Was this demi-season, in the end, a battle between steely-eyed cynicism and starry-eyed hope?
The clear villain of this seven-episode arc was Jim Cutler—the man who seemed driven, almost Ahab-like, to harpoon our heroes. Jim doesn't believe in wonder or serendipity or beauty. He hates Don's "cloud of mystery" and very human erraticism, he has zero patience for Ted's vulnerable ennui, and given his druthers he'd be captaining "the agency of the future" with a computer as his first mate.
Roger Sterling, on the other hand, has always hidden a quirky, curious soul beneath his seen-it-all quips. This is a man who stands naked before windows, tripping literally balls out. A man who buys psychedelic art and hosts orgies in his bedroom. A guy who happily gazed up at the stars with his hippie daughter, and watches the moon landing with an arm around his astronaut-helmeted grandson. Roger feels the loss of Bert Cooper deeply, and he teeters at the edge of tears when he frets to Don, "Now I'm gonna lose you, too." I'd follow Roger into battle, even as a division in McCann's vast army. He's a humane man with a warm, beating heart. (That is, when it's not going arrhythmic on him. Bert's death seemed to alert the heart-attack-prone Roger to the notion that he's next in line. Did Bert's confident assertion that Roger lacks the stuff of leadership function as reverse psychology? Or is Roger becoming another Napoleon-obsessed old man, racing against time to stake out his empire?)
Over in the Francis household, it's odd to hear Betty reframe Don as the impractical choice of a naive dreamer—"someone a teenage anthropologist would marry." Are we to infer that Henry was a corrective move borne of chastened pragmatism? And is young Sally beginning to chart a similar course when she eschews the attentions of the scholarship athlete in favor of the dweeby misfit who knows how to make the universe a bigger place for her?
As I gather it was for you two, this was my favorite Mad Men episode in some time. Gone was the somnolent, passionless drudgery that has infected so many scenes of late. This was all zippy fun and heartfelt emotion. Or both at the same time: Peggy's flustered rom-com encounter with the hunky workman installing drop-ceiling acoustical tiles evolved into a realization that she loves the little boy who's wandered into her life. (Those tears were less about her sadness at losing Julio to the wilds of Newark as they were about her relief that she had that kind of love lurking within her.)
Peggy's Burger Chef pitch was fabulous. Can we crown Matthew Weiner the king of the monologue? It's a format we don't see a ton of in movies or on TV, but these Mad Men conference room scenes offer an organic means of having a character deliver a long, prepared soliloquy—full of rich imagery, layered with subtext.
Less organic: the song-and-dance number. But all is forgiven when the result is such a satisfyingly sprightly send-off for Bert. That wasn't a soft-shoe, Julia—it was a soft-sock! Unbound argyles floating across tile. We will miss Bert Cooper, dispenser of wizened insight, hater of shoes.
Watching spirits buoyed and innocence renewed by the magical, communal joy of the moon landing made me wonder if I'll ever feel that way. What wondrous moment has my generation shared? The fall of the Berlin Wall was moving and globally observed, but that was ultimately an act of remedy—setting right a past human wrong—not an act of spark and creation. I don't think I've ever "touched the face of God" in that manner or experienced a similar "connection that we're all hungry for."
I couldn't help but notice all the telescopes in this episode. The one dweeby Neal didn't bring in the car, the one Bobby unpacked for him; the ones prominently displayed in Jim Cutler's office and on Megan's deck. Was this a mere nod to period accuracy? Did people rush out to buy telescopes as the moon mission approached? Or was there some other symbolism here? An effort to glimpse, on the threshold of a new decade, far ahead into the future?
I am once again eager to see what lies ahead for our merry band of players. Will their story conclude in the '60s, or will it zoom ahead in time? As you both note, they've been painted into a bit of a dramatic corner, all happiness and resolution. What new sorts of conflicts will arise? Whatever happens, everyone seems game to take the next step together—even the comically mercenary Jim, who reverses course with a simple and incontrovertible explanation: "It's a lot of money."
I adored the way this half-season ended, with that bouncy flight of fancy. And it was delightful to share with you two, and with our readers, "the pleasure of that connection." I'll bid you all farewell, until next year, with Bert Cooper's last (unsung) word.
Read the complete Slate Mad Men TV Club.