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'Mad Men' mid-season finale pushes show into the future

AMC

By Maddie Thomas, Daily TV Editor
Published May 28, 2014

With a title like “Waterloo,” you’d have expected “Mad Men” ’s mid-season finale to be a grim affair. A quick Google search (or actual knowledge of history, I guess) could inform its meaning: Napoleon’s battle at Waterloo, and the loss of his political and military power. With that context, you come in expecting a war, a turning point and a fallen hero. “Waterloo” does have all three, but certainly not in the way you would’ve guessed.

Much like the season’s first episode, “Waterloo” opened with a countdown. As predicted in The Michigan Daily’s weekly “Mad Men” recaps the moon landing was the centerpiece of this episode, which was packed with big plot points and even bigger power plays. Most notable was Peggy’s own giant leap — her stunning Burger Chef pitch will go down in history as one of “Mad Men” ’s greatest scenes (along with Bert Cooper’s final song and dance, but we’ll get to that later).

“Mad Men” has never been shy in emphasizing the parallels between Don Draper and his protégé Peggy, but in “Waterloo” the baton is finally officially passed. The war-like title easily could’ve signaled Don Draper’s last hoorah (especially now that Peggy’s official rise to greatness is secure). Instead, Matt Weiner erred — uncharacteristically — on the side of hopeful, further indicating that, shockingly enough, maybe Don’s professional life isn’t really what “Mad Men” is all about. And maybe Don Draper isn’t metaphorically Napoleon after all.

Our real fallen hero is none other than the late, great, Bert Cooper, whose death is both a reality check for Roger and a poignant choice for an episode all about giant leaps into the future. The moon landing is a definitive turning point in this final season (and, of course, in real U.S. history) and as “Mad Men” continues to plunge toward the 70’s, it makes sense that the oldest partner, who is a relic from another era in his own right, gets left behind. But the dark cloud of death cast over this episode was soft-shoed away by a charming song-and-dance routine from Robert Morse in “Waterloo” ’s final moments, leaving us with a smiling reminder that “the best things in life are free.”

The death of a partner and a shake-up in the agency’s ownership are both plot points that have been explored previously in “Mad Men” ’s seven seasons, just seen through a new lens. With these decisions, Weiner subconsciously reminds us of the “Mad Men” of days past before sending us hurtling off toward a new frontier. Re-watching the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” it’s astonishing how far the decade has taken these characters. Peggy went from a naïve secretary to a high-powered ad exec. The Don Draper who was a pathological liar and womanizer has transformed into a humble sage. Pete used to have a full head of hair! “Mad Men” tricks us in the way real time does: it goes so slowly when you’re in it, but seems so fast when it’s over.

The first half of “Mad Men” ’s final season wrapped up Don’s work dilemmas neatly and elegantly, and when it returns for its final run next year, there’s nowhere to go but deeper. Don will have to face his personal downfalls head on. Megan has moved on and Betty now thinks of him as “an old, bad boyfriend.” Don needs to learn who he is without his work, because as of now, without his work he’s a wreck. Before the elevator doors close on Don Draper’s story, he’ll either have to learn to adjust, or get left behind trying, because that’s what this show is about: coming to grips with change. (Also, spontaneous dance numbers.)