Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
At this point, I think we can call it: the writing on Mad Men is equal to the writing in very good fiction, and so, there’s not one right way to “read” it. It lends itself to a lot of different filters, many of which are timeless themes throughout literature: What is the nature of man? How do our choices change us? Are there consequences to our actions? How do our desires and our fears drive us?
There was something important about actually being present in the same room with one another, so they’ve been on planes all season.But at least one of many lenses for this (half) season of Mad Men seems rooted to a very particular time in history. This season has been looking at the dual nature of technologies that compress time and space: they can isolate us from one another, stunting our interactions and making us obsolete—but they can also bring us together.
Recall the season premiere, when we were startled by Freddy Rumsen addressing us directly, looking at us—the usually-invisible viewer—through the screen, telling us to pay attention, because “something big is about to happen.” Transfixed, it took us a half minute to realize he wasn’t talking to us at all. He was talking to Peggy about watches, and it wasn’t him at all: it was Don.
But Don’s pitch for the watch, that early bit of wearable technology? “It’s not a timepiece—it’s a conversation piece.”
That first episode also focused on air travel—over the course of the show, air travel shifted from a marvel and a special event to the more familiar ho-hum, everyday nuisance familiar to business travelers. Don criss-crossed the country in nearly every episode to see Megan and try haltingly to keep their relationship alive. There was something important about actually being present in the same room with one another, so they’ve been on planes all season, and that moment of strange connection between Don and the mysterious widow happened in the air, too.
Megan and Don (and everyone) could talk on the phone, of course, phones being a technology invented to so convincingly compress time and space that you might briefly believe the person you’re talking to is right there. The phone made it possible for Don to help Anna Draper’s niece, though he never actually wound up seeing her in person. But phones can isolate us, too, especially when it cuts out in a business meeting, as it did several times to poor disappearing Pete Campbell, who finally went back to New York to make sure he could be heard.
Air travel, telephones, watches, even televisions: by 1969, they’re all familiar, even ubiquitous. But two other technological marvels marked this season. One was space travel, with the impending moon landing looming over this season. People have been talking about it all season, the most memorable being Roger and Margaret, who lie in the hay in the commune upstate talking about astronauts and the books he read as a little boy.
And let’s not forget the obvious, hulking computer, which pushes creative out of their lounge and Ginsberg right over the edge of sanity. As Roger says in this episode, too, the computer could wind up shoving everyone (except maybe Harry) right out of the agency.
But the mad men seem interested in the computer for what it might bring in, too—clients who find it fascinating, who find it to be not just a data-cruncher, but a “conversation piece.” And this is the machine that will bring us the Internet. Screens are still mostly for televisions in 1969, but this machine will make screens ubiquitous, and, in fact, will make it possible for me to write this and for you to read it and for us to have watched the show at all and be “discussing” it now.
That’s technology’s dynamic that Peggy ultimately runs with in “Waterloo,” a packed episode in which everyone finally shows up in the same room together and a whole lot happens. We start sitting next to Bert Cooper on his couch as he delightedly watches the Apollo 11 liftoff on his television; next we’re in the air over California with Ted, who’s headed off the deep end while piloting a tiny plane with clients. They’re discussing the mission to the moon, but everyone worries they’ll die.
Except Ted. “Why?” he asks. “Maybe they won’t make it. All their problems will be over.” And then he shuts off the plane’s engine. As he tells Jim Cutler shortly thereafter (while swilling scotch and watching TV in his now-empty office, Pete being in New York), “I just don’t want to do this anymore.” Whereas Don was forcibly exiled from SC&P and wants back in, Ted sees greener grass.
Speaking of forcible exile: everything falls apart for Don early in the episode. First there’s the letter from the partners at SC&P, informing him that he’s in breach of contract. (That scene with Meredith, besides being screamingly funny, is an excellent example of this newly mediated culture: Meredith clearly thinks she’s in a soap opera, and Don obliges her, just a little, by telling her that “we can’t do this.”) And though he briefly sidesteps the crisis, he goes home to talk to Megan on the phone, where it becomes clear it’s all over.
Meanwhile, it’s Peggy’s television that brought her and Julio together. They’ve been watching together all season. But Julio has come to depend on her, and Peggy realizes in this episode—when Julio tells her that he and his mother are moving to Newark—that she loves him, in a sort of motherly way. And that brings her to tears.
The most momentous event, though, is the moon landing, which everyone watches in a echo of what we saw when JFK died in the third season. As we move from room to room, seeing families and sort-of-families watching together, you can already hear the future echoes: “Where were you when they landed on the moon?” Roger, who seems to have been sufficiently rattled by his experience with Margaret’s hippie commune to have come to his senses, is with his family—Mona, his daughter’s (ex?) husband, and his grandson. At Henry and Betty’s house, Sally and all the rest of the children, plus Betty’s friend from college and her family, are gathered around the flickering set. Bert Cooper watches with his maid. And Peggy, Don, Pete, and Harry—all away from their families—watch in a hotel room.
But if that’s the most important event in the season for the world, then the most important for the SC&P family is Bert Cooper’s passing, which really happens when Roger slides the nameplate off Cooper’s door. In a way, Cooper—who started the agency with Roger Sterling’s father in the 1920s—was the last remaining link to an older generation. Landing on the moon was a “giant leap” for mankind, cutting ties with an earlier era that could only dream in science fiction of the same. But Cooper represented something for the agency, and especially Roger, more than simply a leader: he was a touchstone, an anchor, a father. Now he’s gone, and the young(er) folk are in charge.
And Roger, inspired and driven by what Cooper said to him in their last meeting—that Roger was loyal, but Jim Cutler had a vision and was a leader—charges into the McCann-Erickson meeting to broker a deal that would make him a visionary leader and loyal to his people. No matter that he says “I have a vision” and then presents, mostly, Cutler’s vision: it works. Don is saved, for now. Ted is brought back from the brink (and from California), for now.
But it’s Peggy who really wins, with her Burger Chef pitch. The family dinner table is where generations collide and technology intrudes. But, she says, it’s technology that brings us together, too: it’s where we can connect, as everyone in the country had while watching the moon landing. “What if there was another table?” she asks them. “Where everybody gets what they want, when they want it? It’s bright and clean and there’s no laundry and no telephone, no TV. We can have the connection that we’re hungry for.” Something Burger Chef can sell (on TV!), too.
I can only assume the writers of this episode knew the double irony of writing about television uniting us on a show that has (though in a much smaller way) united many, too. The ending of Mad Men, though in no way as important as the moon landing, echoes it a bit in showing us how a technology like television can be an isolating force or one that gives us, as a culture, something to talk about and ponder and discuss. When done well, it reflects us back to ourselves and makes us think about all those other timeless themes—about our choices, our desires, and our fears. And it can give us ways to connect to one another.
That connection comes back at the end of the episode, as Don sees, at least in his mind, Bert Cooper’s farewell softshoe routine. Bert sings about how the moon and stars belong to everyone, that love can come to anyone—the best things in life are free. Don watches, spellbound, eyes filled with tears. It’s a song just for him.
But if you watch closely, right at the end, Bert looks us in the eye, too.
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