Mid-season finale review: 'Mad Men' - 'Waterloo': The best things in life are free
A review of the "Mad Men" mid-season finale coming up just as soon as I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers...
"Bravo." -Bert Cooper
In Peggy's pitch to Burger Chef — easily the best she's ever given, and one that gets much closer to the level of the Carousel pitch than I think we might have ever imagined anyone on this show (including Don himself) reaching again — she talks about how Neil Armstrong's first footsteps on the moon brought the whole world together, all watching the same amazing thing as it happened. It's a masterful blend of current events with the themes she and Don had already decided on — turning the thing that she feared would torpedo the pitch and making it into the element that closes the deal and nearly moves the Burger Chef executives to tears — demonstrating a keen understanding of the power of television to both bring us together and drive us apart, and how this potent medium might be used to sell housewives on the appeal of fast food served in a place that's bright and clean, with no laundry, no telephone, and none of the other distractions of this ever-changing world of ours.
But when you have so many people watching one thing — even if it's one of the great achievements in human history — it can be easy to miss what else is going on. Even on the matter of objects in space on July 20, 1969, Sally's new friend, the aptly-named Neil, points out to her all the other lovely things in the night sky, like Polaris. And so much of "Waterloo" — an episode that somehow managed to top the splendor of last week's great "The Strategy" — was about what took place while people were focusing elsewhere.
On a small level, you have the Francis family's house guests. Betty assumes (as, I imagine, did many a "Mad Men" viewer) that Sally is trying to impress handsome, shirtless Sean, but instead it's astronomy nerd Neil whom she kisses. Or when Peggy comes home to her apartment to pack for Indianapolis, the most important male in the room isn't the good-looking handyman who slips her his number, but young Julio, whose impending move to Newark upsets them equally.
But most of the relevant action this week involves the agency, where everyone is so busy preparing for Don's seemingly inevitable departure that they aren't prepared for the more permanent one involving Bert Cooper, and all the insanity that happens following his death.
Cooper has been a marginal figure on the show, and in the agency, since the move to the Time-Life Building (where he didn't even have an office for a few years), but "Waterloo" was a reminder of the value both he and Robert Morse brought to the operation. When Don throws a tantrum and demands a vote of the partners on his future (in a sequence scored like the moment in a thriller right before all the guns come out), Bert sides with the Sterling Cooper old guard — because even though Don Draper has only sometimes understood the value of loyalty to his team, Bert always has. He resents the various stunts Don has pulled in this office, but he has a complicated code of loyalty and leadership, which he tries to impart to Roger even as he lacks belief in Roger's ability to be a leader himself. (It's those words that help inspire so much of what Roger does later.)
Had that Leadership 101 lecture been the last we saw of Cooper... dayenu. But Matt Weiner and Carly Wray's script gave him two additional farewells, one beautiful in its concision, the other unexpected and strange and absolutely perfect. In one, Bert listens to the first words uttered by a man who has walked on the moon, and he smiles and says a rich, sincere "Bravo." These are the final words we hear from him as a living person, and the timing of his death gives new depth to his famous line at the end of Ida Blankenship's obituary: "She was an astronaut." In hindsight, this was "Mad Men" priming us for Cooper's departure by giving us a few departing bits of wisdom from him — as Roger will sadly joke later, "Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they're going to die."
What none of us might have expected — unless we had harbored this dream ever since making the connection between Robert Morse in his advanced age and the young Morse in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" — was Bert making a posthumous appearance to serenade a grieving Don with a rousing performance of "The Best Things In Life Are Free."(*)
(*) The best detail — beyond simply seeing how nimbly an 83-year-old Morse can still move — was that Cooper's ghost was, of course, appearing in his stocking feet. Wonderful, the power you can get from attention to detail over a prolonged period of time.
It may seem strange for a series at the advanced age "Mad Men" is at — airing its last episode of 2014, with only seven more hours to go — to decide that now is the moment to go full Dennis Potter and bend its level of reality to this degree. Then again, this is a show that has already warped itself with LSD, marijuana and speedballs (the last drug bringing with it a more low-key song-and-dance number that helped pave the way for this one). The show's doors of perception have been pushed further and further open as time has gone along, and if ever there was a character on "Mad Men" who deserved such a stylistically uncharacteristic send-off, it was the inscrutable Bertram Cooper.
And if ever there was an episode of "Mad Men" that deserved to end with a celebratory musical number, it was "Waterloo."