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Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: Mad Men, "Waterloo"

Season 7, Episode 7
Grade: A
Verdict: The series caps off the first half of its Seventh Season in a stunning fashion, giving a show-stopping send-off to one of the shows most fascinating figures and producing perhaps one of the finest hours of television I've ever witnessed. Why does 2015 have to be so far away?

This year, AMC opted to divide the Seventh Season of Mad Men into two halves. While the decision seemed fairly dubious, and is one of aggravation for viewers, Matthew Weiner insisted that this would be of benefit creatively, with a distinct breaking point between the offerings of this year and next. Each half is dubbed "The Beginning" and "The End", while we can't speak to the latter, the former is titled reflecting upon the status quo being restored, particularly by episode's end. Don has a job again, with no proverbial "Sword of Damocles", and he and Peggy have restored their relationship fully. Incidentally, the episode seems awfully fixated on the biggest "end" of them all, death. And that sense of loss reverberates through the events of this week's outing. What do we have to lose to gain what we need? Is it worth the cost?

When "Waterloo" opens, we witness Ted flying the Sunkist team in his private plane at their urging. Ted, of whom Pete dredges up the ghost of Lane Pryce in comparison, cuts the engine off on the place in mid-flight, terrifying his passengers. Ted seemingly has hit the point where he has a death-wish, and was outwardly expressing it to the disdain of the client. In a way, it hearkens back to the pilot episode, when Pete attempted to sell an ad pitch to Lucky Strike that carried much of the same "live and let die" style messaging, which proved just about as successful. It's ironic then, that it's in turn Pete, the very person who stole the idea of the Freudian death-wish out of a wastebasket, who was the angriest about Ted's actions. Ted is looking for a way out of advertising and new way of life that might suit him better, he needs an end, be it through death or the selling of his partnership.

Everyone else seems fairly obsessed with death themselves, particularly when it comes to the safety of the astronauts who were headed for the Apollo Moon Landing. It's a part of the chatter between Stan and his fellow Creative team members, and is an overriding fear of the team going to make the Burger Chef pitch in Indianapolis. Even off-handedly, when Peggy says a hail mary on the plane, Harry, in only a way Harry can state says: "Now I feel like we're in danger!". Everyone seems to be obsessed with death, either as a curiosity, a fear, or as an inconvenience. The only person who isn't wrapped up in his own mortality is Bert Cooper, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he's the one who ends up shuffling his way off the mortal coil.

Bert has long been an area of curiosity for me throughout the series. A mixture of contradictions, a devotee of Ayn Rand, Eastern thought and tradition, and the biggest representative of "old money" that the show has borne witness to (along with Pete's mother). Bert has never really had the spotlight of the series' attentions, but he's always been one of its most fascinating figures, acting as a source of business acumen, and some consternation for Don: who can forget when he forced Don to sign his first contract in the third season, lording over the knowledge of who Don really was? I regret that the series never gave us a closer peak under the hood of what makes a man like that tick, but perhaps that's just the point. Bert represented an older era, one that surpasses even Roger in age (who in turn is a generation ahead of Don), and his passing away represents the changing of the eras in a very real sense.

That handover can be seen in two ways, Bert's final words to Roger are that he didn't see his long-time partner and surrogate son as a leader in comparison to the vision held by Jim Cutler, but because he's on his team, he holds the conflict surrounding Don in a stale-mate. Once he receives word of Bert's passing, Roger knows (and has it shoved in his face almost immediately by Jim) that Don will be on his way out right behind Bert. This of course stirs him into action, signing a deal to sell the entire agency to McCann-Erickson, the kind of arrangement that was unthinkable to Roger and Don just a few years earlier when it almost occurred. But for Roger, this is an opportunity to prove something, not only to himself but to the memories of Bert and his own father. He can be a leader, and he can do it with his shoes on, saving his best friend in the process.

Secondly, and perhaps on a more macro level, Bert's death occurring at the same time as the Moon Landing is a way to differentiate eras. Once we landed on the moon, we had reached a pinnacle achievement that not only solidified our national pride, but also was the first big step at putting a stop to the Cold War. The Moon Landing was a venture into the great beyond and signified the promise of "The Future" more than any other event of the 1960's. Worth noting though, is the nascent cynicism of Betty's friend Carolyn's son, who expresses disdain at the sheer cost of how much money was spent in this venture, when it could go to benefit the people back at home. 

The 70's have often been remarked as the the era of pessimism, films like Taxi Driver, and the years that eventually gave rise to "Generation X". His attitude and the way it rubs off on Sally is mostly just a young lady echoing the thoughts of someone she wants to impress, but it also represents a changing tide in American thought. We never really were as captured with the exploits of NASA in such a way ever again, and by the the time of the new millennium, the cost of the program is indeed what led to its significant reduction in budget and activities. One generation tears down what came before to build something more appropriate to whatever is needed for the time, and the early seeds of NASA's fate can be seen in that line of criticism.

Speaking of generational hand-offs, "Waterloo" also featured what should be seen as Peggy's "Carousel moment". This seventh season, as noted many times before, has been a reflection of many of the events of the first season and Peggy being handed the presentation again via Don (in one of his most selfless acts in the entire run). Peggy, of course, nails it and produces her best pitch yet, and this time with Don in the room rather than his listening through closed doors. It's easily one of Peggy's best moments and perfectly book-ends Don's pitch to Kodak. 

The latter of which focused very much on the past and how The Carousel was a time machine to reflect on our fondest memories, Peggy's presentation here instead is a look towards the future, particularly that of the non-traditional family that will begin to grow in number as we enter the new era mentioned above. She particularly brings that idea to the fore when she wraps Julio into her pitch. Julio, who'd be just a little bit older than her actual son with Pete would be now, represents a stand-in for that hole in her life and it allows her a level of authenticity when making the pitch. Again, we return to that idea of families being what we make them; Julio represents the son she no longer has, much like she and Pete both play similar roles for Don (particularly in regard to Adam Whitman). The conflicted tears of Peggy seen here almost make up for twenty awful Valentine's Day flower and cut-off nipple subplots.

But the big talking point will surely be the song and dance number that Don sees following the Partners' vote to ratify the purchase by McCann-Erickson. Everyone comes out richer monetarily, even poor Ted who so desperately wanted to leave advertising and was dragged back into it via the ever persuasive charm of Don (and surely the idea of being near Peggy on a regular basis in New York again). But the question becomes, is it truly the right idea for the agency? Sure, it saves Don in the short term, and it allows Roger the victory that he sought all season over Jim, who also relents at the idea of more money. Yet, the tea leaves portending something potentially worse were in the offing. 

Jim Hobart has tried to get Don in his employ for quite some time, as far back as the first season, when he tried to leverage Betty's possible return to modeling to get him to come into the fold. Dave, Don's look-alike friend, warned him off any advances from Hobart earlier this season as well. And as mentioned in this very episode, Sterling Cooper barely avoided being folded into McCann in the third season. Money and desperation do incredible things. Is Roger right that they'll be left alone as an independent boutique subsidiary? It's hard to imagine such a scenario would be the case when millions upon millions of dollars are in question. 

Don, for his part, isn't left with much else. His first family continues to move on without him, per Betty's statement that she thinks of him as a "bad ex-boyfriend", and Megan has decided to go her own way as well. Don doesn't have much of a personal life left, and the only family that defines him anymore are the people he works with. Thus when we see the look of bemusement mixed with sadness cross his face as he watched Bert softshoe across the hallway with his cadre of dancers, what can be gleamed is that Don likely recognizes that he's headed towards the same path that Bert tread. It's telling that when learning of Bert's passing, one of the first questions Don asks is if Bert's sister is still alive (much like the secretary who didn't know Don was married). Bert was defined by his position of employment and wealth, with no children to care for him and no partner in life. Don's resigned look as he sits on the desk before heading back to work is a recognition of that. Bert was a successful business man, but no one wants to be found dead by their maid.

Many had wondered what "Waterloo" meant before the episode aired. Would it be the last stand of Don Draper? Some kind of comeuppance for the despicable Lou Avery (some sort of title pun being in the offing)? As it turns out there are two ideas at play here, the clear reference being Bert's mention of "no man coming back from leave, not even Napoleon", which then leads to another classic Roger witticism. Another thought might be well in line with the wisdom that the series is still playing in the Kubrick ball park. After finishing 2001: A Space Odyssey, the director then began work on an epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, which would have been in line with the kind of film-making seen on display in Spartacus and 2001. It failed due to numerous issues and quickly became one of the "greatest films never made". Following this failure, Kubrick turned to the much darker, more personal A Clockwork Orange. The Napoleon project was cancelled by MGM in 1969 and marked a major turn in the auteur's career. What could that portend for Don? Perhaps this is his last gasp at this type of work, finding the thing that defines who he is and enter a new phase of life. 

Or perhaps something darker is coming. We have seven episodes left to find out. Until then, all I can think about is that indeed the moon belongs to everyone, but to get there, you've got to pay a lot of money.

Thoughts to Ponder:

- I think we all realize that the handyman at Peggy's building is headed toward romantic triangle territory with her and Ted, right?

- Robert Morse, 85, and he's still got it! Do yourself a favor and Youtube a clip of him in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

- Joan caught the worst end of the stick this episode as seemingly her anger at Don is now down to money lost. I hope this is the kind of thing that is quickly forgotten given her new wind-fall.

- "I've got 10 percent!!"

- I wonder if we'll be seeing more of the young teenager that Sally kissed (again defying her mother's advice of "boys kiss you!"). 

- I love Mad Men when it's at its ballsiest and most Lynchian-inspired, the closing moments of this episode left me speechless.

- Also, I will indeed take a victory lap on that Bert Cooper mid-season death prediction. Hopefully though, that's the last principle cast member we lose. I'm suddenly very terrified for Roger's ailing heart.

- Worth noting: Bert vanished behind a white door, in comparison to the black doors of the "Monolith-like" elevator.

- I'm not going to give an overall half-season grade, as I'd like to see the season in its entirety before passing such a judgement. But on the whole, these past two episodes more than make up for some of the season's lower points thus far.
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