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'Mad Men' review: Mid-season finale 'Waterloo' goes out with a song and dance

“And we can have the connection that we’re hungry for.” - Peggy Olson

It’s fitting that Sunday’s mid-season finale of Mad Men, “Waterloo,” opens on Bert Cooper watching in amazement as the Apollo 11 mission begins. It ends with us watching in amazement as Peggy Olson delivers her beautiful Burger Chef pitch and Cooper dances off into the twilight. 

There’s not much in this episode that we didn’t see coming, but Mad Men has always been more about the execution of its ideas than spoilery plot points. “Waterloo” is a perfect example of the affecting way these stories (Cooper’s death, the moon landing, Don’s potential firing) were handled: Roger and Joan’s tearful embrace as they mourn Cooper; Don’s anger when he learned he could be ousted; those powerful images of Mad Men’s various families gathered around their TVs.

At its best, Mad Men is a show that doesn’t feel like a TV show. When it's reaching heights other series can't match, it’s because you can’t feel the plot machinations or the actors reading a script or the decisions behind the immaculate set design. Mad Men goes deep with its characters and its themes and, in turn, can reach out to the deepest parts of its audience.

Cooper's death in particular is a great move for this show’s mid-season finale. This is how Mad Men does death: surprising in a realistic way, it sets into motion events that will shape the rest of the episode, and probably the rest of the series. Cooper’s passing — and especially their final chat — provokes Roger to act like a leader, and I love that the show found a way to make him integral to this final season. Like a sleeping lion, he was operating on auto-pilot until Sunday, when he roared to life and struck a deal with McCann Erickson to buy SC&P and keep it safe from the claws of troublemaker Jim Cutler. The move simultaneously resolves this half-season and sets up the next one: Don keeps his job, everyone gets a LOT of money, and the whole team signs on to move forward together (even the manipulative Cutler wants in).

"Waterloo" is an impressive episode for the way it moves this plot forward fluidly and convincingly, especially since we’ve seen this sort of merger twice before. The partners meeting where the decision is made is hilarious and resonant; love Cutler’s snarkiness, Roger's blunt authority and the way Don uses his own experience to persuade Ted he must keep working. (One nitpick: Mad Men has a remarkable ability to weave in characters who’ve barely spoken a word in multiple episodes back into the story as if they’ve been there all along, and this happens here with Ted, who suddenly and somewhat inexplicably gets a lot of screen time and power over the direction of the company. I like the character, but why is he so necessary to Mad Men’s final half-season?)

This move for the agency is an interesting turn for the show to take. It helps Mad Men re-focus on its main interests: Don, Pete, Joan, Roger and the agency. But the one outlier? Peggy. At times it seemed like this mid-season finale was leading toward a move for her and Don to start their own agency. Does this pave the way for her to leave on her own? After that Burger Chef pitch - reminiscent of Don's early days, it's one of the show's best moments, and certainly Peggy's most accomplished piece of work to date - I don't think she'll be taking cues from anyone for much longer.

Now, about the episode's final scene: How wonderful! Sure, it was weird, but don’t forget this is a show in which Don has seen plenty of things that aren’t there (Anna Draper, his father). It’s also a show run by Matthew Weiner, who used to write for The Sopranos, a show in which Tony Soprano saw talking fish. Bert Cooper singing and dancing to The Best Things In Life Are Free is one of the most unexpected ways this episode could have ended, and that made it a real treat. (Also, nice to see actor Robert Morse, who made a name for himself on Broadway in his youth, particularly in 1961's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, move so gracefully at the ripe age of 83.) Coming from any other character, this would have been truly bizarre and probably a misfire. But coming from the totally off-the-wall Bert Cooper? It made all sorts of sense. Watch the scene a second time, after the initial shock wears off, and it becomes a very touching send-off to Cooper and Morse.

On that note: This is the second Mad Men episode in a row that’s been very emotional (the way Don welled up watching Cooper’s dance, that smile he and Peggy share in the Burger Chef pitch), and as we get closer and closer to the end, we’re going to get more of these wonderfully poignant moments, scenes that feel like a culmination of an entire character’s time on the show. It’s something only TV shows can do, and only really good TV shows like Mad Men can make such effective use of. 

But, just as episodes six and seven ramped up this kind of energy, this half-season is ending. And therein lies the most problematic thing about Mad Men this year. Despite a wonderful conclusion to this year's crop of episodes, this show just isn’t built to take a gaping break after seven episodes. As we’ve just seen, it usually takes that many episodes to gather momentum. Splitting this seventh and final season is a shaky decision at best and, at worst, could tarnish viewers’ reactions to how this show ends. I have faith next year's half-season will be just as brilliant as this one was, but I can't help but think they'd both be better working as one.

More thoughts:

* So, Don and Megan broke up. What’s it say about that relationship that I didn’t even remember the split had happened by the time the episode ended? 

* Let’s just get this out of the way and run through Pete Campbell's best "Waterloo" one-liners: 

“The clients want to live too, Ted!” 
“Marriage is a racket.” 
“That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh. He shouldn’t be rattled.” 
“Hot damn.” 

* The acting in this episode is top-notch, particularly Elisabeth Moss (that pitch!) and Jon Hamm (love that scene where he rounds up the partners after getting the letter, complete with horror-movie music). But it's worth noting how perfect John Slattery here, particularly in that scene where he tells Don about Cooper’s death.

* One of my favorite shots in this episode is Don and Peggy sitting on the hotel bed together watching the moon landing. Such an intimate (though decidedly NOT romantic) position for the pair, like they were chummy brother and sister.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 12:23pm]

    

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