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For those who doubt that Matthew Weiner is telling a story of redemption with Mad Men, may I suggest you embrace Don’s advice to Sally in the Season Seven midseason finale, “Waterloo”: Don’t be so cynical. Redemption is at Don’s fingertips — he is capable of changing for the better. That doesn’t mean he’ll end up happily ever after, and who would want that? But the look on his face as he imagined the dearly departed Bert Cooper singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free” at the office, and the way he leaned on the edge of a desk to gather himself once Bert waved goodbye, says everything. It’s not about the money, which he’ll gain plenty more of now that McCann Erickson is buying 51 percent of SC&P — Dream Bert wasn’t there to warn him against it. (Bert probably wouldn’t have done that in real life.) No, the vision represents everything clicking for Don, from his relationship with Peggy and his willingness to let her land the Burger Chef pitch on her own to the words he offered Ted about the importance of creating, which he was really offering to himself. He had to hit bottom, and he had to in many ways start over at the agency, but he eventually did it. Once he set his pride aside, he found he was actually willing to do anything to keep working — to work for the sake of the work, not for the money it brings in. He needs that creativity, and he needs the connections he’s built with loved ones such as Peggy and Sally. He’s learning, and he knows it. Redemption is possible.
The moon landing served as a way for most to connect, but their hunger extends beyond the shared experience of a seemingly miraculous event. It goes back to what we saw with the excellent “The Strategy,” and the need for family, no matter what form it takes. Peggy’s beautiful Burger Chef pitch perfectly spelled out this desire, not to mention the overall theme of the show:
That’s a lot to live up to. Because I certainly can’t tell a better story than the one we saw last night. I don’t know what was more miraculous — the technological achievement that put our species in a new perspective, or the fact that all of us where doing the same thing at the same time. Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection. Because, I realize now, we were starved for it. We really were. And yes, we’ll feel it again when they all return safely. And yes, the world will never be the same in some ways. But tonight, I’m going to go back to New York, and I’ll go back to my apartment and find a 10-year-old boy parked in front of my TV eating dinner. Now, I don’t need to charge you for a research report that says most television sets are not more than six feet away from the dinner table. And that dinner table is your battlefield and your prize. This is the home your customers really live in. This is your dinner table. Dad likes Sinatra; son likes The Rolling Stones. The TV’s always on, Vietnam playing in the background. The news wins every night. And you’re starving. And not just for dinner. What if there was another table where everybody gets what they want, when they want it. It’s bright, and clean, and there’s no laundry, no telephone, and no TV. And we can have the connection that we’re hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there’s family supper at Burger Chef.
Her imagining of a place “where everybody gets what they want” harkens back to this season’s premiere and the paradise she, Don, and others were striving to find. As it turns out, the paradise is right in front of them — their family members are right in front of them. Peggy realized that when her neighbor Julio told her his family was moving away, and as she hugged him and wiped tears from her eyes and reassured him that his mother does in fact care for him, she in many ways became that “voice of mothers” she didn’t think she understood. Coming to terms with her past and present circumstances combined with fully coming into her own at work and in her creativity is how she will find contentment, and the same goes for Don. Finally admitting his marriage to Megan has failed is a step in the right direction, and their phone conversation, while painful, is touching. Her silence at his suggestion of his moving to L.A., followed by her simply saying “Don,” is enough for him to know it is over. It’s time to move on.
Money still played a prominent role in the finale, and perhaps Bert’s song and dance routine speaks to the partners’ error in opting to sell the majority of shares to the very company they broke off with Puttnam, Powel, and Lowe in 1963 to avoid. The news that they could become millionaires certainly changed Joan’s tune after she shocked Don by voting to have him ousted. Cutler, too, switched sides, forgoing principals for the large sum of money due him. Roger orchestrated the maneuver to keep the agency from ending up only being Harry (who waited too long and missed his chance at partner) and the computer thanks to Cutler’s trigger finger, but whether the gamble works is anyone’s guess. Cutler could be Napoleon in this Waterloo metaphor, having underestimated his opponents and losing the battle. Or maybe the agency itself has found its Waterloo in this deal. No matter what, though, this first half of Season Seven has shown that the key players know how to rebound. If they have to start over one day, then that’s what they’ll do.
“The Best Things in Life Are Free” is a fitting and moving way to say goodbye to Bert and Robert Morse, the first character who has been with the series from the beginning to die. It was off screen, and while unexpected, it wasn’t upsetting. We saw Bert watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and utter his famous line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It’s hard to think of a better event to witness before one passes on, and the song’s line “The moon belongs to everyone” is a lovely reminder of the shared experience of watching the landing and the connectedness for which everyone strives. Even Sally, after parroting the cynicism of the son of one of Betty’s friends, gets to partake in the magic as the other son shows her the stars through his telescope. “Isn’t that better than TV?,” he asks her. “It is,” she says, and then she kisses him. It’s almost a thank you kiss — a thank you for being genuine, and for reassuring me that it’s OK to look to the heavens and to remember what is truly important. It is more than OK — it is necessary.
Sally’s a survivor, just like her father. She may not need redeeming, but she clearly longs for a connection with family. Maybe she’ll find a way to form her own family with friends, or maybe she’ll stick it out and embrace her relatives. Substitute “work” with “family” in Don’s pitch to Ted, and you come up with advice all of the Mad Men characters need: “You don’t have to be a family with us, but you have to have a family. You don’t wanna see what happens when it’s really gone.” Open yourself up to others, and remember what matters in life. The best things, naturally, are free.
Thanks for reading. See you for the final half of Season Seven in 2015.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.