I never knew the moon landing happened at night.
Of course, that’s a decidedly western-American perspective. The moon landing happened at all times depending on your location, but for Mad Men’s home base, the American eastern time zone (the unspoken default setting for most of the nation’s media until recently) the watershed event happened after the watershed time for television. The lead-up to the moon landing served as the backdrop for the whole episode, of course, but the landing itself acted as a send-off for agency stalwart Bert Cooper and as a kick in the ass for his founding partner and buddy, Roger Sterling, who tapped a dormant store of leadership to sell the agency to archrival McCann.
There’s a lot to talk about. I’ll offer up my thoughts in no particular order:
• I love night-time skullduggery. There’s a certain romance to taking care of business after the lights have gone out, and no one knows where you are. The after-hours meeting with Roger, Jim Cutler and good ol’ Joan rang such bells for me. When tragedy strikes, we’re forced into strange situations and kept awake and in places we wouldn’t necessarily choose. I liked how Joan and Jim both suggested they get right to work — Joan on Bert’s obit, Jim on Bert’s clients — but Roger asked if it could wait.
That’s no surprise. Roger essentially lost his daughter this season, and now he’s lost his cranky older brother. It’s also stating the obvious to point out how Bert’s death reminds Roger of his own mortality. Watching those night-time scenes, I was brought back to an early-season episode when Roger suffered his first heart-attack while cavorting with a pair of comely twins with Don.
• I feel very strongly like Matthew Weiner is moving Don in a redemptive direction, even if his redemption serves Don’s own interests. Case in point: Don handing off the Burger Chef pitch to Peggy. Structurally, Mad Men echoes its AMC sibling Breaking Bad in the sense that they’re both shows about men trying to reconcile (or integrate) two competing personalities. The contrast between the two personalities was more dramatic with Walter White, of course, but there’s a marked difference between the schlubby Dick Whitman and the dashing Don Draper — and I feel like Dick is winning out. Many recappers ‘round the Net have commented on the unlikely family that’s emerging from Mad Men’s final chapters (Don, Peggy and Pete), and I’m on board with that idea. To that end, it follows that Don would give the Burger Chef pitch back to Peggy, especially after finding out that he might be ousted by week’s end.
But there’s a problem with the Don/Peggy/father/daughter dynamic.
• It obviates the need for Ted. Matt Zoller Seitz, who’s probably the best critic working today, has repeatedly commented over at Vulture that he’s not a big fan of the Ted character. Rare is the moment when I disagree with Mr. Seitz, but I really enjoyed what a foil Ted was for Don last season — he’s younger, hungrier, and less evil.
But here’s the thing: The more Don redeems himself, the less need we have for a “light” version of him in the narrative. If Indiana Jones were entirely venal, we wouldn’t need Belloq to outline his boundaries. Ditto for Ted and Don, and you can see that the writers have flat-out run out of stuff for him to do. The character even states this frustration aloud: “I don’t want to do this anymore.” It takes an 11th-hour benediction from Don to reel him back in for the final seven volumes.
• Kudos to Sally Draper for picking the nerd. My girlfriend, the lovely Lauren Rock, pointed out how much Sally (Kiernan Shipka) moves like her mother, but it’s nice to see Sally — even if it’s only in rebellion — ignoring the meathead neighbor in favor of a backyard smooch with the geek. (Add this clandestine interlude to the list of this episodes’s night-time skullduggery.)
• Let’s all raise a toast to Harry Hamlin and his slippery embodiment of Jay Cutler. I’d only seen Hamlin in Clash of the Titans, I think, and I didn’t know he had this kind of detailed character performance in him. Kudos.
• I know I just said that Don’s trying to redeem himself, but I feel like his mid-break-up promise to take care of Megan might not happen. That said, how great was that scene? Matt Zoller Seitz noted this episode’s self-conscious cinematic presentation, with its POV shot of Peggy before the Burger Chef pitch, and I was also struck at what an atypical Mad Men episode this was; it was one of those rare episodes where a lot of things were actually happening. Don and Megan’s halting break-up felt more like standard-issue Mad Men — quiet, understated, Pinteresque.
• Finally, let’s all raise a toast to the departed Bert Cooper, played by the incomparable Robert Morse. At the risk of over-praising Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, I also want to tip my hat to him for alerting me to one of Morse’s highlights from his musical theater days. Here’s the old pro showing off his triple-threat skills in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: