[This is a review of Mad Men season 7, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
For the second time in as many weeks, Mad Men has delivered an episode that, largely due to the weight of its closing moments, could easily have served as an incredibly satisfying end to the series itself. Unlike last week’s slow pull away from Don, Peggy, and Pete forming an improvised family unit at a Burger Chef, however, ‘Waterloo’ puts another spin on the series’ typically elegiac way of ending things by affording Robert Morse a chance to send the indomitable Bert Cooper off with a rendition of ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’ that is as much a remembrance of the character as it is an acknowledgement of what really transpired throughout the episode.
The death of Bert Cooper could have easily dominated the finale and focused the entirety of the hour on the idea of mourning and loss. Instead, considering the heavy lifting that ‘Waterloo’ had to do in terms of the structural expectations of a mid-season finale (and also the last new episode of Mad Men anyone will be watching in 2014), the episode strived to give this first half of season 7 something that felt like a meaningful bridge into what will ultimately be the series’ conclusion. And so, in that regard, Cooper’s passing became something more significant than a reason for Mad Men to once again bring up the subject of death and everyone’s mortality; it rightly became a turning point for Roger and Peggy, as well as the narrative that has been largely focused on the revivification of Don Draper’s career and, more importantly, his relationship with those who are now ostensibly his family. It was the event that triggered one giant leap of several characters, which, not coincidentally all happened against the backdrop of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
And still, with all of that going on, there was a sense that ‘Waterloo’ was building towards a potentially huge climax with regard to Don’s future at SC&P – the question of which largely stemmed from Jim Cutler’s incessant desire to see him become some other agency’s problem. For all the good he’d managed to do in terms of repairing what he’d broken with Peggy, Don still faced an uphill battle when it came to Jim and, much to Roger’s chagrin, Joan. In many ways, it looked like the latter half of season 7 was going to be a story of Don Draper outside the confines of the microcosm that is SC&P. That made Don’s proverbial passing of the torch to Peggy as loaded with the sense the show is already saying its goodbyes as Peggy’s tearful moment with the Newark-bound Julio.
Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch is of course about far more then selling burgers or even re-imagining the new family dinner table as a place found inside a fast food restaurant. Peggy is no longer Don’s protégé, nor is she his competition; she has achieved a status as his contemporary, and in doing so becomes the only person who could deliver the pitch with the kind of meaning it was intended to have. “What if there was another table where everybody gets what they want when they want it?” This isn’t the same kind of reflective longing for days gone by that dominated Don’s oft-remembered Carousel pitch; it is an acknowledgement that the future is coming, and there are plenty of people waiting to take part in it. Peggy’s pitch is about hunger, and the Burger Chef guys certainly eat it up, but rather than being solely about the consumption of some hastily made product, Peggy is speaking for a generation starving for something they’ve never experienced before: A place at the table. And here, as with the astronauts “who just touched the face of God,” Peggy finds something profound in achievement, even if its just a bunch of fast food guys looking on and not the whole world.
The pitch’s focus on craving and subsequent fulfillment, then, is carried throughout the episode. After Don briefly considers moving to California, Megan voices her desire through a long, pregnant pause that ostensibly tells her husband everything he needs to know. Megan has found where it is that she belongs, and even through the haze of Los Angeles she can see her future doesn’t include Don venturing out west. Meanwhile, Betty, too, seems to have figured out her desires no longer involve Don – wanting him or wanting to hate him. Instead, she tells her friend she sees him more as “a bad ex-boyfriend.” That sentiment is echoed when Sally quickly realizes the hunk in the house is nothing more than a vacuous ball of canned cynicism, and so she plants one on his bespectacled, star-gazing brother because she recognizes there’s a something real worth connecting with somewhere inside him, whereas the shirtless wonder would just wind up taking her (and plenty of other women, likely) down an eerily familiar and ultimately empty path.
For the most part, everyone gets what he or she wants. Megan and Betty get a better grip on their own individual identities, while Peggy’s successful pitch calls to mind Pete’s backhanded compliment calling her “just as good as any woman in this business,” and demonstrates how she’s far more than some anomalous woman in a male-dominated environment. Even Don gets what he wants, but, interestingly, he does so without so much as lifting a finger. All Don really does is what his character was designed to do: React to the world changing around him. The only agency Don exhibits is when he convinces Ted to go along with the McCann deal.
So maybe that’s part of why he looks so despondent sitting on the desk after Bert’s song-and-dance routine. Don got what he wanted, but as he told Ed Baxter back in ‘Commissions and Fees,’ “…even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten.” There was victory, but – like a fast food meal – it was quick and easy; it fulfilled his immediate professional needs, but did not sate his emotional cravings. If desire and hunger are representative of the same things in ‘Waterloo’, then Don Draper might still be starving.
Mad Men season 7 will continue in 2015 on AMC.
Photos: Jaimie Trueblood & Michael Yarish/AMC