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'Mad Men' recap: Of Waterloo, the moon and Bert
We're not going to have a discussion (are we?) about whether Don Draper saw a ghost on the seventh midseason finale of "Mad Men." A ghost of Bert Cooper, or a moment of overwrought imagination ... or a dream?
Too late for the semi-obligatory "spoiler alert" by this point -- it has been two days after all -- but Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) has died, and not just died, but returned for one last glowing soft-shoe, singing the old Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson song, "The Best Things in Life are Free."
There was Morse, in all his post-Broadway glory, going out in style as only a classic deserves to go. "The stars in the sky, the moon on high, they are great for you and me because they're freeeee....!"
Perfect. But it was a dream, no ghost or "undigested bit of food," to paraphrase Scrooge.
Remember: Don dreamed of someone who had gone to the great hereafter before, Anna Draper, in the fourth season episode of "The Suitcase," to which "Waterloo" has a book-endish quality. The dream was sparked -- possibly -- by the offhand remark Roger made to Don, in the call telling him of Bert's death ("the last thing I said to him was a line from an old song.")
That old song was the Irving Berlin standard, made famous in the war years by Glenn Miller and Marion Hutton, "Have Another Cup of Coffee..." (And it was Memorial Day Monday - this song clearly not a coincidence.)
"Just around the corner,
there's a rainbow in the sky,
So let's have another cup of coffee,
and let's have another piece of pie...."
Both Tin Pan Alley standards came out around the same time, the Depression years or just before, and had that same wistful sense of a glowing past linked -- however tremulously -- to a hopeful future. Life is hard, but there's a rainbow up ahead, just out of sight. Love comes to everyone, because really, the best things in life are free.
It's the story of Don's life -- the story he wants to believe in anyway. It's the prefect dream-state Draper story, too -- the one that infuses his best copy. Life is hard in the moment, but there's a rainbow in the sky, so let's have another cup of coffee.
So yes, a dream. (Was the entire episode a dream? I don't think that -- but a dream nonetheless, and maybe a case could be made for the entire episode, but it'd be a weak case.)
I'm going on a bit at length here because all this, of course, was the key to the episode, and the key to the season: Remembering, as if we could forget, that "Mad Men" is a journey through time and space, filtered against a backdrop of real-world (or real-moon) events and threaded through the uneven ethical landscape of one Don Draper.
"Waterloo" was a pivotal episode in that journey for all sorts of reasons, if only because of that last moment of imparted wisdom by Bert Cooper -- that only the best things in life are freeee.
What sort of episode was "Waterloo?" A remarkable one in every respect -- one of the best "Mad Men" episodes over seven seasons, and indisputably one of the funniest.
Humor in "Mad Men" can be like the sun finally breaking through the clouds -- its brilliance is warm and life-affirming, and it was all that on Sunday. Written by Carly Wray -- who joined "Men" just last season -- and Matthew Weiner, whose voice was loud and clear throughout, "Waterloo" had a sense of lightness, even joy, that's been missing all season, leading me to the conclusion that the entire seventh-season-so-far season was just a prelude to this.
Death has been foreshadowed almost constantly in the seventh, and all roads of speculation lead exactly to the wrong place -- Megan, who, instead of dying, took a sip of wine, said "goodbye Don," and left this series (probably) forever. Maybe she'll have some time to use that telescope on her patio -- though what she'll see through the smog, who knows?
It was Bert's death all along that had been foretold, setting up a finale that offered an escape hatch to the mistake made last season when his agency was shotgun married to Cutler Chaough to win a piece of business (Chevy) that in the end would abandon the merged entity anyway.
It was sad certainly to see Bert go: A classic holdover from another time, another place: J. Pierrepont Finch, from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," who in one sense was the comic inversion of Don Draper. Morse was wonderful in this show: He was not in every episode and in fact not really in all that many episodes, but his presence was felt always. A father figure to Roger and a worshipper of feng shui who spouted bromides and demanded that shoes be removed, he was also ruthless, narcissistic, self-absorbed and bodily removed from the agency that had made him a fortune. He had no real family that anyone was aware of, and his lifeless body was found by Hattie, who was sitting next to him. His last word: "BraaaVOOOH!" Perfect.
"Waterloo" was needed. It re-humanized "Mad Men" just when it needed it most; it was as if the ice-cold by-the-numbers formulaic brain of Jim Culter had taken over the show this season, turning it into a coolly efficient and bloodless drama driven by carefully crafted stories without heart and with allusions that suggested the worst, or least predicted the worst: "2001: A Space Odyssey," above them all.
"Waterloo" brought back humor, and lightness, and for the first time this season, you could detect a beating heart beneath that sharply polished surface. Everyone had a great line, everyone had a laugh-out loud funny line.
Just the briefest sampler:
Lou: "...shall I invite them to Don Draper dinner theater?"
Pete: "Now we just have to pray everything goes smoothly on the moon..."
Betty: "I'm starting to think of him as an old bad boyfriend, someone a teenage anthropologist would marry."
Meredith: "I know you are feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength -- tell me what I can do?" (Don: You can get my attorney on the phone.")
Pete: "Marriage is a racket."
Neil: "What do I do now?"
Peggy: "I'm a woman. I'm the voice of moms. Remember?"
Roger: "Culter's not gonna stop until it's just Harry and the computer..."
Harry: "Is this a partners' meeting!"
Cutler: "Well, it is a lot of money."
We've got seven episodes to go, but -- thanks to the first man on the moon, and Peggy's perfect summation to Burger Chef, and so much more -- we've all got hope now. "Mad Men" has come full circle right back to where it started from and reminded us, the true blues, why we loved this series in the first place. The show and Weiner have done what they needed to do: Primed us for the final emotional round. The end is a year away, and like any good showman, Weiner has set us up with exactly the right sense of longing, best summed up in three words: We can't wait.