“Waterloo” was one more episode of Mad Men this season that used iconic historical references to imbue the narrative with dread and toy with our pessimistic assumptions about Don Draper and friends (and frenemies).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. READ FULL STORY