Mad Men 7×07 ‘Waterloo’: “The best things in life are free”

Mad Men 7x07 Cover

Mad Men never fails to astound me.  When I saw that the mid-season finale (which, let’s be real, was a season finale), was named “Waterloo”, it was apparent that something bad was going to happen.  Somebody was going to suffer a major setback; somebody was going to lose something dear to them.  But then we saw Don and Co selling the majority of their company to McCann, making millions in the process.  We saw Roger become the new president of the company, finally gaining ultimate authority over Cutler.  We saw Don return to his old glory, becoming an integral part of the company once more.  It didn’t seem like anybody was really losing much; they were making a lucrative transition into the company’s next phase.

Mad Men 7x07-1

Source: AMC

But then Bert Cooper passed away, Don saw him in a dance number, and it all weirdly made sense.  Bert Cooper wasn’t a character that had many serious storylines.  He was there to provide a sense of comic relief, but more than that, he was always there.  Just there.  He wasted away the head of a company that didn’t care much for him until they realized that he was gone.  And even then, after hearing about his death, the first thing that Cutler said threw Bert aside to look at the future.  Aside from the company, what did we really know about Bert Cooper?  What did he accomplish in his personal life?

The Apollo 11 moon landing was a strong symbol of progress, how America is moving into the next phase of its existence.  As people, we undergo these same changes, moving from one phase to the next.  Whether we want to or not, we will go through these transitions.  Everybody in the episode watched Apollo 11 go off into space, and everybody watched Apollo 11 land on the moon.  But within our own personal journeys, we alone have to determine what these transitions mean to us.  We alone have to decide what is worth taking with us through these transitions.

Mad Men 7x07-3

Source: AMC

Sally’s story this episode was designed to show us the various paths she could take as she transitioned into adulthood, how she could chase what she desired or what she needed.  We expected that she was going to go after the attractive teenage boy, the one who bemoaned the fact that the moon landing cost so much money.  Because it’s easier to focus on the negative, to fixate on loss instead of consider the notion of real progress.  But when you figure out how to look at progress, just as Neal instructs Sally as to how to look through the telescope, the pathway becomes more alluring.  The path to improvement has more clarity, and so Sally kisses Neal (the nerdy boy against smoking) because he’s the voice of the future instead of the voice of the past.  But that doesn’t stop her from smoking, because the voice of the past is just as alluring.  The lure of familiarity always fights the lure of progress.

Mad Men 7x07-2

Source: AMC

The rest of the episode dealt with the turmoil within the agency.  Ted held up a mirror to Don, who saw in Ted what he had seen in himself.  Ted, after being in California for so long, became distraught with the notion of being in advertising.  Something was missing; he couldn’t necessarily put his finger on it, but he felt like he was living an unfulfilled life.  Don thought that he knew the answer to Ted’s dilemma, that he needed to rededicate himself to his work in a more meaningful way.  So, when it comes time to vote on selling to McCann, Don pitches to Ted the same way that he always has.  He sells want.  He promises Ted salvation, happiness through that rededication.  But he doesn’t know what Ted needs.  He doesn’t know what, deep down, is going to scratch the itch that Ted has.

“Waterloo” gives an answer to that itch, and it’s not the answer that Don has been chasing this whole time.  Don has believed that progress meant moving forward in his career, chasing his old job in order to make up for his loss.  But what is lost by chasing progress?  As the company moved into its next phase, it lost Bert Cooper, a human being that people had real relationships with.  Roger saw him as a father.  Don saw him as a mentor.  Joan simply saw him as a good man.  But in all of the celebration of the McCann deal, everybody forgot what was truly lost.  And that Bert isn’t something that can be replaced.

Mad Men 7x07-4

Source: AMC

Even more than that, Don saw how fixating on his job cost him his wife.  When Don thought that he was going to lose his job and offered to live in L.A., Megan saw herself through Don’s eyes.  She saw that she was second best.  This entire season (well, half-season), has focused both on Don’s drive to get his job back and his rejection of every attempt Megan has made to get closer.  So, when Bert sings “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, Don’s coming to the realization that, in chasing money and a title, he’s lost the potential for human connection.  He’s lost one of the things in life that could’ve truly made him happy.  And so “Waterloo” isn’t a defeat like Don losing his job.  “Waterloo” is a much more devastating defeat, how Don has lost people around him in an attempt to gain more money and prestige.

Mad Men 7x07-5

Source: AMC

But that doesn’t mean that Don is lost.  There’s always hope for change.  One of the season’s main focuses is Don and Peggy’s relationship, and here in “Waterloo” we see their relationship heal even more, as he turns over the Burger Chef pitch to her, mentoring her through the pitch.  At the end of the episode, Don is focused on his loss, but there are things that he gained, things that can be improved and repaired.  Even earlier in the season, we saw how Don was able to repair his relationship with his daughter Sally.  It can be difficult to see through loss, but there are always avenues in which to gain human connection.  Those avenues simply have to be discussed.

Mad Men is obsessed with both the past and the future.  Both need to be considered in order to legitimately move forward in any feasible manner, but it’s easy to get lost in the past.  It’s easy to forget avenues to move forward in fixation on the past.  And it’s easy to forget what truly matters in life as we drive forward into the next phase of our existence.  As Don reflects on his failure at the end of “Waterloo”, we see a man beaten down by his past, unable to see that a happy future is right in front of him.  He sees people who love him.  He sees Peggy and Sally, both daughter figures (both literally and figuratively) who care deeply for him.  He just has to reach out and find that the meaningful happiness he’s craved his whole life in within his grasp.

What did you think of “Waterloo”?  How do you think the series is going to end?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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