As the seventh season of "Mad Men's" first installment approaches its end,
we wonder what Matthew Weiner and crew will leave us with for the second half. More so, we have to
wonder what they have given us so far, with so much time to ponder before the four-time Best Drama winner at the Emmys reaches its final conclusion.
Sunday's mid-season finale is entitled "Waterloo," a reference to the 1815 battle in present-day Belgium in which Napoleon's return from exile was finally thwarted. I have learned over the past several years to believe that anything Matthew Weiner does merits attention. Way back in the Sterling Cooper days, Harry Crane speculated about the firm opening a West coast office. Then he looked like just another agency underling with big dreams, but hindsight says it was a demonstration of the insight and future-mindedness that just landed him a partnership. So, as Don remarked to Peggy in last week's landmark episode: "You think that's a coincidence?"
"Mad Men's" episode titles have always been crafted as carefully as its fashion. As the series opens in a hazy bar to introduce television's most mysterious character, it is called "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Episodes that feature a dramatic change in direction have titles that elicit our attention, as in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," and "For Immediate Release." Season 7 has been light on the depth of the titles, which makes the inferences of the next show that much more interesting. With that in mind, here is what these tags have indicated through the first half of the final season, and what Don and the rest of his army might face in "Waterloo."
Perhaps the dominant yet often forgotten theme of the "Mad Men" saga has been the East/West coast divide, and the symbolism that comes with it. As in season 6's "A Tale of Two Cities," the Season 7 premiere addressed this directly in its title. It opens with a blast from the past as Freddie Rumsen delivers a pitch for, of all things, a watch (or, "a timepiece"). "Time Zones" introduces the cross-continental scope of the season, which has seen many major characters – Don, Megan, Harry, Pete, et al – in flight between New York and Los Angeles. In last week's "The Strategy," Bonnie tells Pete point blank something that has been subliminal ever since Dick Whitman ditched work to visit Anna Draper: that he is a different person on different coasts. They're in love in Los Angeles, with that relationship taking root in "Time Zones," but all of that falls apart in New York, echoing Don's "We were happy there," to Megan as their own marriage struggled back East.
"A Day's Work"
Over the course of a single day, Valentine's Day 1969, work is replaced by actual, interpersonal relationships. This day begins with Don, effectively unemployed and living alone, setting his alarm for 7:30, but sleeping until noon before rising to eat junk food and watch television. For Don, there is no work in this day. The nudge that this trivial lifestyle is all in a day's work for Don is a tough one to swallow. After all, this is a man who later says that his job is to not know what'll happen next but always to be thinking about work. No work, it seems, is done by anyone, so Don is not totally alone. Joan, who has become more important to the accounts department, spends her day solving petty (not to mention racist) personnel problems. Peggy is in knots over flowers that were not meant for her in the first place. The partners spend the better part of their teleconference wrestling with technology. As the day develops, it starts to work out. Joan is given an office upstairs and Dawn is simply given an office. By the time night falls, Weiner gives a nod to his alma mater "The Sopranos" as Don and Sally hit the road and have a talk that they both desperately needed.
This episode receives its name from Bobby's school trip, for which Betty tags along. "Field Trip" is a companion to "A Day's Work" in several ways. While little work was done in the prior episode, this episode can adequately be described as no field trip. Betty’s and Bobby’s outing goes awry -- the opposite of what Don’s relationship with Sally is doing -- but the most important moment is when Don is welcomed back to the office. The most unfamiliar trip Don takes is not to California, but to his very own conference room.
The glaring exception to the notion that this season's episode names lacked symbolic depth, "The Monolith" is a return to office life as usual. This is, of course, with a major change or two. The office is (literally) torn apart by a large computer, essentially a gift from Jim Cutler to Harry Crane and a knife to the ribs for creative. As stated with an un-"Mad Men" like lack of subtlety, the computer is obviously a metaphor. This episode often, as in its title, references "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which the Monolith as a symbol appears repeatedly to indicate a great step forward for man. While Harry's computer may not show change as material as the evolution from ape to human, it is a significant blow for an era in which advertising was run by artistic men in great suits, aka Don's world. He smashes a typewriter (the technology of the past) out of frustration from working under Peggy, but the computer (the technology of the future) thrives. The species is moving forward, suggests the Monolith. The computer, like Kubrick's mysterious stone, does not simply appear once and then go away, and neither do the "2001" references. Just before -- rather, during -- his impending breakdown, Ginsberg emulated HAL when reading Cutler and Lou's lips, as they hide their plot behind the buzz of the machine (no, Michael, they are not "homos").
It is not completely clear who the eponymous runaways are, especially since this episode is more about characters running to things than away. There is Stephanie, Don and Anna Draper's niece who runs to her uncle when in need of money. There is Don, who runs to California for Stephanie and then runs into a meeting to try to save his job because he is "unbelievable." Mostly though, there is Ginsberg, who runs to Peggy when he finally blows a gasket. To his credit, the phone was not working, and that was not his imagination. So there’s that.
The finest and most important episode of "Mad Men"'s seventh season has the simplest and most literal title. After what now amounts to months of work on Burger Chef, Peggy is happy with the strategy, until she isn't. The conclusion of "The Strategy" has Don, Peggy and Pete looking like the most functional family in the series, enjoying a meal at the fast food joint. The episode charts how they got there, finally together again and finally with a great campaign. Every table is a family table at Burger Chef, they suggest, but it seems that only Burger Chef has the only family table in "Mad Men."
That takes us to the upcoming midseason finale where sides have been taken. As usual, Don has Roger in his corner, now with Peggy, Pete and maybe even Ted (no one knows better than Ted how hard it is to compete with Don). The conclusion last week with Joan and Roger suggests that SC&P's most powerful woman is on their side as well. Harry Crane is the ultimate tossup. Jim Cutler, knowing that a war was coming, has been cozying up to Harry and literally giving him everything his heart desires, right down to a partnership.
But Harry and Don go way back. He was the first media head at Sterling Cooper and has already voiced his allegiance to his friend: "I'm going to find a way to make sure you're still important." The Battle of Waterloo was fought after Napoleon's escape from exile and marked the end of his second attempt to conquer Europe. If Weiner selected this as a title in the traditional Mad Men metaphorical spirit, someone's assault is going to end badly. Conventional thought suggests this might be Don, who has been back at SC&P for about the same amount of time as Napoleon was free before being defeated by an alliance of European countries. The forces of Cutler and Lou, presumably with Philip Morris in their pocket and some hazy McCann Erikson subplot brewing that cannot be good for the autonomy of SC&P, seem ready to make a move.
Harry as a partner -- making the full name of the agency SCDPCGCHCC -- may be the deciding factor. It is not certain that Don himself plays the role of the defeated in the Waterloo analogy. Cutler and Lou have been pressing for the removal of Don since before he was even officially back. This quest is not going well. While increasing Harry's importance to lessen Don's may have snuck through, the man himself is not going anywhere. After a vintage Don move at the Philip Morris meeting, the tag team of Cutler and Lou felt threatened. Last week, Ted and especially Pete endorsed Don for presenting to Burger Chef. Cutler's mutiny against the SCDP founding partner and brain behind the SCDP and CGC merger could come to a bloody end on Sunday night.