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The Best of This Week’s Mad Men Mid-Season Finale Recaps: ‘Waterloo’

Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/AMC

Like the moon landing its characters gathered to watch, Mad Men has a way of turning small steps into big ones. In his recap of the mid-season finale, “Waterloo,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote about the “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.” This week’s episode saw the torch getting passed to Peggy, the most gentle breakup ever, Harry Crane getting screwed, and an unexpected song-and-dance number. Recappers and critics had much to say.

“In many ways, Mad Men is about how people don’t fundamentally change; that the best they can do is learn to work within their own paradigm once they figure out who they are. Don is still largely the same person he was in 1963, making the same mistakes over and over again. But he actually has learned something in the ensuing years: he’s not a businessman and he should stay out of that side of the agency. He just wants to create, because that’s his true love and true calling.” —Tom and Lorenzo 

Mad Men is hopeful, reminding us how far America has progressed socially in the last 45 years. And it’s dark, reminding us how much further is left to go. Mad Men believes that people can change and progress if they want to, while still proposing that certain unsolvable emotional dilemmas are endemic to the human condition. The show can sustain multiple ideas simultaneously, the same way it can support all the detailed plots of its large ensemble cast without missing a (dance) step.” —Grantland

“All those angry fights Don and Megan had weren’t quite enough to break them up, but remember last time when things seemed to be going well and she still seemed unpsyched about their future? Well, Don calls Megan and tells her he’s about to be fired and asks if she’d like him to move out there, but his tepid ‘it’s up to you’ attitude is the last straw, and her long pause in response is enough for them both to concede that it’s over. I like the drained, quiet, no-longer-angry-but-just-sad ending — it feels far less clichéd than other choices they could have made — so I won’t begrudge HOW LONG THIS TOOK. Well, not a lot, at least.” —Previously.TV

Cooper wasn’t necessarily a good man—his objection to seating Dawn at reception because she’s black being a distasteful recent example of his more insidious qualities—but he was one of Mad Men’s true originals, and one with a mischievous spirit. He was, as he tells Roger in last night’s episode, always a leader, which means he could embrace his oddball tendencies: his interest in Japan, his hatred of shoes.” — The Wire

“Over the years, Mad Men has chronicled change while frustrating many viewers with a certain cynicism about how quickly it happens. Last night something seemed to break open for each of the characters: the brave creatives were rewarded, the technobureaucrats were punished. It was about as heartwarming and hopeful as the show has ever been, even with all the bleak jokes about how dead astronauts might derail their burger pitch. For the showrunner, Matthew Weiner, it seemed like he finally found a way to let these characters grow without pretending that they’d molt skins and sprout new wings.” —The New York Times 

“This has been, nominally, a season about progress, about reconciliation, and being your best self, but ‘Waterloo’ asks us to consider what those things actually mean, what they actually materially amount to in the world. What is progress, in other words, for this gang of ad wizards? And does that look like what progress should?” —L.A. Review of Books

“As aware as Mad Men is of the future—because it’s really about our present, told through the lens of 1960-1969—its characters are conscious of the past. Bert was a piece of that past—a piece laid to rest tonight, as astronauts did the unthinkable and miraculous. There is no moment that says the past is over more powerfully than the moon landing. And for this show, there is no more powerful moment that says the past is over than killing off Bert Cooper and selling his agency before his body is cold. Bert was the past, and now the show’s sense of past is gone.” —A.V. Club

“For the first time on Sunday night’s finale, Don faced personal ruin but he didn’t either fall to pieces or slide into the role of macho American hero. Don suddenly seemed to realize that his choices weren’t limited to winning (with victory cries and fireworks and applause all around) or losing (with tears and swigged whiskey and socking people in the jaw in a blind rage). Don saw that he could simply show up, be honest, demonstrate a little restraint, and try hard to support the people who mattered to him. Yeah, I know. Who is this guy?” —Salon

“What does Don the Decent foretell for Mad Men? What does honest-to-god character change mean if it’s made the leading man more emotionally mature but possibly more dramatically inert? If this episode is any measure, what’s in store for us is more of the two-season-long trend of Don being on the sidelines, but, now, not as a depressing mope. I count this as an improvement.” —Slate

“Their rapprochement last episode marked the beginning of a final, more mature stage: No longer either learning from the master or trying to become the master in turn, she’s simply his peer. She pitches Burger Chef not to impress Don, nor to win some power play against him, but simply because, due to office politics completely unrelated to their relationship, it’s a job he can’t do but she can.” —Wired

“But if there’s one scene that sums up where Mad Men is right now, it’s when Don entrusts Peggy with the Burger Chef presentation. While the beginning of the final season was all about Don accepting his new place in the world, these last few episodes seem to find Don grappling with how he’ll leave that world when he’s inevitably gone … Don is far from taking part in a 12-step program here, but Sunday’s episode almost felt like a mission to make amends. It’s hard not to imagine Mad Men ending with Don trying to right his wrongs before the world simply moves on without him.” —Time

“In Peggy’s pitch to Burger Chef — easily the best she’s ever given, and one that gets much closer to the level of the Carousel pitch than I think we might have ever imagined anyone on this show (including Don himself) reaching again — she talks about how Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon brought the whole world together, all watching the same amazing thing as it happened. It’s a masterful blend of current events with the themes she and Don had already decided on — turning the thing that she feared would torpedo the pitch and making it into the element that closes the deal and nearly moves the Burger Chef executives to tears — demonstrating a keen understanding of the power of television to both bring us together and drive us apart, and how this potent medium might be used to sell housewives on the appeal of fast food served in a place that’s bright and clean, with no laundry, no telephone, and none of the other distractions of this ever-changing world of ours.” —HitFix

“There are only five months left in the 60s following the July 20 moon landing; how much story is left to unspool? How are we, TV viewers like Don Draper in that we’re never satisfied with what we get, going to feel when it’s all over? If the end of Mad Men is really trying to convince us that Bert is right, and the best things in life are free, then the final episodes have a lot of work to do. But I think it’s right, Don’s tear-filled eyes be damned, to be a little skeptical. It is, after all, just another idea that some smart man in a suit is trying to sell us.” —Vanity Fair

“On its surface, ‘Waterloo’ is a feel-good episode — Bert’s passing notwithstanding. Peggy nailed the presentation, Roger became a leader with vision, Don is back and a mensch, and we landed on the moon. But it’s called ‘Waterloo,’ and Bert’s warning could reverberate during the second half of the season, which won’t arrive until 2015. ‘No man has ever come back from leave — even Napoleon,’ Bert said. ‘He staged a coup but he ended up back on the island.’ Is this Don’s glorious return, with loyal soldiers rallying around the flag? Or is it a last gasp before the ultimate fall. In a way, you could argue that’s what the moon landing was that for America: this historic geyser of optimism and wonder in the midst of Vietnam, assassinations, and civil strife, with all that Nixon’s presidency would become looming.” —Entertainment Weekly

“From daffy Meredith’s wholly misguided attempt to console Don to Bert’s posthumous stocking-footed dance routine, ‘Waterloo’ is suffused with a sense of levity and whimsy unusual for the chronically brooding Mad Men, particularly for an episode that begins with the arrival of a litigious letter and includes the death of a major character and the demise of a marriage.” —L.A. Times

“What sold the song wasn’t the Dennis Potter disjuncture or the brief shot of misplaced delight, but the gunshot footfall of a leather shoe on SC&P’s floors that brought Don back to the real world, and the empty, desperate look in his tear-filled eyes. The show’s previously flights of fancy have shown us what Don’s seeing; this one showed us what he felt. Don held onto his job, which at this point is the only thing keeping him from the abyss, and he made himself and everyone else a boatload of money. (Bonus: Harry Crane’s partnership isn’t final, so he gets zip.) But what has he done? And who does he have? This could be a new beginning for him, even though Mad Men is coming close to the end. But ending up in the same place is no longer an option. What’s he starving for?” —Rolling Stone

“The legacy of Burt Cooper’s death is not about business—it is about a father’s emotional legacy to his sons. Don understands the deep relationship that Roger had with Cooper. ‘I’m so sorry, I know what he meant to you,’ Don says. Roger rises to the challenge Cooper had posed in their last meeting together, and he saves the agency—his agency—by finally becoming a leader.” —The Wall Street Journal

“At the same time that Roger is announcing Bert’s death to the company, Don walks down the stairs, turns around and sees Bert standing right there before him. And then, Bert starts to sing. And dance. It is very weird and a trippy, unexpected escape from the stuffy business dealings we were all just subjected to. ‘The best things in life are free,’ he croons as pastel-laden secretaries float around him and he skips around like an elderly Gene Kelly. He’s still just wearing socks and in a totally Kubrick-esque sign off, he enters a room at the far end of the hall and just as the door closes, he waves a final goodbye to a teary-eyed Donald Draper. This is sad and creepy and altogether mad, which is just how Matthew Weiner likes it.” —The Washington Post

“Sally, perhaps, was the most curious of the progressive women. Her hots for the very beefy young man visiting with his family was evident from the start, but then she pulled a very Betty Draper-esque move by showing affection to someone not expecting it.” —IndieWire

The Best Mad Men Mid-Season Finale Recaps