For this “midseason ending,” I doff my beret, fedora, space helmet, and Pucci-like head scarf to Matt Weiner. Plus, I blink my false eyelashes furiously in his direction.
What a finale!!
For all the complaints about this seventh season, this episode, anchored in the July 20, 1969 moon landing, offered poetry, art, huge story payoffs -- plus room for continuing drama.
It was about mentors, leaders, fathers and father figures. And families and TV, and identity and disconnection. And death and rebirth. And divorce and money.
Oh hell, Weiner gave us the exact same existential themes he obsesses over in every single episode. Except this time, he delivered genuinely surprising and satisfying character and plot twists, reversals, parallels and realignments.
Basically, it all comes down to the issue that Peggy raised in her presentation: We are all starving for connection.
Megan and Don, Peggy and Don, Pete, Ted, Roger: Weiner moves these characters round and round like they’re on a carousel -- just like the name of Don’s famous presentation. As for spinning the plot, how many ways can Weiner possibly reconfigure Sterling Cooper?
Well, here we go again, into the breach with McCann. (A friend who works at McCann says he can’t watch -- it causes too much PTSD for him, since McCann is such a regular punching bag for the "Mad Men" writers.)
But first, I’d like to begin with a little elegy for Captain Bert, whose charming song-and-dance number from the afterlife was a lovely call-out to the storied Broadway career of Robert “How to Succeed in Business” Morse.
Indeed, even before this number (shut the door and wave, Bert!), there were repeated references to the idea that all the world’s a stage, and the theme of performance and putting on a show. Lou tells Jim they’ve lost Commander, and that “the Don Draper Show is back.” Peggy, Don, Pete, et al practice the Burger Chef presentation over and over; cruel Jim Cutler tells Don that he’s a sham character: “I’ve been backstage and I’m unimpressed,” he says. Roger is upset that his last words to Bert were from “some old song.” And Cooper’s last word was “Bravo.”
But the dream scene also served as a hugely ironic poke at the premise of advertising itself, a business devoted to creating endless desire for buying new and improved stuff.
Of course, the remaining partners (sorry, Harry) are over the moon about the millions they’ll make in this possible buyout. In the end, however, right after elfin Daddy-o Bert scampers to the other side, he reminds Don that “The best things in life are free.”
Nothing happens by chance on “Mad Men,” and Cooper dies in high aesthete style, sitting on a sofa in front of his very impressive black-and-white Jackson Pollock painting. Pollock was the king of “action painting,” a post-war movement that blew up the comfort of the figurative work that preceded it. Pollock’s violent spots and drips illustrate the chaos, and reality, of a post-nuclear world.
So much for the revolution, however. Like a surreal twist on the American Gothic portrait, Bert and his black maid sit rigidly upright on the couch together. She wears a starched black-and white uniform; they watch the moon landing on a black-and-white TV.
Although his old patrician (and frankly, racist) background prevented him from being able to accept an African-American receptionist at work, at home, Bert relied completely on his black surrogate-wife, proving that the race issue is not so black-and-white.
At the office, Cutler tells the troops that they should honor their founder with the poem “Oh Captain, my Captain,” written by Walt Whitman after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman doesn’t want to acknowledge the death of his beloved Captain, who ended slavery and reunited the country, and he even asks if Lincoln’s passage is a dream (!) He refers to the Captain as "my father."
Truly, Bert Cooper is the father of the agency, and a surrogate father to Roger, the prodigal son. (The snappy Zen koans that Bert speaks before his death allow Roger to fire off his great line about when a man starts talking about Napoleon …)
For both Don and Roger, Bert’s death is the catalyst for growth. Roger is bothered that Bert told him he wasn’t a leader and didn’t have a vision. So he goes out and engineers the deal with McCann, which saves Don.
But before Don knows that, hearing about Bert’s death allows him to act unselfishly perhaps for the first time, doing the right thing for Peggy by handing her the Burger Chef presentation, which she should have had all along. Don reverses what Peggy said to him both in handing it back, and intro-ing her with “Every great ad tells a story. Here to tell that story is Peggy Olson.”
Weiner directed this episode, and he really showed his chops with the hyper-realist visuals of that Burger Chef meeting. Suddenly, the sound dimmed, the colors bleached and then became highly saturated, and Peggy was faced with her Waterloo. But, in contrast to her dowdy presence previously, she looked beautiful and presented perfectly, a master in control of the room, proving she is far more than “the voice of moms.”
Indeed, she was thinking on her feet by bringing in the poetry of the moon shot, also slyly including the fact that a certain 10-year-old was waiting for her at home, “parked in front of the TV.”
That scene between her and Julio was beautiful. Her own son, conceived with Pete and then given away, would be roughly Julio's age. When the poor neighbor kid said that his mother “don’t care for me,” Peggy told him of course his mother did -- that’s why she was moving. Peggy was speaking for herself, as well.
The parallels between her and Don were clear in this episode: They exchanged places on the presentation, and, in back-to-back cuts, each was seen packing, in transition. Peggy is finally redoing her place, making it more grown-up, and moving on with their lives.
An essential part of the “Family Supper at Burger Chef “ pitch is that it’s a way to get families to relax and speak with each other, away from the TV.
Weiner again expresses his love/hate relationship with the small screen, and this too is obviously ironic. First of all, we are getting this anti-TV message while glued to his award-winning hit show. Also, by anchoring this episode around the moon landing, he’s acknowledging TV's power to connect individuals, families, workers, and an entire country during a time of national pride.
I loved the sweeping shot of all the newly made and sometimes odd family configurations, watching the landing in awe. Roger has returned to his nuclear family with Mona, and now has replacement children in his son-in-law and grandson. In their hotel room, with children Pete and Harry at their feet, Peggy and Don looked awfully comfortable and compatible, sitting on the bed, sharing a brewski.
Afterwards, Don reaches out by phone to his only family, his children. Earlier, the nearly wordless break-up scene with him and Megan was like a tone poem. The acting was exquisite -- even Jessica Pare held up her end.
Sally repeats the football hunk’s view of the moon landing—that it was too expensive. Don tells her she’s being too cynical. I was taken with Kiernan Shipka’s performance, especially the way she aped Betty’s smoking behavior. But I couldn’t buy the idea that she would also copy Betty’s hair helmet. Girls at the time just didn’t do that. I guess it was supposed to show that she’s experimenting being both her mother and her father. All along, we thought she was carrying luggage and dressing up for the bare-chested college boy. But instead, she kisses the nerd.
That scene, involving one of about 10 telescopes shown in the episode, so expressed the texture of teenage experimentation during the summer: stolen kisses, followed by a drag, happen outside, in the dark, in the sultry air. They’re awkward and life-changing, and disappear as quickly as they occur, interrupted by a mother’s call.
Meanwhile, can we all hold out until March of 2015 to see what’s next for our own Wild Bunch?
Matt Weiner, you know that we’re starving -- and not just for dinner.
Girls like Sally would ape their mother's hair at that time. They were girls who went to fancy private schools and had money. They would dress like mom when at home and trash it up when they were away. I was there.
PS Kiernan Shipka is the best actor on the show and should get the Emmy
I will also miss your Mad Blog. One person who, in a way, reminds me of Don is now 79 and happily married to his 4th wife for the past 20 years. It was a flash of a young Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying said to Don, it's not about trying. Don tried, failed, tried again, was failing and saved without trying. Bert Cooper never had to try.
Excellent review, once again, Barbara. For some reason, this episode was a powerful reminder to me of my years in advertising, and what a big confidence game it all was, within the agency, at the client and for the target audience.
BTW, now that AMC has pulled this split season stunt again after doing it with Breaking Bad, I will refrain from ever getting involved in another series on AMC. I much prefer the way HBO handled True Detective.
I agree "great ads do tell stories." We surely have a lot of "people" stories. Plus "The majority of TV sets are six feet from the dinner table." Pete feels "Marriage is a racket."
The ad agency mergers are stories about people, clients, power, partnerships and money. Harry is surely not a favorite asset; by the way he was in media, not business/account manager, creative and not a partner! In real life many times media presentations (less important to clients) were last in the day or didn't happen after creative presentations. More questions than answers until next March... Megan says that Don doesn't owe her anything? Do Megan and Don get back together? Does Betty become more of the story, especially with Sally? Does Lou stay around. I think not. Peggy is back creatively especially after the presentation to Burger Chef. Lou made her worse. Thanks, Barbara. Hopefully you'll do a wrap up or two for this first part of the season. All the best.
Bravo, Barbara! A thoughtful analysis worthy of arguably the best yet episode of MAD MEN. Too often the charcters seem to merely collide rather than clash and evolve. This time both story and characters took impressive leaps forward and set the stage for what looks to be a riveting final run!
The meaning behind all of the scenes, lines and directions are open to so much interpretation, I feel like that has to be a success for the writers and for Weiner. I loved all the connections and possibilities left open. I also liked how this part of the season opened with Freddy Rumsen reciting Don's lines, and closed with Peggy, not reciting Don's lines, but making the story her own. But, one thing disturbed me. Bert's last (living) word, the "bravo," I felt was directed more towards Neil Armstrong's "tag line" than the real achievement of landing on the moon. An Ad Man to the end (afterlife notwithstanding). Great analysis as always Barbara, and I'll be starved for these until next March, for sure.
I agree with Arthur(above) it was arguably the best episode..the drama was real..not soapy as it has often been in the past...the show shines brightest when they deal with the office rather than the love affairs. I cried and smiled at the same time, watching Robert Morse's final dance. That moment gave Don great depth, that I think surprised even him. And lastly, I will miss these recaps..Bravo
Such a magical assessment and review, Barbara Lippert, but no surprises there. My feelings about that finale have been affirmed, and I saw nothing gratuitous about that final Morse scene, a la How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Frankly, as a reminiscing lover of that broadway show, I found the dream scene to be enchanting, clever and smart. As for the telescope interlude, I don't mind the bold reminders of youthful and adolescent frolicking, after all, we all had those times we called our firsts. No, I loved the finale, and as someone who failed to stick with it this season, I've been nourished enough to desire more next time around.
Barbara, your recap is as masterful as the episode. Bravo.
I loved your analysis of the episode. This episode was dense with action and meaning. After the amazing ending -- which had this kind of incredible magical realism that worked beautifully -- I thought, "Okay, it's not REALLY over until next year...because I still can look forward to the sparkling wit and keen insight of Barbara Lippert's article about it!" And as others here have mentioned, you match the wit and intelligence of the show.
Like you, I found Sally's hair-do wrong. I thought, "Is she going to PROM tonight? Is THAT why she's wearing her hair like that?" Only at prom did girls wear their hair like that. Each generation tends to find its own hair styles and a girl like Sally would stay true to her era and not be reaching for her mother's era.
The only other thing that seemed slightly false to me with the episode was that Sally kissing the younger, more awkward brother was not earned. As it was written, it felt more like a wish fulfillment of Weiner's -- and we've seen over and over that Weiner injects his boyhood fantasies of the gorgeous prom queen sort of girl who falls for the boy girls don't notice. In the past, he has used the character of Glen in this role.
It's not that I think a prom queen is incapable of falling for a smart boy but rather that when it happens, it happens for a reason. I felt that the writing didn't lead us to see what Sally saw in him. We should have had that moment where we too get to fall in love, where we swoon along with her.
best line: "even Jessica Pare held up her end." Loved the show, watched it twice. For me, the quiet intensity between Don and Peggy just prior to the start of the Burger Chef pitch was like De Niro in Raging Bull just before the ring action would start. Quiet, quiet...then: WHOOMP! the action would start.
My stomach started to twist just thinking about the pre-pitch nerves.
Great season and wonderful recap, well observed.
A re-cap column of the season and perhaps the show itself would be good to do, Barbara. A few comments: moon landing tagline. At the time, I thought that "THE EAGLE HAS LANDED" was the great line and "One small step" etc. was a bit forced and overly theatrical. Back before the landing, Esquire Magazine asked a number of notables to do a line for the moon landing like "What God hath wrought" did for telegraphy. One of the contributors wrote: "What man hath wrought." Maybe I am reading too much into the kiss, but the kid with the telescope showed himself to be much more of a romantic about the world than the kid prating on about wasted money in search of greatness. The post-osculatal cigarette a great touch. McCann did hire Gene Kummel from Norman Craig Kummel in 1965 and eventually made him CEO, closest thing to following real ad business stuff.
Weiner obviously had his Cooper character tied to astronauts and the kind of enthusiastic bon mots they famously delivered back in the '60s and early '70s. I agree with a previous commenter that Bert's "Brav-O" was directed at Armstrong's "tag line." And remember Bert's brilliant, off-the-cuff eulogy for Ida Blakenship? "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut." Cool beans, but for what purpose, others will have to decide. Oh, and yes, Peggy is having her apartment redone, but with the sort of grid system drop-ceiling every office features. So now, even her home is a sort of office (with its own glass ceiling?). Bert's send-off was just about perfect IMO, but then again, I'm a long-time fan of the movie version of "How to Succeed in Business." I almost expected Cooper to break into "It's Been a Long Day" or "Brotherhood of Man." But his message to Don (the best things in life are free) sets up the last half of the last season perfectly.
Thanks so much commenters, for adding your insights-- I so appreciate them. Claudia-- that is a good point about Weiner's fantasies and the astronomer. It really was out of the blue-- but there was a lot of intimacy in positioning her head to see something-- and for Sallly, what she saw perhaps stoked new passion?. Eyelashes were mentioned twice-- first, Betty's friend asked how she could have married a man with no eyelashes. Then astronomy boy asked Sally if she could see her eyelashes. Any guesses about this? And again, thank you all-- you make this the icing on the icing for me!
Kudos, Barbara, on bringing depth and insight to another season (half, anyway). I especially loved the scene of the Burger Chef pitch team rehearsing–– that captured it perfectly.
It was a magical hour of Mad Men, capped with a beautiful song and dance with, dare we say it, hope for Don Draper?
Amazing entertainment. Thanks, Barbara.
Really loved this episode and, as always, your analysis. One item I have not seen commented on yet - did you notice that the music playing under the end titles is like a "Music Minus One" track - it's missing the melody that Robert Morse just sang - just as we are all going to miss him. It's this kind of inventiveness and attention to detail that makes this show so very, very good.
Barbara, your eloquence, insight and humor perfectly echo the tone of this last brilliant episode. Bravo! BTW, I noticed the multiple reference to eyelashes as well and found it curious as to its meaning.
I guess I will be "jonesing" for the next year until both the show and your reviews reappear