Mad Men season finale recap: Fly Me to the Moon
Bravo, Bertram Cooper.
SC&P’s resident eccentric watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and then keeled over dead. He died offscreen, with only a phone call to Roger Sterling to capture the initial shock. But just as audiences began to feel saddened and cheated that we’d not had a proper goodbye, writers Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner capped the midseason finale with a WTF song-and-dance hallucination that sent Bert off in style.
As suspected, the Apollo 11 mission plays a significant role in “Waterloo,” a reference to Napoleon’s convincing and final military defeat in 1815 after he’d escaped from exile. The world is watching on television as Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins lift off from Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, including Bert, who wears a boyish grin as the Saturn V rocket successfully launches in to orbit. The only person not fascinated by the possibility of a moon landing is Ted Chaough, who is piloting some Sunkist executives above their California groves. He couldn’t be less enthused. First, he tells the execs that dying in space wouldn’t be the worst thing. After all, “All their problems will be over.” Then, he toys with the terrified passengers by turning off the engine and threatens to leave a smoldering wreckage on the interstate. We knew Ted was depressed, but he might be suicidal, and he wants to be bought out by the partners. “He’s off the deep end,” Pete later says. “…Lane Pryce.”
In New York, the entire Burger Chef business is indirectly hanging on the astronaut’s success. After all, no one will be buying a million-dollar pitch if the mission ends in disaster, but the creative team is still rehearsing and planning their trip to Burger Chef headquarters in Indianapolis. It’s a pretty basic walk-through, and when Don — who’s been hand-picked by Pete (over Peggy) to deliver the pitch — begins his spiel, Pete cuts him off as soon as he senses that Don is on. He doesn’t want Don to waste his A-game in the paddock. As he later tells Don on the plane, “The Don Draper show is back from its unscheduled interruption.”
But there’s a problem looming. Remember that preliminary meeting with Commander Cigarettes that Don crashed? Well, Jim Cutler views that as a clear violation of the stipulations that Draper agreed to when he was allowed back in the door at SC&P, and is preparing to fire Draper and strip him of his stake for breach of contract. A letter has been sent — signed in absentia by all the other partners — and it falls on Meredith to break the news to Don after she opens it.
Meredith sits Don down for the bad news and lets him know she’s there for him — in every way. “I know you’re feeling vulnerable but I am your strength,” she says, just before leaning in to kiss him. Dear, dear Meredith. How I adore her, and how I fear for her safety when she handles sharp utensils. I somehow imagine that she will work for another 40 years and turn into another Miss Blankenship. Or perhaps another Mrs. Stimler from Splash.
Don confronts Cutler, who’s oilier than ever. He baits Don into a confrontation, calling him a drunk and a bully, an empty “football player in a suit,” but Don doesn’t bite. Instead, he takes it up with the other partners, who had not been consulted before Cutler sent the letter. Roger is angry with Cutler. Pete is incredulous that Cutler would attempt something so drastic on the eve of of the Burger Chef meeting: “That is a very sensitive piece of horse flesh! He should not be rattled!” Don forces an impromptu vote, which he wins without Joan’s vote. She votes for his ouster, raising her hand to oppose him to his face. “I’m tired of him costing me money,” she sneers to Roger afterwards.
Cooper later says that Joan missed out on a million bucks when Don scuttled the deal to take the company public, but is anyone at home taking her side in this fight? The bitter anger that flashed in her eyes as the partners debated the letter was painful to witness, for Don and the audience. Last week, she was lecturing Bob Benson about true love. Now, she’s “Benedict Joan,” turning irrevocably on the man who once seemed like her closest office ally.
Shaken by the crusade to dump Don, Roger sits with Bert, who lectures him on leadership. Bert voted to keep Don — for now. But he’s not optimistic about the long-term. “No man has ever come back from leave — even Napoleon,” he says. “He staged a coup but he ended up back on the island.”
Bert admires Cutler’s vision for the company, and condescendingly tells Roger that his talents are valuable but leadership is not one of them. Hurt, Roger deflects the insult with a lyric from the 1930s Irving Berlin song, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee.” Yes, Roger does have many talents.
NEXT: A whimper, not a bang. The end of a marriage
Don finally seems to realize that he may have gone too far with the Commander meeting, and that Cutler, despite being outvoted, might actually have Don over a barrel. He calls Megan to explain his predicament, that he’s basically at peace with whatever happens. After all, if they fire him, he can finally move to California. Megan, sipping wine and sunbathing in a skimpy bikini, offers only silence. After all, she has her fondue kit now. What else is left for her in New York? What else is left of her marriage? Just enough to end it with less than 35 words in 30 awkward but merciful seconds. “Goodbye, Don.” Click.
In Indianapolis, the creative team huddles around the motel television to watch Armstrong take his one giant leap for mankind. Peggy returns with two hard-to-find beers for her and Don — sorry, Harry — and she and Don pair up sitting close together on one bed. Their close proximity had an intimacy, as did the fact that Peggy came back with only two beers. It may not be romantic, but they are clearly a couple, of sorts.
The rest of the Mad Men universe is also glued to the tube. The Francises watch with Betty’s college girlfriend and her two sons, one a strapping jock, the other a star-gazing dweeb. Bert watches with his housekeeper, muttering “Bravo,” at Armstrong’s poetic eloquence.
Roger watches with his ex-wife, grandson, and son-in-law. And that’s when the phone rings. Something bad happened. My first thought? It was Margaret/Marigold related. Something had happened to Roger’s daughter. But it was Bert. His last words that we heard were, “Bravo.”
I must’ve forgotten the depth of Roger’s relationship with Bert. I never doubted it, per se. After all, Bert and Roger’s father had founded the company in the 1920s and when Sterling Sr. died, Bert became, in many ways, a surrogate father to Roger. But I was so touched to see Roger so saddened, and to see him call Don to share the news. At times like this, you turn to your closest friends and to your family. He should’ve known Bert’s time was near, Roger tells Don. “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re going to die.”
While Bert’s body is practically still warm, Cutler’s crocodile blood is ice cold. He offers Roger a token condolence and then quickly moves on to Stage 2 of the Don Draper Exit Plan. Cooper’s soft pro-Don vote is gone, Harry’s presumed anti-Don vote is about to be activated. It’s simple math, he hints. Cutler might have a vision for the “agency of the future,” but Bert might have underestimated Roger. He arranges a meeting with rival Jim Hobart at McCann Erickson, his sauna buddy who’s been eying Don and SC&P this season. His agency is likely losing Buick, a secret that Roger has in his pocket after Bob Benson’s exit. Jim wants SC&P’s Chevy team, Roger, Cutler, Don, and Ted, but Roger has a greater vision: buy the entire company, with Roger left in charge. Maybe, says Jim, if you can deliver Don and Ted as a functioning team.
In Indy, Don is changing the plans for the presentation. The creative idea is sound, but Peggy is going to deliver the pitch, not him. He’s thought it through and concludes that it will all be for naught if they win the account before he’s fired. “You win this business and it will be yours,” he says. “You’ve never even seen me present,” says a panicked Peggy. “I’ve overheard things,” he replies, reminding us of his professional eavesdropping in season 6’s “To Have and To Hold.”
Would Don Draper have committed this act of altruism two seasons ago? Two episodes ago? Part of me doubted he would do it even now. After all, he barged in to the Philip Morris meeting to make him become essential again, at any cost. Now, he’s handed an opportunity that might make it impossible for Cutler to get rid of him, breach of contract or not. If he aced the Burger Chef pitch, do you really think the partners would axe him if the account depended on his involvement? There’s nothing Machiavellian about Don’s intentions. So who is this guy?
NEXT: Curtain call for Bert Cooper
Peggy nails the pitch despite Pete’s stink-eye. She weaves the moon-landing into her introduction, waxes on about family dinners in the age of television and Vietnam, and nails the landing with their “There’s family supper at Burger Chef” slogan. “That’s beautiful,” blurts out one of the execs. (Is it? I’m still meh on this SC&P stroke of brilliance.)
The gang returns to New York, where everyone is gathered for Bert’s funeral. But there’s business to discuss too, the McCann offer to acquire 51 percent of the agency. “How much?” interrupts Joan, who really must have gambling debts we don’t know about. Roger plays the room perfectly, though Cutler obviously wants no part in something that might rescue Don, and Ted still has the look of a hostage. Harry tries to barge in again, but since he had haggled with the terms of his partnership, he still isn’t allowed to sit with the grownups.
Unfortunately, Ted has no interest in working. He’s miserable if you haven’t noticed. “You’re not just pathetic!” yells Pete. “You’re selfish!” Almost on cue, Don begins to sell Ted on the deal, how he, Don Draper, knows what Ted Chaough is going through. But he’s gotten back to the basics during his probation, back to doing what originally made him fall in love with advertising in the first place — writing coupon copy. Come back to New York, Ted. Come back to the land of the living. Come back to us, Ted. “So I’d move back to the city?” Ted asks, essentially clinching the deal. Even Cutler votes yes once he sees the writing on the wall. “Well, it is a lot of money,” he explains.
The office is gathered for a little Bert Cooper tribute, but Don isn’t staying. On his way downstairs, Peggy grabs him to tell him they got the Burger Chef account. Where are you going, Peggy asks. “Back to work,” Don says with a smile.
As Don heads to his office, though, he hears “Don, my boy.” He turns around to see Bert smiling at him from the bottom of the stars. “The stars in the sky; the moon on high…” he begins. And then… a full song and a dance number of “The Best Things in Life are Free,” from the 1927 musical, Good News. Unforgettable and inexplicable, the scene is unlike anything Mad Men has even attempted. This wasn’t “Zou Bisou Bisou.” This was a fever dream that can’t easily be explained. I half-wonder if Ginsburg heard the same song before checking out. Is this Don’s “Daisy”?
On its surface, “Waterloo” is a feel-good episode — Bert’s passing notwithstanding. Peggy nailed the presentation, Roger became a leader with vision, Don is back and a mensch, and we landed on the moon. But it’s called “Waterloo,” and Bert’s warning could reverberate during the second half of the season, which won’t arrive until 2015. “No man has ever come back from leave — even Napoleon,” Bert said. “He staged a coup but he ended up back on the island.” Is this Don’s glorious return, with loyal soldiers rallying around the flag? Or is it a last gasp before the ultimate fall. In a way, you could argue that’s what the moon landing was that for America: this historic geyser of optimism and wonder in the midst of Vietnam, assassinations, and civil strife, with all that Nixon’s presidency would become looming.
Is Don destined to be sent back to his island, his own private inferno? I still worry about him.
A Few Thoughts on Sally Draper
One particular moment from “Waterloo” gave me chills. After kissing Neil, the star-gazing brother, Sally lit up a cigarette in the backyard. She’s fixed up her hair and was wearing lipstick, looking very grown up. Looking very Betty. In fact, as she took her first puff, she held the exact Betty Francis smoker’s pose, with one elbow learning across the wrist of her other crossed arm. It was eerie.
Sally clearly is dazzled by Neil’s older brother, Sean, a handsome hunk with an athletic scholarship to Rutgers. (Betty may have been dazzled too.) He’s a surly teenager, unimpressed by the space program, what with all its waste. Twelve seconds after hearing him whine, Sally parrots his drivel to her father, who calls to commemorate the moon achievement.
Not long after, she kisses Neil under the stars. Poor Neil says, “What do I do now?” It was such a Betty move, such an Estella from Great Expectations move. I think I was so disturbed by it because of the recent positive interactions between Sally and Don. It gave me hope that despite living with an emotionally cruel mother, Sally (and the boys) were going to turn out okay. That they were more Don that Betty. But that’s unlikely, isn’t it? And as anyone can attest, you bump heads hardest with the child/parent that is most like you, and Sally has been extremely hard on her mother this season. Might she now be heading for her Betty phase, just as she begins to realize her sway over young men? That would break my heart.
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama