On TV: Optimistic ‘Mad Men’ mid-season finale means they’re all doomed

Season 7, Episode 7: “Waterloo” | Date: May 25, 2014

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) shows up at Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) hotel room door. It’s late on July 20, 1969. Men have walked the surface of the moon for the first time. A nation — a world — os gobsmacked.

mad-men-season-7-posterDon isn’t here for that. Word has come from New York. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is dead. And Don may well be dead, too. Without Bert, Don cannot survive a partners vote to fire him after his bravado in a meeting with a tobacco company. Don believes his days at the agency he helped found are limited.

So he goes to Peggy. They are in Indianapolis, Indiana, to pitch the fast food chain Burger Chef. The plan was for Don to make the pitch. But if Don makes it and they win, and Don is fired, Burger Chef will move on and Peggy will be left with nothing.

So Don does what we have rarely seen him do before: He acts completely in the interest of another. He saves Peggy. The person about whom Don cares the most is finally and fully revealed: It’s Peggy.

We’ve already seen Roger Sterling (John Slattery) prove Don is his one true friend. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is in love with money, or at least the independence and security that money can bring for her and her son.

It’s a beautiful moment for Don. It’s the kind of kind strain that we always wanted to believe was there behind all those cigarettes and underneath the ocean of liquor. It’s an act of love. We’ve heard Don say he loves different people — wives, girlfriends and children — but the declaration often came as an act of desperation.

This moment, though, in a hotel room in Indianapolis, Don gives himself up to help Peggy, the heir to his creative genius.

Peggy, of course, nails the presentation and lands the account. Roger rangles a buyout that appears to end Jim Cutler’s (Harry Hamlin) vengeful efforts to oust Don. Roger, too, seems to see his Grinch-like heart three sizes. Before he died, Bert and Roger had a heart-to-heart. Roger, Bert said, is not a leader.

Roger was hurt, but motivated. He became a leader. He negotiated a deal that saved his friend, saved his company and made himself president. He is a failure as a husband and father, a lover and even as a good man. But maybe just this one thing he can do right.

It was not all bliss. Don and wife Megan (Jessica Paré) finally split in a tearful, but gentle conversation. They were a continent apart even when they were in the same room. Don was unfaithful and she was disconnected. She made Don better, maybe even happy. But Don only has one love: the work.

Peggy, too, struggles with her internal conflict. She learns the neighbor boy, who eats her popsicles and watches her television, is moving away. She cries as the boy hugs her, both for the lost of her surrogate child and for the absence of motherhood and family in her own life. This boy would be about the age of her own son that she gave away so many years ago. Elisabeth Olson handles the scene deftly and with the sublime skill we have come to expect from her in each outing.

The episode also defines what is seldom understood about the first moon landing: People were worried those astronauts were going to die. From the purely selfish standpoint, our ad men realized their deaths would wipe out their chances of winning a big account. But the anxiousness that gripped them is also a metaphor for people on the verge of doing something great: There is always some fear that it won’t work.

Still, the wonderful machinations of these characters in this well-told episode leaves me worried. These are not happy people and not given to happy endings. Seven episodes remain. They’ll be aired in spring 2015.

Too much can happen and these people trend toward sorrow and self-destruction. Again, the moon landing serves as a guide. There are those that would argue all the goodwill, all the hope that moment inspired marked the apex of the American century.

Corporate greed, meaningless wars, social unrest, technological terrors and a general selfishness that drags down and sometimes buries our nation’s altruistic philosophical foundation. In other words, it’s all downhill from here.

That said, if you’re going to write out a character through death, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as wonderful as Bert Cooper’s final moments in “Waterloo.”

It’s almost enough to give you hope.

Almost.

On TV: Everybody is miserable on ‘Mad Men’ and that’s why it’s perfect

Season 7, Episode 6: “The Strategy” | Date: May 18, 2014

It felt like the good old days with Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) working late into the night to get just the right words for a pitch to a client. The sniped at each other, but the supported each other, too.

mad-men-season-7-posterBut there was more to it than that. The audience was shown more than just two advertising creatives pushing slogans. We were shown the world in 1969. Families, Peggy noted, were different. The client was a fast food company. She interviewed moms who felt guilty buying food there.

A Peggy idea: “Maybe the mom is coming home from work?’

Don: “What’s her profession?”

Peggy admonishes Don to look around. He’s surrounded by women who work.

“That’s too sad for a commercial,” he said.

Peggy rants about the state of the American family. She wonders if they really sit down for meals and talk and smile. Don’t they just watch TV like everybody else?

It is hardly the first observation that the image of family in America is not representative of the reality of family. But it is telling just how long the lie of the perfect family has been with us. The season is set in 1969. That means we’ve had at least a half century of Americans try to be something they’re not and probably never were.

Alas, advertising is not about the truth. It is about telling you the lie that makes you feel good enough to buy the thing they are selling. In more modern times, advertising is about making you feel afraid or insecure enough about what you don’t have to keep buying.

Peggy cries a bit when she realizes the desires of her life — being a mom, having a family — conflict with the life she’s made. She recently turned 30. She feels old and lost.

Don, in a rare moment of unguarded self-reflection, says he worries that he’s accomplished nothing and has no one to love him.

These people, these sad, miserable people who fight and drink and smoke and screw — they are us. They may be of another time, but they are as much 21st century as they are mid-20th.

They’re lost and confused and lonely. Just like us. We want them to be happy. We root for Don, even though he’s kind of a jerk. We want him to work it out with Megan (Jessica Paré) and make peace with his monsters.

We want Peggy to be happy, to be content to be sure.

But their raging insecurities, their self-loathing and self-destructive machinations — this is why we love them. They are us.

Happiness comes not in bags from the burger joint or fancy new cars, but in small, brief and tender moments, like Don and Peggy dancing quietly to Sinatra in the one office with the lights on on a dark night before the long day ahead.

On TV: ‘Mad Men: The Monolith’

Season 7, Episode 4: “The Monolith” | Date: May 4, 2014

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a superhero without a damsel in distress to rescue in “The Monolith,” the fourth episode of the final season of “Mad Men.” And very soon, he may be the champion of an industry that no longer needs him.

mad-men-season-7-posterSC&P, the firm he helped found, went on its merry way for months without him. He forced his way back in, with the help of Roger Sterling (John Slattery). But no one else wants him there. Conniving Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) tests Don’s mettle by getting him assigned to work under Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), writing taglines for a burger joint campaign.

Don chafes at his low station. He is a creative genius. This work is beneath him. Peggy revels in her power over Don, choosing to summon him to her office and order grunt work from he and a stumbling young copywriter. Don retreats to his office, throws his typewriter and leaves.

Soon he’s breaking the rules of his return, lifting a bottle of booze from Roger’s office and getting drunk in his own. He calls Freddy (Joel Murray) to take in a ballgame at Shea Stadium. Don drunkenly confronts the man installing a computer in the office’s former creative lounge.

The machine symbolizes the death of creativity. It is the artillery brought in to smash the last remnants of art from advertising. The machine will spit out spreadsheets worth of strategies. The age of winging it, of trial and error, of human touch are numbered.

And the non-creative types revel in it. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) loathes creative. They never respected his strategies for media placement. Don and Roger treated him like a nerdy kid pretending to be one of the cool guys. Now he has the machine. His mathematical god of ones and zeros will make obsolete those expensive, pesky creative types who “write a prose poem to a potato,” as Duck Phillips once said.

Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) has no use for Don. Bert, once a stalwart for quality control, is satisfied with the mediocre creative work produced by Lou (Allan Havey) and his disheartened team. Don is unnecessary, already obsolete in Cooper’s estimation. Don argues he helped found the firm. Cooper notes: “with a dead man whose office you now occupy.”

Joan (Christina Hendricks) colludes with Peggy, revealing that Don is on the shortest of leashes. Don has never been more hated, more alone and more in danger. Everyone wants to see him fail. And his own propensity for self destruction may well manufacture the term.

But there was a glimmer for Don. Freddy, who has become the moral conscious of “Mad Men,” convinces him to get his act together. He pledges to get Peggy the work she is owed. And there’s a cryptic symbol in the form of a battered orange New York Mets pennant.

The pennant belonged to the late Layne Price, who hung himself after embezzling money from the firm. Don finds it while trying to recover a cigarette from under the air conditioning unit. He throws it away. But in the next scene it hangs on the wall.

The year is 1969. The Mets were in their eighth season. The previous seven seasons they finished last in the National League five times and second-to-last twice. But the ’69 Mets pitched their way to a World Series championship. They called them the “Miracle Mets.”

Don could be in last place at present. Does the specter of the Mets’ pennant foreshadow a comeback of miraculous proportions? Or is the sports memorabilia just the talisman of a dead man clutched desperately by a doomed man?

Well, as they say in baseball, it’s a long season.