“The Best Things In Life Are Free”, Robert Morse
Waterloo, Season 7 Episode 7
Like 1967 before it, 1969 is remembered fondly in retrospect as a time of prosperity and good nature. But it’s not as if everyone’s problems went away for 12 months. Even in these boon years, people likely wondered why they weren’t happier. Amidst all the satisfied social stability, there was still heartbreak and imperfection, just like every other year in history. Mad Men is known for tempering these kinds of disparate emotions together, and succeeds wildly in that regard with the unexpected musical climax of Waterloo.
This moment works almost subconsciously. It’s a magnificently surreal, deeply sad ending to a half-season of erratic progress. At first, it appears to be an abrupt and tonally out-of-whack elegy, purely for the shock factor. But the more I thought about it and let its hooks sink in, it became less of a highfalutin thematic linchpin, like many other season enders. Its real emotional purpose is evident after the surprise wears off.
For starters, there’s the moon reference in the lyrics. As I have established in previous essays, this motif has been very fruitful in the show’s history. In this context, the moon landing represents a communal victory that accomplished the unthinkable and brought various people together in triumph, like the agency rescue engineered by Roger or Peggy’s heartwarming Burger Chef presentation. But the song eventually turns back to the stalwart Mad Men concerns of happiness and love, and whether either is truly attainable. All the other symbolism spices it up on the first viewing, complicating its message and providing intrigue, but when you come back to it you see the direction it was primarily pointed toward all along.
In a line of work that is driven by profit and manipulating emotions, the notion that the best things in life are free is as shunned as it is trite. Yet for all intents and purposes, it’s true. If they hadn’t been compromised by their character flaws, or conflicted because of their work, all these people would have found opportunities for great affection and peace in their lives. Occasionally, they chanced upon it. But just as often, they denied themselves love and acceptance. Even Don is struck by this, as suddenly as the viewer – like the pain from an old wound. His teary-eyed grief is a striking tonal balance to the tableau he’s seeing.
And what is that, exactly? A message from beyond the grave, of all things. The recently deceased Bert Cooper does a glorious choreographed theatrical performance, beckoning to Don (as a warning?) to tell him of all the simple pleasures he’s missing out on. If the Apollo 11 touchdown and Peggy’s wonderfully victorious pitch in the vein of her mentor weren’t enough to clue him in, this bizarre vision does.
On a metatextual level, it’s a spectacular sendoff for stage legend Robert Morse, who was an overlooked gem in the cast for many seasons. Its break from reality is refreshing, and a reminder of his real-life talents, singing an old saccharine Broadway tune that Bert may well have enjoyed. The routine gradually transforms from a slightly strange hallucination to a full-blown orchestrated spectacle.
Rather than the discrete and contrasted plotlines of some other episodes, this half season builds toward a place where everyone at the office is together with a coherent vision going forward. They are equally united by their work as they are in solidarity with their countrymen in space. Roger’s brilliant buyout scheme lets them continue their professional lives in the same environment, no thanks to Jay Cutler, but the agency Bert built died with him in a sense. His passing is a hint that they’re living in this paradise on borrowed time.
Now, Roger has seniority in the company, a plan to keep it stable, and a reason to keep going – all long-term goals he worked very hard to achieve. Joan will finally have a life of means, and has deigned to tend to her son on her own without Bob. Peggy has her biggest accomplishment of the entire series here, wowing a group of people who had just witnessed mankind’s greatest achievement, and making Don proud as an equal. Pete sets off back to New York, refocused and hoping for better fortune with work and family the second time around. Megan is notably drifting away from Don and everyone else, but seems relieved by her decision. Waterloo even gives some time to Sally, who initiates some lucky boy’s first kiss during the historic landing.
Then, just as soon as the song’s hopeful mood peaks, the reverie comes to a halt and Don is left alone, quietly stunned. The prevailing tone falls away slightly, and the reality of what’s happened sets in. The cast has gained a deep understanding of the universe and each other, but lost a beloved figurehead, and Don is just starting to process both. Although nothing will take away that farewell, the feeling of satisfaction seems hollow.
By optimistically piecing together the shambles of season six’s devastation, these seven episodes show how fleeting and valuable happiness can be. We’ve seen it taken away, but the characters bounced back, forgiving old slights and starting anew. Much work was done and some is still left to do. But like season five before it, despite SC&P’s successes, it feels frustratingly as though they missed the mark yet again.
This provides a lingering dread that offsets the joyous song and dance. We came closer than ever together, but there’s always more distance to go. After so much improvement and connection, Don’s terrestrial troubles still haunt him. Love can come to everyone, and it can go just as freely. Bert waves goodbye from beyond the veil. Bravo.