Mad Men’s Don Draper began 1969 unemployed, feeling sorry for himself, in an unhappy marriage, practically estranged from his daughter Sally, and lonely enough that he took a shower and put on a suit to meet with his former secretary once a day, who he’d try to convince to stay longer than the three minutes she’d pop in. And for that brief moment of human connection, Don Draper had to pay her. Don Draper was a broken man.
Six months later, he’s as happy and confident as we’ve ever seen him, and it’s real confidence, not Don Draper bluster. Somewhere around the time that Freddy Rumsen told Don Draper to “Do the work,” Don finally checked his ego. He did the work. He ate the sh*t. He got his job back. And now he’s set to make millions. But more importantly than that, he’s got his soul mate back in Peggy Olson. He and his daughter have never been closer, and in Roger Sterling, he’s found a true best friend and a new leader, someone who finally fought for him.
It wasn’t an easy journey for Don. “Waterloo” began with a letter that Jim Cutler’s attorney had drafted terminating Don’s employment for breach of contract. No one took it harder than poor Meredith, who attempted to parlay Don’s imminent dismissal to her advantage. “I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength … Tell me what I can do?”
Oh Meredith, don’t ever change.
When Don confronted Cutler about it, we realized that Lou “You’re Just a Hired Hand” Avery was never the real villain of this season of Mad Men. It was Jim Cutler all along, and the episode was his Waterloo. “You’re just a bully and a drunk. A football player in a suit,” he said to Don, which might have described Draper in 1968, but hardly the kindler, gentler Don Draper of 1969. Eat a dick, Cutler.
Joan’s not much better, at least from our perspective. She didn’t know about the termination letter, but she didn’t care, either. “I’m tired of this costing me money,” Joan said coldly. What the f*ck, Joan? She may be waiting for true love, as she told Bob Benson last week, but she’s also in it for the money. I partially understand Joan’s transformation: Men have screwed her for so long that they can no longer be trusted, but money — and the stability it can bring to her family — can. Personally, I think part of it is still a sense of shame that Joan feels around Don, who gave her an out two seasons ago and attempted to stop Joan from sleeping with Herb Rennet by appealing to her dignity. This is the look that Joan gave a devastated Don the morning after she slept with Herb, and I don’t think that she’s ever gotten over her own sense of shame. Don is a constant reminder of it.
Pete’s man crush on Don, on the other hand, could survive a nuclear holocaust. “That is a very sensitive piece of horse flesh!” Pete tells Cutler, sticking up for his guy at whatever the costs.
Meanwhile, Ted wants out. He’s miserable in California. Miserable in his job, and probably miserable without Peggy. Briefly envying the astronauts and their possible death, he kills the engine on his plane and scares the sh*t out of their Sunkist clients (he was probably even more sad about the terrible green screen in that scene), before later asking Cutler to buy him out. NOT GREAT, TED.
Elsewhere, Don — sensing that he was about to get fired — decides to make the best of a bad situation and at least salvage his marriage, but as suggested in last week’s episode, the curtain had closed on Megan and Don. The phone conversation with Megan went something like this:
Don: I can move to California now.
It was painless. All of the work toward the divorce had been done over the last season and a half. The phone call was just a formality, and an excuse to see Megan in a bikini.
The centerpiece of the “Waterloo,” of course, was the moon landing. It’s what brought everyone together. Roger with his ex-wife. Betty with her old college friends. Don with Peggy, who sat on the bed and watched like adoring big brother and sister, while their squirrely little brother Pete sat on the other bed. “Hot damn!”
And, of course, Bert and his maid watched together. “Bravo!” were Bert Cooper’s final words before passing away. It was understated, so perfectly divorced from melodrama, and so fitting on the low-key Mad Men. We should’ve known because even Roger noted the foreshadowing: “Every time someone talks about Napoleon, you know he’s going to die.”
Naturally, Cutler didn’t wait an hour to make his move. “Let’s give Don Draper a send-off along with Bert,” he said to a grief-stricken Roger, who had just lost his mentor. Using Bert’s death to force Don out? I think Cutler is secretly a Lannister. Fortunately, Roger is about to become Mad Men’s Littlefinger.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, Don, sensing the writing on the wall, decides to give up his pitch to Peggy. A year ago, or even two months ago, Don might have tried to seize the Burger Chef pitch to salvage his job. But over the course of the last month, Don found something even more valuable to him that his mentor/mentee relationship with Peggy: An equal partnership. Don gave Peggy his confidence. He showed leadership, and the next morning in her meeting with Burger Chef, Peggy had her “Carousel” moment with the clients, bringing a couple of those guys to tears. Hook, line and sinker. And so, the Torch is passed. And maybe the best moment in this entire season so far was a small, quiet gesture: Don looks on at Peggy, silently proud, and they share a secret little smile.
Meanwhile, with Bert no longer around, Roger Sterling twirled his mustache and made a power move. Bert’s death and the suggestion he made to Roger that he could never be a leader kicked his ass in gear: He met with Jim Hobart and, as we’d predicted last week, negotiated an arrangement to be bought out by McCann Erickson, allowing Sterling Cooper to remain an independent subsidiary and, more importantly, for Don to keep his job, Roger to become president, Joan to get rich, and Jim Cutler to be pushed out (a wealthy man, of course) along with 2016’s Mad Men spin-off, Harry and the Computer. It all came down to a reluctant Ted, and it was Don who delivered another masterful speech to get him onboard. Don sold him not with a slick Don-Draper speech with bells and whistles, but with Dick Whitman honesty.
Ted agrees, and Cutler is neutralized and sent to Elba. Napoleon is defeated.
But there would be one more wonderful, perfect Mad Men moment in the episode. As Don walked back to his desk to get back to what he loves — the work — he has a fantasy of Bert Cooper singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” and joyfully dancing away, having figured out the true key to success: Human connection.
There’s two ways to think about the song Bert was singing. There’s the cynical forward thinking interpretation, which suggests that Don — trapped in a five-year contract with the soulless McCann — had realized only after he’d sold out to McCann for millions of dollars that he was doomed because he’d forsaken his freedom for money (and dragged Ted right down with him).
But I choose to optimistic interpretation, that Bert was singing — through Don’s subconscious — about what Don had learned this year: That it was never about the money, or the power, or the success: That it was about real human connection, something that Don had finally found with his soul mate Peggy, with Pete Campbell, and with his best friend and leader Roger Sterling. If anything, I thought, the song hinted at Don strengthening those connections next half-season, and broadening them. Repairing his relationship with Joan. Becoming a better father and maybe even something more than a “bad ex-boyfriend” to Betty. And who knows? Maybe the new Don can do right by Megan by, say, giving her the opportunity that he once refused to give Betty: To be a model and spokesperson in one of his forthcoming ad campaigns.
There will be challenges, of course (McCann’s ownership, chief among them), but I hope that the last seven episodes of Mad Men will see Don continuing along his path instead of tragically falling from this great height and repeating the same mistakes over again. I hope when the echoes of earlier episodes arrive again, this time we see Don make the right decisions, the selfless ones, the ones that continue to connect him the other people, and to the world.
— Poor Harry. He hasn’t really done anything to deserve all the sh*t he’s gotten, but hell if I don’t enjoy watching everyone crap on him anyway. They should just take a page out of the Parks and Rec handbook and start calling him Larry next year.
— Not for nothing, but Pete hasn’t divorced yet. Hopefully, he can find his way back to Trudy, but if he can’t, she just became half as rich as the newly wealthy Pete. “Marriage is a racket.”
— I didn’t speak much to the Betty/Sally plot line above because I thought it mostly existed to support the overall theme of the episode about human connection. “The moon belongs to everyone,” Bert Cooper sang in the opening lines to “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” calling back to the connection the moon landing brought about in everyone. But he also sang that the “Stars belong to everyone,” and that’s how Sally became connected with the nerdy kid, Neal: Through the telescope and Polaris, or the North Star, which I hope foreshadows the direction the rest of the Mad Men is taking: To truth north.
— I will say, however, that Sally — who has never looked more like Betty than when she was wooing that douchebag Sean — has become the absolute perfect blend of Betty and Don, and Kiernan Shipka has truly become one of the best — if not the best — child actor working today.
— Speaking of child actors, poor Julio. Peggy seemed so heartbroken that she’d be losing that connection to a ten year old. “I’ll visit you all the time!” No she won’t.
— Here’s a really fun allusion. When Roger said that the last line that he had spoken to Bert was from “a musical or something,” he was referring to this line: “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” Appropriately for this episode, that line was from the musical, “Face the Music.”
— Shout out to Stephanie Drake, who plays Meredith, for stealing every damn scene she’s in.
— And yes, Betty’s best friend was Kellie Martin, of Life Goes on Fame. Weiner pulls another actress out of pop-culture obscurity.
— And finally, thank you all for indulging my overlong recaps this year once again, and even to those of you who call me out on my typos (maybe especially you, because you’re reading so closely). Not that it’s any excuse, but Sunday night TV typically keeps me up until 1 a.m., and these recaps are written at 5 a.m., sometimes with a laptop cradled on the back of a sick child. I apologize, but I’m also very appreciative of those of you who reach out on Twitter, or who email me your Mad Men theories, which are often as long as these recaps. Thanks for connecting.