The Moon landing really seems timely in historical hindsight: an optimistic, hopeful punctuation at the end of a decade that had begun with the promise Apollo 11 now fulfilled, but during which a considerable amount of tragedy and turmoil had intervened. History doesn’t usually work so neatly.
Neither, it must be said, does the just-ended demiseason of Mad Men, which tries to cap an uneven seven episodes with the double climax of Neil Armstrong’s lunar promenade and Bert Cooper’s death. There were some great things in those episodes; Don’s “rock bottom,” Roger’s daughter’s hippie metamorphosis (in which storyline the Moon even played a part), the final piece in Bob Benson’s jigsaw being neatly fitted into place, and, best of all, Jim Cutler’s transformation from quiet weirdo into ruthless chessmaster. (If I may, I’d like to mix a metaphor here and say that between this show, Veronica Mars, and Shameless, Harry Hamlin is truly blossoming as an actor in the autumn of his career.)
Less successful were the show’s treatment of Ted Chaough’s subtle crack-up and Michael Ginsberg’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close one. Neither meltdown received enough prior attention or establishing screentime to be convincing or compelling. Also, that threesome with Megan’s friend in L.A. doesn’t seem in hindsight to have had any dramatic purpose.
Sunday’s quasi-finale generally delivered, with one conspicuous exception, of which more anon. Bert Cooper’s final scene with Roger, in which Bert explains his stance on each of the other partners, complete with references to Napoleon, suggests intricate planning without a final objective. Cooper is all tactics and no strategy.
When Bert unexpectedly dies, the question of whether he ever had an endgame mapped out becomes moot and unknowable. This is nicely mirrored by the skeptical attitudes a few characters voice on the Moon landing. What’s the point of going to the final frontier? Is that all there is, a grainy, cratered surface? The Moon, ho-hum, now what?
The finale provides two affirmative, even hopeful answers in two very different places. Roger meets with an executive of McCann Erickson and proposes they buy Sterling Cooper while guaranteeing the latter firm’s autonomy. Thus does Roger save the firm (and Don) from Jim Cutler’s knife while becoming the leader Bert told him he wasn’t, and also achieving a victory we have no reason to believe the late Mr. Cooper even thought of. There’s your endgame, you old Randian.
Another ray of hope comes when a stargazing family friend tells Sally he’s just not very interested in the Moon, because there are so many more interesting and mysterious celestial bodies beyond. There are many more worlds left to conquer, and who knows what they may offer. Sally, who hitherto to appeared to be hot for the young astronomer’s macho brother, kisses the bookish lad. Either Judd Apatow is an executive producer of Mad Men as well as Girls or the kid gave Sally a whole new literal universe of possibility.
The half-season therefore ends on an optimistic note. If only they hadn’t stuck in that damn musical number at the end where Don imagines Bert singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free” while backed up by a chorus line of dancing secretaries. I can only suppose this odd and self-indulgent moment was the result of a desire to give Robert Morse a memorable send-off while paying homage to his earlier career in musical theatre. The scene certainly achieved both those things, but it have to be at the expense of the episode and the half-season?