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MAY
25
6 MOS

'Mad Men' Deconstruction: Ep. 7: 'Waterloo'

Despite an ending that will allow for combative discourse, the AMC hit brilliantly closes out its midseason finale with a big decision, a big death and a very subtle decision that has major ramifications.

Harry Hamlin in Mad Men - H 2014
AMC
Ladies and gentleman, meet Harry Hamlin as Napoleon in "Mad Men."

What an incredible and formidable "midseason" finale "Waterloo" was on Mad Men. Yet it was also a tiny bit flawed at the end (understandably), and it comes in a week where two other series had absolutely magnificent episodes. So what do you say to that?

"We're living in amazing times." That's what you say.

The seventh of 14 episodes, divided by a minimum of 10 months, sends Mad Men out in spectacular fashion and -- this should not be underestimated -- confirms that Matthew Weiner absolutely nailed the ridiculous restrictions that AMC put on him with this split season idea. In essence, he put together a premiere and a finale in seven total hours, and not only did it all make sense, but it should also work seamlessly with the final seven still to come. Before raving about the individual accomplishments of "Waterloo" itself, let's not lose sight of what a feat that was.

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If I'm a little giddy about how it all unfolded, part of that comes from calling the Bert Cooper death and the split-off/sell-off of SC&P on Twitter before the East Coast airing. (But yes, I envisioned Don, Peggy, Pete, Harry and possibly Stan doing the splitting, not Roger making the deal via McCann Erickson and having it also include Jim Cutler -- but hey, close enough.)

Cut into bits, there were little things in "Waterloo" that would have, on any other week, been worthy fodder for deeper discussion -- the moon landing (though it does play into Robert Morse's song-and-dance number, "The Best Things in Life Are Free," which references the moon); Sally's arrival at the hair, lipstick and boobs trifecta (which she's able to bestow on a moon-loving geek who just had his year made); Ted's death-wish depression; paternal instincts returning to Peggy and, perhaps the biggest development that will get lost in all the other twists, Don and Megan's all-important phone conversation that essentially ended their marriage.

"Waterloo" was an episode where Jim Cutler was unmasked as Napoleon, Cooper mentioned Napoleon in reference to Don Draper and Roger Sterling said that old men who mention Napoleon always die. But what really happened was not totally surprising: the main components of SC&P agreed to be bought by McCann Erickson while retaining their creative freedom. And the more surprising twist -- Bert Cooper dying after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, thus marking a major chapter in the Mad Men world -- felt somehow perfectly timed (and, again, contributed to the longer storyline, which was impressive).

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I think that Don's ability to focus on the work and separate ego, while we watched Peggy battle with Lou, and then Pete get frustrated with Avery, and Harry get frustrated with everyone at SC&P, was at least an indication that change was coming. And since Weiner only gets one final full-season story arc for the business side -- what happens on the work end -- that was handled with aplomb. The last seven can now focus on what happens to the characters, specifically Don. The season structure really put Weiner and his writers in a bind (to service AMC), but he has handled it brilliantly.

There really wasn't much to read into this Mad Men episode as far as future-guessing or even metaphors. It had three key elements that were nailed down tight. Bert Cooper died. SC&P was sold off to a rival (but will be allowed to at least ostensibly be its own independent entity). And, with a very brief but illustrative phone call, Don and Megan's marriage essentially ended.

That was it. Blunt, well-told, beautifully written and superbly acted -- everything we expect in a Mad Men episode, and, f you're looking at the structure as a whole, a wonderful place for a pause. What does this mean for Don? What does this mean for Lou Avery (hopefully something bad)? What does this mean for Roger, who asserts himself as a leader when Cooper told him he wasn't? What does this mean for Cutler, who is something of a no-talent weasel, or for Ted, who (like Don before him), is burned out and wants out? What does this mean for Joan, who has sold out any principles for the almighty dollar? And what of this New York-California split? I suspect that the seven hours that remain will focus on Don deciding what's important in his life -- how to take the omnipresent unhappiness of his life and find a way to make it work as 1970 rapidly approaches. There's no need guessing at that. Plenty more detours to come -- and plenty of stories, one hopes, for Peggy and Sally and even Betty. How Weiner doles out those stories will, in part, reflect on the legacy of Mad Men. But let's make something clear: No series has come this far with this much brilliance and sustained it this long. Weiner has to be immensely proud of what he's accomplished.

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But was it a perfect episode? Those are so rare. In a week when FX's amazing trio of The Americans, Fargo and Louie were truly inspiring television, it's best to wonder agog at the amazing breadth of the offerings rather than just one.

Besides, I had a little quibble with the end of this Mad Men episode. Morse is a wonderful actor. Weiner has always revered him. Allowing that musical number at the end -- which has no real causal relation -- was a dubious decision. In the past, Mad Men has employed dream sequences and even fugue states when depicting something that is, for all intents and purposes, not real. But this song-and-dance number -- no matter that it winks at both Morse's film career and the moon landing -- originates with Don Draper, who isn't having either a dream or suffering from a fugue state. As much as it was a nice homage to an actor who is beloved (and who has done a magnificent job on Mad Men), it came off as stagey and indulgent, without a link to previous Mad Men sequences of the same kind. With Mad Men about to do what no other top-tier show has ever done -- complete seven full seasons of mostly brilliant week-to-week, season-to-season work -- something like that seems unnecessary.

But, again, it's easy to look away when Weiner handles this odd, seventh-episode "finale" with such a fine touch. And it will no doubt make viewers long for 10 months or a year to go by as quickly as possible.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine