Maybe it was because last week’s episode seemed too perfect. Maybe it was because it was too beautiful, too sweet and too kind, but I was expecting a slow burn bummer of a midseason finale Sunday night and, thankfully, that’s not what we got at all.
In a smart move, Matthew Weiner & Co. delivered a strikingly beautiful, delightfully mad finale complete with chapters closing, ceilings breaking, men landing on the moon and a dead man dancing. We are now left a year to ponder where SC&P will go, but if this episode is any indication, it’s headed in just the right direction.
There were so many moving parts this week that it’s difficult to know where to begin but I suppose we can begin with our real victors: Don and Peggy. At the beginning of this episode, we learn that Jim is attempting to fire Don due to breach of contract. His squeaky secretary Meredith delivers the news and in a strange attempt to woo him, she hands him the letter and says, “I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength” and gives him a kiss. He rejects her advance. He cannot do this now. It is the midseason finale after all and he’s got too much on his mind for another office affair. Obviously outraged, Don storms into Jim’s office and demands an explanation. Jim claims that Don broke contract by meeting with Commander cigarettes and also delivers the most devilish line about Don “blubbering like a little girl about [his] impoverished childhood.” Unfortunately, he is not (spoiler alert) the dead man by the end of this. Rightly miffed, Don calls the rest of the partners around and overrides Jim’s request by a show of hands. It’s a delicious scene, with all of the partners at each other’s throats, but also a forewarning for the ugliness to come. Very few people want to be a part of SC&P anymore. Ted and Lou tell Jim they want out in the first minute of the show with Jim hazily admitting defeat, and Joan is sick of wasting money on Don.
The only real person who wants to be there is Peggy, our real victor and hopefully our real lead in next year’s final episodes. This was really her time to shine because while the partners are running around panicked and greedy, Peggy is just trying to work on her pitch for Burger Chef. Don is still scheduled to present to them in Indianapolis but after one of “Mad Men’s” most beautiful and memorable scenes, he changes his mind.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong became the first man on the moon and in the “Mad Men” world; he has every character at attention. Don, Peggy, Harry and Pete are watching in an Indianapolis motel room. Roger and his family are watching on the couch. Bert Cooper and his maid are watching on their couch. Betty, Sally, Bobby, Henry, Baby Gene and their new friends are watching on the Francis residence’s couch. They are all doing the same thing at the same time and in complete silence with their eyes glued to the screen. “Hot damn,” Pete says. “Bravo,” Bert says. Roger just shakes his head in disbelief as we watch gritty, slow motion footage of Armstrong’s first steps.
That loveliness doesn’t linger too long because Roger gets an unexpected phone call, which leads to the episode’s most tragic moment and where I must break the news that Bertram Cooper dies suddenly about halfway through the midseason finale. While sitting on his couch with his ex-wife, who I suppose he’s quite friendly with now, we see Roger’s face drop. Next thing we know, he’s in SC&P, sliding Cooper’s nameplate off his door and Joan comes in behind him with tears rolling down her face. The two embrace and Jim Cutler ruins the moment (doesn’t he always?) by bringing up what’s next for the company and what Cooper’s death means for Don. “Cooper’s been dead an hour and you’re trying to pry his hand open?” Roger screams at Jim. While Joan and Roger are standing there with heavy hearts, Jim apparently has no heart, and that’s when we can understand the real difference between the new company and the old. Joan, Roger, Don, Peggy and even Pete have hearts while Lou, Jim and Ted are tin men. I expect next year’s episodes will make that even more apparent.
While he’s still at SC&P mourning the loss of his friend, Roger calls Don to tell him about Bert. He’s now afraid that he’s going to lose Don, because they just lost a critical voter. He muses about his disappointing last lines to his friend and how he should have known that this was going to happen. “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon you know they’re gonna die,” Roger says, as a nice reminder that this episode is aptly entitled “Waterloo.” Roger is unsure of himself and doubts whether Bert was really proud of him, just like Peggy has been unsure of herself and doubts whether Don is really proud of her. Soon, though, she’ll get her answer.
With the weight of his uncertain future riding down on him, Don goes to Peggy and suggests that she make the presentation to Burger Chef. She’s unsure of herself, but with the look in Don’s eyes we know that she’ll be just fine because he knows she’ll be just fine. The next morning, we see Peggy looking across a table of Burger Chef execs, and the only man who’s paying her any attention is the man sitting right next to her: Don Draper. In this moment, we see them working together so magically that a glance before a pitch can mean so much. In this case it means, “Show them what you’ve got.”
Her pitch, which is excellent, brings together the peace and chaos that comes with a family. The sense of pride and peace we feel as viewers at this point can almost exclusively be related to Don and Peggy’s new partnership. This is what we’ve wanted all along, and in the show’s last season, Matthew Weiner is giving it to us. The teacher is very proud of the student and finally, the student knows it. (She later finds out that her pitch to Burger Chef was a success, of course.)
Although this closer was largely on the East Coast, we did get an answer to where Don and Megan stand via a long-distance, misty-eyed phone call. He calls her to tell her about the breach of contract Jim is trying to pass, which is an improvement from when Don went months without telling her about his leave, but what’s broken in their relationship cannot be fixed. She doesn’t want him to come out to see her in California and despite his pleas that he’ll “always take care of her,” she insists that she’s going to be fine and that he “doesn’t owe her anything.” For a relationship as heated as theirs, it ended swiftly, probably since they’ve had their own time to realize that they’re really not meant to be together. That chapter, as far as we know, is now closed.
Far away from any agency drama, we got our dose of both Sally and Betty and while Betty is busy being jealous of her daughter’s youth and beauty, Sally is busy wooing Sean and Neil, two adolescent Francis house guests. Sean is the handsome, oftentimes shirtless boy and Neil is the aptly-named astronomy nerd who shows her where Polaris is in the night’s sky. Neil is also the boy Sally chooses to kiss over shirtless Sean, which is adorable and just another sign of Sally’s intelligence and maturity.
In major agency news, Roger announces that McCann Erickson wants to buy a 51% stake in SC&P. The agency would be independently operated and Roger, Don and Ted would just need to sign five-year contracts. This is a risky but smart plan that makes Jim unable to fire Don. With a unanimous show of hands, the McCann Erickson buyout is a go and they’re all set to make one million dollars or more. Everything is changing but it seems to be changing for the better.
However, we don’t drive off into the “Mad Men” sunset just yet. Certainly not without a little song and dance before we go. 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 success of this episode, in my opinion, stems from its analysis of a time and an event. The show’s most memorable scenes have revolved around a historic television or radio moment because it envelops all characters at once. For a few minutes, they are all in sync. They could be surrounded by family, friends or working partners and the intimacy they share only adds tension to their relationships and draws attention to the past they might share.
You could come up with two million theories for what the first man on the moon means for each character but for “Mad Men” as a whole, it looks like there is an emerging hope. Anything is possible. Like Bert Cooper said, “The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.” Maybe one day, Don, Peggy and the rest of the “Mad Men” will realize that.