The Best Things in Life Are Free
Casting Robert Morse as Bert Cooper, the firm’s senior partner, was an inspired move from the start. In the early 1960s Morse played J. Pierrepont Finch on Broadway in the Pulitzer-winning production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He rises from window-washer to chairman of the board in record time. It was the breakout hit of Morse’s career; it got him a Tony in 1962 and he reprised the role in the 1967 movie. Frank Loesser wrote the score, and Morse got to sing “The Company Way,” “The Brotherhood of Man,” the Groundhog fight song in a duet with Rudy Vallee, and the paean to self-love, “I Believe in You.”
So here he is, all these years later, playing the eccentric chief of the agency, who adores Ayn Rand, abstract art, and Japanese manners. He sports a natty bow-tie and well-tailored suits and makes you take off your shoes when you enter his domain. He is a detached figure but ready with the zinger when needed – as when he chews out Don for failing to take advantage of the media exposure when interviewed for the Wall Street Journal or when he intercepts the check that Lane made out to himself, forging Don’s signature. Among his more heroic moments was when Pete Campbell, righteously indignant, exposes Don as a counterfeit, an identity thief in the old-fashioned sense. Bert Cooper says, and I’m paraphrasing, so what. This is America.
Well, Robert Morse turned 83 years old on May 18, and on May 25, Bertram Cooper left the firm, the cast, the show, the planet, after uttering the one word “Bravo!” when Neil Armstrong gets out of the space capsule, takes his first step on the moon, and utters his winning line: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Bert expires and there is an announcement and the season is about to end, the managerial conflicts straightened out, the future of the firm secured by Roger Sterling’s brains and will, and Peggy’s presentation has won the new account (“Family Supper at Burger Chef”), and Ted will be coming back to New York because Don is leveling with him, mano a mano, and the deal is going to make all the partners rich, and Don is going back to his office when he hears a familiar voice calling his name.
And standing there is Bert, or rather Robert Morse, the old song-and-dance man with the gleam in his eyes, singing the verse and then the refrain of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” He does a nimble soft shoe, and dancing secretaries in mini-skirts join him on the floor. And with the air of having imparted words of valedictory wisdom, a blessing and a piece of advice, he sings, “The moon belongs to everyone, / The best things in life are free," exiting into his office.
And that’s how it ends, with Don alone at his secretary’s vacant desk. A very satisfying last shot, I felt, and not only because of my weakness for Depression Era songs. My mother used to sing this one, and the lines are perfectly apt for an episode organized around televised images of the moon-landing. The last words Roger says to Bert come from another song from that era, Irving Berlin’s “Let’s have another cup of coffee / and let’s have another piece of pie.” With his fear of failure coming to the fore, Roger mutters to Don that his last words to Bert were from a silly old song. He doesn’t specify which, but it is enough to give the hallucination a rational or Freudian explanation. But the beauty of the scene is its farewell grace – the sight of Robert Morse still hoofing and singing like his boyish old self. We’ll miss you, Bobby, but the show must go on.
At a time when the name Sterling is besmirched by the octogenarian owner of a basketball team, it is nice to see Roger Sterling pull a rabbit out of the hat and arrange for 51% of the firm to be bought by McCann, Ericson. Theoretically the acquisition will allow Sterling, Cooper to govern itself entirely, though that is not always how mergers and acquisitions work out in practice. This means that Don gets to keep his job and Roger gets to be president. Jim Cutler had sought to engineer a palace coup, with Don’s dismissal the first order of business, but in the end even he votes for the deal, which promises to make each partner a millionaire, in certain cases several times over. Joan is giddy with delight. Pete can hardly contain himself. When Jim Cutler’s hand belatedly goes up, he gets a quizzical look from Roger. “It’s a lot of money,” Jim says in his pitch-perfect deadpan.
To this white male it is heartening to be reminded that not all the dummies are men. Every once in a while, a woman comes along to drive a tractor in the office and sever an executive’s foot. So it’s pleasant when Meredith reveals herself as not just a gigglehead but a sentimental gigglehead. When she delivers bad news to Don, she jumps him. ”I know you’re feeling vulnerable, but I am your strength,” she says. Kudos to the writer of that line. “Tell me what I can do,” she adds, and Don's answer is a model of efficiency. “You can get my attorney on the phone, and we can’t do this” -- "this" meaning sex. I love it that in complying she says, “not right now.”
The most sophisticated of aviation projects is on everyone’s mind on July 20, 1969, which makes it a perfect day for Ted to take a couple of clients up in his plane, cut the engine, and frighten them half out of their wits. An inner voice in me says, “serves ‘em right,” though I have nothing against these particular Sunkist execs. We never find out what has made Ted not only moody and melancholy but morbid and evidently even on the verge of suicide in the existential manner that Albert Camus wrote about. Why, wherefore, and what's to come for Ted -- this is a story line we can anticipate. We can be pretty sure, too, that Nick, the handyman who has given Peggy his number, will return when the show picks up next year. And maybe Peggy will have more confidence, be less brittle, though it seems to be her destiny that each achievement is eclipsed by some greater event, as winning the Burger Chef business pales in significance to what happens in the partners' meeting. And, of course, there’s Sally to look forward to. The changes are coming fast. She is now a lifeguard who wears lipstick on her way to the pool, a stargazer in the backyard who kisses the son of Betty’s college chum and then, when the boy is summoned back into the house, smokes a cigarette in the exact pose of her mother. I don’t think she is going to Woodstock or to a major anti-war demonstration in Washington in the fall, but you never know. Betty’s friend declares that Sally looks just like her mother did in her freshman year at Bryn Mawr. Does that mean there is not one Don but two in her future?
Lines I wrote down:
“Pete’s pregnant, he has to do what we want” (Don).
“You’re just a bully and a drunk, a football player in a suit” (Jim Cutler on Don).
“No one has ever come back from a leave. Not even Napoleon. He staged a coup but ended up on that island” (Bert)
“Every time an old man talks about Napoleon you know they’re going to die” (Roger).
“That’s a very sensitive piece of horseflesh” (Pete on Don).
“He’s a pain in the ass” (Bert).
“I’ll have the obituary ready in an hour” (Joan).
On Fri, May 30, 2014 at 6:21 PM Amy Gerstler wrote:
Delightful to read your take on the (halftime) season finale of Mad Men. As you know, the network decreed that this final portion of the series must be broken into two, seven episode halves, stretched across two seasons. And we’re seven episodes in. Therefore, we now face a dreary, Mad Menless interval of, how long, a year? in which to get cocktails and snacks from the kitchen till M.M. is on again, possibly gaining (in my case) 20 or more lbs before the show resumes. Sigh. Lead me to the ruffled potato chips, gimlets and cheesy poufs…
To begin with the episode’s close: I loved your description of that surprising song and dance performed (posthumously) by Bert and his bevy of fetching secretaries. As you put it “…the beauty of the scene is its farewell grace.” Indeed! Yes, firm founder Bert, capitalist extraordinaire, descends from heaven attended by a chorus of pretty amanuensis angels, singing about how the best things in life are free, right before the curtain falls on the episode (Bert’s curtain having already descended.) This after Bert having said in a previous scene, “Bravo!” which turns out to be his last utterance while alive. So it seems that Bert has presciently said “Bravo,” applauding his own lovely performance in the final scene! All this creates countless echoes, as you point out, reverberating back through Robert Morse’s career history and his character’s history across the run of the show so far. Pulling that unprecedented Dennis Potter (of The Singing Detective fame) move of having Bert burst into an old timey song (albeit a newly dead Bert in an advisory visitation aimed directly at the show’s protagonist) was, for me, genius.
Home and family lost, found, exiled and reconfigured seemed to thematically dominate this episode, these being chief among the show’s recurrent obsessions. The title “Waterloo” (the big defeat which led to Napolean’s exile) was but one of a cascade of loss of home/exile references. Others might include the following. Don seemingly loses Megan for good, as she’s decided she does not want him to join her in California after all. Do you think she will change her mind next season? Betty’s family is temporarily enlarged by the clan of her college chum taking up residence as houseguests, creating a new, larger “blended” family (to whom Betty is about to serve, in one lightning fast shot, a huge platter of rubbery looking fried eggs. The eggs unsettlingly resemble a pile of eyeballs a la St. Lucy. Or are they a fertility symbol? Will Betty become pregnant by current hubby Henry next season?)
Julio, chubby young son of Peggy’s tenant, is moving to Newark, thus losing his home away from home in Peggy’s apartment, to which he is ever escaping for popsicles, TV, solace, etc., AND his home in NY.The little boy weeps in her arms, sobbing that his mother doesn’t love him. Peggy tears up too, maybe thinking in part of the baby she gave away years ago. Was it a boy or a girl? Where is its home now? Will her son or daughter’s adoptive parents seek her out next season? (The open adoption movement gets going around 1970, so the infallible internet tells me.) Roger’s fragmented family is watching the moon landing, like everyone else in the episode. Wearing a toy space helmet, Roger’s grandkid Ellery looks dazed, having lost his mother to the clutches of an upstate commune. We get images from multiple wavery black and white TVs of the Apollo 11 astronauts, far from their home planet, setting boot on the moon. The family of McCann, Erikson is apparently going to marry into and blend with the family of Sterling, Cooper. The agency loses its founder/ “father,” Bert, who finds a home in heaven among talented, glamorous secretaries, as previously mentioned. Roger Sterling becomes the new Sterling Cooper “dad,” patriarch in Bert’s stead. Ted is pressured into relocating (again) for the good of the Sterling Cooper family. So he’s coming “home.” Is he returning to Peggy’s embrace? Or will he find her in the arms of the beefcakey home improvement handyman who was manfully repairing her apartment ceiling?
In a tiny odd detail, did you sense any echo of Othello when ditsy secretary Meredith makes a play for Don after tearfully informing him he’s been fired? He gently rebuffs her advance and hands her his handkerchief to dry her eyes. She pulls herself together and attempts to return his hanky (disappointingly for her, sans panky) but he doesn’t take it back, so she leaves with it. The handkerchief gambit reminded me faintly of the role of the stolen handkerchief as false evidence of infidelity, and its fatal results, in Shakespeare’s play.
*Sally has sex
*Roger falls in love
*Bert’s ghost returns for an encore from time to time, delivering a musical number aimed straight at Don when he needs it (corny, I know, and excessive, but I can’t help it.)
Yours in Mad Men Worship,