Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: “Waterloo”

Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm (AMC)
Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm (AMC)

Todd VanDerWerff: The characters of Mad Men have always been obsessed with remaking the world into something perfect. This season has hung a lantern on that idea with its repeated invocations of the idea of Shangri-La: the fabled place where everything is good, suffering is a half-faded dream, and existence is without pain. But the idea of Shangri-La is so potent precisely because it’s unobtainable, because to actually get there signals the end of all our voyaging. Whatever you want to call it—Shangri-La, Xanadu, Brigadoon—it eventually is lost to us. It slips back into the mists. Bert Cooper dies, but returns with a message from beyond the grave told in the form of a song-and-dance number to the only man who might be able to hear it: The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free. Shangri-La was never a place; it was always a state of mind.

Of course, contentment is easier said than done. To free oneself from want and desire is antithetical to the point of advertising, which exists largely to create want and desire. And yet, of one really thinks about them, most of the world’s major religious and philosophical strains of thought boil down to freeing the self from desire (or at least realizing that what you want is less important than what others need). The only responsibility we have on Earth is to each other, but we too often twist that into taking care of only ourselves. We spend this entire episode—this entire season, really—waiting for Don to make a pitch. The premiere opened with Freddie offering a simulacrum of a Donald Draper pitch, and this episode opens with Don starting in on that which we crave. But that’s thwarted—instead, we get a chance to see how far Peggy has come, as she nails that moment in the room with Burger Chef. When we finally get to see Don make his pitch, it’s behind closed doors—to convince Ted that his impulse to get out of the advertising game and try something else is wrong. To get Ted to wander deeper into Hell.

When AMC announced this bifurcated final season, it said that the first seven episodes represented “The Beginning” and the last seven “The End.” Now, that was pretty clearly just some clever marketing on the part of the network, but thinking about these seven episodes in that way makes me realize a bit more what they were trying to do. Any season that’s split in half like this is inherently going to feel a little disappointing, but what “The Beginning” has done is brought us to a place where things are more or less returned to the status quo. Don is back working at the agency without being in danger of losing his job, and he and Peggy are getting along again. But in the process, so much has been lost. Bert’s life is over, everybody now works for McCann (the prospect of which sent them scurrying in season three), and Ted has been talked back into a position he doesn’t want to be in. With every gain these characters make—in both the business world and in life—so much more is lost.

And then we have the promise of what comes next, as spoken to us by marketing materials, appropriately. We’ve come to Don’s “Waterloo,” and he somehow found unexpected resurrection. And now we come to “The End.”

Sonia Saraiya: At first, it’s odd that this episode hinges on Bert Cooper’s death. Bert has often seemed more relevant as a character that provides comic relief than one that really drives the plot forward, more a fixture than a character. He is, even in death, a peripheral character, even though his name is on the door of the company. But Bert is peripheral because he’s antique—he’s a relic of an even older era. As his company aged and time passed, he became more and more irrelevant. Trips to his office required taking off your shoes—a strong indication that it was not quite part of the rest of the world. He was called out only for partners’ votes and pleas for cash.

As aware as Mad Men is of the future—because it’s really about our present, told through the lens of 1960-1969—its characters are conscious of the past. Bert was a piece of that past—a piece laid to rest tonight, as astronauts did the unthinkable and miraculous. There is no moment that says the past is over more powerfully than the moon landing. And for this show, there is no more powerful moment that says the past is over than killing off Bert Cooper and selling his agency before his body is cold. Bert was the past, and now the show’s sense of past is gone. The future is now, as Cutler intimates to Roger—SC&P is becoming “the ad agency of the future.” And that means the next crop of people to die will be those characters currently left standing in the halls of the Time-Life building. Great moments have a way of boiling down to the exact same feeling—a dawning realization that outside of the hustle to stay alive, the only thing that is waiting for you, for sure, is death.


We’ve discussed this before. In the very first episode of Mad Men, Don is working on his pitch for Lucky Strike cigarettes. He ends up discarding research from Sterling Cooper’s analyst, Greta, who suggests that the reason people smoke is because we all have a Freudian death wish. Pete fishes it out from Don’s wastebasket and brings it up in the pitch meeting. Lucky Strike is not moved by the research—they still don’t believe cigarettes kill you—and it’s Pete’s first lesson in two very important rules for advertising. One: Don’t remind anyone of their own mortality. Two: Don’t cross Don Draper.

“Waterloo” pulls a lot of threads from that first episode—in a satisfying way that signals that the series is beginning to make its curtain call. The main one is that Ted Chauogh tells a few representatives from Sunkist that a) he wants to die b) dying isn’t that bad and c) hey, what if we all died right now? We’re in a plane. Let’s find out! Pete Campbell, former proponent of the Freudian death wish, screams into the phone during their conference call: “The clients don’t want to die, Ted!” And he’s right. He learned it from the best.


The second is Peggy’s pitch to Burger Chef—a fantastic scene, where the conversation of the other men at the table is blurred and quiet, overridden by a panicky quiet and the wub-wub-wub of either Peggy’s elevated heartbeat or just the mechanical whirring that we have instead of silence these days. Remember that in the pilot, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Don was terrified of his pitch to Lucky Strike, and almost choked entirely? Peggy’s petrified, but then Don introduces her, giving her the absolute faith she needs, and it clicks into place. Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this scene is astonishing—even the way she sits in her chair is confident. She’s performing for them, but she’s in her element. Peggy, too, learned from the best. She runs that room as soon as she opens her mouth, and her deliberate confidence echoes Don and in some ways, surpasses him. He was pitching for the world past, after all. She’s making the first pitch of the future. (And she didn’t wear either outfit she showed Julio.)

And the third is Neil’s observation to Sally, as she sneaks into the backyard to light up a cigarette: Smoking will kill you. That’s the voice of a different generation, for sure. Don Draper’s method of selling cigarettes worked on his daughter, but not on this kid. She puts off lighting up for a minute—to kiss a boy! Which we’ll have to discuss—but when he leaves, she starts smoking, folding her arms in an uncanny imitation of her mother’s cigarette habit.


Todd: That’s interesting, because one of the things I’ve been struck by more and more this half-season is the way the show is signaling how all of these people are being replaced—and will replace others. The most obvious example of this is that giant computer, which Ginsberg ranted about until he finally broke with reality. But there are other examples strewn about the season: Lou Avery had replaced Don, something that both Peggy and the audience assumed might fall to her. Don’s children (personified both by Sally and by Bobby this season) are a new generation of Drapers, ready to step in where their father now stands. We like to think that we’re permanent fixtures, that our families or friends or places of business would not stand if we suddenly disappeared, but that’s not really true. Betty has moved on from Don—he’s just like a bad ex-boyfriend to her now. Megan will move on from Don. And without Don around, SC&P functioned just fine, with nobody really the wiser that the man wasn’t around anymore. We think that Don is important but mostly because he’s the protagonist of the story. Center this story around any other character (except perhaps Roger), and everything would seem that much different.

Really, Don is the rock in the middle of the stream, the one that everybody else has to figure out how to navigate. Jim wants to simply remove the rock, even though the company didn’t land the cigarette business Don stood in the way of acquiring (and even though removing Don would upset carefully built equilibrium). Roger wants to stand atop that rock and plant his flag. And Peggy has figured out a way to flow around it, while still acknowledging its importance to who she is and what she does. But what this episode keeps asking us to consider is what being that rock means, why it’s so important for Don to be back where he works, other than the idea that he built the place, first conceived of every iteration of it. When he makes that impossible pitch to Ted, he speaks from the gut about how important the work is to him, but I suspect (as a fellow insane workaholic) that what he’s covering for is that he’s not sure how he will gain definition without the work. Take that away, and he might start to crumble. I don’t think it’s a mistake that I half thought the episode-ending song-and-dance number was going to cut to a reveal that Don was lying on the ground, dying of a heart attack.


Now, these are all notes that the show has played before, but what makes them work so wonderfully in “Waterloo” is that the show can now play around with a sense of finality it didn’t really have in the past. The notes that are struck in this episode really do feel like the final beats of particular stories, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the series and the characters start to leave behind the world of the series proper entirely. In discussing this episode with another TV critic, he brought up the example of China Beach, a show where the final handful of episodes darted forward into the future to show what happened to the characters as time inexorably marched forward. And you’re right that the moon landing marks a sort of divide between “the ’60s,” where the show has been set, and “the future,” where we apparently now live. What I love is how all of the characters fret about Neil Armstrong and company dying, mostly because it would be really inconvenient to have to deal with that during the Burger Chef presentation. But once those men step down on the moon, everything stops. History—even history that can be cynically derided by teenagers—has a way of making us stop and pay attention. One era replaces another. One world gives way to a new one.

And, of course, the episode features several places where we’re meant to be asking something quite poignant—surprisingly so, I’d even say: Who will be the person to replace Don? As Bert says to Roger, Napoleon staged that coup, but he still ended up right back on his island. Is there any way for Don to go forward from here?


Sonia: On Twitter, Time’s James Poniewozik observed that “Waterloo” features two Draper-like successes executed by not-Don—Peggy’s pitch and Roger’s business deal. And that syncs up with the look of wonder and defeat on Don’s face when he envisions Bert Cooper softshoeing in the hallway outside his office. It’s a weird scene—Matthew Weiner both co-wrote and directed this episode, because it’s the type of thing only he would both try and pull off. It is utterly delightful and absolutely insane, to see Bert shuffling around in his stocking feet. And it would not have worked for me were it not for the look on Don’s face. Jon Hamm’s acting abilities are second to none, even if he’s never been awarded for them, and scenes like this are why. Unshed tears glitter in his eyes. He knows he’s seeing something precious and unreal, like that short vision of Anna Draper holding a suitcase. And I think he’s crying because he knows he’s next. Part of the reason, to me, that other people besides Don succeed in this episode is because Don is beginning to let go of the material world. To return to work, as he tells Peggy, as he’s leaving the meeting.

Don is a symbol of our past, for us. Bert is a symbol of Don’s past, for Mad Men. Looking back at the last six-and-a-half seasons of Mad Men, I can see how Bert provided a lens to the past for our characters. Most relevant to tonight’s “Waterloo,” Bert reminded Roger of the ghost of his father, who would have expected better from his son. As a member of the moneyed old guard, he was a symbol for Pete and Peggy of how much they had to work up to in order to be really important. For Joan, he seemed to be a smiling father figure, always ready to encourage her. And for Don, he was a symbol to be alternately gambled with and rebelled against—they never quite trusted each other.


In this episode, our characters become the last people left standing up, and they start to put things into place for the future. Don yields his pitch to Peggy; Sterling Cooper & Partners yields its company to McCann. Roger realizes there’s no one left to be more adult than him; he’s got to be responsible for himself. Megan and Don let go of each other, and Cutler lets go of his dream of the future. And Bert yields to death, because that, and the moon, is the only thing that belongs to all of us.

I’m struck by the division you point out, Todd, between “The Beginning” and “The End.” Because it seems to me the mission of Mad Men has been delineating the difference between “The Past” and “The Future.” So I’d swap those two out (though what do I know): This first half feels like the end of what has come before. I’m expecting to see the beginning of the rest of these characters’ lives in the last episodes of this series.


TV: Your view of what’s to come is quite hopeful, and I think I can see a sense of that coming. I do think that Weiner and his team want to give these characters if not a happy ending, at least a graceful one. But all of this is tinged with a melancholy for what the characters haven’t quite accepted yet. Everything in this episode is so laden with portents from the past—who is Julio but the ghost of Peggy’s son, come to her to make her reckon with her old self?—that I find myself looking more and more to that final scene. Wacky as it is, coming out of nowhere as it does, it’s rare that someone returns from the dead to impart a message to the living that doesn’t come with some sort of warning about what’s to come: Repent of your old ways. Embrace the new. The past and the future all over again.

And yet even as I listen to Bert’s song and understand what the episode is trying to get across from his point-of-view, I find myself thinking about the grousing over how much money it cost to get to the moon. Yes, as the song says, the moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free. But you still have to spend $25 billion to get there. It’s easy to say that the only things that matter are the things that you don’t have to pay for, but the advertising industry has a way of making up for that, of turning everything into a cash grab.


Here’s where it’s time for one last nod toward the past Bert Cooper represents. The song Roger quotes to him is an Irving Berlin song hailing from the Great Depression: “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee.” Featured as alternate lyrics are the phrase: “Things that really matter/ are the things that gold can’t buy.” That’s always been the battlefield Mad Men has been fought on, as the various people working for this advertising agency try to distract customers from that fact. But as we head into the show’s final stretch, the series—through the friendly softshoe of a dead man—wants us to be wondering if anybody—onscreen or out in the audience—will be paying attention to what he says. The door on Bert Cooper’s life has slammed closed. But it doesn’t have to close on anyone else’s just yet. There’s still time. There’s so much time.

Todd’s grade: A
Sonia’s grade: A

Stray observations:

  • “The Best Things In Life Are Free” dates to the 1920s, so far as I can tell, but it was popularized by The Ink Spots in the ’40s and has been covered by everybody from Bing Crosby to Sam Cooke. And now Robert Morse. [TV]
  • “Waterloo,” meanwhile, dates to 1974. Wait, this episode isn’t named after the ABBA song? [SS]
  • If I had to choose a line that encapsulated this entire show, it would be this, from Peggy, during the pitch: “We were starved for it.” Which she amends to: “You’re starving, and not just for dinner.” [SS]
  • Roger Sterling in this episode undergoes a worthy transformation. We’ve seen him make power plays in the past, but this feels very different—that statement from Bert that Roger’s “not a leader” kind of stung, I think. Don’s story has been a lot more overt than Roger’s over the years, which has always took place a bit in the background. But I sense that Weiner is playing the long game with Roger, who may end up quite surprising us. Or dead. [SS]
  • July 1969 was a good month for women to come home to sweaty, strange men standing in their houses. Yowza. [SS]
  • Another quick call to the pilot: Don uses the word “pregnant” in reference to Pete in both episodes. I noticed only because it’s weird in this episode. [SS]
  • I will freely admit that when Roger picked up the phone while watching the footage from the moon, I completely expected to find out that Marigold was dead. This despite the fact that I predicted last year the seventh season midseason finale would feature Bert’s death. [TV]  I also thought Marigold was dead, and I think we were primed to feel that because of how surprising the familial image of Roger, Mona, grandson, and son-in-law Brooks are, all together on the couch. Bait and switch. [SS]
  • Peggy’s protestations to Don about why she can’t do the presentation, chronologically, move from least to most logical: “I’m not prepared.” “I’m a woman.” “Pete won’t stand for it.” I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers!” “We have no liquor!” [SS]
  • Matt Weiner continues working his way through starlets of the ’90s by casting Kellie Martin as Betty’s old friend who turns up with her two sons. And I liked how the episode toyed slightly with the idea of Sally flirting with the older brother before deciding that, yeah, she’d probably go for the younger one. He’s slightly safer. [TV]
  • Oh, Meredith, you really read that wrong. [SS]
  • Harry Crane has the worst luck, and I never feel sorry for him. [SS]
  • Harry Crane’s timing is a thing of beauty. I love how the show just shits all over him now. [TV]
  • The photo on this review is such an incredible shot. Don and Peggy watching TV, watching us watching TV, them looking into the future, us into the past. They’re not quite making eye contact. [SS]
  • Remember everyone: Marriage is a racket. Pete Campbell would know. [TV]
  • Next week on Mad Men: Sooner or later, everything ends. [TV]