By Lara Zarum
“Waterloo,” the satisfying finale to the first half of Mad Men’s seventh and final season, featured the death of a major character. It was also surprisingly warm-hearted, the truncated season’s brightest episode, full of hope for the future as 1970 looms just a few months away.
The death of Bert Cooper, figurehead at SC&P, the ad firm at the show’s center, signals the end of an era, a fitting conclusion to a season that dealt with shifting attitudes toward authority more explicitly than the show ever has. All seven episodes featured someone—often a woman, but, more frequently this season, also Don—fighting to retain some clout: Joan taking command at her meeting with a marketing professor (“You’re going to need another pad”); Megan fuming at Don when she finds out that he’s been talking with her agent behind her back (“Thanks for the visit, daddy”); Peggy being told (by Pete!) that she ought to let Don marvel the Burger Chef execs instead of presenting the pitch she wrote (“I have authority, and Don has emotion,” she tries explaining to Pete, to no avail).
What Mad Men has so skillfully and carefully revealed over its six-and-a-half seasons is that for a certain kind of person of Don’s generation, secrets are the fuel that lights a fire in the belly.
This season also confirmed that Mad Men’s central theme is the passage of time. Far from being a smug exercise in nostalgia, Mad Men shows how time can amend a culture’s unspoken rules, alter relationships, and change a person gradually, like water eroding stone. Setting Mad Men in the 1960s doesn’t only work because the furniture was sleek and the clothes were outta sight, but because in that decade, so much radical change occurred in such a short period of time. Watching Mad Men, which is often described as a “slow burn,” it’s difficult to judge a season until it’s over. There are plenty of goodies to pick through in each episode, but Mad Men is most satisfying when you take the long view. Look back to the first season—Peggy the secretary mooning over Pete, Don making partner, Pete sniffing around Don’s murky past. Now flip ahead to season seven, to Peggy, Don, and Pete gathered around the table at Burger Chef. Even after Peggy gave away Pete’s baby, and told him about it; after she left SCDP to work for Ted Chaough, only to be summoned back to work under Don; after Pete told the partners about Don’s identity theft; after all this, the camera pulls back to show the trio at Burger Chef as one family among many. Maybe, like a diamond, family is simply the result of pressure and time. 1960 feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
A Mad Men episode is structured like a short story, carefully setting the scene until something happens, usually around the half-hour mark: Don breaks his contract and gets wasted at the office, Ginsberg hands Peggy his sliced-off nipple in a delicate box, Neil and Buzz land on the moon. And, of course, there’s now the half-season parting shot offered by “Waterloo”: the song-and-dance number that Bert performs with a bevy of folder-waving secretaries as Don watches/hallucinates. Sure, you could wave the scene off as trifling and tone-deaf. But in an episode where Don urges Sally to look at the moon landing with wonder instead of cynicism, I’m keen for Mad Men to lay the syrup on thick.
It’s Mad Men’s pacing that makes these set pieces so effective and satisfying. The slow pace lulls you into the often-mundane lives of these characters, only to have those lives implode as soon as you get comfortable. Roger’s prim daughter leaves her son and joins a hippie commune? Ginsberg hands Peggy his sliced-off nipple in a delicate box? Seriously, who saw this coming?
Moment by moment, Mad Men works on a spectrum. In some cases, it stretches out time, expands it for, say, a brief look inside Peggy’s anxious head as time slows down just before she’s about to give her big pitch to the Burger Chef executives in the finale, the picture hazy and out of focus. Or, more often, the show compresses time to its essence. Think of the episode where Peggy tells Don and Mathis to come up with 25 tags each for Burger Chef. Don retreats to his office, throws his typewriter, hard, against the window, gathers his coat and hat, and storms out, slamming the door behind him. The next shot shows him coming out of the elevator and walking through SC&P’s glass doors. He reaches his desk, where his secretary Meredith asks how his weekend was. It’s a jarring cut—you expect to see him go somewhere when he leaves the office on Friday, do something reckless with all that anger, and instead we get nothing but a black frame and a cut to three days later.
Mad Men has shifted from furtive nooners to sex right on the desk; from pot-filled parties in a Greenwich Village apartment to the pot-filled offices of SC&P.
Nevertheless, Mad Men often feels slow, largely because of the lack of camera movement, a choice that results in a show that doesn’t seem to be manipulating the viewer’s feelings as frequently or obviously as other TV dramas. In a typical office scene, the camera is unobtrusive, still, hanging back and letting the characters interact. The series shares this technique with some of the best short stories, in which characters are often presented almost flatly, without judgment or fanfare—think of the hard-nosed, petty characters in the stories of Alice Munro or John Cheever, whom Weiner has cited as a strong influence on Mad Men.
Often the focus of a short story is some ordinary sliver of life that we might walk right past if not for the magnifying effect of the narrative form itself; something mundane and inconsequential writ large through careful, detailed storytelling. Mad Men often pulls off a similar feat. In “Field Trip,” Betty joins Bobby on a school trip to a farm, where she gamely volunteers to drink raw cow’s milk. The plotline is worth it alone for the sight of prissy Betty swigging from a metal bucket, but it resonates further when Bobby trades his mother’s sandwich for a bag of candy during lunch. When she finds out, she immediately hardens back into the cold, severe mother we now know well: sunglasses masking her eyes, cigarette in hand. This is the kind of self-contained incident that one would find at the center of a short story, and it later allows Betty to reflect on her relationship with her children, who she feels will inevitably hate her as they grow older.
Still, despite such frequent commutes out of the city, Mad Men is at its heart a show about work. At the office, everyone has secrets—you don’t walk in and announce that your marriage is one Jenga block away from collapse. But what Mad Men has so skillfully and carefully revealed over its six-and-a-half seasons is that for a certain kind of person of Don’s generation, secrets are the fuel that lights a fire in the belly. That’s why Don is attracted to the woman he meets on a plane, played by Neve Campbell, in the first episode of this season: she’s one of his tribe, an old-fashioned woman with a Jackie Kennedy hairdo and a low, smoky voice. “If she doesn’t know much you should just keep it that way,” she says regarding Megan. “That’s what people do.” The people of Don’s generation are only too happy to keep their indiscretions hidden in dark corners—Don would rather sit in a dark, empty bar than let it all hang out at Megan’s groovy party.
In the past few seasons, though, that secretive way of life has begun to dissolve. Mad Men has shifted from furtive nooners to sex right on the desk; from pot-filled parties in a Greenwich Village apartment to the pot-filled offices of SC&P. It’s been particularly fascinating to watch how Don handles this turn—here’s a man who doesn’t know how to be himself unless he’s living a secret. Even after his real identity was revealed in season three, he’s continued to play out some part of his life in the shadows: The out-of-control drinking in that dank apartment in season four, the affair with Sylvia in season six, his arrangement with Freddy Rumsen at the start of season seven.
Mad Men has no illusions about how happy its characters really are, and what they’re capable of doing, even if it savors the fantasy from time to time.
In stark contrast, the younger generation feels free to mess up out in the open. They wear their dirt right on their faces. Margaret, a.k.a. Marigold, feels no shame when she abandons her husband and child to live in a hippie commune. As she tells her mother, “I’m grateful I don’t have to lock myself in the bathroom with a pint of gin every day.” This season, secrets—and the ability to pretend, on the outside, that nothing is wrong—aren’t so sexy anymore. That shot of Don pouring out his Coke can and replacing the soda with vodka wasn’t cool at all. It was sad. So was his embarrassing phone call to Freddy, who, in a reversal of roles from the second season, has to collect Don from the office and bring him home before he embarrasses himself any further. This isn’t suave Don; this is hot-mess Don.
Despite occasional complaints that Mad Men glamorizes the 1960s, the show has refused to do to itself what its ad men do to their clients’ products: Spiff ’em up until the Madison Avenue version of reality—a smiling family gathering around the table to break bread; a boy who can’t wait to tear into the Hershey Bar his father bought him—shines brighter than anything in this world could.
Mad Men has no illusions about how happy its characters really are, and what they’re capable of doing, even if it savors the fantasy from time to time. That slow-motion sequence in this season’s opening episode where Don gets off the plane and meets Megan in L.A. looks spectacular, but as soon as the music and camera effects fade, the couple’s interactions are awkward and stilted. The show isn’t afraid to reveal Peggy’s ugly jealousy on Valentine’s Day, or to have Joan coldly turn her back on Don and side with Cutler. Up until the last episode, the seventh season thus far unfolded as if the sixties have emptied out the show’s main characters, left them hollow and drained. When Peggy asks what Don could possibly have to worry about, he replies, “That I never did anything, and that I don’t have anyone.”
Of course, we know that’s not true. Don may be estranged from his children, with two divorces under his belt now, but work has always defined him. The final two episodes of this half-season are an unabashed ode to office relationships, perhaps most touchingly demonstrated when Don resists the egotistical urge to charge into a meeting and work his magic. In the last episode, we instead see him step back and ask Peggy to give the Burger Chef presentation. We hear Roger’s voice cracking as he tells Don, “Now I’m gonna lose you, too.” And we see Peggy’s masterful pitch to Burger Chef, the best the show has featured since Don’s infamous Carousel speech, in which she insists that there’s more to family than moms and dads.
The final episode is also very much about TV—all those gorgeous shots of everyone watching the moon landing come together beautifully in Peggy’s pitch, in which she highlights that moment as one of connection, millions huddled around the TV together at the same time. But she ends with a plea to go to a place where there’s no TV, no ringing phone (just wait for WiFi, Peggy)—a place where people can truly connect. Somewhere offsite, not home, but on neutral ground—somewhere like the unnamed place that Megan feebly suggests she and Don visit in what we later realizes is a last-ditch effort to reignite their marriage: not New York or L.A. but someplace else. Somewhere less complicated. Somewhere like work, where, after all, the two first met.
The spectacle of Bert dancing in his socks notwithstanding, Mad Men’s most affecting moment this season was the late-night scene between Peggy and Don at the office in “The Strategy,” the mentor and the protégée spitballing ideas back and forth for Burger Chef. Finally, Peggy has a breakthrough: “What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV. And you could break bread. And whoever you were sitting with was family.” As delivered by Elisabeth Moss, the line is so beautiful you almost forget it’s an ad for a fast-food joint. Peggy’s just turned thirty with no husband or children to show for it; Don’s second marriage is falling apart and another man is raising his kids. Families don’t sit down for dinner anymore. But when Don and Peggy share a drink and a dance at the darkened offices of SC&P, time stops for just a moment. As Bert’s final farewell demonstrates, the office can be a magical place.
Lara Zarum is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She writes a regular TV column for The Grid, a weekly magazine based in her hometown of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter (@larazarum).