Seven down, seven to go. The midseason finale of Mad Men aired in the UK last night, the last episode we’ll see before the show concludes for good in 2015.
By splitting the last season in two, Matthew Weiner and AMC have followed in the footsteps of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, two shows of comparable influence that did the same for reasons both commercial and artistic.
And while, over the eight years we’ve been watching, Mad Men has never aspired to the dramatic tension of either of those shows, in its own way ‘Waterloo’ was just as powerful as watching Tony’s doomed reconciliation with a hospitalized Phil Leotardo in ‘Kaisha’ or Hank discover Walt was really Heisenberg with his trousers around his ankles in ‘Gliding Over All’.
Despite featuring a death and a divorce, it was one of the most upbeat Mad Men episodes to date, with all the characters seeming to get their lives and careers back on track. At the same time, it left plenty of hints that Weiner's long-planned (and obsessively guarded) vision for next year's finale will be as gripping and unpredictable as we hoped. Here's five things we (think) we learned from 'Waterloo'.
1 | A happy ending for Don is unlikely
‘Waterloo’ could almost have functioned as a satisfying conclusion for the entire show– that is, if you believe happy endings are possible for the antiheroes of TV’s golden age.
Having rediscovered a simple love for his profession over the past few episodes, Don’s status at SC&P was restored after Roger engineered a (highly profitable) takeover of the company by McCann Erickson. And after going through the motions with Megan all season, they finally admitted it was over and said a fond goodbye (in one of those tender, what-goes-unspoken-speaks-loudest scenes that has been the show’s trademark), meaning Don managed to end a relationship amicablyfor once. He’s even got his drinking under control and improved his relationship with Sally.
All of which begs the question – if Weiner really intended to leave Don with a happy ending, why not stop here? Call us pessimistic, but we can’t really see seven more episodes of Don keeping his demons at bay and growing as a person. It feels more likely that ‘Waterloo’ is a false dawn, and Dick Whitman may be taking that tumble from the opening credits yet.
2 | Peggy, on the other hand…
It’s not a new observation, but a pivotal scene in ‘Waterloo’ confirmed that, while the world has ostensibly been gripped by the rise and fall of the ultimate alpha male protagonist, Don’s protégé Peggy has been real star of Mad Men.
Much was made in the beginning of the shows brazen – some felt overly gleeful – depiction of 1960s sexism, with Peggy patronized and leered at from episode one when she arrived as a lowly secretary.
But her difficult rise to Don’s equal was finally confirmed in ‘Waterloo’ when, at the last minute, he passed the opportunity to deliver the key pitch to Burger Chef over to her. With Don smiling serenely next to her, Peggy put in a perfomance as good as any he ever has, winning the business and (finally) the respect of the company (even Pete Campbell). Mad Men has always been as much about the resilience of its female characters as it has the frailties of its male ones, and if Peggy’s ending doesn’t reflect that (taking over the company in a dynamic duo with Joan?), we’ll eat one of Roger’s waistcoats.
3 | The kids might be alright after all
Actually make that ‘kid’, since Don appears to have forgotten he has a son and poor little Bobby can’t get a meaningful scene for love nor money.
Sally, on the other hand – played brilliant by Kiernan Shipka – appears to be flourishing after her troubled phase.
In ‘Waterloo’, the Francis household is disrupted by a visit from Betty’s friend and her two sons: Sean, a sulky (but hunky) older teen, and Neil, a sweet nerd nearer her own age. At first it seems obvious she’s fallen for Sean, mimicking his cynicism about the moon landing in a phone call with Don. But after Don calls her out on it (“You don’t really think that, do you?”), she goes out and plants a kiss on the unsuspecting Neil instead (“What do I do now?” he asks afterwards, echoing the thoughts of centuries of boys in his situation). It was a sign Sally hasn’t given up on her Dad – or the world in general – as much as we first thought (even if she was doing her best Betty impression with her cigarette at the time).
4 | History will be told
Just as the JFK assassination, the Harlem riots and other moments in America’s history have provided the backdrop to key episodes of Mad Men in the past, ‘Waterloo’ was set on the day when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
The show has always done this well, evoking a sense of history without getting heavy-handed about its symbolism. The will-they-survive anxiety of the launch was reflected in both Don’s plight and the uncertain future of the company, while Peggy knocking her pitch out of the park was a personal flag in the sand. The sequence that showed each of the characters, sat in awe in front of their TV sets with whatever family they had cobbled together, was a touching evocation of the medium’s communal past. It also resulted in the best line of the episode from Roger: “’Hey Mr. Armstrong, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?’ ‘Probably screw half the girls in California, thanks!’”
5 | There will be some fond farewells
Sentimentally is a dangerous area for drama to stray into – you only have to look at The Newsroom to see how over fondness for its characters can turn an otherwise good show to mush.
Yet Bert’s send off in ‘Waterloo’ was pitch perfect, managing to appeal to fans’ affections without getting too saccharine. Having met the moon landing with a simple ‘bravo’, the big man died (off camera), only to reappear at the end: in a nod to Robert Morse’s Broadway background, Don has a vision of a Bert, doing a sholess (naturally) song-and-dance number through the office.
It was a great way to end the episode and the midseason, at once touching, funny and slightly ominous – Bert’s song of choice? ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’, sang moments after the partners form a fragile allegiance in order to sell the company for huge personal profits. Whatever awaits Don, Peggy, Roger and the rest when Mad Men ends next year, it’s unlikely to be as rosy as it seems in this unusually hopeful – but as brilliant as ever – episode.