Mid-season finale review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘Waterloo’

A review of the “Mad Men” mid-season finale coming up just as soon as I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers…

“Bravo.” -Bert Cooper

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.

But when you have so many people watching one thing – even if it's one of the great achievements in human history – it can be easy to miss what else is going on. Even on the matter of objects in space on July 20, 1969, Sally's new friend, the aptly-named Neil, points out to her all the other lovely things in the night sky, like Polaris. And so much of “Waterloo” – an episode that somehow managed to top the splendor of last week's great “The Strategy” – was about what took place while people were focusing elsewhere.

On a small level, you have the Francis family's house guests. Betty assumes (as, I imagine, did many a “Mad Men” viewer) that Sally is trying to impress handsome, shirtless Sean, but instead it's astronomy nerd Neil whom she kisses. Or when Peggy comes home to her apartment to pack for Indianapolis, the most important male in the room isn't the good-looking handyman who slips her his number, but young Julio, whose impending move to Newark upsets them equally.

But most of the relevant action this week involves the agency, where everyone is so busy preparing for Don's seemingly inevitable departure that they aren't prepared for the more permanent one involving Bert Cooper, and all the insanity that happens following his death.

Cooper has been a marginal figure on the show, and in the agency, since the move to the Time-Life Building (where he didn't even have an office for a few years), but “Waterloo” was a reminder of the value both he and Robert Morse brought to the operation. When Don throws a tantrum and demands a vote of the partners on his future (in a sequence scored like the moment in a thriller right before all the guns come out), Bert sides with the Sterling Cooper old guard – because even though Don Draper has only sometimes understood the value of loyalty to his team, Bert always has. He resents the various stunts Don has pulled in this office, but he has a complicated code of loyalty and leadership, which he tries to impart to Roger even as he lacks belief in Roger's ability to be a leader himself. (It's those words that help inspire so much of what Roger does later.)

Had that Leadership 101 lecture been the last we saw of Cooper… dayenu. But Matt Weiner and Carly Wray's script gave him two additional farewells, one beautiful in its concision, the other unexpected and strange and absolutely perfect. In one, Bert listens to the first words uttered by a man who has walked on the moon, and he smiles and says a rich, sincere “Bravo.” These are the final words we hear from him as a living person, and the timing of his death gives new depth to his famous line at the end of Ida Blankenship's obituary: “She was an astronaut.” In hindsight, this was “Mad Men” priming us for Cooper's departure by giving us a few departing bits of wisdom from him – as Roger will sadly joke later, “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they're going to die.”

What none of us might have expected – unless we had harbored this dream ever since making the connection between Robert Morse in his advanced age and the young Morse in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” – was Bert making a posthumous appearance to serenade a grieving Don with a rousing performance of “The Best Things In Life Are Free.”(*)

(*) The best detail – beyond simply seeing how nimbly an 83-year-old Morse can still move – was that Cooper's ghost was, of course, appearing in his stocking feet. Wonderful, the power you can get from attention to detail over a prolonged period of time.

It may seem strange for a series at the advanced age “Mad Men” is at – airing its last episode of 2014, with only seven more hours to go – to decide that now is the moment to go full Dennis Potter and bend its level of reality to this degree. Then again, this is a show that has already warped itself with LSD, marijuana and speedballs (the last drug bringing with it a more low-key song-and-dance number that helped pave the way for this one). The show's doors of perception have been pushed further and further open as time has gone along, and if ever there was a character on “Mad Men” who deserved such a stylistically uncharacteristic send-off, it was the inscrutable Bertram Cooper.

And if ever there was an episode of “Mad Men” that deserved to end with a celebratory musical number, it was “Waterloo.”

Last week, after Don and Peggy slow-danced to “My Way,” I noted that even as the end was near and so many flashier series had come along to elbow “Mad Men” aside, the show was still capable of producing an episode reminding you that it's one of the best there ever was. The achievement of “Waterloo” is in some ways more impressive, because the show has given us this exact episode two times previously – first with the escape from the Brits at the end of season 3, then with last season's surprise merger of the two agencies – and yet managed to do one that was more exciting and emotionally satisfying than the ones before.

Now, this is a case of old age working to the episode's advantage. Just on the basic story beats and how they were executed – Cooper's death, Peggy taking the Burger Chef executives to the moon and back, Roger outmaneuvering Jim Cutler and forging a new identity and power structure for the agency – this was splendid. I already talked about the Burger Chef pitch, which was as confident and eloquent as Peggy Olson has ever been. The moment when Roger kicks Harry Crane out of the partners meeting because Harry waited too long to sign the partnership agreement was hilarious, and Jim Cutler trying to jump onto the McCann bandwagon at the last possible second was even funnier. At any stage of the series, this would be a winner.

But what gave the proceedings that added kick was how so much of it felt like a summation of the previous six-plus seasons. Roger Sterling, who coasted through life after inheriting his half of the business from his father, proves Cooper wrong while living up to his mentor's ideals and fighting to keep the business together. Roger made the leap at the end of season 3 out of ego; he'd spent a year as a figurehead under British rule, and didn't want to become a cog in the giant McCann machine. But it's clear that he's making this move not because he dreams of being at the top of the organizational flowchart, but because the old man's death made him realize how hard it is to lose the people you care about at work, and how important it is to fight not just for Don, but for everyone else in that office whose name he can remember. And Don, who has so often not been a team player, hurting others in his quest for self-preservation, seems to realize he's run out of chances when Roger tells him about Bert's death (and Jim Cutler's power play), and decides to sacrifice for the sake of the team he's leaving behind. He could go in there and dazzle the Burger Chef people and maybe make it slightly easier to get another job at another agency, but he doesn't want to screw over Peggy in the process. He knows she's great, that she can do it, and that she deserves it, and she proves him right – and that sly smile he gives her midway through the presentation was as powerful a denouement for their relationship as their dance the week before.

And as a result, “Waterloo” felt even more like a series finale than “The Strategy” did. Another of Don's marriages has ended (and he was so busy worrying about his job that he didn't see Megan's decision coming, even as he understood it the moment it happened), Peggy has fully come into her own, as has Roger, Joan has the financial windfall she's been waiting for (and Harry the schmuck is once again denied his rewards), the agency's immediate future is secured, and Sally has learned to smoke just like her mother(**). Don has learned that his actions have consequences, and he has survived those consequences and become a better co-worker (and, to an extent, a better father), even if he's still a lousy husband. The End, right?

(**) And I mean just like. Kiernan Shipka must have been obsessing over footage of January Jones smoking to get the pose just right.

When I interviewed Matt Weiner before the season began, I asked whether the bifurcated scheduling of the season would affect the way he structured things. He said, “I think the way that the second half of a season of 'Mad Men' is the answer to the first half. I always structure it that way. So they're always related to each other. I can't say it's different.”

I can certainly imagine a version of season 7.1 that picks up in August of '69 and takes us month-by-month through the rest of the year and a little bit into the new decade – seven episodes that would feature the satisfying comeuppance of Lou Avery (who has no place in an agency where Don is back in power and Ted is trying again), a glimpse of the benevolent rule of Roger Sterling, more metaphorical pratfalls by Harry and angry ranting by Pete, Peggy again trying to figure out if she can Have It All, etc. And based on these last couple of episodes, especially, I can imagine that version being very satisfying.

But I do wonder if Weiner might not be ready to pull a “China Beach” on us and use those final seven episodes to explore what happens to these characters over the next several decades: Bob Benson bumping into Sal at Studio 54, Joan adopting big shoulder pads and bigger hair in the '80s, Peggy being resentful of Apple's “1984” ad, and Don Draper somehow living to a ripe old age where he can feel annoyed about everything that's wrong in media and society – and maybe having a song of his own to deliver to the next generation on his way to slip the surly bonds of Earth.

We have a long time to go before we see the shape those episodes take, and until then, I will be starving… and not just for dinner. But for more “Mad Men.”

Like Don tells Ted while convincing him not to quit, I don't want to see what happens when it's really gone.

Some other thoughts:

* It can't be overstated how good John Slattery is in this episode. He's always great with a one-liner (and his pleasure at kicking Harry out of the partners meeting was a thing of beauty) and also excels in those moments when life forces Roger Sterling to take it more seriously now and again. Cooper's death, though, brought out a whole new level of both melancholy and empathy in Roger, and Slattery played it wonderfully.

* Last week, a curtain literally closed as Megan flew back to California; here, the metaphorical one shuts on her marriage to Don. What makes the scene so effective and sad is how subdued it is. No fireworks, no yelling, no pleading. They've been trying to make this thing work for months, and it hasn't, and they both realize it – Don doesn't need anything more than Megan's long pause and the sound of his name to know that it's over – and don't have to fight any more. If the agency is going to keep that California office open (assuming Sunkist doesn't bail as a result of Ted's mid-flight shenanigans), there may still be reason to see her one or two more times, but it doesn't feel all that necessary; assuming the story stays in 1969, Bob Benson is much more relevant to what's coming next than Megan is.

* And with the marriage over, Don will have to see “The Wild Bunch” on his own. Given his understandable concerns about his own age and potential irrelevance, how will he feel watching a story about a bunch of Wild West relics who go down in a blaze of glory?

* Among the best moments of Peggy's pitch was the mention of the 10-year-old boy who would be waiting in her apartment – not a lie, but a very strategic omission of facts – and the way it played off of the poignant earlier Peggy/Julio scene. Julio's only a little older than Peggy and Pete's son would be, and we've seen over the last few weeks that Peggy has some regrets about giving up on  motherhood, even though we can imagine how miserable she would have been during the intervening years. When Peggy tells Julio that his mother is moving to Newark precisely because she cares about him, she's not only making him feel better, but making us aware of the maternal instincts she once worked so hard to suppress.

* That was CBS' coverage of the moon landing that everyone was watching, and sure enough, both veteran astronaut Wally Schirra and Walter Cronkite had difficulty making out Neil Armstrong's entire “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” line. (And that's ignoring the eternal debate over whether he meant to say – or even did say right as the audio glitched – “one small step for a man,” which makes the second part make more sense.)

* Sally, in discussing the financial waste of the Apollo program, is convinced that we'd be going to the moon constantly, even as matters on Earth worsened. Instead, Neil and Buzz would be the first two of only a dozen men to walk on the lunar surface, and we haven't been back there since Gene Cernan climbed back aboard the Apollo 17 lunar module in December of 1972.

* It wasn't quite “NOT GREAT, BOB!,” but Pete's “Marriage is a racket!” interjection on realizing that Don and Megan were calling it quits was another reminder of what a great comic weapon Vincent Kartheiser has been for this show.

* Peggy's line about people who just touched the face of God is a reference to the John Gillespie Magee Jr. poem “High Flight,” which Ronald Reagan would quote in his speech about the Challenger tragedy, but which has previously appeared on “Mad Men” in season 2's “Maidenform,” where Pete catches a TV sign-off that includes a recitation of the poem.

* In contemporary money, Joan's payout alone will be over $9 million, and she'd get $2.35 million upon signing.

* Given Don Draper's complex professional history, is it any wonder that bubble-headed Meredith assumed news of his imminent firing would be the perfect time to make a move in hopes of becoming the new Megan? I'm not sure what was funnier: Meredith trying to assume control of the conversation and comfort Don, or Don's baffled reaction to the pass she's making at him.

* “Mad Men” continues to mine actresses from 1990s teen dramas – and/or “ER” alums – as Kellie Martin from “Life Goes On” turns up as Betty's old friend Carolyn.

Finally, thanks for another great (half) season of “Mad Men” discussion. It's always a pleasure to see all the smart things you guys have to say about this show, whether in great times (Don and Peggy's dance) or in strange times (Ginsberg's nipple). Assuming I can pull it off over Memorial Day, I should have one more piece of “Mad Men”-related content on Tuesday morning. UPDATE: And here it is: an interview with Matthew Weiner about this half-season and what it's like to be writing the series finale right now.

But for now – and for the last time in quite a while for a new episode of this great damn show – what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com