One of the fun recurring bits in a show like Mad Men is watching history get refracted through the creators’ well-positioned lens. In the May 25 midseason finale, titled “Waterloo,” we got the Apollo 11 mission of July 1969, which brought the very first humans to the moon, and a spiky brew of awe, cynicism and gallows’ relief back to Earth.
A lot of those conflicting emotions registered in copy chief Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). She wanted a safe moon landing so she wouldn’t have to delay the firm’s pitch to Burger Chef, but also sat in her hotel room with her Sterling Cooper & Partners colleagues breathlessly watching live coverage of the mission.
As the camera checked in on other characters transfixed to their televisions, I thought, how quaint. The last time I remember a TV uniting us in a common, shared experience was during 9/11. And before that, I don’t know, maybe the Seinfeld finale?
In any case, it’s rare and, as the two examples above indicate, usually bad.
That’s not to say there weren’t space-haters, and it was funny to see the adults view the landing with childlike wonder, while the teens greeted it with jaded shrugs. The visiting football hunk that Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) slapped on makeup for practically scoffed at the wasted billions that could be better spent on, um, like ending Vietnam and stuff?
Sally initially parrots the jock’s critique to her phoning dad, but reveals her true feelings a bit later, when the jock’s nerdy brother shows her Polaris through his telescope. (Not a euphemism.) Smitten with cosmic wonder, she plants a kiss and shows pasty Neal what earthbound magnetism tastes like.
“What am I supposed to do now?” he asks, bewildered. Thank the stars, that’s what.
I also enjoyed the moment where, after Neil Armstrong’s famous line, SC&P overlord Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) meets it with an appreciative “bravo.” The man knows good copy when he hears it. (Maybe all a struggling NASA needs today is an ad campaign?)
It was kind of the show’s writers to let Bert witness the Apollo mission before he blasted off to the great unknown himself. It seems he couldn’t wait to join the men on the moon.
Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) can’t wait either. Isolated by Ted Chaough’s (Kevin Rahm) depression and the rejection of Commander Cigarettes, he follows one desperate chess move with another, using Bert’s death to fast-track machinations to boot Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
But prodigal son Roger Sterling (John Slattery), his ears still ringing with Bert’s clinical dis of his leadership skills, makes some bold moves of his own, convincing McCann Erickson to purchase the firm as an independently run subsidiary. The catch is that Don and Ted have to stay, while Cutler goes. But with generous payouts to all the partners, even Cutler votes for it. Eventually.
So tie a happy bow on this soapy space opera, right?
Not so fast. There were metaphorical passings as well, with Don and Megan (Jessica Pare) calling time of death on their long-distance marriage and Peggy fighting tears as she bid goodbye to her kid neighbor, Julio, the only personal anchor in her life.
And then there was that scene. You know the one. Bert the friendly ghost, dancing and serenading a bewildered Don: “The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free,” Bert croak-sings.
At first, Don looks overjoyed. Then something like unbearable grief buckles and sits him down on a reception table while everyone else parties/mourns upstairs. And then I remembered one of Bert’s earlier lines from the episode: “No man has ever come back from leave. Not even Napoleon.”
Or, as Bob Dylan puts it in one of his best late-period tunes, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
That rocket’s in for a rough landing.
-Has anyone else been delighted by Harry Hamlin’s priggish turn as conniving Jim Cutler? The icepick businessman really went for the kill this ep when he tried to goad Don by calling him “a bully and a drunk, a football player in a suit … blubbering like a little girl about your impoverished childhood.” What a dick.
-Yet again, Meredith stole her scenes as Don’s inept, bubble-headed secretary. No one else could make romantic rejection look that painless. With Megan out of the picture, maybe we can look forward to a very regrettable office hookup.
-Don asking Megan the “Is that what you want?” question is a coward’s way of getting the other person to initiate breakup protocols. What was their relationship about? (Besides threeways.)
-Cutler and Roger seemed to agree that Harry Crane’s impending partnership spelled doom for Don, but I’m not so sure. Harry worships Don like the kid who tags along with the popular crowd even though it treats him like dogshit.
-Creator Matthew Weiner, who directed this episode, did a nice job of putting us inside Peggy’s anxiety at the beginning of the Burger Chef pitch meeting.
-Some great lines throughout: Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) registering his “concern” for Don by calling him “a sensitive piece of horseflesh.” Roger in mourning: “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they’re going to die.” Peggy freaking out about her pitch: “I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers!”