As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon, the partners of SC&P seemed to be making their own small steps and giant leaps throughout “Waterloo,” the bittersweet mid-season finale of Mad Men. And in many of these dramatic gestures and concessions, a major point of contention involved just how big of a jump certain characters were making, such as Jim Cutler’s (Harry Hamlin) decision to send a letter meant to fire Don (Jon Hamm) from the company. For Cutler, Don’s dog-and-pony show for Philip Morris was a cut-and-dry contractual breach, and he uses this reasoning to justify forging the partners’ signatures on the letter. This arguably minor deceit says quite a lot about Cutler’s character, and showrunner Matthew Weiner and company make a point of echoing his flippantly opportunistic nature twice over before the episode concludes.
Cutler’s dismissal of Don is overruled, thanks to an unexpected vote of confidence from Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse). He dies later, unseen, not long after watching Armstrong take his first steps on the lunar surface, and it’s both thoughtful and telling that his last line, a small compliment, seems less directed at the awe of history being made than it is at the astronaut’s choice of words to define the moment. In many ways, his death brings people back down to earth, as the news of his passing causes Don to cede the Burger Chef presentation to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Similarly, Roger (John Slattery) sees enough sense in entertaining the idea of a buyout from a rival agency, but only under the stipulation that he’s allowed to run SC&P as a unique branch of the larger advertising firm. Roger’s final conversation with Cooper, his mentor, centers around a need for visionaries, which stirs Roger up, but the eccentric old man is clear when he points out that he prizes loyalty above all else. When Joan (Christina Hendricks) votes in favor of dismissing Don, she cites the money she lost because of him, but it’s clear that it has more to do with the fact that she feels betrayed by him and unable to take him at his word.
That she ultimately looks past her distrust, admittedly following a fiscal windfall, is in line with the episode’s insistence on looking forward and embracing new frontiers, and the writers express a noteworthy displeasure toward those who can’t see past the monetary cost of ambition. This defense of hope helps explain why Sally (Kiernan Shipka) kisses the kid with the telescope rather than the chiseled hunk who scoffs at Apollo 11, even though that last cigarette drag she takes knowingly makes her look like a Betty clone. The episode’s attraction toward unsentimental progress can also be seen as why Megan’s (Jessica Paré) farewell to Don seems so nonchalant and passive. In a way, much of this season has been built around incremental preparations made, mostly by Megan, in anticipation of this final split. The desperate ploys that charged Megan’s behavior in “The Runaways,” to say nothing of that devastating scene in “The Strategy” where she’s gathering her things from Don’s apartment, have paved the road to their short phone conversation. It’s to the writers’ credit, and specifically Weiner, serving as director here as well, that the scene does no more or less than affix a period at the end of Don and Megan’s story.
The ending of Cooper’s life, and his legacy, isn’t so easily wrapped up. Though he was never treated as the face of the fractious nature of the merged agency, Cooper’s death seems to bring a new united front to SC&P, enough to get Cutler on board with Don staying and keep Ted (Kevin Rahm) from trying to kill clients, as he does early on in the episode. His passing and Roger’s ostensible surrender to SC&P’s rivals, echoed in the Napoleon-referencing title, bring stability to the company at a time when collapse seemed a foregone conclusion. As Roger speaks to the employees of SC&P about the agency’s future, Don imagines a fantastical end to Cooper’s life, a graceful, glowing song-and-dance number to Frank Sinatra’s “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” but it’s important that the episode hangs on the dead pause after the fantasy ends. In that moment, Weiner conflates memory and reality, as Don first sees how he imagines his old friend would exit this world only to then be left to feel the aching silence of a dear friend’s ceaseless absence.