The phrase “up in the air’’ set the tone for this half of the final season of “Mad Men’’ from the very beginning. In fact, it was in all of the traditionally vague promotional material I hyper-analyzed and obsessed over before the before the start of the season. Of course, knowing “Mad Men,’’ I tried not to think too much of it. We’ve been fooled by Matthew Weiner’s red herrings before, and while the promotional posters of seasons past have set at least one over-arching theme, they’ve always left much more for the imagination than one can predict.
However, photos of Don exiting an aircraft, the Francis family and all of their baggage, creative checking the overhead, and Peggy and Don sitting back-to-back, waiting to board, all seem a bit clearer in execution now. More specifically, Don Draper in the air — boarding and exiting, existentially and in reality — seems to be the most fitting and as we come to a close, for once, the advertising clearly represents the product it sells. Isn’t this an interesting concept?
Now, let’s get down to business.
A man on the moon
The episode opens in July 1969, when Americans tethered themselves to television sets, waiting with bated breath as Apollo 11 set its sights toward outer space. The journey carries the mid-season finale as all professional and personal timings and engagements are adjusted to adhere to the universally accepted belief that clients, partners, and plebes alike wait to see man take his first step on the moon.
However, at SC&P, everyone is in a tizzy that the Burger Chef pitch will be derailed by an unsuccessful landing. “Now we just have to pray that everything goes smoothly on the moon,’’ Pete says after a run-through at the office. “If they don’t make it, we’re going to have to postpone this thing for a year,’’ seethes Peggy as she blesses herself and buckles up on the flight.
Each individual gathering as Apollo 11 lands feels significant: Pete, Harry, Peggy, and Don in the hotel, Mona, Roger. and their grandson at home, the Francis family and their visiting guests, and Bert and his housekeeper, just moments before he takes his last breath. (Sorry.)
“It costs $25 billion dollars,’’ says Sean, the cynical Rutgers-bound beefcake son of Betty Francis’s friend. “Cause there’s no problems back on earth?’’ Valid point, I suppose.
Luckily, everything works out and Burger Chef goes off without a hitch. Peggy delivers the pitch, at the suggestion of Don, with finesse and precision and we see a Burger Chef executive wipe a small tear from his eye.
Meanwhile, the partners in New York receive news that Bert has passed way. Joan, Roger, and Cutler meet in the SC&P offices to reflect on the news and write his obituary. However, Cutler wastes no time to point out that without Bert’s vote, Don’s dismissal is the “foregone conclusion.’’ He says it’s time to look toward the “agency of the future,’’ with “media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy’’ thanks to the super computer. While it’s one of the most repulsive shows of venomous hatred this season, it’s finally enough for Joan, who originally voted Don off the island, to see Cutler for his real M.O. “Is this what would happen if I died?’’ asks Roger before storming away.
Again and again, 6.5 seasons in, I’ve (and others) wondered — has this been Peggy’s story all along? While she plays second fiddle to Don, second ain’t bad in regular ensemble of at least a dozen. Following Roger’s news that Bert passed, leaving Cutler in the clear to wipe Don from the table, Don passes off the Burger Chef pitch to Peggy at the eleventh hour. He has her back. He wants her to solidify her role in the firm when he knows he’s met his downfall. “You win this business and it will be yours.’’ But she seems shaken.
“I can’t just say what you’ve been saying. I’m a woman. I’m the voice of moms, remember?’’
“Maybe that’s better — maybe that’s the way it always should have been.’’
Don shows his true evolved colors at this point. His professional and personal friendship with Peggy may be his most solid and consistent relationship with any woman. Giving his protege the respect she deserves is proof that Don has met his match, and also that Peggy has become the woman I always knew she could be.
While I refuse to say that Peggy needed Don to validate her, on any level, I firmly believe that they reached a mutual conclusion together. They are equals. Creatively, professionally — strengths, flaws and all. “We have no liquor,’’ Peggy cries, burying her head in her hands. She really is Don’s protege. But she delivers the pitch. Flawlessly.
On the domestic front, Peggy also receives news that her little neighbor friend Julio is moving to Newark with his mother. Seeing Julio and Peggy interact is a very (very) small window into what could have been. What if Peggy had her and Pete’s love child? What if she raised him on her own? Is this how Peggy always interacts with all children? Or just the ones that eat all of her popsicles? We’ve pretty much only seen her with Sally and Joan’s baby, both of which were pretty poorly received — so, probably.
“I don’t want to go to Newark!’’ he yells — this kid only yells. “Nobody does,’’ says Peggy. (Truth.) But she seems shocked by how upset she is about this news. Peggy is over identifying. Julio’s uncle has found a job for his mother and now they’re picking up and heading to Jersey. “She don’t care about me,’’ cries Julio. Peggy steps in as the noble voice for working single mothers everywhere. “Yes, she does. That’s why she’s moving.’’ She wipes away a tear and tells Julio she’ll visit him all the time. “No, you won’t,’’ says Julio. He’s right. No one wants to go to Newark.
Roger saves the day
Before he dies, Bert puts Roger in his place. While he doesn’t side with Cutler, he agrees that Don is a “pain in the ass’’ and doesn’t see Roger’s bro-fied defenses as a valid argument. He then delivers a cold verdict, “You have talent and skill and experience, but you’re not a leader.’’
Roger has said time and time again that he has his job because his name is on the building. There is no shame in that — at least, according Roger. While he never hesitates to take credit for bringing on Don, who undoubtedly has been a driving force for the firm, Roger hasn’t really brought much to the table. He can entertain clients — Sure! Glug, glug, glug. — he can wield his family connections for networking — Sure! Glug, glug, glug. — and he can even throw money into the situation when things get dicey, but he rarely hustles the way the rest of the team at SC&P does. Mostly because he never had to — until now.
Like with Peggy and Burger Chef, this was another example of camaraderie that “Mad Men’’ has consistently lacked. Perhaps because its true to its form. Advertising is a world of sharks. And in high stakes games like these, Roger’s move for Don shows he’s had his creative director’s back all along.
Roger cuts a deal with his steam room buddy at McCann-Erickson, giving up a 51-percent stake of SC&P to their competitor agency and locking in Don (and Ted) with a 5-year plan. He even throws in that “cutting edge computer,’’ because why not! Does anyone know what that thing really does anyway?
The deal would make each of the partners millions, make Roger president, and apparently save everyone’s jobs. Roger assures that SC&P will merely operate under the umbrella of McCann, leaving them to their own devices — keeping their name, office, and clients — and while the partners are skeptical, even Cutler can’t argue with cold hard cash. “It’s a lot of money!’’
Also worth noting:
— Oh yeah! Megan dumped Don. I keep forgetting that the deterioration of this marriage has been on high-speed this season, but I guess Don did too. A defeated Don calls Megan to break the news that the firm is plotting to oust him once and for all. The call starts out well-and-good — though Megan asking, “Aren’t you tired of fighting?’’ sounds a lot like the conversation they should be having — until Don suggests the cutting of ties might allow for him to finally make that move across country. This is a trigger moment for Megan who swoops in a glass of white wine from stage right and takes a tearful gulp, “You don’t owe me anything. Goodbye, Don.’’
— Please don’t ever take Meredith off the show — she is the comic relief of all comic reliefs and a huge relief at SC&P now that Ginsberg is gone. She delivered Don his “breach of contract’’ letter with all the oomph I could hope for. “I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength,’’ she says, kissing her boss. “Tell me what I can do.’’ “You can get my attorney on a phone, and we can’t do this,’’ says Don, taking both surprise attacks with a cool, even tone. “You’re right, not right now.’’ I’m going to say this is not a “to be continued’’ scenario.
— Sally kissed a boy! The nerdy younger brother of the visiting family shows Sally the North Star through his telescope (not a euphemism) and she rewards him with a kiss on the lips. Cute! Always go for the brainy guys, Sally, trust me.
— Honestly, Ted is kind of funny when he’s suicidal. But luckily he can’t be that far out on the ledge, because he was talked down and into millions by Don within minutes. Plus, he’s locked into that merger deal for the next five years, so he might as well stick it out. His “what’s the point of it all’’ ponderings and nearly crashing his small airplane with clients in the helm was right up at par with Don’s descent into madness with Hershey last season. Why hasn’t anyone addressed this? Instead, he gets a slap on the wrist from Culter and a funny outburst from Pete. “The clients want to live, too, Ted!’’ is this season’s “Not great, Bob!’’
— Bert’s musical outro of “The Best Things in Life Are Free’’ is completely open for interpretation. While it could be a warning from beyond the grave to Don, who just signed away the next five years of his life thanks to the greed of his fellow partners — or it could just mean nothing and be a nice way to say farewell to SC&P’s quirkiest partner. (Probably not.) But I’ll leave this one up to you all — I’m exhausted from this season. See you in, 7B.