May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
June 5, 2014
In looking at prior Mad Men episodes, I argued that the series has taken a slight turn toward absurdity, reflective of the way the passing of an age has taken its toll on Don. Epidemiologists often observe the natural history of a disease by simply watching patients suffer their symptoms over time. In a lot of cases, they eventually stumble across an “iceberg phenomenon,” which is that point of time at which the scientist is able to look at a few key features of disease expression and extrapolate by comparison that a larger percentage of the population probably also has the disease in question.
Others in the offices of SC&P have been experiencing the kind of boardroom epiphanies and confessions of doubt that once plagued Don. Perhaps his condition has become endemic and now progressing along a similar pattern in others. The song-and-dance resurrection of Bert Cooper for a final bodily appearance to Don Draper at the end of this episode may be a symptom of Don’s late stage disease, akin to syphilitic madness or alcoholic wet brain. An iceberg moment – a Waterloo. Or it may just be a rewarding moment of emotional nuance; Don getting a little stretch of pure cinema all to himself. Or, if Mad Men all turns out just to be a study of the changes in Jon Hamm’s face in character over the past few years, it is his pièce de résistance.
Now that Bert is gone, the office has lost the gauge that lets us tell either way. Bert always had little idiosyncrasies that remind us he is not quite of the current advertising world, even if he embraced little mid-century modernisms like the occasion Pollock and his office’s Mondrian feng shui. But relics always have a valuable function in that they preserve a sense of continuity with the past in such a way that we can ground present decisions in an aura of tradition.
This has always been Don’s underlying problem: a lack of a sense of history or direction occasionally alleviated by a dose of Bert Cooper aphorism. He lacks a real backstory; Bert kind of balanced that out for him. Much could be said about the raw meaning of the moon landing in this episode. It certainly shakes up Sally’s perception of what makes another human attractive. But we don’t need to read too much into it. It is enough to mention that footage of the moon landing makes us feel the momentum of human progress in a way few other things do. Even watching the footage second-hand through Mad Men edits is thrilling because these events remain part of our backstory in the present – the abiding aura of this NASA tradition grounding us in a sense of security and progress. (Much could be said about why the mothballing of NASA has been so damaging to the American psyche for this reason – now materially isolated from our own myth of progress…)
But as mankind takes a giant leap, Bert Cooper passes. The agency partners have agreed to a significant shift in their business model. Major Ted is drifting toward the earth in his Cessna with a few screaming deep-pocket clients. Peggy is killing it in the boardroom, channeling Don’s ability to make deep, authentic human longings shimmer as simply and sharply as advertising hooks. Prior to her presentation, a 2001-like hum hints at the sense of evolution occurring in that moment – Peggy emerging rhetorically as the modern female Joan has always wanted to be. Don has now lost his second wife to that nebulous evil that makes marriages fall apart. Things are shifting and changing for Don and everyone around him. Losing Bert means that he no longer has that fixed point by which he can judge the nature of this progression of time. Losing him as proxy for a grounded past is for Don what Bert had earlier in the episode referred to as a Waterloo moment. Like Napoleon, the battlefield tactics he has relied upon for so long no longer seem applicable. The language game has changed (in our immediate case from period piece to broadway musical number).
Mad Men is a show about feelings and textures, which are seldom taken seriously as legitimate field of historical inquiry. Like a Walker Percy or Buñuel character, Don has been feeling his way through the mood of an era in transition and coming up short. In the meantime, the show has become a fine document of what post-modernism feels like. Vattimo described the feeling of post-modernism as “oscillation,” in that we are constantly forced to feel the tension between old and new without either ever seeming to yield. Stephen Long described post-modernism as the record of modernism having played out to the end and now the needle is just skipping over and over again, emitting different patterns of static from the speakers.
Bert Cooper’s final bodily appearance to Don is a brief moment of respite from this constant tension. It is a lovely, utterly human moment in which Bert, like divine figures in other resurrection scenes, imparts a little final wisdom to Don. In this case, Bert reminds Don that the “best things in life are free.” Note the oscillation present here. There is a little double-entendre that is hard to miss, given that the best things in life cannot be purchased. They are too big to put a price tag on. They do not fit on shelf. But, the best things in life are also free. They are unencumbered. They do not feel enslaved to progress or even tradition, but are free to simply exist in a state uninflected by the power structures informing our experiences.
Mad Men suggests our connections to the past and present will always feel like a problem to be solved, but the absence of either is an unlivable state. This conundrum is a Waterloo-level stuff.