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WARNING! This piece contains spoilers.
Episode 707 of Mad Men, the mid-season finale, ends with Bert Cooper serenading Don Draper from the Great Beyond. Bert dies on the night when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, a moment that, if only temporarily, erased the mindless violence and chaos that was the 1960’s and unified everyone who was able to witness the event on TV. On that Sunday night, us/them became we. How ironic it was that on a night when a temporary cease-fire was declared on human frailty, Bert Cooper, who became a surprise mediator in the final season of Mad Men, gave in to his human frailty.
It was Bert who gave Don the final hard kick in the ass that led to Don’s return to the agency. The kick came in the form of a brutally honest assessment of Don’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions. Since that moment, followed by Freddie Rumsen’s ministrations, Don has been on a redemptive path. In this week’s episode, Bert similarly assesses Roger’s position in the SC&P firmament, praising him for his talent, skill and experience, but telling Roger that he is no leader. This stinging rebuke from a man who is like a father to Roger ultimately leads to a transformation of Roger from passive victim to strategic dealmaker. Roger, at least temporarily, rises to prove Bert’s judgment wrong.
“Don, my boy!”
How sad it was to see Bert, played wonderfully by Robert Morse, go. And what a nice tribute Matthew Weiner paid the veteran stage actor by sending him off with a song and dance number that was as puzzling and eerie as it was sweet and emotional.
Don has just assisted Roger in overturning Jim Cutler’s threat to “dismantle the agency,” and as Roger announces the death of their co-founder, Don goes back to his office to get some work done. Note that Don was on his way to Lou Avery’s office – his former office – when Bert calls out to him in an uncharacteristically friendly tone. “Don, my boy!” Don turns to see sock-footed Bert, in the flesh. Don stands in stunned silence as Bert begins “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” with altered opening lyrics:
The stars in the sky,
The moon on high
They’re great for you and me
Because they’re free…
Bert, who had just days before, declared Don a “pain in the ass” is now bestowing a counterintuitive blessing on Don by directing Don’s attention to the things beyond money and career and power that are more important…and don’t cost money.
I say counterintuitive because, like Jim Cutler, Bert was a man who lived by a capitalistic pragmatism where “Does it make me money?” seemed to be the litmus test for all things, a kind of situational ethos that could be one thing on Monday, and then a completely different thing on Tuesday. This is illustrated by Cutler’s own flip-flop on the McCann deal at the end of the episode, where he waves the white flag and follows Rogers lead – “It’s a LOT of money,” Cutler says when Roger asks if he’s serious.
And so, here is Bert, speaking from the Other Side, where he has gotten the message (we are left to presume) on what is most important in this life, and like Clarence the angel in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” comes back to point Don forward once again.
But what if that moment was something more?
Wasn’t it odd how Don and Peggy parted ways? Everyone has come upstairs to hear Roger’s announcement about Bert’s death. Peggy catches Don to tell him the good news, that Burger Chef has awarded them the business. Don gives her a big hug and tells her they saw what he saw – rare approbation from him. After a big, beaming smile, Don moves to go downstairs to his office. Peggy asks him where he’s going, and he tells her he has work to do, then leaves to meet Bert. The scene was structured and shot in such a valedictory manner that it seemed, at least from Peggy’s perspective, like it was one of those I-remember-the-last-time-we-spoke exchanges.
After Bert’s song and dance routine, Don has to sit on the edge of a secretary’s desk to gather himself. This may be a foolish notion, but I want to go on record now and ask – is Don dead, or is there simply a part of him that has passed away?
Among other things, the episode was about many of the characters being on the brink of significant change. Is Don’s significant change death, or is this a prelude to a kind of putting to rest his years as an ad man? Bert, in his altered opening to his song, declares that the moon and the stars (an Apollo 11 reference) are great “for you and me.” Why the inclusion of Don with him in death? And why are they great? And what kind of free is Bert talking about? Free as in money and cost, or free as in freed from some sort of bondage?
In one sense, Bert is free from the mortal coil that was his body, as well as his highly structured social position and attendant beliefs. Perhaps he means Don is free to pursue an authentic life that is free from the pain of his childhood, free from the lies that arose from assuming the identity of a dead man, and free, at last, to be the kind of man he’s always shown hints of being.
Regardless, Don is on a redemptive arc I pray continues in the final half of this season, which will begin next year (groan).
One small step
While the moon landing as TV event certainly underscored the sense that we as humans are all connected and crave to be in community with one another, I think the moon landing also served to illustrate the contrast between cynicism and optimism.
Mad Men, in one sense, charts the path of Don Draper’s journey from career ascendancy to arrogance, ruin and, ultimately, redemption. In the pilot episode, there is an exchange between Don and Rachel Menken, where he sarcastically dismisses the popular notion of love in terms of lightning bolts and gooey emotions before going on to outline his philosophy of love, life and advertising. “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me. To sell nylons.” Sensing Rachel’s arousal, Don adds some obnoxious swagger as he continues. “You’re born alone, and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because…there isn’t one.”
It’s this bleak ideal that propels Don through season after season of Mad Men until the weight of the damage Don inflicts is too much for him to bear. Don has had many wake-up calls, nearly all of which were ignored. He could shrug off the pain of losing relationships by drowning it in alcohol. But when Don’s source of his identity was taken away – his persona of Don Draper, Master of the Universe – he was forced to ultimately come to grips with who he is, what he really wants, and how he is going to get it. We get this in his speech to Ted at the end of the episode.
The beginnings of Don’s sea change are also evident in his call to Sally to share in the wonder of an historic event. Sally parrots the cynicism of Sean, the visiting hunk, by dismissing the moon landing as a complete waste of money when there are so many in need. Don, who may have said the same thing in years past, asks her if she really believes that. He fumbles a little with his guidance by guilting her into being optimistic for the sake of her brothers. She gets off the call as soon as she can, but Don’s words seem to sink in when she runs into geeky Neil, Sean’s little brother, out in the backyard looking at Bobby’s telescope. After an attempt at being the put-upon, seen-it-all teenager, she responds to Neil’s optimism by giving into it.
Why? Because it’s a more attractive option. We can’t help buy respond positively to authentic human behavior. To vulnerability. To be this way is to operate from a position of strength because it is so true and unassailable. To go through this world with clenched fists, like Don has, is to ultimately end up bitter and broken.
Sally and Don often serve as mirrors, and here we have a beautiful example of Sally mirroring her father by stepping out on faith and embracing optimism.
Don furthers this new attitude when he sacrifices his deep desire to win the Burger Chef business by giving Peggy the opportunity. With Bert dead, he knows the partner votes are against him and Roger, and rather than win a pyrrhic victory, he sets Peggy up to solidify her position at the agency by building her confidence and working late into the night to coach her through the pitch. The old Don would never have done this, or if he had, it would have been for the wrong reasons.
Don dealt with an attack from Cutler, the final dissolution of his marriage and a plea from Roger to win back control of the agency without getting drunk and abusing a single underling. Way to go, Don!
No man has ever come back from leave, even Napoleon
The episode is titled “Waterloo,” and would appear to refer to Cutler’s failed attempt to win control of the agency and depose Don once and for all, but Bert’s comments seem to contradict so easy an assessment.
When Napoleon launched the Waterloo campaign, he ruled for 100 days before suffering his final defeat. Perhaps what we are seeing now is Don’s 100 day return before finally being defeated once and for all. With Bert’s Napoleon reference and the final song, conspiracy theorists have much to feast on until Mad Men’s return next year.
One thing that should be noted is that Bert tells Roger that Don doesn’t understand the notion that a leader is loyal to his team. Historically, this is true of Don, but in the last two episodes of this half of the season we have seen Don totally contradict this judgment. At long last, Don does seem to understand that a leader must lead through selfless devotion to his team, which Don does by giving Peggy the Burger Chef pitch.
Maybe Bert was wrong on this one.
You’re just a bully and a drunk; a football player in a suit
Whatever the outcome for Don, Cutler certainly suffered a setback in the execution of his vision of the future of SC&P.
Without the knowledge and approval of the other partners, Cutler has the agency attorney draft a letter to Don, informing him of his termination for breech of contract. This letter seems prompted by Lou Avery, whose one scene this episode is a gem.
Lou visits Cutler to inform him that SC&P has lost the Commander Cigarette campaign to Leo Burnett, who has the other Philip Morris business. When Cutler shrugs off the loss with a philosophical bit of turning lemons into lemonade, Lou goes bananas, asking if Cutler is going to just wait for Don to jump into the next cigarette meeting and further humiliate him. When Lou predicts the day when he crawls out of SC&P with nothing but a damaged reputation, Cutler shoos him away by telling him he’s merely a hired hand and owed nothing. The meeting is ended with Cutler yells at Lou to get back to work, which he meekly does.
Regardless of whether he’s merely a hired hand, Lou is part of Cutler’s team, and the letter goes out, sending Don into a blind rage (after a humorous moment with Meredith, who, like every other woman, has a crush on Don). Don confronts Cutler by barging into his office, where Cutler is surely waiting. Cutler confesses that he and Ted used to be intimidated by Don, and would wonder what he was up to, all shrouded in mystery. He goes on to eviscerate Don, by telling him that, having seen behind the curtain, he’s thoroughly unimpressed, calling Don a bully and drunk; a football player in a suit. He taunts Don, telling him the most eloquent he’s been was when he blubbered like a little girl about his impoverished childhood. He’s hoping for a punch that will eliminate any legal leg Don may have left to stand on, but Don keeps his anger in check.
Don then marches to Roger’s office, where he opens the door and orders him out. Don then yells for Joan and Bert and Pete.
Bert enters the fray by telling Don they’ll talk to Cutler and get to the bottom of this. When Cutler strolls up, Don forces the issue by asking for a vote on whether to fire him. It’s 4-3 in Don’s favor, with Cutler, Ted (via Cutler) and Joan voting against Don.
Don wins the battle, but the war is still in the balance. Afterwards, as everyone goes to their respective office, Joan is left to tell Cutler he shouldn’t have done what he did.
Later, when Roger visits with Bert to get counsel on the Cutler situation, Bert tells Roger something important. “Whoever is in control is in charge.” Bert goes on to tell Roger that, unlike Bert, he’s no leader. Further, Bert confirms Cutler’s leadership capabilities, as well as his vision for the company. The only stopping Bert from supporting Cutler is the fact that Cutler is an outsider.
Thus informed, when Bert dies and Cutler outlines his plan to consolidate his power and oust Don, Roger swings into action with a brilliant plan. He reaches out to Jim Hobart at McCann Erickson and schedules a meeting in which he secures a verbal offer for McCann to purchase a controlling interest in SC&P that is contingent on Roger’s ability to bring Ted along. McCann’s interest is the Chevy team, which consists of Roger, Cutler, Ted and Don. Roger manages to cut Cutler out of the picture, but can’t get Hobart to budge on Ted.
Roger lays in wait for Don, upon Don’s return from the Burger Chef pitch, and it is there, in Don’s apartment, that Roger outlines the plan by which he will take control of the agency, push Cutler out, and save the jobs of all, including Don.
Don’s skepticism is understandable when he tells Roger that he doesn’t believe he can pull it off. He cites, as an example, Roger’s inability to save Don’s job. Roger appeals to a higher purpose – to their co-workers. It’s a test for both of them. Of course, the deal will make them rich, but they could just as easily have gone as a trio of creative to McCann. Instead, Roger sells Don on saving the agency once again, and building on their successes while rectifying their failures.
This hooks Don, of course, and he throws his support into Roger’s plan.
The following morning, Roger launches his sneak attack at the beginning of a meeting to plan Bert’s memorial and Don’s ouster. Ted has been flown in and looks like a husk of his former self. Cutler, upon learning of Roger’s plan, dismisses it as desperate and delusional. But when Roger quantifies the deal for the team, everyone but Cutler and Ted fall in line. And when Roger explains that the deal is contingent on Ted’s participation, Pete and Joan attack Ted’s reluctance.
It’s at this point that Don makes his biggest pitch in a long while. He leans in and speaks directly to Ted, explaining that he knows where Ted is. For the last year, he lived in a similar limbo state, except his was involuntary. His wake up call was met with the humiliating task of doing menial work normally reserved for wet-behind-the-ears rookies. But he did it, because he realized he desperately wanted back in. In short, he explained how he gladly humbled himself in order to win back the respect and approval of his co-workers. His friends. He closes the pitch by assuring Ted he doesn’t want to see what happens when it’s really gone.
The pitch works, of course, and with a little prodding from Roger, Ted approves of the plan to sell, followed by Cutler, who can’t resist the sweet smell of a lot of money.
It was a sweet ending that mirrored the effect of the moon landing. We know that the good will of Armstrong’s walk on the moon was short lived, and the heady feeling of the SC&P partners being multi-millionaires will likely fade like morning fog. Look for the deal to be somehow jeopardized when the show returns next spring. But while it lasts, those who always pine for a sweeter, more optimistic Mad Men should bask in the warmth of everyone’s joy.
Odds & Ends
- Roger wasn’t the only one who swung for the fences on this episode. How about Meredith taking a swing at Don while he’s vulnerable?
- Peggy & Julio. There are a couple of interesting echoes with this wonderful relationship. First, Julio is about the age of the child she bore and gave up for adoption. So, there’s some complicated emotional stuff going on there. Also, does this relationship remind anyone of the relationship between Betty and Glenn? Julio is being raised by a single mom, distracted by having to provide. Peggy is lonely and “starving for connection.” Just a thought.
- Poor Harry Crane. Once again, Don gives good advice, but it’s wasted on Harry when Don tells him not to dicker with the offer. Harry dickers…and gets dicked by Roger. I loved the meeting at the end, when Harry busts in and apologizes for being late. Roger loved telling Harry the meeting was none of his bee’s wax almost as much as he loved sticking it to Cutler.
- Don & Megan. How odd that the Draper marriage’s final curtain would be such a sideline event. But we’ve known this was coming for a long time, right? I called this at the end of season five, when Don got Megan her commercial. What lies ahead for Don in the romance department? Someone asked me if Betty might come back into the picture. Um, no.
- Don as ventriloquist dummy. Matthew Weiner has always said that Mad Men is about, among other things, consequences. Episode 707 has Don telling Peggy that “sometimes, actions have consequences….” Finally, Don gets it.
- Peggy did a nice job at Burger Chef, but it was no Kodak.
- Sally goes for Neil, the geeky brother, who shares the same first name as Armstrong.
- I love Pete’s plea to Cutler. “That’s a very sensitive piece of horse flesh. He doesn’t need to be rattled.”
Episode 706 ended with Don embracing and enjoying the connection he shares with Peggy and Pete (and by extension, the whole of SC&P), and in this episode, we have Bert Cooper encouraging Don to expand his horizons, like the Apollo astronauts and the millions who were with them in TV-land, and embrace all of humanity. This mini-season ends with Don on the brink of the next phase of his life and career. He has rejected the philosophy he so confidently espoused to Rachel Menken way back in 1960. The final seven episodes of Mad Men seem geared to show us how Don Draper embraces optimism in the midst of an advertising milieu which still runs on cynicism. Perhaps he’ll abandon advertising altogether. We won’t find out for sure until 2015.