On “Mad Men,” progress has always been marked in small steps rather than giant leaps. The slightest of gestures — a kiss on the hand here, a stunned glance there — take on outsized importance in the world of this series, where in contrast to the sweeping historical changes of the decade in which it is set, personal development is incremental at best. So it’s nearly miraculous that the last of the seven “Mad Men” episodes to air this year, “Waterloo,” ends with what may be the least subtle gesture of all — a song-and-dance routine borrowed from a Broadway musical.
Despite the grim outcomes suggested by its ominous title, “Waterloo” is an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection. It caps off a cycle of episodes that began with Don and his ilk “rich in goods but ragged in spirit” and more alienated than ever and ends with the series’ central characters enjoying deepened bonds of friendship and finding renewed pleasure in their work.
From daffy Meredith’s wholly misguided attempt to console Don to Bert’s posthumous stocking-footed dance routine, “Waterloo” is suffused with a sense of levity and whimsy unusual for the chronically brooding “Mad Men,” particularly for an episode that begins with the arrival of a litigious letter and includes the death of a major character and the demise of a marriage.
And yet, at least on the level of plot, there is something entirely familiar about “Waterloo.” All season long, “Mad Men” has returned to familiar turf — disastrous office bouquet mix-ups, late-night bonding sessions between Peggy and Don, tobacco pitches, panic over the arrival of new gizmos at the office. Even Julio and Peggy’s unlikely friendship — truly one of the highlights of this season — plays like a much healthier version of the weird bond between Betty and Glen.
In “Waterloo,” the agency is reincarnated as a division of McCann-Erickson and Don’s second marriage comes to an end, all against the backdrop of a massive historical moment experienced collectively by millions via the television. The episode plays like a hybrid of the classic Season 3 installments, “The Grown-Ups” and “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”, in which the Drapers’ union finally went kaput and Don, Roger and Lane formed their own agency in order to avoid being purchased by McCann.
That’s not to say that “Mad Men” is out of ideas — though I suppose some will make that argument — but rather that in its waning days the series is consciously returning to well-trodden scenarios and themes in a way that hints at progress rather than stasis. In “Waterloo,” characters gather ’round the electronic hearth to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing, with the collective horror and grief of JFK’s assassination nearly six years earlier replaced by a sense of hopefulness and awe.
In a hotel room in Indianapolis, Peggy, Don, Pete and Harry watch the moon landing over cans of beer bought off the night clerk — an image that builds nicely on the parting shot of last week’s episode. Back in Manhattan, Roger silently takes in the landing with his ex-wife, dopey son-in-law and grandson. Absent from the family gathering is Margaret, who is presumably still upstate somewhere communing with nature — the irony being that, by eschewing modern amenities in an effort to “live authentically,” Margaret is missing out on a joyful human experience. Even the teenage cynic Sally, who opts not to experience the supposedly wasteful spectacle on the television, can’t help doing some stargazing — and a little smooching — with a nerdy boy named Neil.
This note of unity is complicated, though not undermined, by two developments: Don and Megan’s (long-overdue) breakup and Bert’s death. Don calls his wife to tell her he’s being pushed out of the agency, and the conversation about his job seamlessly transforms into one about their marriage. “They want me to move on,” he says. “Well, maybe you should. Aren’t you tired of fighting?” Megan replies. The double meaning is unmistakable, and with no more than a few dozen words, they break up peacefully and even lovingly.
All season, Don’s bid to win back his wife has been conflated with his effort to reclaim his role at the agency, and in the end it’s clear which relationship is more essential. Thanks largely to Roger’s loyalty, Don is able to salvage his partnership and his reputation as an in-demand creative genius — The Guy Who Won Chevy. The concern now is whether Don’s monstrous ego will also return, but at some point during his professional exile, when he was busy writing coupons for Peggy, Don rediscovered the simple pleasures of his work. That, as he tells Ted, is what matters — not “stock prices or partnership quotes.”
Let’s just hope Don is able to remember this going forward. Early signs are positive: As the partners announce Cooper’s passing to the agency staff, Don slips away because, as he tells Peggy, he’s got work to do. That’s when he has an apparition of Cooper, Ayn Rand enthusiast and unapologetic objectivist, delivering lyrics that would seem to endorse a form of intergalactic socialism: “The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free, the stars belong to everyone, they gleam there for you and me.” It is, of course, a fitting send-off for Robert Morse, an actor who, until “Mad Men” came along, was primarily known for his work on Broadway. But it also underscores the message of the episode, which is that happiness derives from the success of a shared endeavor — whether a winning Burger Chef pitch or a flight to the moon — rather than self-interested, Machiavellian maneuvering.
There was a time not so long ago when Don would have insisted on making the presentation to Burger Chef, even though it would have spelled disaster for Peggy and Pete had he been ousted from the agency. But he encourages — all but forces, really — Peggy to deliver the pitch, and looks positively ecstatic as she knocks it out of the park. “Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection because I realize now we were starved for it,” she says, speaking of the moon landing, while also neatly summing up the experience of watching this episode. It's nice to see Don, et al., happy for a change.
There is of course a deep irony to the timing of the Burger Chef pitch, which is built on the idea of escaping the divisions played out nightly on TV in order to reclaim an increasingly antiquated idea of family togetherness. The role of television in American life has been a major theme throughout the series, but especially this season. “Mad Men” has long been ambivalent about the medium, illustrating both its capacity to be a mind-numbing narcotic as well as its singular ability to create a shared experience in a time of unprecedented social and political division. In the darkest days of Don’s unemployment, he sat comatose in front of the tube, mindlessly consuming old episodes of “Our Gang.” He’d simply replaced one drug — alcohol — with another.
In the end, though, the show seems to come down on the side of the so-called idiot box: Yes, television is important at moments of massive historical import such as the moon landing, but it’s also capable of fostering unexpected connections on a far more mundane level. If Peggy didn’t possess a television set, it’s unlikely she’d have a “10-year-old boy” waiting for her at home (though the freezer full of popsicles probably helped, too). I suppose one could see this as depressing — Julio is a massive couch potato compelled to visit Peggy of boredom and blind sugar lust— but I simply see it as realistic. Come for the reruns, stay for the companionship.
For fans of “Mad Men” and other “prestige” TV, the Burger Chef pitch can almost be read as a meta-commentary on the state of the medium in 2014. Despite the myriad distractions and alternative viewing options available to us, millions of us still like to tune in live (or close to it), usually on Sunday nights, to a handful of essential shows like “Mad Men.” While nowhere near as miraculous as a moon landing, this routine is wonderfully comforting, which is why it’s sad this series has just seven episodes left.
The question, as “Mad Men” heads into its final, final stretch next year, is whether this tentative mood of optimism can possibly endure in the face of the horrors yet to come. The moon landing is one thing; Altamont and the Manson slayings are quite another.
On that note, I bid you farewell until 2015. Save some popsicles for me.
--Contrast the collapse of Don’s marriage with Harry, who is about as callous and self-interested as can be. No surprise there, obviously.
--The one sour note in this episode is Joan’s hostility to Don, which seems to have materialized from nowhere this season but is explained away by Bert’s claim he “cost her a million dollars” when he opted not to take the company public. While I understand Joan’s frustration with Don’s impulsive and self-serving business decisions, she’s forgiven equal transgressions in the past. (Remember that time Roger lost the Lucky Strikes account and lied about it for weeks?) She and Don have always had such a great understanding, so I hope she can move on; something tells me her newly minted status as a millionaire will help.
--Peggy even has a cute new handyman, Nick, who leaves his number in case she has any “odd jobs” that need to be taken care of around the building — wink, wink. Considering how poor Peggy was reduced to a puddle of tears in the season premiere over the lack of such a figure in her life, this is a clear sign of progress. (Too bad about that dropped ceiling, though.)
--In other romantic news, I love how this episode sets us up to expect some kind of romantic encounter between Sally and the hunky Sean, only to have her opt for Neil and his telescope. That scene where Sally, clad in a red bathing suit, lipstick and amazing bouffant hairdo, shyly shuffles through the kitchen, is Emmy-worthy.
--And this season’s prize for fact-checking goes to… whoever made sure to note Indiana’s blue laws.
--No offense to Lois, Miss Blankenship or Caroline, but I think Meredith might be my favorite wacky “Mad Men” secretary.
--Any theories about when Season 7B of “Mad Men” will resume? In fictional time, it’s now late July 1969. Will we get a Woodstock episode next year, or will the series dodge that landmine of ’60s cliches altogether?