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“The best things in life are free.”
It is deeply satisfying that a show like Mad Men, deep into its seventh and final season still has the ability to surprise its audiences. The closing moments of the mid-season finale are a sublime example of how Mad Men can go the unexpected route yet still have it come across as totally deserved and apt. Bert Cooper’s passing comes at just the right moment, narratively and thematically. Narratively, his passing spurs a major development, possibly the biggest, in the hour. With Jim Cutler surreptitiously taking over the SC&P and attempting to weed the agency of what he deems undesirables (Don Draper being the main one), Roger is feeling the pressure to secure what little he power he has left. SC&P is his legacy and he feels it slipping away. Bert’s death only accentuates this feeling. With Bert Cooper gone he no longer has his security blanket, there is nobody above him, senior to him that he can rely on. The future of the agency, as he views it, is entirely in his hands. Bert’s death gives him the impetus to take a risk and go after the deal with McCann-Erickson, which will change the fabric of SC&P considerably.
And thematically, so much in “Waterloo” deals with the idea of moving on, or transitioning (the deal with McCann-Erickson, Don potentially leaving the agency, Megan moving on from Don, Peggy emerging from Don’s shadow professionally, little Julio moving to Newark, Ted wanting to quit advertising, Roger becoming a leader, and much more), the most prominent example of which is Bertram Cooper’s death. Also, with all the emphasis and importance given on the moon landing throughout the hour, it is hard to ignore Bert’s death in relation to the momentous event. It is a milestone in human history a breakthrough of not only technology and advancement but of human perseverance, tenacity, and ambition things that Bert surely admired and found importance in. Bert dies soon after watching the landing, as if he has seen everything he ever wanted to witness in his lifetime and he can take his bow, figuratively and literally. Not to mention that this all recalls the passing of Mrs. Blankenship and Bert’s touching tribute “She was an astronaut.”
Building on that perfectly touching farewell, Robert Morse could not leave the series without a full out song and dance number. Though the closing scene could feel a bit out of place and/or unnecessary for some, I admit, it fills my heart with joy to see Bert singing, “The best things in life are free,” to Don. It just feels right and appropriate and emotional in the best way. Sure the Matthew Weiner is calling attention to Robert Morse’s off-screen persona and his pre-Mad Men days, which kind of takes one out of the show, but it is so amusing and fun to watch that I do not mind at all. Don would totally imagine a dancing and singing Bert Cooper as a way to cope with his death and also reassure him about life. Jon Hamm does such a fantastic job in that close up of Don’s emotional face, that it completely sells the moment.
Bert’s musical interlude is just a beautiful topper to an episode full of truly magnificent scenes and moments, which all come together to form a fantastic hour of Mad Men. From Roger successfully taking the reins of the company, to Peggy delivering a moving and outstanding pitch to Burger Chef with Don’s blessing, to the shots of all the different families watching the moon landing. It is an episode that once again exemplifies why Mad Men has become such an affecting television series and why it is so satisfying to watch it. This is a show that rewards its viewers and deftly acknowledges its past to add meaning and profundity to the narrative. It is the Valyrian steel of television (for those Game of Thrones geeks out there), the show is forged from layers upon layers of character history and past moments which strengthen the various stories being told and create a rich and complex world. This episode is riddled with callbacks and allusions to past events that make the current story incredibly impactful.
Don finally giving Peggy full control over an account resonates deeply because we know how much Peggy has struggled with wanting credit and/or ownership of her work, and having people believe she relies on Don to do well. When Don tells her that he has “overheard some things” we immediately go back to last season’s Heinz pitch in which he listens in on her impressive presentation, he knows she is ready for this, she has been for quite some time now. This is Don letting go of his ‘ownership’ of Peggy, which has been a huge aspect of their relationship. When little Julio tells Peggy about moving to Newark it is a remarkably profound moment for her. Here she is losing a surrogate son (who helped her sell the pitch to Burger Chef) and who surely reminds her of the son she could have had.
When she tells him that his mother does care about him and “that’s why she is moving” she isn’t just comforting Julio but, as we know, referring to herself, she could not have a child at the time and did what was best for him. It is such a heartbreaking scene in a season that had Peggy confront her unresolved issues on that matter. And, of course, the fact that the agency is going to be subsidized by McCann-Erickson calls back to their time when Sterling Cooper was bought by PPL and were later absorbed by McCann which was the event that drove Don, Roger, Bert and Lane to create SCDP. They have literally gone full circle and ended up where they began, in a way. Only this time Roger has made the move on their terms and it will hopefully prove to be a wise decision.
“Waterloo” adequately brings stories that have been developed over the course of the season to natural and appropriate semi-conclusions and paves a clear trajectory for the latter half of Mad Men’s final season. In the words of the venerable Bertram Cooper, “Bravo.”