Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 7, “Waterloo”
May 25, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), AMC
So much of Mad Men is about people past their prime or worrying they are past their prime, that the ever-changing world has shifted under their feat and lost its use for them. “Waterloo” begins with the idea that Don Draper is past his prime, something to be shoved out of the office so the agency can move forward, and ends with the celebration of a man whose prime we never really got to see, but whose wisdom and eccentricities constantly revealed him to be someone who was smart enough and good enough to remain indispensable long after many of his juniors had ceased to serve any serious purpose. Roger Sterling tearfully comments that “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re gonna die,” and tonight, ladies and gentlemen, Mad Men started to talk about Napoleon.
This notion of people past their prime ties in, of course, with what the characters on this show are always selling their clients: nostalgia, a fond memory of days gone by when things were better, simpler, purer somehow. These characters are constantly pitching the idea of perfection, of a place and a time where worry fades away and peace can be obtained, where nostalgia is pure enough to be mainlined, where you can be wistful for the present even as it unfolds. This season has been about discovering that this place and time, if they exist at all, are self-created. The hopes and dreams, the regrets and memories, all of it is tied up inside of us, all of it a matter of perspective and of the way we choose to live our lives. Nostalgia is a state of mind, created and maintained only so long as perspective demands that the best is behind us. It can be pushed away like a cloud of smoke to reveal optimism and hope. You can try to sell the moon, but the moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.
Over the course of the last seven episodes, Don Draper has learned to stop selling (so much so that he doesn’t even give the pitch tonight, leaving Peggy to knock it out of the park in a way that proves she is every bit as good as anyone in this business, thank you very much). He has let the mystique melt away in favor of honesty, refusing to sell an image of his ideal self and instead working to become that self. He isn’t the man of mystery that draws in so many clients and so many lovers and so many friends, but nor is he the drunk and the bully that Jim Cutler calls him. He is just a man, working hard to make his ideal real right before his eyes. But sometimes, that means admitting failure. Don doesn’t even try to sell the idea of a happy marriage to Megan; he recognizes that ship has sailed and, with a bit of wistfulness, he tries to see it off as best he can. Don Draper doesn’t make a pitch all season, and though he has troubles on the horizon as we leave him tonight, he’s the happiest we’ve seen him in years. He’s finally free from expectations.
Bert Cooper pretty much always existed this way, just on the edge of the frame. He lived in the periphery of this series as a sort of racist Zen master who seemed to have it all figured out. Bert wasn’t some elusive image of the ideal American family man, some chameleon appearing before everyone as exactly what they wanted to see. He was vibrantly, proudly eccentric, constantly himself and nearly impossible to mock for how fully he embodied all of the odd little contours of his personality. Throughout the series, Bert has been little more than a useful antique, a prop to be hauled out only when a legend was needed. But Bert always knew who he was. People didn’t come to see him often, but when they did, they took their shoes off to even get in the door.
In “Waterloo,” man lands on the moon, and in one small step, everything changes. The most legendary pitch in Mad Men’s history, the pitch that defines the Don Draper legend, both within the show and without, is his Kodak pitch in the season one finale “The Carousel.” There, Don sold an image of the past as a link to our deepest feelings, the things that define us. That pitch literally begins with Don explaining the power of nostalgia as an advertising tool and defining nostalgia as “the twinge from an old wound.” In his finest moment, Don Draper sold the past; in her finest moment to date, Peggy Olsen is selling the future. She pitches Burger Chef as a way for people to connect away from all the chaos and distractions of the modern world. She sells the product not as a gateway into the past, but as a way forward into a better future.
I don’t agree with AMC’s decision to bifurcate this final season of Mad Men, a show that works best when it can develop the sort of slow burn that it has in its best seasons, a building that is difficult to pull off in a reduced run of episodes. But if we had to say goodbye to this series for a year at this point, if we had to experience this final run segmented in half, then I can think of no better dividing line than the moon landing, which “Waterloo” posits as a shift between a dying past and a future of endless possibility. The world of Mad Men has been constantly changing, an old guard reluctantly giving way to a new one while clinging desperately to power and privilege for as long as it can. Bert Cooper’s parting advice to Don, who has just left Bert’s memorial to return to work, is that “the best things in life are free.” Don has spent this season clinging desperately to a company that no longer wants him in an industry that has moved past his nostalgic pitches. He has, like Peggy after him, given up virtually everything for the job—two marriages, countless affairs, strong relationships with his children, a fully functioning liver—but what does he have to show for it? Last week, Don confessed he worries that he has done nothing and has no one, and as he watches Bert Cooper in that brief hallucination, he must see, finally, that the pitch he just sold to Ted about the importance of the work is hollow. Don struggled this season because his job was everything to him. Now he has to find a way to make meaning outside his work.
If this half season has been about Don learning to stop selling, perhaps the next question to for him to answer is what to do instead. Don has made millions hocking images of perfection, creating itches for people to scratch. What the advertising agents of Madison Avenue have been doing this whole time is distracting people from what is truly important, and trying their best to distract themselves as well. Bert Cooper died tonight after quietly cheering on astronauts (fitting, perhaps, as his eulogy for Miss Blankenship called her an astronaut), the past gracefully giving way for the future. His time ran out, in some sense long after it was actually over. But the rest of our characters still have time to make things right. They still have time to save themselves, to discard their empty nostalgia and replace it with hope for the future and plans to realize their dreams. They can still rip off the temporary bandages on their permanent wounds and hope, at long last, those ancient scars might finally start healing.
- “Imagine what its like for the astronauts.” “They’re probably scared.” “Why? They may not make it. All their problems would be over.”
- “You used to fly, didn’t you ever feel that?” “Over Dresden? I wanted to live.” “And the clients want to live too, Ted!” Please, more finale explosions from Pete Campbell (or I guess, more accurately, one more). This doesn’t match “Not great, Bob!” from last season, but it comes pretty close.
- “We don’t owe you anything! You’re a hired hand! Now get back to work.”
- “Now we just have to pray that everything goes smoothly on the moon.”
- “She’s never worn lipstick to the pool before.”
- “Is this a partners meeting?” “You’re not a partner yet.”
- “That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh! He shouldn’t be rattled!” “He’s a pain in the ass!”
- “I don’t want to go to Newark.” “Nobody does.”
- “No man has ever come back from leave, not even Napoleon.”
- “That dinner table is your battlefield, and your prize.”
- ”Cooper still dead?” “His situation hasn’t changed, but ours has.”
- “You’re not just pathetic, you’re selfish!”
- “You don’t have to work for us, but you have to work. You don’t want to see what happens when it’s gone.”
- “Where are you going?” “Back to work.”
- Thank you all for reading this season. See you back here in 2015!
In “Waterloo,” man lands on the moon, and in one small step, everything changes.