The mid-season finale of Mad Men finally presented to us the stakes that we’ve appparently built up to all season, but framing it within the context of a singular historic event. It’s rare that the show places this much emphasis on a single event in history – letting the influence of it play out significantly across all presented storylines for the duration of an episode. What the landing on the moon becomes for everyone on the show is a moment of change that will, as Peggy implied in her pitch to Burger Chef, leave the world changed forever, never the same as it was. With the moon landing came another examination and deconstruction of family, as well as loss, for our main characters. There were many things that actually landed very well in this episode – development of certain characters, treating the grand loss of the whole series with the same degree of awe as everyone treated the moon landing, while still adding great moments of dramatic subtlety and subtle humor. Of course, there were still things left to be desired – there were so many things introduced at once – and there were things that we’re leaving off that were barely touched upon. Let’s take a look.
The fact that we open and close with Bert Cooper is a perfect send off to the fatherly figure of the Mad Men universe. We understand that the moon landing is something beautiful and cathartic since we’re introduced to the news event in his eyes. There’s so much simple – almost boyish – pleasure in Cooper’s face when we see him witness both the take off for the moon mission as well as the momentous landing on the moon. It’s like the moon landing becomes a metaphor for the fulfillment of his life. He was a giant in the office, understanding how to take care of that business. He took the big leaps when necessary – he was part of the original coup staged by Don, Lane, and Roger to create SCDP, and continued to be a stronghold when merging with Cutler and Chaugh. The struggles since Don for the business were starting to settle up, and Bert was able to end his life in peace. Or perhaps it’s the thought that he needs nothing more than to participate in the grand feat of humanity – what else in your life do you need to contribute to be fulfilled when man just achieved something awe-inspiring? Whatever it was that gave Cooper sound of mind, it did – the wonder filled his eyes as Neil Armstrong’s famous words were uttered, and we watch Cooper in particular watch that moment. His death sets of the chain of events that will also force the agency to take yet another giant leap for everyone – in fact, it inspires the next big leap in this chapter of the Mad Men universe. Ending with the musical interlude (which was an amazing nod to his other famous role in the original film version of How To Succeed in Business – an awesome choice to play off of as it feels like Don definitely abided by the rules set out in that musical) crystallizes this ideal father figure Cooper has set himself up to be, and it’s important we experience this moment with Don, who was without a father figure. Cooper’s death lets us (and them) reflect on what it means to live a fulfilling life – to do something great and gamechanging, and to maybe instead embrace simplicity. He sings to Don “the best things in life are free,” and Don takes it to heart, tear-filled as he lets the vision play out.
To deconstruct framing the events of this episode around the moon landing and Cooper even more, one must have noticed that the initial broadcast was interrupted by a vacuum, and Cooper watched alone. These are stark images that contrast greatly with the way everyone else views the moon landing. Cooper only has his maid – he has no family with him. The broken up image on the TV of the actual moon launching becomes a metaphor of how much of the major events of the show started. There was a breaking up of the old Sterling Cooper to great SC&P, and at present there’s another breaking apart of the current SC&P that needs to be brought to peace. It could also be itself a symbol of continuing to break up what the family is, since the family has been so whittled down for Cooper (we learn he has a sister, but where is she? Certainly not prominent enough in his life) When the moon landing actually happens, everyone is with what you would call their true family – Don, with Peggy, Pete, and, yes, Harry; Betty with Henry Francis, the kids, and sure, her old college friend or whatever; and Roger, in a wonderful image as a normalized father figure with his grandson, son-in-law, and ex-wife (beautifully ironic that his patriarchal role is with a totally broken apart family) The idea of family becomes a stronger emphasis for the show, especially with this Burger Chef pitch that’s been led up to this mid-season finale. And we get a glimpse of what the true “family” (a.k.a. most at home) set ups for our characters appears to be.
The pressure of the moon landing gives weight to a lot of these actions and interactions for everyone. The tense undercurrent for SC&P, at least. Cutler is still trying to push out Don, disrupting the peace and the potential of Burger Chef by claiming breach of contract in a formal letter to Don right before he leaves for Indianapolis. And, of course, if the moon landing wasn’t a success, the national mood wouldn’t be appropriate to attempt selling the new Burger Chef pitch, so new business (which they seem to really need) is also on the line. What this really prompts our players to do is to fight for what they have. Upon receiving the formal letter, Don calls the partners to action – Harry humorously trying to get in on the action, and everyone soundly reminding him he hasn’t even properly signed the papers to be a partner (I love that this is now a running gag, btw) – and, with Cooper still alive, the vote is to keep Don in. We have another wonderful fatherly figure moment with Cooper, but this time to Roger. Cooper’s words that Roger was never a leader in these moments become Roger’s call to action. Roger spent much of the season defending those in the office he essentially “fathered” to their successes, but was blocked from truly protecting them on and on and on. Again, I return to the image of Roger watching the moon landing with his family. Outside of the office, this is the most normal and fatherly we’ve seen Roger yet (discounting the failed attempt of him trying to get back his daughter from that commune) After the turmoil of his personal life, he has taken a leadership role to keep it together. It is while he is being fatherly with his own family he receives word of Cooper’s death, in which case he immediately is passed on the hat to be the new father of SC&P. After hearing Cutler immediately taking advantage of Cooper’s death, Roger spurs right into action to get themselves bought by McCann so Don can resume his true role as creative director, finally saving the “son” he brought up. Roger’s development in this season in particular was well paid off by these moments of Roger showing what he does best, and really succeeding at being a true leader of the company.
Outside of the moon landing directly affecting events, we also have the breaking down of the families wrought by both Don and Peggy. Last week we saw the final disintegration of Pete’s family, and experienced his loss. This week, Don’s and Peggy’s losses wind up further binding them together as mentor-mentee, father-daughter, partner and partner, in a way their outside lives no longer can fulfill. (Yes, I know Don still has his family, but… well, you know) A dejected Don, almost ready to accept the defeat and the firing, suggests finally moving out to LA with Megan. The silence in her nonresponse is so palpable, and says so much. The amazing thing about Don is he usually never needs to be too explicit – that’s how his relationship with Sally works at its best. Here, we get similar treatment, with a subtle, silent understanding between both Megan and Don recognizing that their marriage is pretty much over. Peggy, who was meant to be a mother and never was, experiences a strange motherly loss. Her tenant’s son – who essentially becomes her family – laments the fact that he and his mother are moving, first trying to present the idea of watching TV in Peggy’s apartment while she’s out of town. Peggy’s attempts at being a comforting mother are thinly veiled promises that Julio immediately understands. She tries to make it better (“I’ll come visit you all the time”) and Julio, obviously knowing Peggy well, retorts back that it’s all a lie. There’s a sense of loss for Peggy not just in losing a tenant (a.k.a. money), but in losing a real non-work companion. The only thing left to fulfill her – and she’s the victim of her own creation, making work her everything – is the job. At the very least, Peggy and Don’s relationship has been repaired, Don giving Peggy the final pep talk to do the presentation after they watch the moon landing “as a family.” Don introducing her at Burger Chef was heartfelt – perhaps a sign of a future to come for the show? And Peggy’s poetic pitch had the same power Don once had when making similar presentations. Don looks upon her proudly, and they share a hug when she announces they got Burger Chef.
Aside from doing all of the above rather well, we also get treated to, finally, more of Ted. My view of Ted as a mirror for Don continues here, with Ted basically having the same breakdown Don had with a client, but instead from his plane in mid-air, looking upon the moon landing bleakly and focusing instead on mortality. Pete understands immediately the gravity of the situation – Pete finally assuming a bit of a role of leadership and respect this season. Ted’s existential crisis takes a different turn than Don – while they share similar experiences, their main difference is in what’s important to them. For Don, it’s the job. For Ted, it’s clearly personal fulfillment. Don has to give Ted the pep talk when they discuss being bought my McCann, warning Ted he’s not going to know what he lost until he does, and it’s no less comforting. He heralds fighting back, and glamorizes what the real work of the job means, stating maybe that simplicity is what Ted needs to focus on. It at least lures Ted to agreeing with the deal. I wish we dealt with Ted a little more this season, but the crazed dark humor of the situation where he shuts the engine off in mid-air is something that the writers of Mad Men are great at – creating bizarre scenarios rich with death and destruction, but still humorous.
My biggest disappointment in the episode is dealing with Sally. It was a strange storyline to throw in, especially once you recognize the red herring. Grown-up Sally is coming into her own sexuality, and Betty realizes this when she invites her old college friend and her sons over for the weekend. There’s the nerdy brother, and the studly shirtless brother. It’s clear that Sally suddenly dolls herself up and it appears she’s trying to impress the older brother – she uses his words on the phone with Don when he proclaims his political stance that the moon landing is a waste of money. But instead, she chooses to be a Don Draper and plant a move on the nerdy brother when she sneaks a cigarette and he shows her his telescope (ha, ha ha). It’s like showing Sally being Don, but acting against by instead kissing the nerdy boy? We’ve seen her reject sex once already, in the immediate aftermath of catching Don cheating on Megan. We haven’t seen anything culminate since. She tried once to go on a date with Glenn (in which she got her period instead at the museum) but that’s about it. Now that she’s accepting of her good looks and understanding of sexuality, is her catharsis going after the unattractive dude? That’s all I’m getting out of it, and honestly, I don’t care much for it. Sally seemed way less interesting to me in this way. As did Betty. I saw no new development from her to make it feel worth cutting back to the Francis household.
What are remaining questions I’ll have till next year? Well, for one, Betty and her fate and fulfillment (will she ever get it, or will she remain as superficial as always). Sally as well – what will her coming of age become, and will we see glimmers of Don’s influence. I’d like to see the stick up Joan’s butt finally release, especially now that she’s getting paid back for losing money due to Don and by not going public as a company. Will more shake out between Don and Lou now that Don is going to be put back in his rightful place? (Cutler seemed not to care all that much when Lou got upset this time around) And I guess the final part of the adventure will be will their new business venture work. All in all, it’s left a lot to think about – a lot of imagery and symbolism, but I am still left with worry for what the end will really be, and what we’ll see the ultimate progression of the show culminate into. Welp, until next year, I guess.