Cooper dropping postmortem truth bombs. image courtesy of Tumblr
Hey kiddos. Sorry for the insane delay in posting my thoughts on the Mad Men midseason finale. I was in Ireland for a fortnight, traveled for approximately 24 hours total to get back to Los Angeles, and then getting back in the rhythm of real life knocked me out. Seriously, it was an epic poem for me to get home and to get back at it already.
In the interest of pragmatism, I shoddily streamed this episode on my cave internet connection by way of China to my 13″ MacBook Pro while I was out of the country. MAGIC. Honest to god, this was so I could look at social media without being assaulted by whatever potential spoilers were undoubtedly lurking — and I finally had a chance to watch it on my normal-ass TV last night. So, here I am. Frankly I’ve been thinking about this episode daily for the past few weeks, and I have no idea where to begin. My notes are a total disaster. Like I’ve said before, there’s SO MUCH in this episode.. goddamn.
Hey, Ted’s back! And he’s a complete fucking maniac! We haven’t seen much of him this season, but what we have seen is a mopey teenager who’s totally lovesick and miserable in the Golden State. In a super dark sequence, he’s flying the Sunkist guys around in his little plane and alludes to death being the end of all troubles in life. He then shuts down the engines and makes the Sunkist guys shit their collective pants for a little bit to drive his point home. NOT GREAT, TED. This isn’t a good look. Ted is fed up with advertising and hates the LA office, and all that comes with it. He wants to quit and expresses this to Cutler and an hysterical Pete, which does not go over well. Sigh. More on Ted later.
As an aside – I gotta say, props to Cutler for being extremely dismissive of gormless Lou in the wake of Commander Cigarettes bailing. We all know his motivations are shallow at best, but calling Lou a “hired hand” was a pretty awesome slap in the face. Cutler was only nice to Lou in order to get Don out of the picture, and when that didn’t work, Lou is of no value to Cutler anymore. Damn, that’s cold.
The Moon belongs to everyone! I’m fucking thrilled that Weiner didn’t troll us all and gloss over the Moon Landing like a total dick. Fun fact: in middle school, I was completely obsessed with 1960s/1970s NASA (naturally, this made me super popular at parties). I sought out every damn book about the Apollo program that I could find at the Ramsey Public Library, taped every PBS documentary that was on, and completely immersed myself in the Space Race and that awesome historical period of innovation, exploration, and emerging technology. An era of hope.
However, all that reading didn’t quite expose me to what we see on display in “Waterloo” – the simultaneous wonder and fantastic dread that comes along with exploring an unchartered alien world. Everyone at SC&P is buzzing, “what if they don’t make it??” Peggy, Don, Pete and Harry are in Indianapolis to pitch to Burger Chef on July 21st. If the astronauts don’t make it or something goes catastrophically wrong on the 20th, that pitch is put on indefinite leave – not unlike Don’s predicament. Somehow, I never connected that so much business could be riding on the success or failure of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins making it to the surface of the Moon and safely returning home. Everyone at SC&P is on edge.
As an offshoot of the Moon Landing, that idea of unchartered territory has been running deep this season as well. The Space Race, Don starting from the bottom to work his way back up, Peggy delivering a massively important pitch on the fly, Roger becoming acting President of SC&P, and obvi, the Moon itself. These territories are all carefully explored as we follow these people on their journey throughout this season.
During the Moon Landing sequence, we see a few families taking it all in together. Roger and Mona along with Brooks and space-helmeted Ellery all watch together, takeout strewn about the coffee table. The Francis residence is brimming with guests watching the lunar landing together. Pete, Harry, Don and Peggy are their own family watching a motel television broadcast together, with only two beers to cut the tense anticipation of what may or may not go wrong.
These characters are all in flux and have each lost something this season. Roger lost his sense of worth, being snubbed by Cutler and shut out of most actual business proceedings. He couldn’t save his own daughter from that filthy hippie farm upstate, either. Pete has all but completely lost his family, and his life in LA is losing its lustre. Harry alludes to Jennifer demanding a divorce, but she hesitates once he drops the potential partnership bomb (get that money, Jennifer). Peggy just lost Julio, the upstairs neighbour kid who has turned into her surrogate son of sorts; she takes the news of his family moving out with a heavy heart which is fitting, since he seems to be around the age of her lovechild with Pete.
“I don’t want to go to Newark!”
Don thinks he’s losing his place at SC&P in the form of Cutler trying his damnedest to give him the boot, via a boilerplate attorney letter sent to him as a last resort right before the Burger Chef trip. Following an awkward kiss from Meredith (fucking LOL FOREVER) and some distractingly dramatic music, Don makes a beeline for Cutler’s office and busts in on (another) meeting. He tries to get a rise out of Don by cutting him down to size as just “a bully and a drunk” rather than this alleged genius shrouded in mystery, but Don stoically absorbs it and leaves. I mean, I thought for sure Don was gonna headbutt Cutler, but cooler heads prevailed and he immediately shut the whole thing down like a boss. Good work, Don. He shows the letter to Roger, Cooper and the rest of the partners – whose names were all at the bottom, mind you – and they’re all shocked at Cutler’s actions. They take a vote on the spot and it’s essentially nullified. Bam.
Don has finally lost Megan, in their surprisingly sad phone conversation right before he left for Indianapolis. He tells her about that letter and being on the chopping block, and when he mentions that he can finally move to LA in an attempt to repair things with her, she isn’t having it. Their conversation about ending things is a stark contrast to his confrontation with Betty and their ensuing nasty divorce and aftermath; Don quietly reassures Megan that he’ll always take care of her, and she says that he doesn’t owe her anything. Is it really the end? Who knows. It feels like it this time.
In the wake of all of their personal shit, these people bond just a little bit while taking in this awesome moment together, sharing an unspoken connection in that drab motel room. As Armstrong takes his first tentative steps, everyone is awash in the glowing warmth of the television. You can hear other guests in the motel losing their shit and cheering as Armstrong exits that LEM for the first time. That connection they’ve unknowingly been yearning for, been starving for, is encapsulated in that moment.
As an aside, how much Betty realness is Sally exuding in this episode?? MY GOD. Her hair! Her clothes! Her makeup! Her mannerisms! The Francises have some friends staying with them, with their two sons in tow; a hot idiot (Sean) and a geek (Neil). Sally is instantly drawn to Sean, just like her mother would be. When he loudly declares that the Moon Landing is a waste of money and Sally parrots that fuckery to her father on the phone, Don delivers the smackdown; “You want your little brothers to talk that way?” Don is no cynic, and he ain’t got time for that sort of basic flop bullshit. She understands, and then joins Neil and his telescope outside. They share a moment after she sees Polaris, and she goes right in and kisses him. I love this moment because she totally ignores Betty’s oldschool wisdom of “you don’t kiss boys, boys kiss you” from s3e8, “Souvenir”. Once Neil runs inside at his mother’s call, Sally lights up a cigarette and echoes Betty’s mannerisms down to a T. However, she defies the Betty in her by going for the thoughtful Neil instead of the cynical hot idiot Sean. So great.
Watching the Moon Landing with his housekeeper, Bert Cooper’s last words may have been an emphatic “Bravo”, watching Neil Armstrong as he takes his first steps. Absolutely fitting for a man so great. Cooper’s death has been widely speculated for the past couple of seasons, but actually having it happen and seeing the impact it has on the agency is another thing entirely.
Roger’s Moon Landing experience is interrupted with an “oh shit” phone call, which I immediately thought was someone calling to say that hippie Margaret/Marigold is dead. Turns out it’s actually worse — Bert Cooper, Roger’s lifelong friend and mentor, died in his home that evening. This means that Roger has to finally step up to the plate at SC&P; he has some enormous argyle socks to fill, after all. The last exchange we see between Cooper and Roger is when Cooper tells him that Cutler has “a vision” for the company, while they argue over Don’s fate and what to do. Cooper tells Roger that he’s not a leader, which Roger takes to heart. I mean, Cooper’s corpse is still warm when Cutler firmly tells Roger that Don is done at SC&P since the partners no longer have the votes, hammering the non-leader point home even further. That motherfucker is cold as ice.
Roger Sterling has been a longtime favourite character of mine, and he really gets his shit together in this episode. We saw him have a bizarre sauna conversation with Draper-thirsty Jim Hobart in “The Strategy”, and once Cutler attempts to take control a lightbulb pops on for Roger. Why not use Hobart’s unrelenting borderline creepy thirst as a vehicle to return control of SC&P back to Roger? Bingo. Roger slaps together a merger of sorts with McCann, where SC&P would still be owned by him AND independently operated, but in the process shedding the CGC weight that’s still dragging the company down (read:Cutler), axing Harry’s non-partnership in the process. AND NONE FOR HARRY CRANE, BYE.
Sterling the Redeemer. image courtesy of Tumblr
Don is immediately not on board with this plan, but still votes in favour of it happening for the benefit of the agency. He also knows that Roger is on his side, and will fight to keep his place at SC&P if and when it all goes through. All is not lost after all, Don! Roger breaks the news to the partners (and tells Harry to fuck off in the most hilar way possible), and while hesitant, they’re all on board by the end.. even Cutler. Ted takes some goading, as he still adamantly wants out; Don ends up being the one to convince him to come on board, since McCann won’t take SC&P without the “original Chevy guys”. Their short exchange is a really nice moment of growth, with Don showing him something real and honest, and seeing the positive impact it has on Ted. He encourages him to stay on board as creative, to get back to the brass tacks of what he loves to do and relish in the simpler things. Don speaks to him as a friend, and Ted is on board.
But oh man, that ending. Initially when I was watching it all unfold, I was thinking “What in the actual fuck? Has Weiner completely lost the plot??” This isn’t the first time Don has seen dead people, but this is certainly one of the least depressing ones he’s seen, on the surface at least. Cooper – socks and all – receives a grand sendoff with a song and dance number of “The Best Things in Life are Free”, an appropriate and loving nod to Morse’s Broadway past. A musical number featuring a recently deceased character is a risky choice for sure, but it makes a ton of sense in the overarching themes of this mini-season.
“But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
-Don, s5e2, “Commissions and Fees”
A huge theme in this show from the very start is the pursuit of happiness and what that means to each person we see — and if it can actually be done. Does real happiness exist? Is it a thing? These characters are all trying to forge their own paths in life and trying to seek out happiness however they see fit. Turns out Don has been doing it wrong all along, he’s been placing his definition and pursuit of happiness on the wrong things in the wrong places at the wrong times. As a result, we’ve seen his journey as something of a downward spiral and a hot mess. His outwardly idyllic marriage to model Betty and the classic 3 kids with a sprawling house in the suburbs, complete with a Cadillac? His marriage to the young, hot, fun Megan and his enormous apartment in the city? Turns out precisely none of these things brought him true happiness. As the characters on the show learn to focus more on the immaterial versus the material, a weight is gradually lifted.
2001: A Space Peggy. image courtesy of Tumblr.
Back to Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch for a moment. As Don receives news of Cooper’s death, he pops the pitch to her side of the ring. He doesn’t want to land that business and then be immediately fired when him and Peggy worked so closely on it – if that happened, she’d receive nada. He gently encourages her when she doesn’t believe herself capable, and the resulting pitch she delivers at the meeting is magnificent. I was instantly reminded of the s1 finale “The Carousel”, and Don’s iconic Kodak pitch of the same name. She talks about the constant mess at home, and how television has impaired personal connections; dinner is supposed to be a time where you catch up as a family, and enjoy one another’s company. This ritual of a nightly family meal echoes our ever-present yearning to feel connected, to be a part of something. That baseline human want of a sense of community, of belonging, of family – this can be found at a Burger Chef table. That immaterial sense of belonging which we all seek is what’s really important in life, and Peggy puts it all out there for those executives in her pitch. Goddamn.
Those themes also fit right in with the evolution of “family”, and how divided some of these characters are becoming as their motivations are revealed. This episode confirms that Cutler’s only real motivation in life is money, the material – not that this is shocking, but watching him flipflop so rapidly with his opposition to the McCann merger as the cash value is revealed was an “….OH. well!” moment for sure.
So. Cutler, Joan, and Harry are in camp Cash Money Blang while Don, Peggy, Ted, Pete and Roger are seeking something different, something deeper. A sense of purpose perhaps, a love for their work, that lost sense of camaraderie and belonging at SC&P. I mean, money is still a big part of it for them (especially giddy Pete and his 10%), but it’s not the prime influence for them. This midseason finale draws that line of success between monetary gain and that of unbreakable, important bonds between people; after all, the most important things in life don’t cost a dime. Stick with the immaterial, guys.
The start of Don’s story this season was shaky for sure, but as he gains perspective on the shit that actually matters in life, he’s able to make a great deal of positive personal progress. Don is in fact able to overcome his past actions and slowly repair relationships with his colleagues/friends; he finds solace and success with personal fulfillment rather than a number or a title. He finds peace in going back to the start, writing tags and coupons, reconciling with his demons. As Cooper sings, “the best things in life are free”, this is actually sinking in for Don. It’s a fucking Christmas Miracle, you guys. Seeing the look on Don’s face as the gravity of this lighthearted sentiment hits home is nothing short of poetic; he’s been doing it wrong all along, but Cooper gently reminds him it’s never too late to get your ass on the right track. Stay focused, stay on the straight and narrow, appreciate the immaterial.
Ugh, I can’t believe we have to wait another goddamned year for the final 7 episodes of Mad Men. Stay tuned to the Den, kiddos; I’ll for sure have posts coming your way soon! But for now, that was an awesome mini-season. I’m sad to see Mad Men disappear from my TV until 2015.