Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Mad Men" Season Finale Review: "Waterloo" (Season 7 Episode 7) - "The best things in life are free..."



The seventh and final season of Mad Men continues with its mid-season finale, “Waterloo,” and for one last time this year, I have an in-depth review and analysis of the hour for your reading pleasure. To do the episode justice, this review contains spoilers – as always, do not read unless you have seen the episode.

Spoilers for “Waterloo” after the jump...

For me, the big question going into “Waterloo” was whether or not Matthew Weiner and company could craft a season finale that felt satisfying and cumulative after only six hours of storytelling. It was the big question going into this season, really, because while the “split season” model has become all the rage on basic cable these days – AMC especially – Mad Men never seemed well suited to the format. Delicately, deliberately paced, focused more on character than on plot, Mad Men always took its time building and paying off on arcs, and trying to match the impact of a thirteen-hour season in just seven episodes seemed, at the outset, nearly impossible. Even after six episodes I thoroughly enjoyed to varying degrees – we got at least one all-timer in “The Strategy,” and no outright duds – I simply didn’t know if Weiner could craft a finale that made this half-season feel whole.

Miraculously, though, “Waterloo” did just that, and so much more. Here was an episode that didn’t just pay off in full on every last element of this shortened season – even putting lovely, heart-wrenching punctuation marks on stories I didn’t realize I was invested in, like the relationship between Peggy and her young tenant Julio – but which brought many character arcs, relationships, and tensions from the last seven years to beautiful, simmering, impossibly satisfying cumulative points. It was a brilliantly multifaceted episode, funny and tragic and applause-worthy, sometimes all in the same moment. It was tense, gripping, and surprising, bringing all sorts of conflict to a head and imploding the status quo yet again. It brought closure and reflection to so many aspects of the series’ history – to Bert Cooper as a character, to the multiple incarnations of the agency, to a decade that saw so much social unrest and upheaval, to Peggy’s growth as an independent woman in a patriarchal world – and had us looking towards a bold, uncertain future one last time. “Waterloo” was, perhaps, the best Mad Men finale since Season 3’s “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” (an episode in which it shares a lot in common), and it made this truncated seventh season feel like a complete, satisfying, wholly worthwhile experience.

And any discussion of it must, I feel, start with Peggy Olson, who was, as she has so often been for this series, the thematic and emotional lynchpin of the episode. As this Memorial Day weekend was partially defined by an outpouring of reaction to the ugly, horrific misogyny that emerged from the shootings in Santa Barbara on Friday, I could not help but watch Peggy’s material in tonight’s episode through a pointed feminist lens, making her climactic Burger Chef pitch feel more immediate, significant, and triumphant than it already would have seemed. Peggy actually had a ton of great moments tonight – again, her exchange with Julio was a genuine, unexpected tear-jerker, and her enraptured, gleeful reaction to the Moon landing was my favorite of anybody’s – but from the moment Don stepped into her hotel room to give her the pitch, all the way through Peggy proudly telling him they got the account, this felt like the hard-earned culmination of Peggy’s decade-long ascension up the professional ladder.

It was the symbolic weight of it all, more than anything else, that layered so much significance upon Peggy’s presentation. Peggy, the lone woman in a room full of men, finally having the chance to show what she’s made of after weeks of being marginalized on this account due to her gender (and years of the same treatment for the same reason), rising up and flooring not only every person in that room, but every viewer watching Mad Men on television. It’s a perfect pitch, a humble pitch, a quietly, forcefully brilliant pitch, every inch as dazzling and inspired and beautifully delivered as anything Don Draper has ever done, and maybe even more so, because Don has never wanted to impress a room as badly as Peggy does here. He’s never had to, because he’s a man, and in this patriarchal world, that puts him at an automatic advantage every time he steps up to the proverbial plate. Peggy has never had that advantage. She has worked hard for every inch of progress it took to get into that room, to represent her firm in the bid to get one of their biggest accounts, and by the time she’s finished giving it her all, speaking from the heart in a way that gives all the best Mad Men pitches their power, she’s bowled everyone over. Gender isn’t a consideration in the awe that follows. Just talent. And while that doesn’t come close to signifying the death of patriarchy, still alive and strong and hideous 45 years later, it feels like a genuine crack in the wall, the power of which reverberates through every person watching. For those few minutes, Peggy owned that room, and it feels every bit as significant and liberating and exciting as the moon landing. One small step for Peggy; one giant, symbolic leap for womankind.

I said it on Twitter earlier tonight, and I’ll say it again here – Peggy Olson is the best damn character on television, and has been for the last eight years. Elisabeth Moss has crafted one of my favorite fictional characters ever, and while Mad Men is a show of many wonders, her performance and Peggy’s character have, for the majority of the series’ lifespan, been my personal number one reason to tune in. To see her nail such a big moment, to see the breadth of her journey culminate in this one perfect pitch, was as emotionally charged a moment as Mad Men has ever had, and it had me beaming and misty-eyed all at once. More than any other element of “Waterloo,” that pitch felt like a pay-off on one character’s arc not only over the last six episodes, but over the entire series.

And Peggy’s story is only one part of the convergence of drama that reaches critical mass over the course of “Waterloo.” I don’t think I realized how well Weiner and company had laid the groundwork for the Burger Chef pitch or the confrontation with power-mad Jim Cutler until this episode kicked into gear, but once Don gets the legal notice, “Waterloo” becomes an absolutely gripping thrill-ride. Every ounce of intra-office tension and personal stakes bubble to the surface once the narrative dams burst, with characters taking sides, making drastic moves, and, most importantly, realizing what matters most. For as fun as it is to see Don rally partners to his side, or watch Roger try to outmaneuver Cutler’s months-long strategy of agency domination, it’s even more impactful to see how the shifting status quo makes these characters reevaluate their loyalties and priorities.

Don, for instance, has been on an arc of personal rehabilitation all season long, and it is so immensely meaningful to see him let go of his pride and give the pitch to Peggy, after realizing most of what he thought has been tossed out the window. His marriage to Megan is over, in practice if not in law, and the season has done such a good job exploring that relationship that Megan doesn’t even need to say anything to let Don know their moment has passed. And after the death of Bert Cooper (more on that in a minute) seems to put the final nail in the coffin for his career, Don is suddenly left with an empty hand, everything he’s been fighting so hard to reclaim all season having slipped through his fingers – except for Peggy. He started the season barely thinking of her, feeling hostile and resentful towards her when tasked to work under her command, but the events of last week’s episode reminded Don of how special and important Peggy is – the subtext of the “My Way” slow dance, I think, is Don remembering how much she means to him, and trying to silently communicate that to her – and here, she is the person he turns to when all his other hopes have evaporated. And while Don confessed to Peggy last week that he usually abuses his coworkers when he reaches the end of his rope, he does the opposite here, giving the pitch – the last thing of value he has in his career – to her, knowing that, at this point, it will mean so much more for her than it ever can for him.


The death of Bert Cooper, meanwhile, shakes Roger out of apathy, forcing him, like Don, to think about what truly matters. Cooper wasn’t always the most prominent or important character on this show, but he was such an integral part of this series from the very beginning, and all we need to remember how much he meant to Roger is that brief, quiet, lovely moment Roger spends standing in Cooper’s now-abandoned doorway. For all the bickering we saw between Bert and Roger tonight and in other episodes, it was Sterling and Cooper that founded the agency this series is built on, and as far as Roger has fallen into hedonism and lethargy, that agency once meant something to him. And once it becomes clear, in the wake of Cooper’s death, that Jim Cutler is nothing more than a ruthless vulture – planning to dismantle and rebuild the agency in his own image the moment Cooper passes – Roger jumps into action, single-handedly forming a plan to save the agency he and Cooper built. It isn’t the flashiest or most elaborate corporate reorganization we’ve seen on Mad Men – “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” the episode where Sterling Cooper broke away from McCann Erikson, was played as a full-blown caper – but it’s inspired in how clearly it gives everyone (but Cutler) exactly what they want. Junior partners Joan and Pete get the massive payday they were denied last year, Don gets to reclaim his old position, Ted – who Don gets to convince in his own mini-pitch for the episode – gets to start doing real work again (*), and Harry Crane doesn’t get a partnership or a penny, which pleases absolutely everyone. It’s such a good, airtight piece of maneuvering on Roger’s part that even Cutler can’t deny its effectiveness – while this will rob him of virtually all power, Jim votes with the partners, because it is, indeed, “a lot of money.”

(*) Ted’s story here was one of the only parts of “Waterloo” that didn’t feel earned to me. After having virtually no presence whatsoever this season to date, he comes back here wanting to drop out of advertising, and while I understand the motivation well enough, it’s too bad there wasn’t time enough in the past six episodes to gradually build that story up.

“Waterloo” practically has the structure of an inspirational sports movie – small group of underdogs overcoming impossible odds on a limited timetable – and when the partners all step out of that office at the end, Roger and Don having saved the agency, Peggy having just landed them an enormous new client, the emotional satisfaction feels only half a step away from the end of Rocky. It’s such a jubilant, celebratory atmosphere that we might as well be watching the series finale, and it sets the perfect tone for the single most fantastical, out-on-a-limb sequence Mad Men has ever staged.

For on paper, Bert Cooper’s beyond-the-grave musical number is just that: A celebration. This is easily the most significant figure to die on Mad Men so far, the longest-running character to depart the series, and Robert Morse was one of the show’s greatest assets. Why not let the man – a beloved musical theatre performer, no less – sing and dance his way off stage? The series, the character, and the actor had earned that moment, in every way, and it is an absolutely beautiful send-off.

But the moment is more than a celebration, because we, the audience, aren’t the only ones watching. This apparition appears to Don Draper, and the look on Don’s face as he watches his old boss sing his goodbyes speaks volumes about the conflicted emotions of the moment (it’s one of many inspired reaction shots Jon Hamm has had this season). “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” Bert sings, just after Don has helped finalize a deal that will net him millions of dollars, and will keep him chained to this agency for at least five years. The look on Don’s face is more than mere sadness or surprise – it’s confliction, because now that he has reclaimed his position in the agency and gotten exactly what he thought he wanted at the start of the season, he’s no longer sure he wants it. Part of Don’s arc this year was realizing that the best things in life are, indeed, free, and I think when he gave the pitch to Peggy, he had all but made peace with the idea of recapturing his career glory. The moments that hit him the hardest this year were personal ones. Coming clean with Sally. Being honest with Megan (even if that couldn’t save their marriage). Slow-dancing with Peggy, and watching her blow that pitch out of the water. If he has changed and improved this year, he did so on the back of his personal relationships, not in the context of his career, and if Don hasn’t literally realized that truth at the hour’s end, I think it’s hit him subliminally.

“Maybe that’s the way it always should have been,” he says to Peggy upon giving her the pitch, recognizing that she might, in fact, be more cut out for this than he is. The job won’t save him. The job has only ever been bad for him, when all is said and done. Walking away and starting fresh might have been the best option, but it’s too late for that now. Bert Cooper’s song is a challenge as much as it is a celebration. Can Don work at this agency and flourish professionally while still staying true to what he learned this year – can he remember that the best things in life are free, and live for what is most important to him, rather than chasing pride at work? That’s the question we’re left with going into this year-long hiatus, and it feels like the perfect end-point for the season, the right culmination for everything Don has been through this year.

Season 7A, as I suppose we must call it, was a great season of television, and at least a near-great season of Mad Men, something I would not have necessarily expected with such a heavily truncated episode order (comparing this to the first half of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, which was problematic in a lot of ways, I think Mad Men obviously comes out on top, on strength of finale if nothing else). More than anything else, this season, and “Waterloo” especially, proved saying goodbye to this show will be hard, because after seven seasons, Mad Men is still at the top of its game, still fully capable of delivering full episodes and individual character moments that absolutely bowl me over. The prospect of having only seven episodes left after tonight is thoroughly depressing, and I think saying goodbye to these beautifully flawed characters and their richly realized world will be harder than it was watching several other recent great dramas come to a close. I don’t want or need Mad Men to end, especially when it can still deliver a season finale this blisteringly brilliant, but all things must come to a close eventually, and if “Waterloo” is any indication, Mad Men is going to go out on top, exactly where it started, and exactly where it’s remained all these years.

Other Thoughts

  • Apart from Ted, the only part of tonight’s episode that felt underdeveloped to me was Sally’s story, which was mildly amusing – Kiernan Shipka is too good to deliver anything else – but largely insubstantial. Beyond Sally’s continued transformation into mini-Betty, this didn’t feel like it was paying off on anything in particular. We saw Sally’s first kiss because we would have to eventually, and we spent time with her and Betty tonight because it was a season finale, but it didn’t feel cumulative in the way so much of the rest of the episode did.
  • Mad Men has an uneven history with depicting major historical events – the Cuban Missile Crisis episode is one of the series’ best hours, but the JFK and MLK Jr. assassination episodes are relatively weak and one-note – but I thought they handled the moon landing perfectly here, as a natural extension of what the characters were going through. Peggy, Pete, and everyone else on the Burger Chef account only care about whether or not the astronauts land safely because if they don’t, it will cast a pall on the presentation, and while we get a long scene of everybody gawking at the television, it’s contextualized by the episode’s themes of connection and communal experience, which Peggy bakes right into her pitch. That’s the sweet spot Mad Men needs to hit with these moments, and this was perfectly handled.
  • Julio: “I don’t want to go to Newark.” Peggy: “Nobody does.” Peggy Olson, you are my hero.
  • “I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers.” Peggy Olson, you are – ah, I just said that, didn’t I?

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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Thank you so much for reading, and please come back next year for my in-depth reviews and analysis of all seven episodes of Mad Men’s final season, right here at www.jonathanlack.com.

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