WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for the season finales of Scandal, The Vampire Diaries, and Grey’s Anatomy. MAJOR SPOILERS for Season Five of The Good Wife. MAJOR SPOILERS for the Mad Men Season Seven Episode “Waterloo.”
This piece was sparked by a piece by Joana Robinson in Variety, praising the quiet, non-sensational death of Bert Cooper. Robinson compares the simplicity of Bert’s (off-screen) passing—“An old man died”—to the increasingly common shock factor attributed to shows like Game of Thrones and Scandal but which has also permeated more understated dramas like The Good Wife. Especially during finale season, quiet moments are rare—it seems that show runners believe they must pile on death after death, twist after twist, to make the viewer feel something when in fact it has the opposite effect. Good examples (and here I admit several of my TV “guilty pleasures”) include the cruel death of the President’s son on Scandal and Damon Salvatore’s “death” on The Vampire Diaries. For Scandal, the death of a child (a character the audience barely knew) was used to advance the plot of the show and to bring some humanity to President Fitzgerald Grant, a character that I’ll admit has never been likeable. In The Vampire Diaries, Damon’s “death” is made moot by the fact that I cannot imagine Ian Somerhelder’s character will not be resurrected; I imagine The CW must fear the wrath of the vocal “Delena” fandom.
It is interesting that some of the showrunners and writers at the pinnacle of shock TV are also some of the same people who skillfully craft more subtle emotional scenes. Take, for example, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh)’s exit from Grey’s Anatomy in the 10th season finale. Shonda Rimes (also the showrunner for Scandal) does tease the audience by implying that Cristina may have been at the scene of a serious accident, and yet does not show Oh or fans of the character the disrespect of killing her off. Throughout the episode I waited for this to happen, my anger slowly building. Instead, Yang’s last moments on the show were subtle and I’ll admit, made me tear up. Cristina leaves in a cab after wonderfully brief goodbyes with several central characters with only Meredith to see her off—“What do you need, an I love you or something? I love you!” Then Cristina reappears, still feeling that her time at Seattle Grace was unfinished. Instead of finishing with a big surgery, she and Meredith “dance it out” in an on-call room in a nice throwback to the show’s early episodes. The character gets the ending she deserves—a new career that allows her to grow and honors her talent—the ending I wish I could have seen for The Good Wife’s Will Gardener.
What does any of this have to do with Mad Men? Well, the latest episode, “Waterloo,” got me thinking about shows that allow the viewer to feel real emotion, which got me thinking about a popular meme/fan phrase having to do with “the feels.” “The feels” is an ironic way of distancing oneself from emotion caused by TV, books, or movies: I am not feeling anything, “the feels” are just out there and are separate from who I am as a person. At the beginning of summer, right after the brutal TV finale season and in the midst of summer blockbusters, the quiet moments in Mad Men were both refreshing and moving. I must admit, it’s been a long time since I felt this way after an episode of Mad Men: the desire to just sit awhile and think about the episode.
Mad Men’s “midseason finale” (it seems odd to call it that but that’s on AMC for breaking up the final season) had many elements that predisposed me to like it better than anything in the last two or three seasons of the series. First of all, as someone who was obsessed with the space race—and the Apollo missions in particular—as a child, the innocence and optimism of that moment in America’s history added a gentler element to a series that can sometimes be cynical and cold-blooded. Also, with the exception of Joan, these are the best versions of the characters I’ve seen in awhile. Peggy is self-assured (even in her doubt) and intelligent rather than petty and whiny. Rodger, far from the drug-using post-midlife crisis having Rodger of Season 6 is more thoughtful, touched by Cooper’s death and willing to fight for his team despite being told by Cooper that he’s “not a leader.” Pete is comical without being slimy and provided one of my favorite lines of the episode: “That is a very sensitive piece of horseflesh…he shouldn’t be rattled!” (about Don).
Even Sally intrigued me in this episode as Betty and her female friend acknowledge her growing beauty, comparing her to a younger Betty. While this moment was nice to see after so many seasons of Betty treating Sally so badly, I was even more intrigued by Sally’s choice to kiss the younger, geekier brother of the visiting family rather than the older brother who walks shirtless around the house and complains that the space program is a waste of money. One review I read said that Sally made the “safer” choice but I read it as a choice to separate her identity from her mother’s and to follow Don’s advice “not to be so cynical.” The boy’s response—“what do I do now?”—is touchingly relatable and I was happy to see Sally have an awkward, age-appropriate moment after so many instances when she was forced or chose to act much older.
And finally, “Waterloo” showed the Don Draper that I like most—slightly humble, fully present with the people in his life, and in many ways a family man again. This is not the Don Draper who kept Sylvia Rosen in a hotel room all day without even her book for company (although that Don Draper can’t be separated from this newer version which is part of the series-long mystery of Don’s true nature). A big theme of this season has been family, and allowed viewers to expand their definitions of what family actually means. “Waterloo” and the previous episode show a variety of vignettes featuring alternative families. There’s Don and Megan’s sophisticated family with no children of their own and with Don’s children peripheral, a life that always seemed immature for Don in many ways, their parting neither sad nor unexpected. There’s Don’s improving relationship with Sally. There’s Peggy’s quest for a family that included her dinner with Pete and Don at Burger Chef (and the entire Burger Chef campaign), and a surprisingly touching moment with her ten-year-old neighbor Julio. There’s Joan, her mother, and son, a unit that didn’t need a man (particularly Bob Benson) to complete it. There’s the scene of Rodger watching the moon landing with his son-in-law, ex-wife, and grandson that acknowledges the absence of his daughter and is interrupted by the death of a man who was like a father to him.
Finally, there’s the SCDP team in a hotel room-also watching the moon landing with expressions of awe and wonder-with Don and Peggy seated together on a bed sharing the only two beers she could find. This lovely tableau, and the events of the entire season, reminds the viewer that Don’s quest to be reinstated at SCDP is about more than just his addiction to “the work” (the reason he uses to convince Ted that staying in advertising won’t increase his suicidal feelings). It’s about family—the family that Don never had growing up, and the family he never really had with Betty or Megan. And Don and Peggy are the heart of the office family, their relationship providing some of the show’s finest moments: Season 4’s episode “The Suitcase,” their dance to Sinatra in the episode preceding “Waterloo,” and Don’s pride during Peggy’s pitch to Burger Chef. I’m not one who feels the need to define their relationship. It’s too adult and complex to be placed in the “father figure-daughter substitute” box, neither entirely platonic nor significantly romantic; they are simply two people who understand each other and need each other in ways that they can’t explain in words. Don and Peggy say everything that needs to be said in sidelong glances and seemingly innocuous conversations: “We got Burger Chef. What are you doing?” “Going back to work.”
The complexity of Don and Peggy’s interactions exemplify why this episode catalyzed so many emotions in me that went far beyond “the feels.” It was an episode about death, about maturity, about change. It demonstrated how some people can change, but that change might not be permanent. It shows that family, identity, and relationships are not simple or reducible. The choice to end with Don’s vision of Bert Cooper performing a Broadway-esque song and dance routine underscored what felt to me like a throwback to the show’s earlier seasons. Although the characters have lived through the JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King assassinations, the early days of Vietnam and hallucinogenic drugs, and even Ginsberg’s psychological break which he attributed to SCDP’s new computer, the reversion to an earlier more sentimental era in entertainment felt appropriate, as does Apollo 11 as a set piece. One small step for Don felt like a giant leap for Mad Men.
Image Credits: AMC and Google Images.