The Annotated MAD MEN: Walking On The Moon Is Free

On a song and a mistake on the Moon.

Last night’s mid-season finale* was an absolute jaw-dropper, especially in its final minutes as the ghost of Bertram Cooper showed up to Don Draper and did a song and a dance. It was a nice send-off for the character but also a sly wink to departing actor Robert Morse, the Tony-winning Broadway singer and actor who starred in the original production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It was nice seeing Morse showing off his hoofer skills at the advanced age of 83.

The song that ghostly Bert sang was intriguing for a number of reasons. It’s called The Best Things In Life Are Free, and it’s from the 1927 Broadway show Good News. That show debuted one year after the birth of Dick Whitman (as per Matthew Weiner; the show hasn’t been canonically clear about Dick’s actual birthdate). The plot of the production itself dovetails nicely with Jim Cutler’s dig at Don, that he’s a football player in a suit - Good News is about a football star at fictional Tait College who falls in love with the nerdy girl who is tutoring him in astronomy, a nice echo not just of the Moon landing but also Sally’s story with young Neil.

I can’t help but wonder about any other larger meanings of the song. Things have ended on a strong, positive note here - Don has come very far in his personal redemption, Roger stepped up and saved the company, Peggy has proven herself as a creative lead at the agency, Jim was defeated - so where is there to go dramatically in the final seven episodes? The show even has all of this happening during what is surely one of the greatest moments in human history, a pinnacle for our species.

The Best Things In Life Are Free is a Roaring 20s number, a song that hit just two years before the stock market crash brought the Great Depression. And the Moon landing happened just days before some of the darkest parts of the year, including the Manson murders and the Altamont concert. Bert represents a lot of old things that are passing, and the closing of the door feels like more than just a way to end the scene. The timing of Bert’s death is surely no accident.

I keep coming back to one strange aspect of the Moon landing that the show briefly engages. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface he had a pre-rehearsed line: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” but it seems that he left the “a” out, a tiny but crucial word that changes the meaning of the whole sentence. Without that “a” it doesn’t really make sense.

The most-watched broadcast of the Apollo 11 landing was the CBS broadcast hosted by Walter Cronkite, which is what everybody on the show was watching. Apollo 11’s trip lasted 34 hours, and Cronkite was on air a stunning 31 of those. During the actual landing he was joined by former astronaut Wally Schirra and scifi legend Arthur C Clarke, and he’s unable to make out the second half of Armstrong’s now-famous phrase.

Does that have some thematic weight? Maybe I’m being a worrywart over here, but I feel like Roger could have jumped ahead to ‘We’re all saved’ just a bit too fast. Is there a devil in the details that he missed? Is his arc - from a layabout who inherited his position from his father to the guy who busts ass to save the company - about to be undermined by a simple misunderstanding? Did he walk away from the breakfast meeting without a full understanding of what was going on?

A lot of this comes from the masterful way the season has reversed the show’s trend. Don’s redemption has been the most unexpected possible storyline for Mad Men, especially set against the increasingly garish and socially difficult late 1960s. But if we assume the final seven episodes take the cast through the rest of 1969 and probably all the way up to March 1970 - making it exactly ten years since the first episode - there’s plenty of darkness that can still come.

* What a silly distinction. The show isn’t coming back for a year - it’s a season finale, in my opinion.

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