‘Mad Men’ Mid-Season Finale: Tragedy and Family

Bert Cooper's swan song. (AMC)

Bert Cooper’s swan song. (AMC)

Last week’s episode of Mad Men was so warm and fuzzy, it felt like some sort of tragedy had to befall the show on the mid-season finale. And tragedy did strike, in the form of Bert Cooper’s death — but a lot of loose ends were tied up, as well, and feelings of familial warmth pervaded the episode.

As Peggy points out during her Burger Chef pitch, it’s tough to tell which is more miraculous: the technological advancements witnessed during the moon landing, or that everyone was doing the same thing at the same time that night, thanks to TV. With the moon landing, as with many other landmark cultural moments, who you’re with is just as significant as what you’re watching.

During the montage, we see that Roger and his ex-wife are putting aside their differences to co-parent Ellory while his mother lives out her hippie fantasy. Don, Peggy, Pete and Harry sit together in a hotel room watching, once again showing that for these characters (and Harry, now that we know his wife’s constantly threatening divorce), work is family.

And Bert sits with his maid, Hattie, to watch the moon landing just before his death. He yells to his employee in quite a husbandly way at the beginning of the episode: “Dammit, turn that vacuum off!” Bert doesn’t have a family in the traditional sense. But in addition to his familial relationship with Hattie, he also had a son of sorts: Roger Sterling.

ROGER’S EXISTENTIAL DISSATISFACTION INDEX: 2

Roger’s father and Bert Cooper built Sterling Cooper from the ground up. So it’s fitting that after Bert’s death, Roger gets to save the day by announcing McCann’s acquisition offer. Not only does he get to restore his buddy Don’s slot at the top of SC&P, but he also gets to muscle Cutler out of the way, since the McCann folks don’t even seem to know his name.

Roger may have lost his surrogate father, but as we see during the moon landing montage, he’s taking on the role of father himself once again thanks to his daughter’s abandonment of his grandson. We haven’t seen evidence of his after-hours bohemian lifestyle since the first couple of episodes of the season, so it looks like he’s regressed to a more traditional way of life. And this time, he’s trying to do it right, holding Ellory on his lap during the moon landing to make up for his own daughter’s lifelong feelings of abandonment.

He’s apparently realized that familial bonds are more important than the bursts of good feeling that accompany drugs and sex, and he’s back to fighting for his company by cementing the McCann Erickson deal. This Roger looks nothing like the one we’ve seen over the past few seasons. He may be a little softer than he once was, but settling into a calmer life is clearly helping him function better at work.

PEGGY’S EXISTENTIAL DISSATISFACTION INDEX: 3

Last week, Peggy and Don became friends again. This has apparently set off a chain of events that start to remind her what it’s like to care about other people and have a personal life.

At her apartment, a cute repairman flirts with her. The Peggy of a few weeks ago would have been repulsed and offended. But this Peggy seemed flattered.

And when the repairman mistakes Julio for Peggy’s son, she’s not mad, either. She even hopes the clients will make the same mistake during her presentation later on.

The real moment where Peggy’s humanity and vulnerability are finally on display again, though, is when Julio tells her that he’s moving to Newark for his mother’s job. She actually sheds a tear, and reassures Julio that his mom does care about him — that’s why they have to move. We haven’t seen this kind of emotional maturity in Peggy for a while.

It’s apparent from Peggy’s love for her little sidekick that maybe she’s starting to welcome the idea of trusting other people with her emotions again. And her masterful performance at the Burger Chef presentation solidifies the fact that, for her at least, job performance and emotional health have a definite link. She’s better at her job when she’s not pissed at the world.

DON’S EXISTENTIAL DISSATISFACTION INDEX: ABOUT A 6 AVERAGE OVER THE COURSE OF THE HOUR

This stands in stark contrast to the Don of season five, who was so enamoured with his new wife and secure in his life that he let his happiness chip away at his job. And this season, Don’s marriage is in shambles, but he’s finally learned how to behave in service of the greater good at work.

Thanks to the imminent buy from McCann Erickson and their interest in Don, Roger and Ted, it looks like Don’s reduced stature at SC&P is no more. The deal does seem like a deus ex machina. It ties up so many loose ends so quickly: It’s a huge blow to Cutler and Lou’s outsized egos. It puts Don back up top where he belongs. It mitigates Joan’s bad feelings for Don. It even leaves Harry out of the windfall of money. It’s almost too neat a conclusion. Maybe it’ll be botched by the time the next season starts.

It’s also worth noting that during Bert’s little softshoe (or in his case, softsock) performance of “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” Don starts with a bemused look on his face and, by the end of the number, looks like he’s going to puke. He clearly realizes not only that he’s going to miss Bert Cooper, but also that his personal life is a mess now. Now that his career seems back on track, he’ll have to figure out how to bounce back personally without proposing to one of his underlings on a whim again.

EVERYONE ELSE

TED: He’s apparently going through his own season-six-Don-like downward spiral, but he’s too mild-mannered for anyone to notice until he threatens suicide. Even then, Cutler is the only one to react — and he does so as if he’s swatting away a fly. Later, he insists, “I have an announcement of my own,” at the top of a partners meeting. Everyone ignores him. When he finally does admit he’s over the whole advertising thing, Don gives him a pep talk in front of the other partners. Likely hearing Don’s point and seeing dollar signs, he changes his mind. He may be moody, but nobody can plumb the dephts like Draper can.

SALLY: With her push-up bras, teasing comb, cigarettes and summer job, Sally is a full-blown teenager with the raging hormones to prove it. When the Francises receive a family of house guests, Sally falls for the football player who’s basically a pubescent version of her own father — but she kisses his nerdy little brother. This is far from a sign of depth and maturity, though. She clearly does it because, after a few days of yearning for someone who doesn’t care about her (or anything, for that matter), she wants to feel like she’s in control again. It’s an act of revenge against both football-jersey-wearing hunk and her own father, who Cutler mockingly calls a football hero earlier in the episode. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll see of Sally’s daddy issues.

MEREDITH: Poor Mer seriously can’t do anything right. “Look at you,” she says to Don as he’s reading the letter from Cutler. “You’re so confused… I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength.” Her boss may be a lot more in touch with his emotions than he used to be, but girl, that is not how you seduce Don Draper.