Sunday’s mid-season finale of Mad Men was officially titled “Waterloo,” but it may as well have been called “Bad News” — that’s all the characters seemed to get in the last episode before the series’ 2015 conclusion.
On the business front, Jim Cutler tries to get rid of Don Draper with an unceremonious termination letter after the agency fails to score Commander cigarettes. Cutler claims Don violated the terms of his return when he unexpectedly appeared at the Commander pitch meeting a few weeks ago, and he makes his feelings known: “You’re just a bully and a drunk.” Joan sides with Cutler, but a quick vote among the partners — minus Harry Crane, who’s become to SC&P and what Jerry Gergich is to Parks and Recreation — keeps him safe. (Pete, concerned about how the news will affect Don’s Burger Chef presentation, delivers the line of the episode: “That is a very sensitive piece of horse flesh! He shouldn’t be rattled!”)
When Don calls Megan to say he might be out of a job and could start over with her in California, she goes silent. Last week’s episode felt like the show was gearing up for Megan’s farewell in many ways, and Sunday’s finale did indeed pull the plug on their struggling marriage without much fanfare. The two handle things amicably: “I’ll always take care of you…I owe you that,” Don tells her, but Megan kindly rejects the offer. Weird, it’s almost like they’re adults or something. Once again, the most powerful Mad Men scenes are the ones where characters barely speak.
Nowhere was that more true than during the moon landing. Props to Mad Men for making a bunch of television characters sitting around anxiously watching television seem thrilling. It’s July 1969 in the Mad Men universe, and Neil Armstrong is making one giant leap for mankind on TV sets across the country. (A text I received mid-episode from my mother, who was a college student around this time: “Everyone in the world was watching that! You can’t imagine how riveting it was.”)
What made the episode especially touching was how these characters experienced history. Nearly everyone was surrounded by their loved ones, both traditional families and not. In a way, it almost reminded me of Love Actually: Roger is on the couch with Mona, his son-in-law and his grandson; the dysfunctional work family of SC&P is gathered on hotel beds on the eve of the Burger Chef pitch; Betty’s with the children, but Don talks to them by phone; and then there’s Bert Cooper, who’s joined only by his maid. That’s at once both adorable and sad, considering it’s the last time we see Bert Cooper alive. Of all the people I thought might die on Mad Men this season — Bob Benson, Megan Draper (despite Matthew Weiner’s protests), even Ted at the beginning — Bert somehow wasn’t on my list. But as Roger notes, we should have seen it coming: “Anytime an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re going to die.”
With Bert gone, the balance of power among the partners shifts, and Don’s no longer safe. He hands the Burger Chef presentation over to Peggy to ensure she has a future if he gets sacked. Though she’s daunted by the last-minute change, Don gives her the abridged version of last week’s pep talk: “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t know you could.” And, oh, she can! Peggy’s Burger Chef presentation is a thing of beauty up there with the best of Don’s pitches. It’s a clever passing of the torch: “Every great ad tells a story. Here to tell that story is Peggy Olson,” Don says, repeating the line Peggy planned to use to introduce him. Peggy, dressed like the Scooby-Doo gang rolled into one, surprises everyone by pulling a classic Don Draper and veering off script. (Is there an Emmy Award for Most Expressive Furrowed Brow? Because Jon Hamm has that on lock.)
Two things stand out about Peggy’s presentation. First, though the moon landing showed just how unifying television can be, Peggy paints the good ol’ idiot box as something of a threat to family bonding at the dinner table. Second, she cites the neighbor boy Julio as an example of someone who’s always glued to the TV in her house, but she doesn’t clarify that he’s not actually her son. Maybe she’s bringing the housewife voice into her pitch, or maybe Mad Men is forcing Peggy to find alternative paths to “having it all.” Following last week’s early mid-life crisis about being 30 and single, the show almost suggests that Julio is the closest thing she’ll come to having a child. Not that Mad Men forgot about the baby she gave away seasons ago: When Julio says his family is moving, Peggy gets teary, not just because she’ll have to find someone else to ask for fashion advice, but because the news is an uncomfortable reminder of the sacrifices mothers make.
Back in the New York office, Bert’s death wakes Roger up from the dreamland he’s been sleepwalking through all season. Roger doesn’t want to lose Don, nor does he like the direction Cutler’s pushing the agency in, so he makes a pitch to rival agency McCann Erickson to buy the company. It’s an ideal situation: SC&P would operate independently under Roger’s leadership, but McCann would own their competition. The partners, even Cutler, are happy to learn they’ll become millionaires, but Ted Chaough nearly brings the deal to a halt as he tries to leave advertising and succumb to his “real feeling of wanting to die.” Fortunately, Don still has at least one more miraculous advertising pitch left in him, and he convinces Ted, usually the show’s voice of reason, to stay aboard and focus on creative work. “You don’t want to see what happens when it’s really gone,” he tells him — and if anybody would know, it’d be Don.
Over at Casa Betty, Sally is growing up quickly and getting a little boy-crazy, but her romantic choices this episode are ultimately overshadowed by Bert’s bizarre beyond-the-grave musical number. The moment, on pair with the infamous nipple incident, raises a few questions (why is Don having hallucinations?) and ominously foreshadows (singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free” before the partners make bank suggests money won’t buy happiness for long). But I think the meaning is ultimately quite simple: Robert Morse is an acclaimed musical theater actor, so what better way to send him off? The scene hints at a possible new agenda for Matthew Weiner in these final episodes: have some fun! (Why else would he have forever-clueless secretary Meredith suddenly come onto Don and promise to be his “strength” after finding his termination letter?)
But if there’s one scene that sums up where Mad Men is right now, it’s when Don entrusts Peggy with the Burger Chef presentation. While the beginning of the final season was all about Don accepting his new place in the world, these last few episodes seem to find Don grappling with how he’ll leave that world when he’s inevitably gone. Don wants to make sure Peggy doesn’t suffer any collateral damage from the consequences of his actions; he wants to make sure Megan is all squared away, despite the collapse of their marriage; even his renewed relationship with his children shows an awareness of his legacy. Don is far from taking part in a 12-step program here, but Sunday’s episode almost felt like a mission to make amends. It’s hard not to imagine Mad Men ending with Don trying to right his wrongs before the world simply moves on without him.