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'Mad Men' Season Finale Recap: The Best Things in Life Are Free

Scores are settled and a beloved character dances off into the sunset as the beginning of 'Mad Men's end comes to a close

John Slattery as Roger Sterling on 'Mad Men.'
Michael Yarish/AMC
May 26, 2014 1:05 AM ET

During a brainstorming session in last week's episode "The Strategy" — perhaps the first time Don Draper has ever addressed Peggy Olson as a true creative equal, he gifted her with a great piece of advice: "I start at the beginning again, see if I end up in the same place." But that strategy doesn't work as well for his life, as the Season 7.1 finale, "Waterloo," shows in spades. Don started over with a second marriage, and it ended just like the first one, except this time it only took Megan saying his first name in voice emptied of hope and reassurance for him to realize the jig was up. And as Dick Whitman's life ended in a Korean war zone the second he put his dog tags around a dead man's neck, so Don Draper, the man Whitman built from scratch, nearly loses everything he's worked to achieve, thanks to some scurrilous legal wrangling by Jim Cutler.

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Jim engineers a letter from SC&P's lawyers accusing Don of breaching his contract for crashing the meeting with Commander Cigarettes, an overture we subsequently find out came to naught (and with no cigarette business to be had, it seems Jim no longer has to treat Lou Avery like anything but the hired hand he is). After Roger Sterling presses the issue, it seems Jim doesn't have the partnership votes to throw Don out. But when Bert Cooper unexpectedly dies, Roger loses a vote, and Harry Crane's pending partnership gives Jim one more: the pendulum has swung his way. In last week's episode, Don confessed to Peggy his greatest fear: "That I never did anything, and I don't have anyone." Mad Men's seventh-season finale (oh fine, "mid-season finale") comes teeteringly close to making that fear a reality.

Two turns of events pull Don's irons from the fire, and interestingly, he has little to do with either of them. Unbeknownst to Don, Roger meets with a colleague at McCann Erickson and sets up a deal to have SC&P bought out, with the stipulation that the fabled Chevy team of Don Draper and Ted Chaough are both on board. And the night before their meeting with Burger Chef, shortly after Neil Armstrong makes his one small step for a man, Don asks Peggy to pitch their idea to the client, knowing that if he wins the account and is subsequently fired, it'll sour the business relationship. (It's worth noting, too that Peggy and Roger both began the season nursing an intense dislike for Don. He's no longer coasting by on his ability to turn on the charm; he's had to work to earn back their trust.)

Peggy, not to point too fine a point on it, fucking crushes it. As an advertising pitch, as a work of genuine passion and distorted autobiography — as well as of writing, directing, editing and acting — Peggy's Burger Chef pitch is a flat-out masterpiece, articulating a vision of America's future as powerful as Don's famous "carousel'" pitch was a longing for its past. In "The Strategy," Peggy locked on to the idea of redefining family, shifting it from a static noun — a father, a mother 2.5 kids — to a fluid adjective: family table; family supper.

But in "Waterloo," she talks about hunger. "That dinner table is your battlefield and your prize," she tells the Burger Chef executives, zeroing in on the one she can tell is picking up what she's putting down. "This is the home your customers really live in. Dad likes Sinatra. Son likes the Rolling Stones. The TV's always on. Vietnam playing in the background. The news wins every night. And you're starving. And not just for dinner." Pete Campbell's original plan was for Peggy to address Burger Chef as "the voice of moms," but this is something else. Despite the slightly fraudulent reference  to the 10-year-old boy eating dinner in front of her TV — true, although she knows they'll hear it as her son rather than one of her apartment building's tenants — she's talking to them as a vigorous, single 30-year-old woman with hot blood pumping through her veins. Watch Mr. Burger Chef shift sweatily in his seat as she talks about what she's starving for, and you'd swear he's trying to hide an erection.

Sally Draper has some feelings of her own when her mother and stepfather invite friends to watch the moon landing and along comes their hunky older son, who likes to walk around shirtless and spout modish cynicism about the government. They also bring their younger, nerdier son, who wouldn't understand the double meaning when he asks Sally to look through his telescope. It's heartbreaking to see Sally in her lifeguard's one-piece with her hair pouffed out in a ratty approximation of her mother's impenetrable 'do; we want her to grow up, but not like that. There's a moment of hope when she plants a kiss on the younger brother, who is as sincere about stargazing as his big bro is disdainful. But when he doesn't know what to do next, the moment passes, and she's back to her clandestine smoking and sophisticated head-tossing.

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In the end (of the middle of the season), the good guys won: Don talked Ted, who killed an account and nearly himself by shutting off his private plane's engine in flight, into staying by appealing to his inability to exist outside a professional context. ("You don't have to work here, but you have to work.") Roger got his votes to seal the deal with McCann, thus staving off Jim's power play and making everyone rich in the process. Joan Harris got back the $1 million she lost when Don scuttled the agency's plan to go public, which is apparently the reason she's been staring daggers through him all season. (Christina Hendricks is a fine actress, but the depth of her enmity never made sense; at least it's presumably over with now.)

And Bert Cooper? He got a sublime, soft-shoe send-off in high style, and Robert Morse got one more eleven o'clock number. Don wasn't asleep when Bertram Cooper busted into "The Best Things in Life Are Free," and he wasn't sweating out a fever dream; Draper was just standing in front of his former office, gazing into space. What sold the song wasn't the Dennis Potter disjuncture or the brief shot of misplaced delight, but the gunshot footfall of a leather shoe on SC&P's floors that brought Don back to the real world, and the empty, desperate look in his tear-filled eyes. The show's previously flights of fancy have shown us what Don's seeing; this one showed us what he felt. Don held onto his job, which at this point is the only thing keeping him from the abyss, and he made himself and everyone else a boatload of money. (Bonus: Harry Crane's partnership isn't final, so he gets zip.) But what has he done? And who does he have? This could be a new beginning for him, even though Mad Men is coming close to the end. But ending up in the same place is no longer an option. What's he starving for?

Previously: We Are Family

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