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Ah, Bert Cooper. The sole surviving founder of Sterling Cooper — Roger, remember, is the original Sterling’s son — was a man of many qualities, all of them profoundly unsettling. He demonstrated approval by lecturing employees on the principles of Objectivism. He had a close — but, thankfully, off-screen — friendship with Ayn Rand. He kept tentacle porn in his office — part of a weird Japan fetish that seemed to be a specialized outgrowth of his more general appalling racism, and also manifested itself in rampant shoe-hatred. Any employee who ventured into his office had to go barefoot or face his considerable wrath. He may or may not have been missing a testicle. He may or may not, as we’ve covered, have been a 900-year-old elf who founded Sterling Cooper in a hollow oak tree. He definitely never gave up on bow ties, which somehow only made him more sinister, and which provided some indication that he may have been a Time Lord.
And last night, after “dying” while watching the moon landing — ha! Bert Cooper’s kind cannot die; he’d merely been among mortals so long that he risked blowing his cover, and needed to provide an alibi before sailing to the Far Lands and/or regenerating — Bert confirmed his status as an otherworldly being by appearing to Don, while his funeral speech was being made in another room, and staging an elaborate musical number to “The Best Things In Life Are Free.”
I do believe that Bert Cooper song-and-dance number is the oddest way Mad Men has ever closed out a season. In fact, it might be the oddest thing we’ve ever seen on Mad Men, period. But there was more to this finale than dead racists gadding about in their socks. So much more, in fact! For one thing, there was the moon landing itself.
This whole season of Mad Men has been about transition: from the 1960s to the 1970s, yes, but also from The Past to The Future. It’s been about a transfer of power: the old regime — symbolized by Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, or the creative staff, or Don himself — giving way to the new world, symbolized by Jim Cutler, or the dread Computer, or Peggy Olson. In this mid-season finale, the moon landing seems to mark the definitive point at which The Past ends and The Future begins. The most tangible symbol of the old order, Bert Cooper, cannot exist in the same reality as men who walk on the moon. He gets to see them land (“bravo,” is his response) but after that happens, he has to disappear.
So it’s worth looking around, on this first day of the future, at what’s being left behind and what’s coming into place.
For one thing — oh, glory day! — the marriage of Don and Megan appears to have ground to a halt. As Twitter pointed out to me after I wondered in last week’s recap what Megan was doing in New York, Megan collecting her things from Don’s New York apartment was not a coincidence: She was clearing the place out to ease the separation. Don, meanwhile, is being faced with yet another firing; his storming into the tobacco meeting failed rather spectacularly to save the day, and Phillip Morris is pulling out. This infuriates Jim Cutler, who sends Don a letter telling him that he’s been let go for breach of contract. The other partners vote to keep Don at the last minute. (Except for Joan, who votes to fire him. I heard complaints about Joan “betraying” Don, but those seem like fundamental misunderstandings of her character. Her defining quality has always been her professionalism — even as an office manager, she kept the secretarial staff on a short leash — and she’s cut ties with more than one man who brought too much mess into her life. For Joan, tolerating a volatile man or a professional liability in the name of friendship would go against everything she’s learned over the past ten years.) But Don sees the writing on the wall, and offers to move to Los Angeles to be with Megan. And Megan is … well, she’s not open to the idea. They weep, they promise to make the separation easy for each other, and then, finally (finally!) the long, confusing, soft-porn-scene-prone marriage of the Drapers is over at last.
That, or else they’ll reconcile off-screen before next season’s premiere, have a five-way, and found a swingers’ club together. I have no idea. These people keep making statements about the end of their relationship and then unexpectedly sexing each other, so honestly, their “divorce” is as much a fervent hope on my part as anything else.
But Don’s impending firing sets the stage for the other big transition of the night: the moment when Peggy Olson goes full Draper. Don is meant to give the big pitch in the Burger Chef meeting, but — as he points out to Peggy — if he hooks the client and then disappears, Burger Chef will most likely not go through with the deal. So the pitch for the big account is all on Peggy. She flips out; she says she can’t do it; she reminds Don that she’s a girl, and there’s no way she can pull off his routine. And then she nails it. In an eerie impersonation of Don’s own famous cadences — that mystical tone that makes speeches about ketchup or Kodak sound like messages being beamed down from the heavens — she begins musing about how the moon landing brought people together, how people are “starving for connection,” how TV is always playing during dinner and “the news always wins.” Which is something that, apparently, can be solved by an order of French fries: “There may be chaos,” Peggy intones, “but there’s family supper at Burger Chef.”
So Peggy is ready to inherit the throne. (I mean. She has been for several years. But still!) Yet Roger — faithful to Don to the end, and profoundly broken up by Bert’s death, is unwilling to let Don step down. So here’s another ending and/or beginning: Roger goes to McCann Erickson and offers to sell them SCP, to become their subsidiary, in order to help them secure the Buick account. Roger would run the subsidiary. It would include only the employees Roger finds “essential” — no more Lou, hurrah! And, most likely, no more Jim Cutler. The existing partners would receive handsome pay-outs of at least one million dollars.
McCann accepts the offer, but only if Roger can guarantee the involvement of both Don Draper and Ted Chaough. They were both responsible for getting Chevy in the first place; they both have to be involved to give the deal value. Given that Teddy was last seen taking his clients up in his personal plane and then cutting the engines in mid-air because he would rather die than keep working in advertising, this poses a substantial obstacle. And yet, the pay-out for the sale is so handsome that, between Joan yelling at Ted about how selfish he is, and Don giving one of his patented motivational speeches, Ted signs on for five more years at SCP.
Which is no longer SCP. That’s the last ending of the episode: The agency we’ve been with, whose evolutions and mutations we’ve tracked over seven years, is The Past. The new McCann subsidiary is The Future.
And then, just as Don cuts out of Roger Sterling’s memorial speech about Bert Cooper to contemplate his newfound good fortune: There he is. An ageless, elemental spirit in a bow-tie, resolutely shoe-free, gadding about with a variety of dancing secretaries and singing directly into the camera. It’s a moving tribute to actor Robert Morse, and to Bert Cooper: Even in death, he’s managed to weird everyone the hell out. But listen to those lyrics, because Bert was always a little sinister: The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free. For a guy like Don, who’s spent his life persuading people they can access happiness by buying things — the guy whose big talent is conning people into seeing depth and beauty in cigarettes and fast-food chains — that’s the precise opposite of an affirming message. The future is here, but there’s no guarantee it will be good news.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.