Monday, May 26, 2014

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x7)

If you've ever taken a single European history course, then chances are you've heard of Napoleon and the infamous Battle of Waterloo. It was a rather decisive battle in European history; it not only ended Napoleon's reign as the Emperor of France, but it also ended a series of wars that raged over Europe and ushered in a 50 year era of peace between the countries. In other words, with Napoleon out and isolated, the best things in life were yet to come. Don's had a bit of a Napoleon theme running through him this season, though it took this episode, "Waterloo," for me to really see it. Big and brash commander who won more victories than he had defeats, but towards the end began making mistakes. Tiny little slip ups that resulted in loss of life and power, until finally, he was defeated and exiled to a tiny island. Don is much the same; he could do no wrong in that company, and even when he was drinking and sleeping around, he was still Don Draper. Then he began to make a few too many mistakes: pitching suicide for instance, and then finally the biggest mistake of them all, telling a room full of clients who he really is. And, then, with hat in hand, Don was shipped off on leave, exiled to his dingy apartment to wait judgement. Like Napoleon, Don staged a comeback and was granted a second chance. But this was Don's Waterloo--can a man really come back from leave? What places does Don Draper have in this agency now? Weiner and company would never be so literal or so repetitive to, once again, ship Don off in exile like Napoleon was after Waterloo, but while the war may have been won, it wasn't Don's victory. Don was just along for the ride. 

It's July 1969 and everyone in America (and the world, really) is waiting for Apollo 11 to either land on the moon and make history, or to crash and burn and kill everyone inside. Metaphorically, in SC &P everyone is waiting for the Burger Chef pitch, in which they will either sell their advertisement idea and make lots of money, or they'll crash and burn and kill the company. There is a lot riding on this pitch, which is why last week, Pete suggested (read: all but insisted) that Don be the one to deliver the pitch; Don's the one who can bring it home. It should be a sign of things to come when Pete cuts off Don's windup pitch; we won't be seeing Don pitch anything, maybe ever again. If you really think about it, Don hasn't pitched at all this season. At least not directly. Peggy doesn't know that Don was feeding Freddy Rumsen work, and brilliant work at that. But once he came back to SC&P, Don has kept his head down and done the entry level work of a junior ad-man. Until the last few moments of this episode, we haven't seen Don himself pitch; even then, the "pitch" at the end isn't a Don Draper ad pitch; it's a desperate Hail Mary pass to save his own career and isn't even directed at a client. Yes, the audience understands that Don has been practice pitching to his team for a few weeks now, but by denying the audience's chance to see that in action, you are also making a statement about Don's power: he has none. He's not even allowed to practice pitch fully.

His lack of power coupled with the issues of the past, coupled with Jim Culter's somewhat bizarre desire to move away from creative and into computer-based advertising sets us up for the metaphorical battle of Waterloo. Like in all good battles, first an issue of war is declared. The day the team is due to fly out to Indiana and pitch to Burger Chef, a letter comes across Don's desk informing him that he is in breech of contract and that he is going to be fired. A few episodes back, Don walked into a big tobacco meeting and proceeded to undermine Jim and Lou by pitching himself, not an ad. The move was a way to save his career, as the meeting was a set up to in force Don out in the first place. But, Jim now feels it is adequate grounds to dismiss Don. So long as Don is around, SC&P will always be a Don Draper company. The clients, for now (we'll get to to why only now), flock to Don to hear Don's ideas and Don's pitches. So long as Don Draper can still burst into meetings, Jim will never have the kind of company he wants. I must say, I'm a little shocked at how little regard Jim has for creative. His closest ally and partner is Ted, who is exactly like Don: creative first, business second. Does Jim think there is really a place for Ted in this new sterile, technology driven agency? What's more shocking are the way the votes go down when Don summons the partners together to vote on if he should stay or go. This scene was laced with tension. The scoring of Mad Men is always important, but unless it's an actual lyrical song, the music is never in your face and is often muted or very low. The music as Don calls the partners, his comrades in arms as it were, together was much louder and intense than anything we've heard in awhile. It created a sense of drama, but it also created a sense of fear. Don's on edge and almost takes a swing at Jim (which Jim deserves for throwing Don's "impoverished childhood" in Don's face), everyone is angry at one another and angry at Jim. Like civilized men (and woman) they first attempt a vote. Not surprisingly Jim (and apparently Ted who is absent in more ways than one this season) wants Don out of the company.

What really hits Don hard is that Joan sides with Jim. I have a lot of issues with this. Joan claims it is because Don costs her money and she's tired of it. I must say, this is a character development of Joan that I don't like.While the two have never been close, say in the vein of Peggy and Don's relationship, Joan and Don have always been allies and had a mutual respect for one another. When Joan got served divorce papers, it was Don who made her feel better. When the company wanted to whore Joan out to get the Jaguar car, it was Don who went to her apartment at night and asked her not to do it. Joan has always seen to Don's needs and never publicly judged or faulted him. As far as the money issue goes, Joanie has got a bit of revisionist history going on in her head. Joan is referring to how she, Bert, and Pete wanted to take the company public, before Don and Ted single-handedly managed to merge their two companies together without thought to the other partners in their respective firms. So while Joan can be upset that she lost money on that deal, she cannot actually fault Don because Don didn't know about this secret plan to take his company public. Both sides were guilty of back door dealing, but Don got the victory. I find Joan's lack of loyalty not only illogical but just unbelievable. Are the writers trying to get me to dislike Joan? Her obsession with money lately is a bit hard to swallow. Joan is doing alright, financially. She got a promotion and is making more money as a partner. The fact that she would hold this one (revisionist) incident over Don's head to the point where she wants him out, is ludicrous. Does Joan not realize that if Don Draper goes, the money goes with him? Don's name is still worth something, even if he is currently lacking power and is no longer the creative genius of seasons past. Until Peggy firmly establishes herself as the new go-to for creative, Don is the prized piece of horseflesh (best line ever?). If I have one criticism of this season, it's the way they are writing Joan about 75% of the time.

This particular skirmish might have come down in Don's favor, but that doesn't mean the battle is won yet.  Poor Don. All his marriages end by phone. One of my favorite episodes of Mad Men has to be the season 3 finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." That episode was ALL over this one; lots of parallels or reversals of fortune. Quick reminder: in Season Two, Sterling Cooper was bought by a British firm who allowed SC a form of autonomy until the end of season three when the British firm was acquired by McCann Erikson. This meant that McCann Erikson (who has always lurked in the shadows of the show, ready to gobble up wherever Don Draper was working) would finally acquire SC and turn it into "a sausage factory." Don's talent would be lost and everyone else would be reduced to mediocrity. Don, unable to stand such a thought, convinced Lane Pryce, Bert Cooper, and eventually, Roger Sterling to stage a coup and form their own company, what was Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce until the end of season 5. Put a pin in all that for a moment, because what is really important for present day Don is what was happening between Betty and Don in the past: the ending of their marriage. Like Megan and Don, the dissolution of Betty and Don's marriage occurs in the shows of a national event, in their case in the wake of JFK's assassination. Don's first marriage ends in the face of a national tragedy, his second in the wake of a national triumph.  There were a lot of similarities between the way these two marriages ended: over the phone, the events surrounding them, and even some of the dialogue. In season three, Don tells Betty, "I'm not going to fight" and in season seven, Megan asks (in a round about way, since they are discussing, originally, the company trying to force him out): "aren't you tired of fighting. Maybe you should move on." When Don presents the idea of moving out to LA full time, Megan doesn't answer and Don knows: it's over. Their marriage was never going to last; it was too quick and it only served to a fill a hole in Don's heart when Anna died. Megan with her carefree attitude in California gave Don what he needed in that moment, but Megan never wanted to be the kind of wife and mother Don pictures himself with. Will we see Megan ever again? Probably. I can't see Weiner keeping her totally out of the show; look at how often we see Betty, even though Betty admits in this episode that she only ever sees Don when it's absolutely necessary and she's begun to think of him as more like an ex-boyfriend that a young girl would date, not a woman. However, maybe not since Megan has no other ties to Don, never having given him a baby. So while Don is loosing his second wife, there is another relationship that is also breaking up.

Julio and Peggy are an odd little duo. He serves as a stand in for the little boy Peggy gave up between season one and season two and likewise, Peggy is a stand-in for Julio's real mother, who probably loves her son but doesn't do a great job of seeing to his needs. Julio has been flitting in and out of Peggy's apartment all season; in lieu of any sort of romantic attachment, Peggy--the woman who says she doesn't know how to be the voice of moms--has become a mom. And now she is loosing another baby, but this one she didn't want to give up. This one she wanted to keep. It's a bit of cruel irony that just when Peggy figures out how to be a mother, it's ripped from her. But I suppose Julio served his purpose; he opened Peggy's eyes to the fact that she is a good mom, or could be someday. There was a lot of meaning in the lines, "yes she does. that's why she is moving." Peggy knows all about loving a baby so much that you move to suit their needs. Julio's mom is moving to Newark, but Peggy moved up in the corporal world, and let her son have a life he deserved, but she couldn't provide. Quick costuming note: when the SC&P team sit down to pitch to Burger Chef, Peggy will mimic Julio's outfit, green and blue stripes. Subconsciously, at this moment when Peggy must be the voice of moms, she's channeling her "adopted" son and, maybe unknowingly, wearing the outfit she last saw him in. It's actually pretty sweet.

I wasn't born in 1969 so I have no idea what it was like watching the moon landing, but from what I can surmise, Mad Men pretty much nailed what it was like to gather around the TV with your family and friends and wait with baited breath until Armstrong's foot touched down. About 125 million Americans tuned in to watch. That's a lot, in case you were wondering. This was a rather touching moment, as you have lot of families gathered around their TV's watching the moon landing--Don and his team in a small hotel; Betty and her clan in their mansion; Roger, his ex, their son-in-law, and grandson; Bert and his live-in maid, all piled together on a couch. A few things of interest: firstly, look at all the different types of families. You have the work family of SC&P, you have the modern version of a family with the Sterling's since Margaret has run off and now Roger and Mona are playing a larger role in raising their grandson. And you have the upper class conservative family of the Francis residence, which consists of a husband and wife both on their second marriages and kids who have a different world view. It's a reflection of what Peggy pitched to Don last week: the nuclear family of mom, dad, dog, two kids, gathered around a kitchen table enjoying a special treat of Burger Chef doesn't exist anymore. It's not the 1950s; it's almost 1970 and this is what family looks like. Secondly, every single one of these families has some sort of food product around them: cans of beer, a full meal, snacks, a glass of milk. Again, this is what Peggy is going to be highlighting in her pitch to Burger Chef: the idea of family gathering around a dining room table and having a family meal doesn't really exist anymore. Instead, you're piled in front of the TV with various bits of eating stuffs, watching the news. The kitchen table is your battle field.

I wasn't expecting this plot point; I really wasn't. I expected someone to die, but I thought it would be Ted, who has been hovering near suicide all season. What I did not expect was Bert Cooper dying in the middle of the moon landing. Bert has always been a relatively minor figure in the show. When the show opens in 1960, Bert's already been shuffled to the side as men like Don and Pete are working their way up the ladder. He may have started the company and he has a vested interest in it, but he also made his fortune and his name and he was fine to sit in his office with his crossword puzzle and and just be a figure head. But every so often, Bert would pop up out of his hole and remind us all that once upon a time, he had been a cut throat businessman who started a firm and raised it up to the point where men like Don and Pete could take over. When Bert tells Don he has no choice but to sign a non-compete contract with SC in season two by blackmailing Don with the Dick Whitman secret, is a good example of Bert's ruthlessness. But Bert was also incredibly loyal. Loyalty was a running theme of this episode and after the skirmish in the hallway where they vote if Don is in or out, Bert gives Roger a lesson in loyalty. Bert may think Don is annoying asshole, but Don is still a member of the team, and Bert is loyal to his team. It brings to mind the incredible moment from season one where Pete tells Bert all about who Don Draper really is, hoping to get him fired, and Bert coldly waltzes up to Pete, looks him dead in the eye, and says, "Mr. Campbell. Who cares?" It's one of my favorite moments. Bert's final lesson: be loyal and be a leader. Roger is a spoiled privileged child who has no control and he who has control has the power. I also think Bert delivers the message of this episode but also what is going to play out in the rest of the season and series: "no one can come back from leave--not even Napoleon. He staged a coup but he ended up back on that island." Don came back from leave and by the end, Roger has control after a successful coup (we'll get there) but will Don end up back on his island of being unable to change? I guess we'll have to wait.

Bert's death also, as Jim so coldly points out moments after arriving at the office, means that he now has the votes to get rid of Don and he plans on doing that come Monday morning. If Don is about to be kicked out of his company, then he can't present to Burger Chef. Enter Peggy. And it was gorgeous. THAT was her Carousel moment. Season one ends with one of the greatest moments in TV history--Don pitching the absolute HELL out of Kodak using the concept of nostalgia. And Peggy is going to close season 7 by pitching the hell out of Burger Chef, by using a new idea: the family supper that gets you away from the TV. The moon landing demonstrated one thing, says Peggy, we are all starved for a connection. The nightly dinners of these modern families that you are no longer able to reach, aren't sitting around a dinning room table, discussing their day. They are in front of the TV, watching Vietnam and the News. You can't bring the family supper to them, they have to go to the family supper and that's what Peggy's pitch is: "family supper at Burger Chef." Brava to Elisabeth Olsen. It was magnificent. It felt like the Carousel ad of season one; you couldn't help but be solely focused on Peggy and what she was saying. She had the men of the room--and apart from one secretary, she is the only girl in the room--eating out of her hand. Her voice and cadence and rhythm were perfect. And there sat Don, not angry or bitter that this wasn't him, but proud. Peggy brought the ad home. Peggy brought them the connection they were craving. Is Don's time over? Is this now the Peggy show? Maybe. But Don's name, for now, carries more weight than Peggy's. And this is how Roger saves the company and Don's career.

Bert's final words to Roger--that Roger isn't a leader--really struck poor Roger Sterling. Roger has a habit of throwing his weight around, proclaiming himself king and president, but never doing anything to back up those claims. Roger takes the easy way out and would rather drink and drug himself into a stupor than to actually run a business. And now with Bert gone for good, Roger knows it's only a matter of time before he looses his best friend and brother, Don. And so, with a major Hail Mary, Roger goes behind everyone's back and strikes a deal with the people they formed the company to get away from: McCann Erikson. The deal is pretty straightforward: McCann buys the SC&P, giving the partners a HUGE amount of money, but SC&P gets to remain autonomous, keep their staff, their name, and their clients. And the best part: Donald Draper has to be part of the equation. McCann isn't interested if Don (and Ted) don't come along. Roger knows it might be a hard sell, but luckily he's talking to hardened businessmen who really like money. Joan and Pete jump on it right away, when learning how much they stand to gain. Jim is, of course, adamently against it, and threatens to leave, to which Roger smugly says, "that's okay. You're not essential to this." Burn! The problem is Ted.

 Ted has been heading down Lane Pryce Avenue for sometime now. He's miserable and suicidal. The opening scene showed him, in his plane, with two clients. Mid flight, he cuts the engine, and tells them that he's going to let the plane crash so that all their problems will be over. And here's Don and Roger asking him to stay in advertising for five more years, and to work for a major meat factory like McCann, a place that cares more about business and acquisitions than creative. But it's Don who manages to give the hard sell to Ted. "You don't have to work for us; but you do have to work. Trust me, you don't want to see what it's like when it's really gone." Ted and Don, despite their differences, have always been a reflection of the other: they are both hard working and incredibly good at what they do. There's a reason why there is so much animosity between them: they know they are each others real competition. Don knows what happens when creative men are denied their genius; they sit in bathrobes all day long eating Cheez-Its and will do anything to get back into the game. They'll write tags, coupons. Anything. Ted knows Don is right of course; what's killing his soul isn't the advertising game (he's far to good at it for it to kill him) but rather, it's being a businessman. So Don makes him a promise: go back to being the creative guy and leave the business to others. And 'lo, McCan Erikson did acquire SC&P.

Well this was unexpected. Seriously, if you had told me that the first half of season seven would end with a dead Bert Cooper dancing with secretaries and singing, I'd have asked how much acid you dropped. After the successful arm twisting of Ted, Don "goes back to work." Freddy's advice many episodes ago have really been working for Don--just do the work, Don. Now this isn't the first Don has seen a phantom after he looses someone close. When Lane died, he saw his brother because Don was largely responsible for both their deaths (Lane's ghost and memory was all over this episode, by the way. Lane's rolling his grave, cursing with British slang). Bert and Don have a father-son relationship: it's cantankerous but it's loving' it's also the only good father-son dynamic Don has ever had, his own father being a drunk and cruel. Don respects the heck out of Bert and Bert has been waiting for Don to grow up a bit and realize what really matters. And this was a very loving send off for Bert and Don. And how about a round of applause for Robert Morse, an old hat when it comes to song and dance, being as nimble and spry at his age!! And of course he's in his socks--Bert Cooper would never be in shoes! The lyrics to the song are very telling: the best things in life are free/ love can come to everyone. For Don Draper--rather to Dick Whitman--the idea that love can be his is something of a revelation. No one loves Dick Whitman. Dick Whitman sits out in the cold and and watches that love is exchanged for money instead of being freely given. Bert (Don's subconscious, really) wants Don to be free. It's also deeply ironic coming from a tycoon of advertising that the best things in life are FREE. But that's Bert: a contradiction in terms. When he died, he was sitting next to a black maid (and we know Bert exhibits a casual 1920s-esque racism) with a Jackson Pollack painting behind him. Bert wanted to leave the company to raise his cattle because he loved them so, but there he was, year after year, office-less with his colleagues. What does all this mean for Don?

Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, and a few years later would die an ignoble death on the island of St Helena. Is Don free now? Is he healed? Not even remotely. This episode might seem like a triumph for Don, but only because he rode the coat tails of those around him. Roger saved the company and Don's job. Peggy landed Burger Chef. Don's time as creative genius is coming to a close; he literally passed the torch to Peggy this episode and she nailed it, and landed the account. Don's not really needed anymore. Ted is younger and with less baggage, now that he's excused from the business parts of life. This wasn't exactly a victory for Don--if anything, it's a hiatus. The last seven episodes aren't due out for another year but when we come back, I think we'll see the powershifts really play out. Ted is more in charge, Roger and Jim run the company, Peggy pitches, and Don watches everything move forward without him, everyone waiting for him to move on. Anyone know how Napoleon died? Stomach cancer. Wouldn't it be telling if Donald Draper died at the end of the series from smoking too much? The final image of Don, sitting on his desk, head bent, signals, to me at least, that Don's battle with himself and how he manages to live in this bold new world, aren't over.

Until next year...the moon and the stars belong to everyone. The best things in life are free.

Miscellaneous Notes on Waterloo

--I know I skipped over everything with Sally but in short: despite her being a bit of a Betty clone this episode, she's still Sally and she still went for the nerdy boy in glasses instead of a the hot stud. Props to the actress who managed to embody bot her parents: forging her own path like her father, but dressed exactly like Betty. And check out how body language when she takes a drag on her cigarette: January Jones to a T.

--Meredith is officially my favorite secretary in the history of ever. That incredibly awkward attempt to hit on Don was deliciously silly.

--Can we have Nick come back and woo Peggy?

--"That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh. He shouldn't be rattled" 

--"I don't want to go to Newark!" "No one does..."

--"We have no liquor!"

--Harry Crane once again misses his chance to become a partner because he waited too long to sign the papers. He's now out several million dollars. 

--I really need this show to not go off the air.

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