Midway through the “midseason finale” of Mad Men’s final year, a strange bit of alchemy occurred: The characters became the audience. As we sat on our couches, rapt, they, too, were transfixed by a screen, watching as the fuzzy images of the first moon landing played out on television sets across the world. The surprise, from our contemporary vantage point, was that one half of Neil Armstrong’s carefully prepared statement seemed to dissipate like grains of fine lunar sand. “One small step for man,” repeated Walter Cronkite, uncharacteristically at a loss, “but I didn’t get the second phrase.” Oh well. Judging by the overwhelmed reactions of most of the cast in that moment, most Americans were lost in their own personal orbit anyway. History’s first draft is often messy; here it was temporarily illegible.
But Bert Cooper, in the last seconds of his long and vertiginous life, was a signal tower. He received Armstrong’s poetic transmission perfectly, cutting off Cronkite’s confusion with a single, respectful word: “Bravo!” It was fitting. Bertram Cooper was a man who had long appreciated the allegorical implications of the moon. In Season 4, when eulogizing Ida Blankenship, the onetime “Queen of Perversions” who died at her desk, Bert waxed surprisingly poetic: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.” To Bert, outer space was a source of endless fascination. It was the impossible summit that kept him climbing, the unknowable promise that kept him alive. So it was appropriate, then, that Bert Cooper died the instant the moon ceased being a metaphor and was forever transformed into something tangible. There’s a difference between gazing up at something in wonder and stepping on it with authority. A little bit of mystery winked out of the universe on that fateful night in 1969. And, I can’t help but think that, in some small way, the same thing happened on Sunday as well.
Rare is the series that lives long enough to plan its own ending. (Most expire as abruptly as Bert Cooper — though they aren’t memorialized with half as much dignity.) That kind of foreknowledge is a blessing that can occasionally feel like a curse: how to balance the desire to get one’s house in order with the ever-present writerly desire to burn it all down? On a show as skyscraping as Mad Men, this transition is especially bittersweet. For seven years, we’ve thrilled to the near-limitless potential of Matthew Weiner’s creation. Nothing on the air has been so lyrical for so long; its episodes bent TV conventions like origami, its characters broke audience expectations like hearts. Mad Men expressly rejected the current trend toward series-fueling mysteries and muse-dampening “operational themes.” Instead, the show used the turbulence of American history as a bannister and descended into the depths of human emotion and experience at its own pace and with its own style.
Though the journey is nearly at its end, I’m happy to say that Mad Men’s best remains better than anything else on television. There were grace notes in this mini season that linger in my mind like melodies: Shirley’s purloined roses, Roger’s mud bath, Stan’s everything. Peggy Olson remains the most complicated and compelling heroine on TV. I’d shelve “A Day’s Work” and “The Strategy” right alongside “Tomorrowland” and “Signal 30” in Mad Men’s groaning trophy case. To sink into a new episode on Sunday nights remains a luxury — something beautiful you can truly own.
Yet, all told, these past few weeks have felt quite unlike anything we’ve ever experienced on the show. There was none of the formalist whimsy of Season 5 nor the drain-circling dread of Season 6. Instead, Mad Men felt almost human, its peaks of peerless beauty undercut with valleys of surprisingly workmanlike drudgery. (Think of the way the elegance of Don and Sally’s road trip dead-ended a week later with the straightforward slurry of Betty’s visit to the farm.) And instead of bubbling low and slow as they had in the past, important subplots fizzed and popped unexpectedly, rendering the show unpredictable and gassy at inopportune moments. (I would have liked more daylight between Ginsberg’s soliloquy about fart couches and his detour into self-surgery. And what about Henry Francis’s sudden heel turn? His unexpected rant against Betty thinking for herself served the plot much more than his character does.)
Much of this newfound inconsistency has been ascribed to the unconventional — some might say maddening — structure of this final season. Matthew Weiner is nearly as good at breaking television stories as he thinks he is, but not even the best showrunner alive could navigate a nearly 50 percent reduction in real estate.1 Inevitably, the rhythm was off, the pacing skewed. For the first time, it was possible to hear the gears turning, to catch sight of a run in the show’s normally immaculate Topaz stockings. Weiner plays the reset button like a virtuoso, but Sunday’s firm-saving Hail Mary — the third in nearly as many seasons — felt too cute by half. Asking Weiner to achieve the same depth and resonance in seven episodes that he normally manages in 13 is like commissioning Bert Cooper’s beloved Jackson Pollock to paint a postage stamp.2 For both, it’s the seemingly accidental drips and dribbles of inspiration that are often the best part.
Still, I think the culprit likely has more to do with nature, not AMC’s lack of nurturing.3 With so few hours left, it’s unavoidable that Mad Men’s horizons would begin to shrink. As it makes its final turn toward the finish line, Mad Men can no longer afford to be a show about everything. One way or another, a series known for being elliptical is bound for more definitive punctuation.
So it’s not surprising that the assorted Martians that once threatened to overtake the narrative were abruptly ejected from the perilously thin atmosphere of Sterling Cooper this year: Ginsberg to the asylum and Megan to the far-crazier wilds of Hollywood. There’s no time left for idle stargazing or California dreaming. For good or ill, the office has reasserted its primacy; the surrogate warmth of a Burger Chef heat lamp appears to be the best any of our frustrated protagonists can hope for. If the moon landing hadn’t killed Bert Cooper, I’d like to think the sight of Peggy Olson installing a hideous drop ceiling inside her Manhattan brownstone might have finished him off. It was a perfect — and era-appropriate! — metaphor for the show’s turn away from soaring poetry and toward the more reasonable limits of prose. A drop ceiling is easier to manage, though certainly not as easy to love. Mad Men has long been hailed as transcendent TV, but now, in the end, it’s the latter word that looms larger than the modifier that precedes it.
I would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Even when it plays by the rules, Mad Men is too driven by its showboat-y protagonist to color within the lines. It’ll obey the spirit of the law like dapper Don, not the letter of it like clock-punching Lou. Still, it’s worth noting that the two greatest moments so far in Season 7 have been unabashed celebrations of TV tradition, not refutations of it. The second episode, “A Day’s Work,” and the penultimate hour, “The Strategy,” both concerned Don’s relationship with the two most important women in his life: Sally, his daughter, and Peggy, his erstwhile secretary turned peer.4 Sally and Peggy are separated by age and fashion sense (did you see what lifeguards are wearing these days?), but united by an innate ability to see through the layers of Brylcreem and bullshit that separate swaggering Don Draper from sensitive Dick Whitman. This, in turn, has made them the targets of some of Don’s most vicious behavior; he lashed out at them with the same anger he would otherwise reserve for the mirror.
Yet it was with delicacy, not force, that Don made peace with both of them this year. His détente with Sally unspooled suddenly, over honesty and patty melts. His cease-fire with Peggy was summed up by a lovely, wordless waltz. One lesson Matt Weiner learned in both the graduate program of The Sopranos and the more humble trade school that was Becker is that the true artistry of television lies not in the sudden shock but in the long, slow payoff. It’s the emotional return on an investment years in the making. The only relationships a writer can truly control are the ones between his characters. But the best screenwriters are eventually able to reap the rewards of a more profound and lasting relationship: the one that ignites between those characters and the audience. Don’s breakthroughs with Sally and Peggy were stunning reminders of why we give so much of ourselves to this seemingly one-sided medium, why we continue to tune in week after week, year after year. They were subtle, masterful scenes that imbued potentially unremarkable interactions with the weight of shared history. These were moments that didn’t need to call attention to themselves. Without realizing it, we’d been waiting for them all along.
The mere suggestion of fan service would likely make the megalomaniacal Weiner break out in hives — a stubbornness that I mock out of admiration more than anything else.5 Yet the most surprising thing about “Waterloo,” Sunday’s midseason finale, was how downright triumphant so much of it felt. Don learning to accept the things he can’t control (Peggy’s ascension, Megan’s slow fade) and encourage the things he can (work, wearing non-monochromatic ties) seemed like a step bigger than Neil Armstrong’s. After years of frustration and failure, both Peggy and Roger stepped into more responsible roles with sparkling (and profitable!) results. Joan got paid; Pete got rich. Jim got rich, too, but not before getting served. The business skirted disaster yet again, thanks to a last-minute deus ex miracle and a last-second Ted Chaough change of heart. Though NASA had just proven the moon was very much not for everyone — and, with a price tag of $25 billion, it certainly wasn’t free — Ghost Bert Cooper capped off the season with a carefree song insisting otherwise.
“Don’t be cynical” was Don’s admonishment to Sally when she pushed back against the collective enthusiasm for a happy ending, and it’s hard not to hear a little of his creator in those words. After six and a half seasons of tsuris and tumult, it’s difficult to begrudge anyone their bliss. Just as there’s value in the ways Mad Men stretched and enlivened its medium, there’s value, too, in the way it conformed to it: Stable TV workplaces are, like fast-food restaurants in commercials, oases of comfort and calm in an otherwise unpredictable world. Of course, it’s possible to view Don’s apparent triumph as a sort of professional Waterloo of its own: By choosing the familiar grind of the job over the fresh challenges of maintaining an old marriage in a new city, what has he really won? Can a man change even if his circumstance never seems to? (It’s worth noting that the Battle of Waterloo was actually Napoleon’s second major defeat. He’d already returned from exile having learned precisely nothing.) Plenty more questions remain for the final seven episodes — episodes that now seem unconscionably far away.6 Chief among them: After you’ve been to the moon, where else is there to go?
I think the answer was hidden within the brilliance of Peggy’s winning pitch, a Draper-worthy bit of heartstring plucking that, like late-period Mad Men itself, showed you the trick even as you gasped at the magic. Everyone remembers the glory of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. What few people appreciate is that the real accomplishment, the one that required far more skill and inspired far less romance, was managing to bring it safely home again.