If there’s one thing that best exemplifies Mad Men’s separation from the rest of modern television, it is the show’s devotion to uncertainty. Nobody on the series knows what he or she wants — a unique concept for a TV drama, as a lack of defined goals makes a character more difficult to identify, relate to, and write for. But the piercing confusion that envelops Don Draper and his clan are exemplified at the forefront of the best episodes of Mad Men, this week’s pseudo-season finale being no exception. We see Don struggle with the question in regard to every aspect of his life: what does he want out of his job? His career? His relationships? His marriage? Himself? As he learns courtesy the dancing ghost of Bert Cooper, he has no idea.
“Waterloo” gives us just about everything we could want from a penultimate chapter Don. Finding out he could well be ousted from the company — the Jim Cutler team sees no room for Don Draper on its staff — Don burrows deep into himself to figure out what he wants. During a phone call with Megan, the pair tacitly agrees that there is no hope for their marriage, ending it with quiet civility and Don’s insistence that he will always “take care of her” … the desire to do so being the only thing that ever really drew him to Megan, or to any woman, in the first place.
But with Peggy, we see Don’s heart. He insists that she take the reins on the Burger Chef pitch in Indiana, investing more furiously in her future than in his own. After last week’s reunion of their good graces, however manufactured this endeavor might have been, we see Don finally pass the torch to Peggy in earnest. We see her deliver a magnificent pitch, one that maintains a quavering humanity all the while nearing technical perfection. And if you watch Don’s eyes throughout the scene, you see everything he feels about Peggy shine through: hesitation and reluctance, sure, but also hope, affection, and respect.
The episode uses the ’69 moon landing to usher in a “new era” for the agency. One without Bert Cooper, who passes away while watching Neil and Buzz step foot on the surface, uttering an awed, “Bravo.” A fitting sendoff to a character who has always felt like he existed in another time… and perhaps on another planet. Bert’s passing is the impetus for Roger to seize kingship — something he has always lacked in his personal life, as indicated by his daughter’s palpable absence during a scene of the Sterling-Hargrove family watching the groundbreaking event — of the company, instituting a purchase from rivals McCann. This deal will make him the leader he has always wanted to be (well, the leader he suddenly thinks he has always wanted to be), will keep his faithful pal Don in employ, and will earn all of the partners a hefty sum of money.
Don agrees, assuring the befuddled Ted that the other side — unemployment — is a barren hell scape. But after the next five years (or, as Ted puts it, their entire lives) are signed away, Don has no choice but to burrow deeper. Mad Men has always been creative in the delivery of its characters internal battles. We cap the episode with Don growing teary through a hallucination of Bert and the office ladies dancing to the Good News number “The Best Things in Life Are Free” — a particularly ostentation method of showcasing Don’s piercing emptiness.
He belongs nowhere. Not in his marriage, not in his family, not in the job to which he has devoted himself nor outside of it. Don is alone and wholly without. And he has no idea how to fix that.
The episode does everything in its power to insinuate the worst for Don: the professional linking of him and Ted assigned in the same hour that showcases Ted’s spiraling depression and likens him outright to Lane Pryce would have us believe that the man falling from the skyscraper in our old friend the opening theme could be Don himself sometime soon. But just as Don seems to when he watches Peggy transform into something that even she thought impossible, just as a long-expired Bert manages in his dying breath when he recognizes the gallantry that mankind is still capable of, we must find hope.
Episode grade: A, because Dancing Bert Cooper’s Ghost is the greatest television experience since the moon landing itself.