life of Julio’s family is precisely the sort of challenge that Burger Chef's convenience can help address (though not solve). 

My favorite moments in this episode (besides Bert's afterlife musical number, natch) were a couple of silent exchanges of close-ups: Don's "Don't worry, you'll do fine" glance at Peggy before the pitch, and Peggy's answering expression a few minutes later, which could be summed up as, "You're right, I nailed it." Don's decision to give the Burger Chef pitch back to Peggy after Pete stole it away from her in "The Strategy" was mainly a tactical maneuver (at that point in the story, Don didn't know if he'd survive Cutler's attempts to kick him out); but it was also subtly symbolic, as Mad Men gestures often are. It was of a piece with this season's many explicit nods to the idea of society changing and moving on — giving up on old and useless power constructs, either by force or voluntarily. His continued tendency to barge into meetings notwithstanding, he's gotten a lot better about not needing to be the star of every moment of his waking life. This is reflected in his pitch to Ted at the partner's meeting where Roger reveals the McCann deal to buy them out and make them a boutique agency-within-an-agency: They're both happier being purely creative and not sweating traditional leadership roles.

Speaking of those last three words: how fascinating that Roger, who's spent most of the last two seasons marinating in booze, drugs and post-coital sweat, would hear Bert's description of him as not a leader and rouse himself to prove otherwise. His urgency is partly driven by a desire to save his old friend Don and stop Cutler and Harry from turning the place into a glorified HAL-9000 support staff. But mainly it seems an attempt to preserve his mentor's legacy, and smite the partner who failed to show the old man his proper posthumous respect by waiting until the body was cooled to execute his Draper agenda. "Is this what would happen if I died?" Roger demands, aghast at Cutler's single-mindedness. 

"Did you forget we started this agency to get away from them?" Don said of their new owners when Roger came over to break the news. Roger's reply: "They want the guys who won Chevy." Roger's straight-to-the-point dialogue has enlivened many an episode, but he was like an archer in "Waterloo," never missing a mark. "I hope everyone realizes this is a pathetic ploy and a delusion," Cutler says during the final partner's meeting. "It is until everybody votes on it," Roger shoots back. And then they do vote, and it's unanimous. Cutler's explanation for why he's put his hand up anyway is Billy Wilder-worthy: "It's a lot of money."

"Waterloo" was also a fine example of Mad Men's very specific and very earthbound attitude toward history. Like a lot of dramas set in the 1960s, it often shows people gathered around TV sets reacting to things, but unlike most of them it doesn't imply that all human activity stopped as the country or the species basked in this or that moment. The episode begins with Bert Cooper watching the Apollo 11 launch while yelling at his maid to turn the vacuum off so he can hear the announcer. This is exactly the irreverent approach we'd expect from a show that has the audacity to deal with political assassinations by showing how the characters integrate the news into their regular lives. The moon belongs to everyone, but most of the time we barely notice it, and within a few years of the events of "Waterloo," Americans will be bored by manned space travel. Astronauts may walk on the moon, but women still answer hotel room doors in their housecoats, and teenage girls still take the opportunity to steal a nighttime kiss in a suburban backyard. 

Odds and ends

* I like the little detail of Roger refusing to take his shoes off before entering Bert's office. That's the sort of detail that can haunt a person after a loved one's death, but it's also an example of life providing its own symbolism. Roger won't run things the way Bert did. His office will have a shoes-on policy.

* "Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know he's ready to die." — Roger, unsentimental even when he's grieving.

* Don and Megan's marriage apparently broke up on the phone. As I sort of expected it would. Nobody is surprised by this. The final stretch of the relationship was a study of people denying the obvious.

* I'm not terribly impressed with the handling, or more accurately non-handling, of Ted this season. They kept him mostly off-camera, and his career distress was poorly articulated. If I cared about him more as a character this would bug me. 

* The show didn't do enough with Joan's character for my taste, but we've got another seven chapters to go; maybe they're saving one more great storyline for her? Let's hope so. 

* Every time the show cuts to the Francis household I roll my eyes a little, not because I don't appreciate Betty (I truly do) but because this is Don Draper's old, pre-divorce life. Without a dynamic connection to the heart of the series, the workplace, this material often feels shoehorned in, though at its best it's like another parallel show that happens to be included in the main show, in much the same way that the new agency will be enclosed within McCann, I guess. But the awkwardness is always worth it for Sally, whose continued development is fascinating. Here we see her really coming into her own as an autonomous young woman and struggling to find her own identity even as she's coping with the onslaught of hormones. I like how she parrots the hunky kid's party line about the moon landing taking away money that could be used to solve problems here on earth (a common complaint at that time), then ultimately kisses the astronomer. 

* My daughter suggested that Mad Men should continue to bring Bert Cooper back throughout the final run of episodes to advise Don Draper in song. I really wish it would, and that they'd start with this number, which Morse sang in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying:

Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/AMC