And I thought last week’s episode of Mad Men was good.
I’ll be watching “Waterloo”, Mad Men‘s mid-season finale that aired on Sunday, again. In fact, I think I’ll be watching it again soon. It was one of those perfect episodes, beautifully paced and written and featuring my favorite characters. It struck an artful balance of dramatic suspense and witty one-liners. If you’ve seen the episode, click through to talk about it.
It says a lot about Matthew Weiner, that he’s able to pull off a storyline that the show has done, more or less, twice before with such success. It also says a lot about the nature of Mad Men‘s setting. A New York City ad agency would see a lot of ups and downs, failures and successes. Our core set of characters have greatly changed the landscape of their business three times now – escaping the Brits to go out on their own, merging with Ted and Jim’s agency, and now becoming a subsidiary of a larger agency under Roger’s management. Each time a big change comes, it’s just as exciting as the last.
This episode was a rollercoaster. It began with Don receiving a letter, masterminded by Jim Cutler, informing him that he was in breach of contract. (Thanks to his crashing of the tobacco meeting.) The seriousness that Don could really lose his job for good was perfectly contrasted by the hilarity of Don’s sweet, ditzy secretary Becca mistakenly thinking that the crisis was the right time to make a move on Don. That scene was just perfectly played, from Becca’s silly attempt to Don’s bewildered reaction.
After six episodes of Don and Megan almost breaking up, and struggling to stay together, their marriage came to a very quiet end in this episode. Don has at least learned, it seems, to be honest with his wife – this time he didn’t hesitate to tell Megan what was going on. Her silence when he suggested that it was finally time for him to join her in California said more than words could. How long would they have carried on, spending awkward time together once or twice a month, had this not happened? The ending of Don’s second marriage was much more peaceful than his first. Neither was meant to be. (Or, as Pete Campbell put it with perfect comedic inflection, “Marriage is a racket.”)
Only Jim and Joan voted to oust Don – Joan because she still resents Don blowing the opportunity for the company to go public. Joan is a pragmatist and would see a financial windfall as her opportunity to provide for herself, her son and her mother independently. However, I expected a little more loyalty from her. Roger is loyal to Don out of a longstanding friendship. But Bert was loyal to Don out of a more complicated, old-school moral code. He thought voting Don out would be best for the business, but as a leader couldn’t do it. What happened later in the episode made his speech to Roger about leadership even more poignant.
Don, Peggy, Pete and Stan all traveled to Indianapolis to pitch to Burger Chef. The backdrop for much of this episode was the mood landing, and Peggy was worried about how it would influence the pitch. She was even more concerned after Don told her that she’d be making the pitch, not him. This was one of the most selfless things we’ve seen Don do. If he’d gone in and aced the Burger Chef pitch, he could have tried to use it as leverage to stay with the company. Or maybe it would have helped him get a new job. Instead, he gave it to Peggy. He knew she could win it, and he knew that Peggy winning a big client like Burger Chef would give her a more prominent role within the company once he’d departed.
Peggy’s pitch was magical. She tied the original idea of family suppers at Burger Chef in beautifully with the moon landing – the very thing that had been making her anxious was exactly what made the pitch special. That whole scene was truly incredible, from start to finish. It showed how alienated Peggy can feel in a room full of suited men. It was the perfect continuation of her earlier scene with Julia, the neighbor kid. So much of Peggy’s story this season has called back to the baby she gave up. She knows that was the right decision, but has always struggled with it. When she told Julia his mom was moving them to Newark because she loves him, it felt like Peggy was finally accepting that she’d made the right decision for her own kid. She referenced Julio in the pitch, yet the pitch wasn’t coming from a mom, or a woman. It was a pitch, a better pitch than anyone else in the business could deliver.
Meanwhile, after uttering a beautiful “Bravo” to the moon landing, Bert Cooper died. His death shook Roger, and also threw the agency into chaos. Jim wasted no time in pointing out that the loss of Bert’s vote meant Don was out. But that leadership instinct Bert had talked about was ignited in Roger, and he found a way to keep the agency – his agency – together. It would operate under McCann, but Roger would lead it. Everyone would get a huge payout. (The thing that Joan has always wanted, so she was immediately on board.) The plan depending on keeping the Don and Ted team in tact. I love how this stipulation was the perfect climax to Don and Ted’s storylines. Don has been dying to work, but everyone is trying to prevent him from doing it. Ted has been slowly losing interest in his work, he’s been a non-entity in the show lately for a reason. He broke down this week and told everyone he wanted out. He didn’t want to stand in the way of others’ fortune, but he didn’t want to work in the ad business anymore. It was Don who convinced him that he doesn’t want to see what the alternative looks like – a pitch even more important than the Burger Chef one to the future of the company.
(I chuckled at Jim Cutler jumping on board at the last possible second, and laughed out loud at Harry Crane missing out on the payout because he’d waited too long to sign his partnership paperwork. Ha! I’m still laughing.)
Wow! What an episode. This post is incredibly long, and I don’t think I’ve even discussed everything there is to talk about. Here’s a few stray thoughts:
- At first, Sally was trying to impress her hot, shirtless house guest. But it was his smart, quiet brother who she kissed. Why? I think it had something to do with her phone call with Don, after her chastised her for being too cynical about the moon landing. It showed that despite any facade she might put up, Sally cares very much about what her father thinks.
- I love Kiernan Shipka in these later seasons. It’s incredible how well she’s been able to mirror Betty with her actions and tone of voice. That was very apparent when she was smoking in this episode. I look forward to seeing what Shipka does next.
- Did you think I’d finish this blog post without mentioning that amazing final musical number? Of course not. I thought it was a strange, but perfect send-off for both the character and the actor. He was in sock feet, which was perfect. And Robert Morse is a famed Broadway song-and-dance man, so it was fitting for him. Mad Men has a long history of characters singing, both in reality and fantasy. Is there a reason Don was hallucinating, or imaging this? I don’t think there needs to be.
- The way Bert died, while watching the moon landing, was a skillful callback to his famous line “She was an astronaut” after the secretary Ida Blankenship died. One day, I will re-watch this entire series and appreciate these things even more.
- Robert Morse is 83 years old. I just needed to point that out.