Mad Men continues to produce engaging storylines despite a complete lack of explosions, violence, and over-the-top sexuality. The first half of the final season wrapped up this past Sunday and it is no different in this regard. Show creator Matthew Weiner has made the relatively mundane fascinating. Much like Don’s pitch in this episode “Waterloo,” every great TV show has a great story.
Don Draper, despite his job instability, a second failing marriage, and a battle with alcoholism, has been able to stay on the straight and narrow. He no longer philanders, rarely loses his fight with booze, and is working hard despite being displaced from the top perch at his advertising firm. Beyond this, he has taken Bert Cooper’s (R.I.P., more on this later) advice and begun concentrating on the best things in life, which also happen to be free. In both this episode and the previous, Don has given care and helpful council to his protégé, Peggy. He both shows her how he thinks (in the previous episode) and then gives her the lead on pitching to Burger Chef so that if he is fired, she’ll have a client all to herself. Additionally, when the moon landing is being broadcast, Don’s first call is to his daughter Sally. This is growth. Don actually cares about someone other than himself. It shows most with his biological daughter and office daughter. All of this is strong evidence of Don’s redemption.
Both women respond in spades. Peggy nails her presentation and Don’s faith is rewarded when they get the business. Sally chooses a nerdy dreamer over a bitter jock in deciding what boy to kiss after the moon landing. Both show a maturity that surpasses everyone’s expectations for them, except for Don’s.
Meanwhile, Roger Sterling loses his father figure in Bert Cooper who dies after watching the moon landing. For possibly the first time in his life, despite being a grandfather, Roger is on his own. His father was the source of his money and Bert was the source of his career success. Now, with both departed, Roger shines. He refuses to lose Don as well so he springs into action to facilitate the sale of SC&P to McCann in order to check Jim Cutler’s plans to oust Don. In the process, he makes everyone a lot of money in compensation for their ownership percentages and positions himself as president of the company, now an independent subsidiary of McCann. Not bad for a playboy who spent more time bedding women and boozing than in the boardroom.
The moon landing must have been a seminal moment. I wasn’t there, but Weiner did a masterful job of showing how this one event, broadcast across the country, united every American for a brief time in a way that transcended day-to-day life. Every Mad Men character was shown in awe of what we had just accomplished. Still, TV is no substitute. Sally’s nerdy boyfriend exclaims that real life is better than television and Bert Cooper’s ghost arrives for a song and dance number around the ditty The Best Things in Life are Free. The Broadway-inspired performance was certainly a departure for the show and took the viewer out of the episode, shattering some of the magic that is Mad Men week in and week out. For me, it was a poor choice. However, it was an understandable goodbye to Robert Morse who was famous for his roles in musicals, most notably the movie version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
The first seven episodes of the final season were largely excellent and they continue from a strong penultimate season. There are going to be critics who say that Mad Men is in decline and that it peaked somewhere around the third season. This is inevitable. Any closure to any hugely popular show is going to be met with critique. However, in regards to Mad Men, it has only improved with age.