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'Mad Men' midseason finale recap, 'Waterloo'

That's one small two-step for SC&P, and one giant leap for Don's humility.

So, who was expecting that? Not the death. I was suspecting someone would be killed off with Ted’s death wish and the looming Mets pennant. And not Roger swooping in to save Don and the agency. We’ve been rooting for an underdog all season — we just didn’t know it was Roger. And not Sally’s amped up cynicism and sass, either. That’s just business as usual.

I mean Bert’s dance from beyond the grave.

Say what you will about the episode’s ending — bizarre and out of place, or comical and uplifting (Twitter seemed pretty evenly divided) — but if there’s one thing "Mad Men" never fails to deliver, it’s a shocking season finale. Kudos, because a musical number by Bert Cooper was the last thing I thought I’d ever see.

Not to deny Robert Morses’ singing and dancing talents. He did portray J. Pierrepont Finch in the original Broadway and film production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

But a full on song-and-dance routine? With an on-the-nose tune about the “moon [belonging] to everyone” after devoting a good chunk of the plot to the moon landing? Forget the sentimental and heartfelt waltz Don and Peggy had last week. This is flat out cheesy.

Stop clutching your playbills in dismay. I’m not one of those musical haters. I love musicals. I even watched Ken’s drug-fueled, cane-twirling time step on loop last year.

But there’s a time and a place for people randomly bursting into well-choreographed show tunes. “Mad Men” is not one of them. And, no, “Zou Bisou” doesn’t count.

What’s frustrating as a “Mad Men” fan is that I enjoyed this episode wholeheartedly — Peggy triumphed, Roger triumphed, America triumphed, hooray! — except for those last few minutes where it jeté-d into “Glee” land. It soured the entire episode.

How can a show so hell-bent on making its fans uncomfortable with tear-jerking suicides and gag-inducing nipple lacerations end its midseason finale on an upbeat musical number? And how does this exactly entice me to watch the rest of the final season (back next year!)?

Enough griping. The show must go on. Let’s try to dissect this symbolism behind this song. (There must be some reason it’s there, after all).

Show creator Matthew Weiner has previously said that this season was meant to explore the “material world and the immaterial world.”

The Broadway-inspired hallucination promises Don, “The best things in life are free.” Next season could be the start of Don’s departure from the money — and material — obsessed life of Madison Avenue.

Like Ted, he might seek the meaning of life beyond the business meetings — without turning to the bottle or turning off the airplane engines. It’s not a far stretch. McCann & Erickson and GM think that Ted and Don are “one person.”

This season, however, seemed more focused on the perils of the future. The marvels of technological achievement are claiming its victims. First Ginsberg went over the edge with the arrival of the computer; now Burt died right after the moon landing.

Roger knows his demise is imminent, along with everyone else’s at SC&P. “Cutler’s not going to stop until the firm’s just Harry and the computer,” he warns Don.

That means Joan, the mother of Roger’s child, and Peggy, Don’s protégé and eventual successor, will be out. Suddenly, the two most selfish SC&P employees (and that’s saying a lot) put their team first, not themselves. They become leaders.

“No man has ever come back from leave, not even Napoleon.” Bert doesn’t know Don as well as he thinks he does. Don’s error in the past was his pride. Always impulsive, never selfless.

This shift in Don’s ego didn’t happen at the drop of his feather-trimmed hat. Mentoring Peggy and cheering her on has made Don realize that not everything is about him.

Without his pride getting in the way, joining forces with McCann & Erickson was an easy decision. It’s what he needs to do to keep his job and everyone else’s. It’s not entirely selfless, but it’s a start.

The humbling revelation is more powerful than seeing him cut back on drinking. Stroking his ego’s always been his most dangerous addiction.

But the battle is far from over for Don and Roger.

“[Cutler] has a vision, but he’s not on my team,” Bert tells Roger.

Or anyone’s team, for that matter. Sure, Cutler begs Ted not to leave the agency, even though he risks the lives of clients on the plane — making Don’s Hershey fiasco last season seem like minor hiccup. But it’s not out of loyalty; it’s simply to gain leverage to boot Don.

Cutler’s obsession with ousting Don borders monomania of “Moby-Dick” proportions. With Phillip Morris out of the picture, Cutler goes straight for the jugular and files a breach of contract for intruding on the Phillip Morris meeting.

When that ploy misfires, he usurps Ted’s vote to dethrone Don. And when Ted’s determined to resign, he manipulates him into delaying his announcement and convinces him to vote against Roger’s proposal to join McCann & Erickson. At least tries to.

Cutler’s overzealous aggression to drive out Don is why he lost the war. He amusingly jumped shipped after realizing he lost. Oh, and the money. It certainly swayed Ted and Benedict Joan to join forces with Don. Yup, there is a price for pride.

Next to Lou, Cutler is “Mad Men’s” greatest villain. What a relief it’s no longer Don.

The biggest victory was Peggy’s presentation at Burger Chef. As she nervously scans the room, she knows these are good ol’ boys, like Pete, who think she should be at the dinner table with her child instead.

“You want your mom to have a job. Don’t you?” Peggy tries to reassure Julio and — more importantly — herself.

It’s no coincidence that Julio is about the age as her illegitimate child with Pete. He’s a haunting reminder of what motherhood would have been like for Peggy: a homemaker with a freshly cooked meal and manicured yard.

The mother/son moment is moving yet puzzling for Peggy. Is this what she should be doing — nurturing and practically raising an emotionally abandoned child — instead of writing copy and presenting to Burger Chef?

That’s a resounding no, but she makes it seem as though it’s the life she does lead to Burger Chef. “I’m a woman — I’m the voice of moms,” she admits to Don.

That’s her strength, even if Pete sees it as a weakness and insists that Don presents to Burger Chef. I love how Pete smiles smugly during her presentation, like he knew all along she’d nail it.

She effortlessly moves forward and buries her personal struggles into her work — a trick she learned from Don all the way back in Season 1 when he visited her after she gave birth. She even takes another cue from Don’s rulebook and spins a half-lie about Julio into a heartfelt and eloquent story of family happiness.

It was flawless, as was Elisabeth Moss’ performance. Don, Pete and Burger Chef were impressed. She’s not just the best female copywriter — she’s the best SC&P has.

Just think: If Peggy can write copy like Don and present like Don, how soon will she be head honcho like Don? She’s the future of the agency and Don knows it. (Notice how Don’s blue suit against the blue presentation card made him disappear into the background during Peggy’s presentation.) I’m glad to see he’s come to accept it.

“Mad Men” can end the series with the whole cast doing a kick line dressed in sequins and top hats to the sound of a brass band. Throw in fireworks and a horseback ride into the sunset for all I care — just so long as Peggy Olsen rules Madison Avenue.

Back in La La Land, Don and Megan’s marriage is as good as done. Her silence when he asks her if she wants him to move out there was louder than when she said, “It’s over,” in "Field Trip."  

Even louder than her silence was the brilliant cinematography. The cheery blue sky set behind Megan’s porch — porches were where she and Don go for their moments of existential crises — starkly contrasts the stuffy, sepia-tinted room where Don is sitting on the bed.

Megan has already taken that breath of fresh air and move on from Don and her old life in New York. Don is stuck in a snapshot of the past. But he didn’t fight her. This was his surrender; this was his Waterloo.

But as long as he has his work wife Peggy, he doesn’t need his bicoastal, or bi-curious, wife anymore. He can guide Peggy rise to the top, while she can help him move on from all the pain in his life. They don’t owe each other that, but they both deserve it.

MORE HIGHTLIGHTS FROM "WATERLOO"

BEST ROGER ONE-LINER: “Neil Armstrong: What are you going to do with the rest of your life? Screw every girl in Florida.” And the STD rates in the Sunshine State just skyrocketed.

MOST OVERLOOKED FEATURE IN A MATE: “How did I marry Rick? He has no eyelashes.” – Betty’s friend

BEST FLIRTING GAME: “I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength.” Then Meredith swoops in and locks lips with Don. Bravo, Meredith! Shame Don’s still hung up on Megan. She even bounces back from rejection so well: “You’re right. Not right now.”

WORST FLIRTING GAME: “Besides, there are other things to look at,” Neil gripes about the moon landing. “Like what?” Sally replies. “Polaris.” No, dummy. With a winsome smile, you say “You,” take her by the hand, pull her towards you, stare deep into her eyes and kiss her. Ask Meredith for pointers next time.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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