Mad Men

'Mad Men' Mid-Season Finale Recap: The Best Things in Life

Good Vibes (More or Less) as Show Breaks Until Final Act

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Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson), John Slattery (Roger Sterling) and Jon Hamm (Don Draper) at the final season's premiere party.
Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson), John Slattery (Roger Sterling) and Jon Hamm (Don Draper) at the final season's premiere party. Credit: John Shearer/AMC

Leave it to "Mad Men" to make an episode that kills off a major character one of the more upbeat in recent memory.

Consider the relatively positive outcomes. Don, having already fought his way back from exile, successfully fights off another ouster. Peggy makes a brilliant presentation and wins the Burger Chef business. Roger Sterling is poised to regain leadership if not control of his agency. Jim Cutler is declawed, while Ted Chaough is hanging in there. Sally chooses the good boy. Men are on the moon -- and they're Americans! Even the death of Burt Cooper is accompanied by a little song and dance, a gift to "Mad Men" fans aware of actor Robert Morse's Broadway past.

For all the good vibes, the closing moments of the first half of the show's final season were tinged with the ominous. In the final scene, Cooper comes to Don in a vision and regales him with a little version of a standard that Bing Crosby made famous. Sure, it's a send-off, but it can also be taken as a criticism of the action that came before, the happy refrain actually a scalpel to pick apart what had happened moments before in a partners meeting: "The moon belongs to everyone/the best things in life are free."

Don is anything but free. He has probably squandered his one real chance at something approaching freedom by not just walking away from the agency when it no longer wanted him and joining Megan in Los Angeles. As the episode ends, he's done with Megan and any hope of West Coast salvation and he, Sterling and the other partners are on the verge of signing over 51% of the agency and the next five years of their lives to McCann-Erickson, a firm that has always stood in as a place where no one should be caught dead.

But the deal is necessary to save the agency from the clutches of Jim Cutler, this season's technocratic villain hellbent on, as Sterling would put it, reducing the agency until it's just Harry Crane and the new IBM 360. The deal also helps save Don, who is still seen by McCann as a major lure along with Ted Chaough. Plus, everyone gets rich. The valuation of $65 million that's tossed around gets even Joan and Pete into seven figures.

The trade-off is the loss of independence. After all the formation of Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce, the forerunner to the current SC&P was a strong desire not to have to work for McCann. In the end, the agency is picking a lesser of two evils and getting rich in the process.

Which is a familiar story in the history of advertising, where mergers and acquisitions rarely go happily. As an instructive case study there's Marschalk, a real-life earlier acquisition of McCann Erickson referenced by the script. When the deal was consummated in 1954, the New York Times called it "unique in the history of American advertising agencies" because the smaller agency kept its office space and personnel, including senior leadership. "Marschalk & Pratt," The Times said, "will continue its operating functions unchanged by McCann-Erickson."

Marschalk was anything but unchanged, however. By 1960, it was renamed McCann-Marschalk and in 1969, the agency went through a period of leadership turmoil, losing a bunch of clients and running through four presidents in 18 months. By the mid-1970s, the one-time network was reduced to offices in just New York and Cleveland. In the 1980s, it was jammed into the Lowe Group and by 1990 the Marschalk name was gone, a once vibrant agency brand dead and buried.

There is a certain sadness in this kind of passing. And I can't help but wonder if the show's ultimate tragedy will not be demise of Don Draper or Roger Sterling or any other major character but rather the loss of Sterling Cooper, the brand. I can see it fading into obscurity as it's shuffled from owner to owner, org chart to org chart until it only exists on the lips of old-timers, all the work and pain that went into the business forgotten.

Whether SC&P can survive the merger is sure to be a big question when the show picks up in 2015. I'd predict that another one will be whether we get a glimpse of Peggy as mom. In last night's episode, we see she has finally fully arrived as a professional with the successful Burger Chef presentation. Sure, Don helps her muster the self-confidence, but the win is hers. Will it now be time for us to to see her as a mother, too?

There is, of course, a kid out there somewhere and there were a couple hints in the finale that this is on the show's mind, even if Peggy never talks about it. When Julio, the young neighbor boy who's become Peggy's friend, tells her his family's moving, there's what feels like a moment of maternal recognition. Julio doubts her mother's love, saying, "She don't care about me."

Peggy sets him straight, telling Julio, "Yes she does. That's why she's moving." What this feels like is an acknowledgment that as a parent you have to do difficult things, as she did when she walked away from her kid.

There's another heavy moment in the Burger Chef presentation when Peggy mentions returning home to the "10-year-old boy parked in front of my TV eating dinner." She's talking about Julio, but it's a reminder that her child is out there. Even Pete lifts his head in confusion. Elsewhere Pete is described as "pregnant," but what really feels ready to pop is that question of Peggy's child.

The children we do see on the show are coming along pretty well, if Sally is any indication. Last season ended with Don showing her his impoverished upbringing as a way to explain the terrible behavior that Sally came to witness first-hand. It was an open question as to how his failings would stick with her. By the midway point in season 7, there's some hope she won't make the same mistakes as her parents.

With the moon landing imminent, Betty is entertaining an old college friend and her family, including a yin-yang pair of sons -- one is surly, athletic and handsome, the other is spindly and only concerned with sticking his face in a telescope.It might as well be a choice between Don and … someone his opposite. An earlier line from Betty has helped to frame it that way. Asked by her friend if she ever sees Don, Betty says, "I'm starting to think of him as an old bad boyfriend. Someone a teenage anthropologist would marry."

In the end, Sally chooses the nerd, planting a chaste kiss on him and then lighting up a cigarette in a way that is unmistakably her mother. Sally might be her parents' child but she is not doomed to suffer their unhappiness.

For much of its run, "Mad Men" has felt like an argument for a glum worldview that people don't really change and we're all doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. The first half of this final season, however, feels somewhat lighter. Maybe it's watching the antihero Don more or less trying to walk the straight and narrow. I'm not entirely sure. But it feels like that fatalism has at times dragged down the show has lifted. Sure, we all work and live within constraints, whether McCann-Erickson's ownership or the eventuality of death, but we can fight to do that living and working on our own terms. And it's in that fight where we find meaning.

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