“Waterloo,” the often hilarious, intermittently moving and totally engrossing final chapter of the so-called first half of Mad Men’s final season almost felt more like Mad Men: The Movie than a standard season finale. (Or, bleh, mid-season finale.) For one, it deals with a lot of loose strands from previous episodes. It also introduces a whole new original story involving the first real Major Historical Moment that season seven has covered. And it perfectly encapsulates all of the themes of the previous six episodes, as well as the stages of life through which all of our major characters have been going through this season.
It begins with two minor characters that end up having large roles in this iteration of Sterling Cooper’s endgame. While Bert Cooper is anxiously waiting for the moon landing in New York, Ted Chaough is off in California, jeopardizing business and not really caring much if he lives or dies. Neither character has been given the spotlight much this season, but both stories have been building for some time. Whereas Ted’s discontentment has been mounting since the conclusion of last season (when he attempted to selflessly fall on his sword by ending his affair with Peggy, and fled to run the new SC&P branch across the country), Bert’s infatuation with the moon has been referenced since the beginning of the series.
At the behest of a hilariously irate Pete Campbell (“And the clients want to live too, Ted!”), Jim Cutler confronts Ted about his increasingly erratic and disinterested behavior. Ted’s doesn’t so much want to kill himself as much as he wants to kill his career, and move on to a better professional life. Which is timely, because immediately after that we get our first and only Lou Avery appearance, who informs us that Commander Cigarettes, the account that Cutler and Lou were using to push Don out of the company is dead too. Cutler brushes it off, but Lou’s not that kind of guy. All he can think of is how the great Don Draper, the man whose shadow he’s been filling all season long, has ruined yet another opportunity for him.
“We don’t owe you anything. You’re a hired hand. Now get back to work,” Cutler snaps at him. (Sidenote: In light of the status quo-shifting conclusion of this episode, might this be the last we see of big, bad Lou Avery?) While the sidelined Lou is off huffing and puffing, the creatives and account men of SC&P are actually concentrating on the work – or they’re trying to, at least. Really, they’re spending more time than anything trying not to panic as they prepare for their pitch to Burger Chef. It will be Don’s first chance to shine since he melted down in the Hershey meeting. It’s also a crucial account for the company to obtain. The opportunity, however, is coming on the heels of what could very well be the high water mark of the whole century. How are they possibly going to convince a company to care what they have to say about burgers after something as monumental as the moon landing?
Meanwhile, a family of four is staying at the Francis residence. They have two sons. One is a muscular, hyper-masculine piece of meat; the other is quite possibly the nerdiest human to ever be featured in an episode of Mad Men. Which one do you think Bobby is going to bond with? Which one will Sally be attracted to? Betty doesn’t get a whole lot do this episode, but she does reveal something significant, even as it has no relevance to the plot itself. She claims she’s starting to think of Don “as an old bad boyfriend.” On one hand: OK, Betty. Go ahead and think that about the father of your three children, the man to whom to you were married. But on the other, it’s a perfect mirror of how everyone is starting to look at Don.
Relationships sour all of the time; it’s easy to forget the high points when the last act was so tumultuous. Betty doesn’t remember the ten years in which Don provided everything for her and her kids, and, later, it’s revealed that Megan doesn’t think much of the long-forgotten honeymoon period of her marriage to Don, either. The head honchos of SC&P no longer care that it was Don’s scintillating work, dazzling pitches and overall mystique that gave their agency an identity to the outside world. In the “What have you done for me lately?” world of both business and life, Don Draper’s previous accomplishments have become one big blur of a fading memory.
But, be that as it may, Don still has his admirers, such as his mousey secretary, Meredith. When Don walks into his office, she delivers a letters that informs Don that he’s breached his contract (remember, a couple of episodes back, when Don barged in on the Commander Cigarettes meeting?), and it’s thus being terminated. Meredith responds to Don’s newfound “vulnerability” by trying to be his “strength”. When she leans in and kisses him, Jon Hamm produces of his funniest “Don is surprised, amused and doesn’t know what to do” expressions in the entire show’s run. After a heated confrontation with Cutler, Don assembles the partners to inform them that Cutler has been trying to push Don out behind everyone else’s backs. “You shouldn’t have done that,” Joan warns Cutler after the extemporaneous meeting is adjourned, and she doesn’t know the half of it.
For a portion of this season, it was unclear how Peggy’s mostly off-screen, but occasionally onscreen, relationship with her tenant’s son played into everything, but in “Waterloo” that became much more clear. Julio stops by her apartment, as he often does, to watch TV, and we see how even nearly a decade since she had a child she didn’t want out of wedlock, Peggy still has a hard time dealing with children. However, while there, Julio reveals to Peggy that he’s actually upset because her mother got a new job and they’re moving away. His mother seems to be inattentive and mostly absentee, so he’s been spending a lot of time with Peggy. As usual, Peggy’s been too involved in work to realize the other things going on in her life; the boy has developed a bond with her, but she doesn’t realize it until he spontaneously hugs her.
Mid-way through the episode, an insightful yet heartbreaking discussion between Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling takes place. Roger is keen on defending Don, extricating the agency from the wrath of Cutler and standing up for himself. (He also calls Joan “Benedict Joan” which must be mentioned.) Cooper, however, as he tends to do, takes a pragmatic approach, saying that even though he knows how good Don can be, Don’s on his way out. “Then why didn’t you vote him out?” Roger asks, perplexed by his old friend’s logic. “Because I’m a leader, and a leader’s loyal to his team”. Shortly afterwards, though, he gives Roger a stinging, backhanded compliment, “And you have talent and skill and experience,” he says with a sigh, “but you’re not a leader.” He’s absolutely right. While Cutler has asserted himself and proved that he has a vision in a short period of time, Roger has long been something of a gesture to the agency. He’s far outlived his relevance, and he didn’t do near as much as he thinks he did even when he had more clout.
The centerpiece of the episode is, of course, the moon landing. In some ways, you could say that the whole series, the whole decade, has been building up to this moment. The event is gorgeously directed by Matthew Weiner. The camera focuses on the SC&P Burger Chef family scrounging around the TV in an Indiana hotel room; pans across the Sterling household to reveal Roger, his grandson, his son-in-law, and, most interestingly, his ex-wife gathered together; gives us a glimpse of Bert Cooper and his housekeeper watching in equal parts delight and disbelief; and ends with the two families at the Francis residence.
However, Mad Men has always been good at showing that even though historic events have a way of making the world stop, it only lasts for a moment before everyone else’s personal lives carry on. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Margaret Sterling still had to get married. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Dawn still had work to attend to. And when Bobby Kennedy was later that year, Don was hardly fazed; it barely registered when compared to his inescapable inner turmoil. And so the joy and wonder of the historic moment is almost immediately undercut by an upsetting phone call that Roger receives: Old, wise and stubborn Bert Cooper has finally passed away.
Roger returns to the office, and calls the partners together to come up with a plan for honoring his dearly departed friend, the last vestige of the original Sterling Cooper. Once he arrives, Cutler barely spits out his condolences before he turns the situation into a way to, once and for all, oust Don Draper. “Is this what would happen if I died?” Roger asks in disgust; the question, an echo of Roger’s existential angst that tracks back all the way to season one.
Like Cutler, Sally Draper is also over the moon landing, but for different reasons. Her ostensible crush in the living room thinks the whole thing was a waste of money and the geek outside is looking at it through a telescope, a much more intimate way to commemorate the moment. Whether it’s because the moment’s so heightened, or because she knows picking the nerd over the hunk will give her the most control, Sally she kisses Neil with Don-like confidence after looking through his telescope and then has a smoke in her best Betty pose. (As she has done all season, and, really, all series, Kiernen Shipka kills it. It will be fascinating to see what the rest of this season has in store for Sally and what Shipka will have in store for us in her post Mad Men career.)
After Don learns the news from Roger, he changes gears. Without Bert’s vote of confidence, Don’s done, so he meets with Peggy in the middle of the night and gives her the new lay of the land. If he wins Burger Chef’s business and is forced out, she’s left with nothing, he explains. But if she wins it, then it will be hers for the long haul. She’s hesitant, at first. She’s not prepared, Pete’s won’t be for it, and she’ll be presenting in the shadow of what’s considered the greatest achievement of mankind. But, with a push from her much-celebrated mentor, she agrees to take his torch. At the meeting, Don surprises everyone (except for Peggy) when he presents Peggy to do the pitch. Peggy begins by confronting the elephant in the room, directly recognizing the relative insignificance of advertising in comparison to something as monumental as what happened the night before. She then talks about how TV has become more of centerpiece for family gatherings than meals at the dinner table. Everyone’s a little on edge, but she slowly reels them in by beautifully presenting the angles that her and Don agreed on in “The Strategy”. It’s a resounding success, her very own “Carousel” moment. (Or, perhaps, something closer to Don’s Lucky Strike triumph in the pilot.)
Don and Peggy aren’t the only ones jockeying, though. Roger, fueled by his love and respect for Bert Cooper, his all-out disdain for Jim Cutler, and his recommitment to self-preservation, is doing some scheming of his own. He meets with one of the suits from McCann Erickson, the behemoth the tried to swallow up the agency at the end of season three. Roger devises a scheme that is reminiscent of the “fire us” caper of “Shut the Door. Have A Seat”. You see, even though SC&P lost the Chevy account, gaining it and producing quality work is their crowning achievement. The suit wants the whole Chevy team to come to McCann, but Roger thinks that McCann should buy the whole company, and not just it’s most valuable parts. SC&P could bring in Buick, as long as they get Don and Ted on board, and Roger could become the president of the new SC&P, which will keep its name but be a subsidiary of the McCann. There are a lot of variables, but it’s a winning equation for our beloved protagonists.
Of course, it takes some convincing to get Don to sign on, even though he’s the one that it benefits more than anyone (outside of President Roger Sterling, that is). Don’s feelings about McCann have been well documented, but his opinion changes once Roger says: “Culter’s not going to stop until the firm is just Harry and the computer!” Don might be able to stomach getting butted out, because he has no choice, and because he’s surprisingly become remarkably graceful at swallowing his pride, but he won’t be able to stand letting the entire agency that he founded become something completely unrecognizable. It all culminates in a final meeting of the partners in which almost everyone has something to bring up. Roger, of course, has the news of the winning endgame that he’s craftily engineered. Joan is concerned with the remarks of the deceased Bert Cooper. Cutler is finally ready to deliver the decisive blow to Don. Ted is about to announce that he’s leaving the company and advertising altogether. And Pete, par for the course, is worked up over not having heard anything about Burger Chef yet.
Roger’s announcement takes precedence. Not only will the acquisition swing things to his favor, it will also make everyone in the room millions of dollars. Allow Roger to explain: “Let’s say they value the agency at $65 million and they buy 51% of it. That means your 5% share is worth a little over one and a half million dollars”. Joan can barely believe it; Pete has the funniest response and it’s vintage Pete Campbell: “I’ve got 10%!” he beams. It all comes down to a vote. Harry could have swung it, but he’s not a partner yet, so it’s actually up to Ted. For his percentage of shares, he could make $6 million (which, it must be said, amounts to $42 million by today’s standards!). But the money doesn’t matter to him, he just wants out of the game. Roger, however, has an ace in the hole in the form of Don and his most recent experiences. Cutler pleads with Ted, but Don’s much more convincing. He’s been revitalized by his fall to the bottom, freed by his lack of obligation to “business”. He delivers the potent Don Draper pitch that we thought we were getting with Burger Chef. When the partners vote, our Sterling Cooper originals Roger, Don, Pete and Joan vote yes. Ted hesitates and then votes yes, too, effectively putting an end to Cutler’s reign of terror. To the disbelief of everyone, Cutler raises his hand to make it unanimous. As unlikable as he’s been this season, Jim Cutler still has his wit and self-interest in tact. “It’s a lot of money,” he says.
If a thematically rich and catchy late-60s song played and it cut to black right there, it would all amount to what was by and large a pretty terrific and fully satisfying season finale, if not series finale. But Weiner had one more enchanting trick up his sleeve to put an exclamation point on what was a brilliant and fascinating seven-episode run. After Peggy tells Don that they got the account, after the mentor and the mentee, their bond now stronger than ever, hug, Don heads downstairs to leave before the twin announcements are made to the rest of the company. He’s going back to work, except he hears an eerily familiar voice. “Don, my boy,” it says. He turns to see Bert Cooper and, to his utter shock and movement, he comes to life in a rousing musical number.
“The best things in life are free,” Bert sings. And like these best things, Don is free, too. He’s no longer stuck at a company that’s largely moved on from him. He’s no longer trapped in a sham of a marriage. He’s free, as Freddy Rumsen put it, to just “do the work”.
His work, advertising, hinges on buying and selling. It’s the exact opposite of the word “free”. For seven seasons, Mad Men has been a show about people who want things, those that would spend an infinite amount of money to get them. Roger Sterling and Peggy Olsen can’t buy respect from their colleagues. Don Draper and Ted Chaough can’t buy happiness.
With Don Draper making life-altering revelations, and yet another era of SC taking shape, the past clearly is over. Man has landed on the moon; the future is now. The only thing that’s certain is that the world will never be the same.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.