“Yeah, we all need someone we can bleed on. Yeah, and if you want it, baby, well you can bleed on me.”
—“Let It Bleed” (The Rolling Stones, 1969)
Cynicism and optimism might not seem like the most obvious bedmates, but one is really just the flip side of the other. If you expect a lot from the world, you’ll be disappointed and hurt when it doesn’t measure up to your high standards. You might even try to train yourself to expect nothing at all. It’s hard to stay hardened when occasional transcendent moments demonstrate the potential of connection and make a decent argument for the otherwise indefensible human race. TV can be a mechanism for bonding or for separation. It all depends on how you use it. Technology doesn’t have to be isolating. It can draw human beings together, as the Apollo 11 landing did, allowing viewers to feel temporarily weightless. It seems unlikely that any digital experience will ever replicate human interaction, but there’s plenty of space for technology to augment life for the better. Mad Men also brings us together, although the show chose to argue against itself, suggesting that nature and real life are superior to any TV experience. I’m going to make like Jim Cutler and choose to agree there. I love television a whole lot, but I’d still rather have the moon. Indeed, the closing musical number made that point with an exclamation. “The moon belongs to everyone,” trilled Bert Cooper as he ghost-rode the office floor. “The best things in life are free!” It’s all very earnest, but damned if it isn’t true. Nature costs nothing to look at, and the ocean is better than any TV show. Look how long it’s been on for!
Sure, you could write off Don’s closing vision of Bert Cooper singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free” from the 1927 musical Good News as an acid trip, an aneurysm, or a heart attack, but where’s the fun in that? I certainly thought for a moment that Don might wake up in the Black Lodge and find out that Meredith is cousins with Lucy from Twin Peaks. But why not just see the sequence for what it really is: a sentimental showcase for the departing Robert Morse, who starred in the popular 1961 Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the 1967 film adaptation. How to Succeed, with its mix of acidic cynicism and hopefulness (not to mention the very restricted gender roles), feels like the template for Mad Men’s first few seasons. Bert’s musical number was an indulgence, but it was an indulgence from a show that just spent seven of its final episodes proving it’d earned indulgences. Trying new things is crucial. How else are you going to get to the moon? A sudden musical number is exactly the sort of Jean-Luc Godard–influenced experiment a smart American movie would try in 1969. It’s not unlike the surreal ending of Paul Mazursky’s 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which sees the titular foursome wandering out into the Las Vegas streets to perform an Esalen experiential workshop with a Greek chorus of couples singing “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Another Vegas incident also came to mind: Tony Soprano’s psychedelic final-season trip to feed his gambling addiction, accompanied by hallucinatory babe Sarah Shahi. The ghost of Anna Draper was way cringier. At least the Bert Cooper hologram can dance. What if he’d moonwalked!
Ginsberg and Stan, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Mad Men, were not integral to the finale’s story lines, although Stan got one good line in about moon quicksand. Bert Cooper died from the medical condition known as “moon overexcitement,” and we should all be so lucky as to go out that way. Sally also got a taste of moon overexcitement, getting so worked up over stargazing with her mom’s friend’s nerdy son that she kissed him instead of the hot son she’d been working up a head full of steam for all week. Sally’s spontaneous choice to pursue the geeky brother seemed like an opportunity to flex her burgeoning sexual power, which is blossoming with the blonde good looks she got from Betty. She’s also inherited Don’s skill at seduction as sport. She’ll probably practice on nerds until she works up the courage to go for hot guys, whose physical beauty and self-confidence currently makes them too intimidating. Given her parents, looks, and age, her days of making flighty destructive decisions for the purpose of experience are probably just beginning. Smoking a cigarette in the backyard in her lavender ensemble, Sally looked just like her mother and a little bit just like her father too — she instantly matured into the protagonist of a Lana Del Rey song.
Megan was going to see Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western The Wild Bunch, whose posse rides were evoked as the SC&P gang rode into Indianapolis to rope Burger Chef. Megan finally saw it fit to cut Don loose for good, speaking the subtext of their long-distance marriage this season. They’re in very different places in life and furthermore not coastally compatible. Don has been allergic to the West ever since Megan moved out there, even though he used to enjoy getting high on every street in Long Beach with Anna Draper. Ted Chaough loathed every minute of his life in Los Angeles, although everyone knows you have to give it two years! A person who is determined to be miserable will have no problem doing so in any city. Ted losing it in L.A. all season was hilarious, especially in tandem with Pete Campbell finding his tanned and citrus-scented California self, bad bagels and all. Ted’s freakout wasn’t unprecedented. Scaring the clients with the possibility of imminent death is exactly the kind of stunt a certain Donald Draper is known for pulling, although Don uses only his voice and storytelling finesse to float clients over the edge of the existential void.
Roger, who has always liked riding shotgun, sets out to prove he can be a leader when challenged. He’s never had to step up, because he’s always been supported by father figures. With Bert gone, Roger finally assumes the mantle of ship’s captain and proves he could have done it all along — had he not chosen to drink and screw those years away instead. Joan is fairly taciturn about her decision not to support Don, but it seems obvious she is just protecting her interests. If Don goes down and brings the whole company with him, she’s going to be out of luck when it comes to providing for her son. It’s not nice, but it’s pragmatic. She can’t afford to be nice, and now that she’s a partner she doesn’t have to pretend to be all the time. Especially not to Harry Crane, to whom she essentially yelled “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US” about the partners’ meeting, making Ken Cosgrove smile from ear to ear. The villainous Lou Avery was dispatched within one bloodless scene of exposition, revealing Jim Cutler as this level’s true mega-boss. Cutler told Don he saw through his smoke show and reminds him that it hasn’t been all that long since Don made like a s’more and melted down Hershey’s chocolate. It’s funny that Cutler got so bent out of shape over Don crashing a meeting when Ted literally almost crashed a plane. They’re not the first creative types to harbor strong depressive streaks.
Peggy has been honing her pitching ability since the first episode, when she was plucked out of the secretarial fiefdom to serve as the voice of women for clients. Peggy has always been uncomfortable being the voice of women, particularly since so many of the pitches require her to speak for wives and mothers. During the Burger Chef pitch, she discovers that she had it in her all along. Don’s approval was just a magic feather. She becomes her own mentor on the floor, and he takes pride rather than umbrage in being the one to introduce her. She has Don’s sprezzatura, his ability to take something that’s been practiced and rehearsed to death and make it sound spontaneous, like she’s coming up with it on the spot. But she’s not a carbon copy of him. She jacks into her own personal brand of sales charisma, sounding warm and knowledgeable as she weaves her tale of moon rocks and burger franchises. Backstage she may have been sweating bullets and radiating little Cathy cartoon worry lines around her hairdo, but excitement and nervousness go hand in hand. As soon as she stepped into the round, Peggy transformed into the confident projection of universal desires that Don had told her she could be.
Peggy doesn’t live in the world of station wagons and Sunday dinners, but she has existed alongside it her whole life and crunched enough data to believably impersonate the female demo to the entirely male Burger Chef board. She presents her feminine perspective as insider info from the front lines. At home Peggy discovers another new aspect of herself, an ability to dispense motherly love that she hadn’t realized she was capable of until now. Her attachment to neighbor boy Julio makes her understand that giving up the child she had with Pete hadn’t meant she wasn’t suited for motherhood. She just wasn’t suited for it back then. Peggy seems open to nontraditional family structures, and she probably shares Pete’s belief that marriage is a racket. She might never have the requisite two and a half kids or a backyard in a boring suburb, but that doesn’t mean family is off the table. She’s learned she doesn’t have to be blood-related to someone to care for them. Where she had been closed off, she’s rediscovered her ability to open up. It should also be said that Elisabeth Moss has been spectacular this season. As always.
One of Mad Men’s greatest tricks is that it makes you nostalgic for old episodes of Mad Men, and it tends to remind you where you were in life around that time. I have been approximately the same age as Peggy Olson since Mad Men began, and I’ve spent those years watching her navigate an older, more barbaric version of the recognizably real universe outside my doorstep. I feel like we grew up together. Don knocks on Peg’s hotel room door in the middle of the night with something better than a sexual proposition: a business one. Peggy’s pitch centers on a family breaking bread at Burger Chef, away from the emotional clutter of home. The Burger Chef pitch is Peggy’s own version of Don’s Kodak “Carousel” pitch from the end of Season 1. She even nails the modest smile after she sets the roof on fire. After nailing that pitch to the wall, you just know she’s going to call Nick the repairman and nail him to one. Peggy’s pitch, like all the show’s great pitches, is half bullshit and half unvarnished emotional truth. After all, no matter how philosophical it gets, it’s still a sales attempt. A bit of showy hokum is de rigueur. The snake oil helps make the thorny truths go down a little bit easier.
Although Mad Men left this half-season on a relative up note, there’s no telling whether that upswing will continue through next year. July 1969 may have the moon landing, but August brings the Manson family murders, and December kicks off with Altamont. The country bonds over success, impressive national achievements that widen the boundaries of possibility. But it bonds over tragedy, too, attempting to take comfort in the shared experience of extreme hopelessness. Mad Men is hopeful, reminding us how far America has progressed socially in the last 45 years. And it’s dark, reminding us how much further is left to go. Mad Men believes that people can change and progress if they want to, while still proposing that certain unsolvable emotional dilemmas are endemic to the human condition. The show can sustain multiple ideas simultaneously, the same way it can support all the detailed plots of its large ensemble cast without missing a (dance) step. Mad Men somehow makes it look effortless, which is the hardest thing to do. It’ll be hard to top walking on the moon, but there’s always a new horizon, farther out each time.