Cooking a hamburger is difficult work. Patties must be placed on a griddle; they must be flipped; they must be taken off the griddle at a time neither before nor after they have reached the ideal temperature (I’m sure I’m glossing over several key steps, thus illustrating the extremely difficult process we’re working with here).
Burger King knew burgermastery is something attained only by a precious few. This is why, in the 1950s, they commissioned the creation of a Flame Broiler, a giant machine that transports disks of meat across conveyor belts through jets of fire, thus ensuring every patty emerges cooked to perfection. No longer would fast food chains require multiple tenured professors of burgerology on payroll. Burgers were finally for the people.
The brothers who actually built the first Flame Broiler, Frank and Donald Thomas, realized the innate potential of a great greasy contraption that could perform all the same labor as a high school junior, but with none of the backsass. So they packed up their machines and they started their own fast food joint: Burger Chef.
The first franchise opened in 1954, and in the next ten years, Burger Chefs sprouted up all over the country. By 1968, Burger Chef was a big deal — big enough that the whole company was bought out by the General Foods Corporation. But not even the corporate world could contain the massive growth spurts of Burger Chef and his boy sidekick Jeff, because General Foods buckled under their titanic, beef-fed weight and sold Burger Chef to Imasco in 1982. Imasco, a Canadian corporation, was also the owner of Hardees, and decided that one big fast food franchise is better than two. So the vast majority of the world’s Burger Chefs became Hardees, while a few stragglers were painted over with other brand names.
We’ve been hearing about Burger Chef all season long on Mad Men, so it’s only fitting we finally do our little historical opener on the former fast food giant. That’s kind of a running theme in “Waterloo,” our mid-season finale: the “thing we’ve been waiting to happen all season that finally happens.”
Like the moon landing, ever since audiences figured out this season was set in ’69, they’ve been waiting with baited breath for that scene where the entire cast sits in front of the TV, enraptured by grainy footage of astronauts stomping down moon dust. That very scene is in “Waterloo,” even if the episode is more about Burger Chef than it ever is Neil Armstrong and his small steps and giant leaps.
First up is something else in the “Finally!” pile: the break-up of Don and Megan.
This has been coming a long, long time now. Mad Men‘s biggest power couple has been at odds all season, and it almost seemed like splitsville in “Field Trip,” when Don finally told his wife about the whole “fired-ish” thing, and she wanted him gone. Now, the wait is over. Don mentions (halfheartedly) that he might be fired for real this time, and it would be a perfect opportunity to finally put this bicoastal thing to bed. Megan’s first response is to immediately down a large quantity of alcohol and look forlornly into the phone. You can guess the rest from there.
At least this ending is slightly more amicable than that of Don and Betty. Don wants to take care of Megan and mentions that he owes her, and Megan doesn’t want any of those things hanging over her once this marriage is officially kaput. But neither of them sound particularly angry. Not happy. But not spiteful, which is probably the best you can ask for in this situation. And to be honest, marrying your secretary on a whim is rarely something that works out in the long run. Did we really expect to see Future Don cringing at Hall & Oates with an old age Megan at his side?
But during the break-up scene, Don admits what he’s been doing for the past few episodes, namely, putting his nose to the grindstone in the hopes that he could claw his way back into the good ol’ days when he wasn’t despised by a good 50% of his coworkers. I don’t think he’s ever really admitted that out loud until now.
And that leads to the next item in the “We Saw This Coming Six Episodes Ago” hit parade: another Sterling Cooper/Draper Pryce/& Partners management shuffle. Now, everyone’s under the thumb of McCann Erickson, but as an independent subsidiary. Roger Sterling is boss, Don Draper has his old spot as creative God among mere mortals, and Jim Cutler may remain in a far subservient position, because anyone will swallow their pride and admit defeat if it means a multi-million dollar paycheck (and this is 1969 pre-inflation millions we’re talking here).
Lou Avery has been given his marching orders, but apparently his ticket was punched as soon as Don walked into that Phillip Morris meeting two weeks ago. And also at the beginning of the season, because he was just hired help to begin with. And chances are, Cutler would have just replaced Lou with a computer (albeit, a computer in a blue vest with “I don’t care what you think” scrawled on the monitor in Sharpie), the same fate that would have befallen the majority of the SC&P staff, had his dastardly plans not been brought to a halt.
A lot of early “Waterloo” is Cutler shoring up his power to re-create SC&P in his own image. He sends out his own personal partner letter, letting everyone know that Don Draper had broken the terms of his contract by barging in on the Phillip Morris meeting and will now be offloaded for good. Then he adds literal insult to figurative injury by calling Don a “bully and a drunk,” and a “football player in a suit,” not unlike a Disney villain might do in the same situation.
Oh, and as a brief aside, I need a show of hands: how many of you thought that Don, opening up a letter said to contain only bad news, was about to find out his wife had been murdered and a million Megan-meets-Charles-Manson internet conspiracy theorists were about to be proven right? It’s okay to admit it. I thought about it for a second or two.
Asides aside, let’s get back to Cutler. What exactly was he expecting here? The man knew he only had about half an agency’s worth of support in his whole “Fire Don, Ascend the Throne” plan, yet he sent the letter anyway, putting himself in icky legal standing by adding the other partners’ names, and drawing the furious ire of every Draper fan still in his employ. He had to know that power plays don’t go uncontested, and that Roger and Pete would rally to put an end to his dastardly schemes.
Because the only thing better than a California Pete Campbell is a righteously angry for Don Draper Pete Campbell. Through his impassioned shouting, we’ve learned so many things. Including, but not limited to:
- Don is “a sensitive piece of horseflesh.”
- Don “sighing a lot” is a terrible omen, pre-sales pitch.
- “Marriage is a racket.”
- “The Don Draper show is back from its unscheduled interruption.” If AMC doesn’t use that line in some TV spot for the next half-season, I have several threatening letters already drafted.
In all honesty, this might be the most endearing varietal of Pete Campbell in the show’s run. For once, his loud, whining energy is focused on something positive-ish. I’m a fan.
And of course, there is the passing of Bert Cooper, which came out of nowhere (unlike our last major goodbye, Lane Pryce, who might as well have been shadowed by a skeleton with a scythe in his final few episodes). The last we ever see of a living Bert, he’s just like everyone else with butt planted on couch and eyes fixed on moon landing. It’s what makes his death such a shock. Was there anyone who actually saw that coming?
Robert Morse didn’t have a whole lot left to do on Mad Men, other than the occasional bit of old-timey racism or a comment on the absence of shoes in or around his office. But he was still a leader, in a strange sort of way. At least, he was leader enough that his little leadership spiel got Roger off his ass and into a real leadership role. So for once, it’s Roger riding in to save the firm from certain doom, and not one Donald Draper.
In a way, “Waterloo” is a lot like “-30-,” the final episode of The Wire (another fun TV resemblance: the McCann deal goes down in an Italian deli, reminiscent of The Sopranos and its frequent deli-based wheelings and dealings). Both episodes were about a changing of the guard, and the younger characters assuming roles we’d always seen played by the old standbys. Bert is gone, so now Roger must become the new Bert. Don assumes he’s on the way out, so Peggy must become the new Don. Which she does, through an immensely Jon Hamm-like pitch to the Burger Chef people. Elisabeth Moss nails the exact cadence of Hamm’s confident ad man demeanor, and one of the Burger Chef execs even wipes away a single tear, not unlike Harry Crane turning into a big weepy baby at the end of Don’s season one Carousel pitch.
This is the upshot to the long negative road Peggy’s been traveling all season. First, she gets the number of a hunky handyman. Then, she realizes she might have been more of a mother to little Julio than she ever realized. And now she’s nailing a confident, mom-based ad pitch. Finally! Things are coming up Peggy.
But where does this leave Don? This whole season has been about Don Draper becoming kind of an okay guy. And by the end of “Waterloo,” he certainly seems on the better side of okay. He passes the torch to Peggy, signs a potentially painful five-year contract with McCann (and woos Ted into doing the same) for the good of the company. And after all that, he’s perfectly content walking away from Bert’s memorial moment so he can get back to work.
The bad guys lost. The good guys have won. Harry Crane is not parter, but is repeatedly ignored and insulted. All is right with the world. Which makes it all the more disconcerting when we get to the “Waterloo” big closing dance number.
The music, the color, the dancing women, the playful vocals from Robert Morse, all lend this scene a feeling of fun and fancy free and optimism for the new world order of SC&P. But Don’s face is not the face of a man enjoying a toe-tapping song and dance number. It’s the face of a man seeing another, recently deceased man appear out of nowhere and begin dancing to an invisible jazz orchestra that has also been conjured up from some nether realm. So Morse’s innate musical charm mixes with the “what” on Jon Hamm’s face, and the whole thing is a little bit warm send-off and a little bit demon from beyond the grave.
Who knows what this means for the final seven episodes of Mad Men. Either Don is slowly losing his mind and will be seeing a lot more hallucinations in the coming half-season, or he’ll try and take Bert’s song to heart and pursue the best and freest things in life, like the moon or his daughter (who might be pursuing a moon man of her own). We’ll find out, eventually.
Overall, I thought this half-season was pretty outstanding. As uncouth as it sounds, I’m actually a fan of the split season — a mere seven episodes means a tighter, more engaging narrative, and that’s absolutely what we got with The Rise and Fall and Rise of Don Draper. In all honesty, it’s not really half a season, despite AMC’s desperate attempts to brand it as such. It’s a fully self-contained little set of episodes. Divorce and death and massive agency restructuring are not things we deal with at the halfway point of a story. So even though this is “The Final Season” of Mad Men, it’s not really the final season. That comes next year. Which might be why these seven episodes were titled “The Beginning,” and the next set are “The End.” What we’ve just seen is a prelude to the end of Mad Men.
A pretty great prelude, at that.
It’s been a pleasure overanalyzing a bunch of drunken office politics with you all for the past seven weeks. A hearty thank you to everyone who read along. But now Mad Men is over, for the time being. Now to put away our neatly pressed suits, martini glasses and out of touch racial politics until this time next year.