by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren
Like so much else that has transpired during the final episodes of Mad Men, tonight’s episode, Time & Life, takes the plot twist that had worked so well at the end of the third season—in Shut the Door. Have a Seat as the partners essentially stole the advertising agency from their British corporate overlords (Putnum, Powell & Lowe) over the holiday weekend—and re-created a much less successful version of the same idea. Not only is Sterling Cooper losing its offices in the Time Life Building, but their executives are discovering that the passage of time changes many things in life. What worked in the past now seems tired and doomed to failure.
The episode (which, in a nice twist, is directed by Jared Harris, the actor who played late office administrator Lane Pryce who hung himself in the office in the fifth season) finds the partners who are still at Sterling Cooper having cold water thrown on their face by McCann-Erickson, their new corporate owners. Sterling Cooper, the subsidiary of McCann-Erickson, made the partners a lot of money in a deal to keep Don employed and to squeeze Jim Cutler out of running the agency. It all seemed too good to be true, and it was. McCann has every intention of absorbing Sterling Cooper—or at least the bits and pieces that it wants, and probably shedding the parts that it doesn’t want—like Joan and Dawn. Peggy doesn’t want to go to McCann, Stan doesn’t know what to do. Roger doesn’t want to go to McCann, and Don has never wanted to work there. Ted is just happy not to be in California and not to be in the driver’s seat any more. But Joan senses the real pitfalls for her in this new twist to the deal.
The main narrative arc in Time & Life is the attempt to essentially make the case to keep Sterling Cooper & Partners an independent subsidiary of McCann, as had been promised to Roger Sterling when he initially struck the deal. In all likelihood, McCann had been planning this absorption from the initial deal but Roger, as had been noted by Bert Cooper just before he died, was never enough of a leader; he often couldn’t see beyond his more selfish and immediate desires. Cooper had him pegged fairly accurately, even if Roger was disappointed by the assessment. And Roger, like Don and Pete, thinks they can persuade McCann. McCann isn’t interested in being persuaded—they have the money and the power and they make a nominal pitch to the SCP partners that they have died and gone to advertising heaven. Alas, the partners look like they are at a funeral but decidedly not going to heaven. The striking final shot of the scene, with the five partners from SCP, is an inverse of the memorable visual in the season five finale (The Phantom) of the partners standing in the empty space they are renting and going to build out as their new advertising agency expands. Then, they were standing, looking out the windows on the limitless horizon, with their backs to the camera as the audience shared the view over their shoulders at the future beyond. Now the partners are sitting down at the conference table, looking downcast and depressed as they face the camera. They’ve been lowered and we are compelled to look directly at their disappointment and stunned failure.
What we have been watching since the second half of the final season started is the attempts by most of the main characters to do the same things that they have done in the past, that have succeeded, but meeting with failure instead of the anticipated success. Don and Pete have this conversation, in New Business, as they are driving to the golf course, about starting anew and Pete wonders how many times one can start again and succeed. We have seen Don, in the past few episodes, trying to work the same Don Draper magic (on Di, on Peggy, on Ted, on Sally, etc.), and failing. Mathis explained to him that Don had long succeeded because he was handsome, but at some point it just wouldn’t work any more. Now we see it fail more than succeed. In Time & Life, Don is even prevented from finishing his pitch in the McCann meeting. Roger and Pete won’t let him try to persuade Ken Cosgrove; it won’t make a difference. The Draper charm isn’t working any more, but then neither is anyone else’s charm. Even California, Don’s perennial answer of where to go for a fresh start – “it’s a gold rush out there” – fails to deliver, as it is no longer the golden place where dreams can come true.
In another dimension of this same narrative, Pete Campbell and Trudy try to make a face-to-face pitch on behalf of their daughter Tammy to Greenwich Country Day School, which seems opposed to admitting her to kindergarten. Apparently Mr. MacDonald, the headmaster at the school, had ancestors who were killed by ancestors of Pete’s based on an order given by King George III during the Revolutionary period. What we have learned about Pete, over the years, is that his aristocratic heritage has protected him, his position, and his family. Bert gave Don and Roger a lecture in season one about how they couldn’t fire Pete Campbell because of who his mother was. Campbell was hired because of his name, his position, and his connections—in many ways the opposite of Don. Trudy tells the real estate agent about the Dykemans when they are trying to find an appropriate apartment in Manhattan much earlier in the series. In Time & Life, it is exactly who Pete is and whom his family was that had soured Greenwich Country Day School on him and his daughter Tammy. The headmaster even encourages Trudy to be thankful that she can marry again and shed the last name “Campbell” before Pete lunges at him and punches him in the mouth.
Later in the episode, after the failure of the McCann meeting, Don and Roger find themselves, side by side at the bar, drunk and disheveled. Roger notes the end of his name—through the demise of his company and the fact that his only child is his daughter, Margaret, who has already shed his name. Roger also reveals to Don, again an inversion of the scene between Don and Roger in Shut the Door. Have a Seat, that he is going home to his new paramour, Marie Calvert, Megan’s mother. In season three, Roger had revealed to Don that Betty was seeing Henry Francis. Once again Roger is revealing personal information that involves Don to Don. After Roger leaves the bar, Don goes into the night in quest of Di. But finds instead, in her dingy apartment, two gay men. The scene of Don coming through the dark hallway calls back to the very first episodes of Mad Men, when Don would turn up at Midge’s apartment in the Village late in the evening, looking for her to welcome him into her bed without questions or demands. He seemed to have hoped to recreate that with Di, but she has fled, leaving her furniture but no forwarding address or phone number. Don is at a loss.
Just like the men, the women in this episode all grapple with time and change as well. Trudy complains to Pete that she has no friends out in Greenwich because, as a divorcee, the husbands of other women won’t leave her alone. However, she notes wistfully that “in ten years, everyone will leave me alone.” While Pete protests that she’s ageless, Trudy shakes her head, knowing her social/sexual value has an expiration date. Joan is realizing that her hard-earned partnership will be worth nothing after the move to McCann. Jim Hobart mentions accounts for each of the other partners at their meeting (Buick, Ortho-Pharmaceutical, Nabisco, Coca-Cola), but to Joan he is conspicuously silent. As she says to Pete later, “We both know they are never going to take me seriously over there.” Given her horrendous meeting with Peggy and the McCann boys over Topaz pantyhose, we have every reason to believe her fears are well founded. The move from the Time Life Building will erase the gains she’s made in earning both respect and accounts, turning back the clock on her career progress.
Peggy, who shares no scene with Don in this episode, is also concerned about the move to McCann, but mostly because she doesn’t want to work at a giant corporate agency. She warms to the idea more than Joan does because the headhunter she meets with indicates that she needs to get some of the experience that a big firm like McCann will give her, and her salary will increase substantially by working at McCann. Peggy’s outlook about the McCann absorption, in some distinction to those all around her, is more positive—she sees opportunity where the older partners, even Pete (who divulges the information to her as they sit, in his office, their clothes singing to each other through the blue painting behind them), see mostly despair.
Interestingly, while some sense of loyalty or previous intimacy leads Pete to tell Peggy the secret of McCann’s takeover, Peggy’s sense of connection or trust leads her to tell Stan of the upcoming change. The secret from Pete looks back at the past, but in Peggy’s divulging it to Stan, are we perhaps looking forward?
Peggy and Stan’s discussion of the takeover is interrupted by the child actor in her office stapling her thumb, and the ensuing yelling match between Peggy and the child’s mother over appropriate caretaking. Later, Peggy and Stan argue about the incident. Stan misunderstands Peggy’s emotions, thinking she is angry and regretful at not having children, but urges her to look at all she’s accomplished in her career. Peggy tells him he doesn’t understand at all, and shouldn’t judge. He says his own mother wasn’t that great, and Peggy protests: “Maybe she was very young. And followed her heart, and got in trouble. And no one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.” Stan has the dawning realization that Peggy is talking about herself. It’s a poignant scene, not rushed by either actor, and so much is communicated in the silences. When Stan finally asks her what she did, Peggy replies simply that she’s “here” and he’s with a family somewhere. She doesn’t know where the baby is, “but not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know. Or you can’t go on with your life.” Once again, the themes of self-reinvention and how much one is trapped by (or can escape) the past emerge, but with the reflection on gender difference and expectations adding another twist.
It’s worth noting that during Peggy and Stan’s conversation, Acker Blick’s instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” begins playing. This is the third time the show has used this music: first in episode 2.13, Meditations in an Emergency, when an already-pregnant Betty Draper has sex with a stranger in a Manhattan bar, and again in episode 6.11, Favors, when Don has a drink in bar with Dr. Arnold Rosen, whose wife Don is having a secret affair with. The scene is this current episode is also harking back to illicit sex (between Peggy and Pete, which resulted in the baby given up for adoption). But this time, a secret is being revealed, and to someone who perhaps will be trustworthy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that,” Stan responds gently to Peggy’s story. Peggy braces herself, takes a drink and stands to leave, telling him there’s lots he doesn’t know about lots of people. But he stands too, and stops her, making it personal rather than general. His apology isn’t for judging others; it’s for not knowing something so essential about her, a person he respects and cares about. The end of the episode shows them on the phones in their offices, staying on the line just to keep each other company, as Peggy discloses that she’s going to work for McCann and inviting him to come along.
In contrast to the previous three episodes, the final scene of Time & Life at least leaves Don surrounded by others, but in the process of being pushed out of his advertising agency. All of the Sterling Cooper employees are gathered, as Don and Roger announce the move to McCann. But as Don tries to make a pitch to the employees at Sterling Cooper that “this is the beginning of something, not the end,” no one is listening. The murmurs of the crowd grow louder, and Don looks bewildered as the secretaries begin milling down the stairs, not even pretending to hear his authoritative voice. Time is passing, life is changing, and roles are shifting. Strategies that worked in the past no longer succeed, and the voice that moved clients and commanded respect is literally drowned out – while back in their locked offices, Peggy and Stan’s shared silence connects them.
–Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.