TV Club

Mad Men season finale: Whose Waterloo was that?

Don finally shaped up.

Bert Cooper
Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse)

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Peggy’s pitch to Burger Chef villainized the TV, that yammering box next to the dinner table always spouting news about Vietnam, exacerbating the distance between a father who likes Frank Sinatra and a son who listens to the Rolling Stones, leaving everyone “starving” not just for dinner, but a moment of connection, when we are all “doing the same thing at the same time.” As Peggy points out, such a communal moment had just occurred, the night before, with a viewing of the moon landing—made possible by TV. The shots of the various makeshift Mad Men families gathered around their televisions to watch Neil Armstrong make a giant leap for mankind were assiduously, beautifully arranged—they looked like photographs—and wistful too, both an acknowledgement of the collective nature of what we, sitting at home watching Mad Men, were doing, and a longing for a time when we would have been doing it with millions and millions of more Americans. As ever, Matt Weiner sees the connection between advertising and TV: They can be distracting noise or worse, unless you try your hardest to make them art.

This season has been an unexpected interlude in the ongoing drama of Don’s psychology: He really did put his head down and play well with others, seemingly without ulterior or self-destructive motives. It’s so healthy and adult, so unlike him, or the him he used to be. The real measure of his decency came after he heard that Bert was dead and he was likely going to be voted out of the company. He went to Peggy and told her she had to pitch. It was a bit of selflessness in the best interest of SC&P that is out of keeping with the swaggering Don we once knew, who would have blazed into that meeting, done his dashing best, and expected it all to work out for him, if no one else. Don exuded integrity in less flashy moments as well: telling Harry just to take the deal, selling Chaough on the fulfilling nature of honest ad-work, pushing Sally not to be so cynical, turning down an easy lay from his secretary, even letting Megan go and shouldering the blame for a mutual decision.

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. The action of this episode was jump-started by Bert and driven by Roger. The climatic creative accomplishment was Peggy’s, who got her own Kodak Carousel moment, bringing executives to the verge of tears with her dulcet words about a hamburger.

Peggy, during her pitch, said she had a 10-year-old boy waiting at home, a true, misleading story. Maternal feelings don’t come easily to Peggy, nor really does just being nice. When the handsome handyman is writing down his number, Peggy can’t stop herself from snapping about the bill. (Early-season Joan would have some retro-yet-accurate things to say about this. Peggy occasionally inspires the stereotypical 1950s mother in all of us, or maybe I should just speak for myself.) Julio hangs around Peggy’s apartment all day, eating her popsicles, using her TV. She treats him with casual irritation—so, like family—but when he tells her he’s moving she is taken aback, surprised by the strength of her own response. She musters herself and rises to the occasion with a hug, with reassurance, even with a well-meant lie. Peggy and Julio’s relationship bears some resemblance to that between Betty and Glen, but it’s much less strange, less unsettling. Peggy, unlike Betty, is not fundamentally childish. What’s going on between Julio and Peggy is not some oddball connection between unexpected peers, it’s something much more predictable and appropriate: It’s maternal. And for Peggy to feel maternal and to realize she is feeling maternal is, for Peggy specifically, real emotional progress.

Julia, you asked about Ted Chaough and I think he, like Joan, was underserved this season. Ted has been hating on advertising and his life since the premiere, presumably residual ennui from the end of his affair with Peggy, but the distance between clean cut, kindly, responsible Ted and the wild-haired guy who would nihilistically cut his engine with Sunkist in the cockpit is far: It could have used some fleshing out. As is, it feels like a minor sideshow. After all, it took Don all of 20 seconds to get Ted to retraverse this vast emotional gulf and to agree, once again, to be a fully invested ad-man.

Ted’s emotional arc felt almost cartoonish to me: The guy in midlife crisis flailing around in his unmanageable feelings. Joan, while not flailing, had almost as caricaturish a storyline (last week’s dismissal of Bob Benson being the exception). The show finally threw the audience a bone and explained some of Joan’s beef with Don: He cost her a ton of money. She’s willing to oust Don as a partner for this. But all it takes is Roger telling her she may get $1.5 million (based on a valuation he pulled out of thin air; maybe he has a future in tech if he can live another 40 years) for her to squeal and switch teams. Knowing what we know about Joan, all of this is comprehensible, even sympathetic—Joan, a single mother, a secretary turned partner, earned that money and needs the security it provides more than the other partners—but we have to bring this knowledge to bear, or Joan just seems heartlessly acquisitive.

I agree, Julia, that this was the most pleasing episode of Mad Men since the team launched Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and I too worry about what that means for next season. Are our heroes really up? Or are they just rich? The name of this episode was “Waterloo.” Whose? Bert with his Napoleon references and death? Or everyone else, who just don’t know they lost the war yet? The potential poison in the positive was plainest to see in Sally’s storyline. She’s so drawn to the hunk in the kitchen she puts on lipstick to go to the pool and starts adopting his quibbles about the space program. (That was a funny moment, the teenager grousing about the waste of resources. Kids, they’ll say anything to disagree with their parents.) But she ends up kissing the geek with the telescope instead, a more age-appropriate, less sexually advanced choice. Is Sally really exhibiting some innate common sense here, knowing the older boy is a little too much for her, or does she just need to kiss someone and will try to make it with the older boy the next night? Is Sally really making a good choice for herself or just a circumstantial one? I have the same question for everyone at SC&P. There was a reason Don and Ted didn’t want to work for McCann. Is Cutler and his vision, even of Harry and computers, really worse?

Seth, before I kick it to you, I do want to pull back a bit. Mad Men is the kind of show that makes it easy to miss the forest for all the thematically rich, interestingly designed trees. Many times this season, I dove in on some storyline, ignoring whatever reservations I had about the show as a whole. I thought this season was better than last—at least we seem to have finally skipped out of the Don-is-a-depressive groove—without being as good as this show once was. Some urgency, some originality is gone, probably the price for a show being in its seventh season. Mad Men is so mannered in a specifically Mad Men way. Every episode, for example, contains multiple scenes in which two characters exchange lines and agendas without—and this is often the point—listening to one another, a once fresh technique that now feels like a stagey, repetitive tic. We have seen the characters form a “new” company three times now! Even Bert’s musical number felt to me like something Weiner has been saving up since he first cast Robert Morse, who before Mad Men was best known as the star of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. We’re running down the checklist of things left to do.

At least I’VE GOT 10 PERCENT,