'Mad Men' at midseason: So much right stuff, yet feeling lost in space

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Image Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

“Waterloo” was one more episode of Mad Men this season that used iconic historical references to imbue the narrative with dread and toy with our pessimistic assumptions about Don Draper and friends (and frenemies). The title—a nod to Napoleon’s last, losing battle—got us worrying that personal agendas would cause Don to sabotage the Burger Chef pitch or Peggy to botch it, or that the forces opposing their self-realization (the Cutler/Lou conspiracy thwarting Don’s atonement; the chauvinist, unjust culture impeding Peggy’s advancement) would win the day.

Instead, with the livelihoods on the line and all eyes watching, Don and Peggy rose to the occasion—chastened Don stayed the course of humility; ascendant Peggy showed she had all the right stuff—much like the astronauts of Apollo 11, whose history-making moon landing on July 20, 1969, a global spectacle watched by 500 million people, provided the episode with its other frame of reference. The portrayal of the media event in “Waterloo” played like a requiem for broadcast TV monoculture. Peggy, in a bit of business genius that caused Don to beam with pride, exploited the moment (and pulled from her life as landlord/surrogate parent to poor, Newark-bound Julio) to add some extra idealistic/maudlin Family of Man flavor to her Burger Chef pitch. Fast food will save the world!

Mad Men’s dramatization of the Apollo 11 mission also reminded us—or if we weren’t alive to witness it, taught us—that Neil Armstrong and company’s trip to the moon was a nail-biting thriller that had the world fretting about whether it would all end in disaster. Watching the Mad Men gang watching television with moon-shot jitters = the Mad Men audience, watching the final season full of worry, or for some of you, certainty, about another Don Draper implosion. Again, I say, this season seems to be interested in tracing the origins of contemporary cultural cynicism, functioning as a Rorschach blot that reflects back to us the degree to which we’ve been infected by it, and, perhaps, challenging its hold. “Do you want your brothers to think like that?” Don asked Sally in response to her “cynical”—Don used the word—response to Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, a pose she swiped from the cool older boy visiting her home. “No,” she replied, with a smile that suggested she appreciated being called out, especially from her fallen but improving father. She expects him to aspire to a better version of himself; maybe she should do the same.

Catastrophe did strike Mad Men during “Waterloo” in the form of Bert Cooper’s surprising, off-camera death. That moon landing sent his heart racing (“Bravo!”—his final word) and then, apparently, over the edge. (I like to think he’s now somewhere over the moon, bounding around with the astronaut in his life, Mrs. Blankenship.) Continuing the optimistic, lighter-tone trend of the season, Mad Men muted the trauma of the tragedy: Bert kicked the bucket off screen, then came back for a song-and-dance number during Don’s waking-dream in the final scene (more on that later). In between, grieving Roger quickly rallied and contributed to the episode’s can-do heroism: Answering the challenge of Cooper’s view of him as leadership-challenged, Roger reclaimed control of his agency (in more ways than one) by negotiating a lucrative sale to McCann-Erickson — once a big bad monolith, now a savior (funny how things change) — thus subverting the Napoleonic machinations of Jim Cutler that would have sent Roger and Don out to pasture.

Roger’s victory also saved SJ&P from being transformed — corrupted, he might argue — by Cutler’s “vision” (another buzz word in the episode) for the agency, with its emphasis on cutting edge technology and precision media buying over audacious creativity. (Here, it seemed, Mad Men was playing to its Madison Avenue-as-Hollywood metaphor, renegade Roger’s vision of an indy boutique making arty pop pitted against with bean-counting Cutler’s formulaic models and computer-generated special effects. This is an essay for another time.) But it’s all advertising, not life-expanding soul-enrichment, as Ted’s recent turn toward self-loathing reminded us. Jim’s vision, Roger’s vision—tomato, tomahto. Today, we cheer Roger: for his heroic hustle, for honoring his mentor/partner’s memory and legacy. But it also represents an aging, fading man’s desperate attempt to hold onto the past, deny the present, fight the future that is already here. This is to say nothing of the potential costs to SC&P’s self-governance and self-determination by becoming someone else’s property: Not for nothing, I think, that we saw Roger’s Inferno print looming in the establishing shot of the scene in which he sprung the McCann deal on the partners. Read: a deal with the devil? It’ll be interesting to see when Mad Men resumes next year if Roger negotiated a new lease on life or signed the agency’s death warrant.

Speaking of the intermission that is upon us: I hate it. It’s not just that the season has me hooked and I want the next chapters now. I don’t think Mad Men’s approach to scaling seasons—every episode a finely crafted gem unto itself; slowly emerging big picture narratives—works well in the split season format. Mad Men 7A doesn’t leave me with the same satisfaction that, say, the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season gave me, the kind of satisfaction that makes a many-month break tolerable and stokes anticipation for what’s left. I’m ready for this story to end. Now. In truth, I’ve been ready since the end of last season, after Don’s powerful if exhausting downward spiral toward rock bottom. I love this show, but I’m burned out on it, too. I think about waiting until 2015 to see the rest of this season and feel cranky and tired, not amped. Yeah, I’ll watch it, anyway. But grumble-grumble-grumble. You know?

Maybe it’s a mistake to evaluate the whole of Mad Men 7A without seeing Mad Men 7B. It’s entirely possible that the back half might illuminate and fulfill the design of the first half in ways not yet apparent. For example, I am reluctant to pass any judgment or come to any conclusions about the show’s treatment of Betty so far this season (what little treatment there’s been—more story for her next year, please!), and Sally is a fuzzy picture still coming into focus. I live in hope for closure for Ginsberg and his bloody nipple. That said, as much as season 7 has so far given us some classic episodes—the last two in particular—and many sensational moments, I’m tempted to say 7A was less than the sum of its parts.

I enjoyed watching Don struggle to repair the “broken vessel” of his life by being a better husband, father, and worker. The things that frustrated and challenged his reclamation project—his own self-doubt; the doubts of others; lingering resentments about past sins; changing times and circumstances—were usually compelling. The conclusions felt correct, even provocative. I loved how Sally rewarded Don’s honesty and transparency with grace and a sincere “I love you, dad” in the Valentine’s Day episode. Peggy’s slow dance with Don, the culmination of an episode that saw Don earn back Peggy’s trust and affirmation by affirming her talent, was a glorious moment. Mad Men rocked the role reversal in their relationship. I think we were all anticipating it, even hoped for it; the way Weiner and his writers, directors, and actors made it happen was surprising all the same and more delightful than I imagined.

Still, Don’s progression should have been allowed to unfold more leisurely, with a bit more mess; it felt squished into this seven episode set for the sake of giving the first half of the season a distinct identity. I would have liked to have seen a little more trial and error, a little more failure and folly, and with an extra episode or two, we could have gotten that. As it was, Don’s arc was a series of Don Making Nice With The Ladies moments, with forgiveness and restoration coming just a little too easily, too quickly. (Joan remains a work in progress; maybe next year.) Don even nailed his inevitable break-up with Megan, who gave him maybe the most charitable no-fault divorce California has ever seen. “You don’t owe me anything,” she told Don after he vowed to take care of her until she was well established. She’s wrong, of course. We know that. Don knows that. But ignorance is bliss. That’s what get-lost payoffs to inconvenient women from your husband’s past are for.

What sticks with me most right now is the look on Don’s face during the inspired climactic scene of “Waterloo,” a waking hallucination in which Bert called to him in the hallway, sashayed sockless with prancing secretaries and serenaded him him with “The Best Things in Life are Free.” It was a great exit for actor Robert Morse, but the importance of the scene, the meaning of it all, lies in Don’s emotional response to what he’s witnessing. (My general rule for all bizarre dream sequences.) In Don’s face, I saw confusion and grief and terror; it reminded me of astronaut David Bowman’s fear and trembling response to passing through the monolith and landing in the Hotel Suite of Cosmic Transformation at the end of 2001.

The scene ends with Bert shutting a door—and Don taking a seat. Interesting: “Shut The Door. Have A Seat” was the season 3 finale, the one where Sterling Cooper revolted against a sale to McCann, Don granted Betty a friendly divorce, and The Man Formerly Known As Dick Whitman reflected on his father’s death. When we came back to Don at the start of season 4, we found Don falling apart personally (a downward spiral that culminated with “The Suitcase”) and the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce start-up struggling to start. Now, he finds himself in a similar place—a clean slate; a place of transformation and reinvention—and I wonder if what troubled him so much and brought him low was remembering that the last time he was in this spot he… well, imploded. Will this time be any different? Can Don Draper rise to the challenge of living well amid the pressure of building anew, the uncertainty that attends all new beginnings, and the lingering doubts about his own character? I look forward to watching the spectacle of the answer, even as it drives me crazy that Mad Men is making me wait for it.

 

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