Even though the last season of Mad Men isn’t over yet, we won’t get any new episodes until 2015, so past Sunday’s “Waterloo” acted like a season finale of sorts – it also started that inevitable slide toward the show’s finish. From this episode on, I can see the show taking on a valedictory feeling. Because we won’t be seeing the gang from Sterling Cooper & Partners for a little bit, writers Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner managed to throw in all the major characters. In the hour (that felt far too short), Don learns his worth at the office and regains his mojo yet loses in his marriage, Peggy summons up the kind of brilliance that made her Don’s protégé in the first place, and Roger confronts mortality, his limits as a boss, as well as his untapped potential. And Sally is one step closer toward becoming the new Betty Francis. And all of the noise about a Mad Men character came to fruition when Bert Cooper dies, leaving his colleagues – especially Roger – in grief.
The title refers to failed ambitions and thwarted goals. When Napoleon fought in Waterloo, he suffered the loss of his political and military power. And it’s unclear on who we’re supposed to hang the historical reference – is it Jim Cutler, who is trying, seemingly in vain, to get Don out of SCP? Is it Don, who is waging a battle against Jim and Lou, to assert himself at the agency? Or maybe it’s Peggy, who’s working on blending a (nonexistent) personal life with a growingly unsatisfying personal life? Or maybe it’s Roger, who feels he’ll never measure up to his pop in Bert’s eyes.
I thought about Waterloo and its implied failure a lot, especially when trying to figure out how the lunar landing fits into the theme. It’s funny because the lunar landing represents success – unqualified success. When Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin made it to the moon, they achieved something that was almost supernatural. And the awed reactions from the characters were a testament to just how incredibly far-fetched and incredible the concept of walking on the moon really was.
It’s in this context of unequivocal success, that the characters on Mad Men do their best to achieve their lunar landing. For the whole truncated season, Don has been trying to find his way, his position at the office severely compromised by the cruelly humiliating contract he was forced to sign. Despite being a prolific and dutiful worker bee, Jim still wants to push Don out. He pulls some awful crap on Don, trying to squeeze him out, accusing Don of breach of contract for his impromptu performance with Phillip Morris; Harry Crane, trying to ascend to partner is a definite vote for yea, as is a fully-fed up Joan, who no longer looks at Don as an ally (it’s pretty sad how tattered their friendship became). Don’s nothing if not a realist, and calls Megan, letting her know that he may have the opportunity to move to L.A. and join her. I’m not sure what was sadder: that the two finally came to terms with the end of their marriage, or that Don was still trying, even though he knew it was over. Unlike his split with Betty, this time Don’s full of compassion and sadness, as opposed to bile and bitterness.
But Megan isn’t the only woman in Don’s life – Peggy has always played the role of his soul mate. Ever since “The Suitcase,” the relationship between the two has grown into a deep and complex situation. They knew each other very well, because they were basically the same person. In the past few episodes, they weren’t close, too busy sniffing each other out. It’s only after they have a cathartic shouting match that they finally reach a point where their friendship picks up: and because Don is worried that he’s being fired, he wants to make sure that Peggy’s got some leverage if he has to leave, no matter what the future for the agency brings; so instead of being the hero for the ad pitch for BurgerChef, he pushes Peggy to do so – and what happens is Peggy returns to the kind of brilliant creativity that was stifled and blunted under the hostile condescension of Lou. In a season that’s treated Peggy so terribly, it’s gratifying to see Peggy triumphantly return to her glorious self. Elisabeth Moss had a lot of highs in the series, but her performance during Peggy’s pitch (which was fantastic) ranks as one of her best (Emmy voters should take note).
And though Peggy’s enjoying professional success, her personal life is complicated. Motherhood has been on Peggy’s peripheral throughout the season, especially while working on the BurgerChef account. She was called upon repeatedly for the “mom voice” and she’s continuously thinking about the campaign and how she can reach mothers who are trying to balance busy schedules. And while I don’t think she regrets her decision to give up her baby, it’s something that is on her mind; her friendship with her 11-year old neighbor allows for her to act like a surrogate mother, and when he breaks the news that he’s moving to Newark (“Nobody wants to go to Newark”), she mourns the loss of a second child.
But it’s Bert’s death and what it does to Roger that is the centerpiece of this excellent episode. Roger was good at his job, but not great – it’s obvious that he’s a nepotism case, and it’s his charm and intelligence that carries him, because his work ethic is a little so-so. In the past few episodes, with Jim’s growing ambition and rank pulling, Roger had to confront that he’s not the impervious smooth operator he was before; he couldn’t guarantee Don’s job without the awful contract, which showed him just how limited his powers could be. When Jim was trying to take over the company, he showed that he would be running things his way – he had allies in Joan and possible partner Harry, and Bert was keeping a healthy distance as the partners duked it out. So when Bert died, Jim was practically licking his chops seeing that Roger’s high-placed ally was gone – but Roger decided to work for once – really work – and finagled a sale to McCann, which would mean millions for the partners. Despite being thwarted, even Jim could see a good deal and voted yea.
Outside the world of advertising, Betty Francis is hosting a college chum – Life Goes On and ER beauty Kellie Martin who shows up with her two adolescent sons – a hunky athletic type, and his younger, gawky, nebbish brother who is looking forward to the lunar landing. Sally strolls into the scenes and catches the eye of the older brother, and quickly dominates her scenes as she looks for approval from the handsome young man. When he sniffs dismissively at the cost of the lunar landing, she parrots the same line to Don, who calls her to share in the incredible moment. Sally and Don have an interesting relationship – she’s too mature for her own good, and he’s too immature, and Don seems to be catching up in terms of being a father. But as usual, Kiernan Shipka marched through the proceedings easily stealing the episode. While it would’ve been predictable for Sally to mess around with the himbo, instead she shares a moment with the younger kid – who seems almost infantile when standing next to her (it doesn’t help that his mom calls him into the house because it’s “past his bedtime”). He teaches her how to look through a telescope, and she kisses him. But it’s just a show of her feminine power – despite her contempt for her mother, she’s more Betty than Don – she’s quick to judge, is petulant, and can be very cruel. Even the way she cradles her elbow while smoking her cigarette, mirrors Betty.
So, “Waterloo” sets up a lot of possible avenues for the characters. And even though Jon Hamm’s the lead, and it’s Don’s silhouette that is plummeting from the side of the skyscraper in the opening credits, it’s becoming more apparent that the show may just be about Peggy and that the whole “it’s about Don” thing is a joke or red herring. I’m not the only one who thinks so – my partner pointed out that the first episode of the series is Peggy’s first day at work. We join the Mad Men universe alongside her. And though this doesn’t take anything away from Hamm (who’s consistently brilliant), but Elisabeth Moss really is killing it – even when she’s saddled with some less-than-stellar moments (most of which were on display this season). And even though the show’s called Mad Men, the women have been the most compelling characters – I’m not sure who’s my favorite – Peggy or Sally, but both characters have really taken the show into some fantastic places – Peggy with her lived-in feminism, and Sally with her frustrated adolescence. And Joan’s journey has also provided the show with some of the most heart-breaking moments, as she turns her back on an era that valued her beauty over her intelligence, and has caught up with Peggy in a new era, that is unsure of just what to do with smart, intelligent women. Even minor characters like Trudy and Mona have been great. The only sour note is poor Betty – and this has nothing to do with January Jones, who’s never less than solid – but it was a mistake to create Betty as solely Don’s wife, without much interaction with the agency, because after the divorce, Betty felt superfluous and her story lines weren’t nearly as interesting or compelling. Instead, she became a recurring character, like Mona, which is a shame because in the first two seasons, Betty was responsible for some of the most incredible moments on the show (I still love the image of the former Mrs. Draper shooting pigeons on her front lawn, dressed to the nines).
In the long time that fans will have to wait, we can all speculate on what direction the show will take – Bert’s died, so I’m hoping that the other characters are safe – though it looks like Ted has a death wish and is despondent about having to work in advertising, a job he hates at this point. Folks liked to imagine that Megan would’ve died in a Sharon Tate-inspired story line, but it looks like she’s safe – though it also appears as if we probably won’t be seeing much of the second Mrs. Draper now that the marriage is over. But what this shortened series did is it brought back the characters to some kind of square one, where they get a clean slate to reinvent themselves. It’ll be interesting to see what they do.
- Just one for this episode: initially, I found Robert Morse’s musical number kinda silly and indulgent – after all, why not give the song-and-dance man a musical number? And this isn’t the first time we see a ghostly apparition on Mad Men – Don’s close friend Anna Draper also materialized in front of him after she died. Again, in retrospect, the effect works better than I thought. And Morse was wonderfully agile and spry, betraying his advanced years.