This brilliantly constructed but majorly foreboding episode, co-written by Matt Weiner and Erin Levy, is called “Time & Life,” after the prestigious building that was formerly home to Sterling Cooper. But as with any Weiner enterprise, the title has many meanings; in the existential sense, it shows that each part of T&L is fleeting.
Indeed, in this fourth-to-last-episode ever (gulp!), the hangman’s noose is swaying over every scene. Still, the story manages to be funny, poignant, surprising and a lot less stilted than the two previous episodes.
That’s partly because the script focuses on agency life, which always offers more high-flying intrigue and derring-do than the internal fugue states of downer Don.
In some ways, the episode was the mirror opposite of the epic season five finale, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” which ended with the exhilarating creation of a new agency. This one concluded with the termination of same. But it was also a masterly call back to so many storylines and character details developed over the years.
That’s the genius of the show: that Weiner can sustain the tale, and build a thematic, coherent plot over seven seasons — and many slow patches — that also echoes the hard-to-predict pendulum motion of life itself.
Speaking of death, (and when is “Mad Men” not?) it’s a bit ironic that the episode was directed by Jared Harris. He’s the actor who played Lane, the agency’s sad British accountant/embezzler who ended up hanging himself on his office door. So there was a literal noose tied around this episode’s connective tissue.
It was about children, abandonment, bloodlines, ancient history, regrets, and grudges, best embodied in the bizarre scene at the Greenwich Country Day School that ended with Pete duking it out with the school’s director. This was another sly reference to Lane, who unexpectedly pummeled Pete in the agency office.
That the private school director denied admission to the Campbell kid not because of anything she did, but over an incident that happened more than 300 years ago, was the height of crazy. Especially in the U.S., where everyone can change names and reinvent himself. But in Pete’s case, you live by the bloodline and die by it. It turns out that Pete’s Scottish clan, the Campbells, killed the director’s own people, the McDonalds, while they were sleeping (By order of the king!)
Later, this stealth action is echoed in McCann killing Sterling Cooper while they slept. Or napped. Or drank, or opened the mail. “They waited so long that I thought we were safe,” Don says. It showed the modern banality, and sheer waste, of the withering corporate kill.
So les poulets are coming home to roost, big time.
We saw this throughout the episode, but also in the brilliant little rhetorical flourishes. Lame-o Lou Avery gets to give a very harsh “Sayonara!” to Don. "Have a miserable life!” Lou says as he heads off to his new life in Japan — where, wait for it, dull, workaday Lou gets to be an independent artiste, which is every creative person’s dream.
Meanwhile, Don, takes it on the chin, and literally “surrenders” not once but twice in the episode.
Don, of course, will always be the ultimate abandoned child. At the heart of all this loss is that theme, a metaphor for what is also happening when an agency gets dumped by its parent company. And each character is dealing with his or her own abandonment, ancient or future.
Surprisingly, in the face of chaos and stunning disappointment, Hairline Pete, usually the tantruming child, suddenly becomes a human being, able to sustain tender moments with Trudy, Joan, and Peggy. I especially loved this episode because so much of the story line had to do with Peggy, who is looking radiant lately, and just last week had seen a clear path to career victory via smarts and hard work.
Even the little girl accidentally left in her charge could intuit that about Peggy. Rather than playing house, the girl played “office” in Peggy’s space, and was so serious about the pursuit that she ended up stapling her finger, which led to a screaming fight with the kid’s vulgar stage mom. The mother tells Peggy: "You do what you want with your children; I'll do what I want with mine," an irony that was neon-bright.
Peggy's interaction with huggie-bear Stan, when she finally acknowledges that she was a mother, and gave the child away, was one of the best-acted and written scenes in “Mad Men” history. It also reflected the scene Peggy had in Pete’s office in the second season, when she tells Pete about his son — and that she never would have wanted to keep the child or be with someone like him. The idea that Peggy broke down all of her barriers with Stan, and finally told the truth, was her Dick Whitman moment.
Don, who can usually dance around any disappointment and solve it overnight, has lost big this time. And his earliest advice to his protégé Peggy — “This never happened. You won’t believe how much this never happened” — is obviously a lie.
It felt exciting there for a moment, when Don was marshaling his forces for the birth of Sterling Cooper West. But he was outplayed by the evil overlords at McCann. And the genius visual difference between “Shut the Door” and “Time and Life” was the turnaround of the partners. The agency creation episode ends with each of the partners standing in the new Time & Life space, facing the windows — and the future.
This time, after the McCann meeting, all the partners were captured sitting frontally in the conference room, facing the camera (and their captors). It was like a 1970s recreation of “The Last Supper.”
“It’s the beginning, not the end,” Don says to the agency troops gathered to hear the best spin on the bad news that McCann delivered. Roger had just told them that McCann would ensure a “smooth transition.” Their response is to start talking and milling about. They know it’s B.S. and they don’t buy it.
The episode, which was chockful of great musical choices, ends with Dean Martin singing “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket.” The truth is that Don really doesn’t care about money. He’s given it away again and again — to Midge, his brother, Megan, etc.
Last year ended with Bert singing “The Best Things in Life are Free.” I think Don will perhaps get out of the money business, and go to California, where he does feel free.
Still, he has his speech backwards. It’s the end, not the beginning, and time is fleeting. So is life.
The symbolism and the vagaries of agency life were so spot on in this episode, people I knew found it more than a little uncomfortably close to home. The scene in the McCann conference room where all of the Sterling Coopers were on one side of the table, and the McCann bigwig on the other, was exactly how Ed Meyer ran his private conference room at Grey. He sits on one side, anyone else is on the other. Control of the room. This time, Don did not have it.
I also found it touching that everyone had a date at the end of the bar scene. Even Pete had an ex, while Don had an empty table and a missing Diana (god I hope she does not reappear).
I thought Jared Harris did a nice directing job, although he overdid some of those group shots of the partners.
Is it Sunday yet?
Absolute best line of the episode: "Enjoy the rest of your miserable life." The exit lines on this show are so much fun. I missed the irony of the drudge Lou Avery getting to fulfill his artistic dreams, while Don's et al are getting squashed by the behemoth McCann. This episode hit home for me as I started at McCann and then went to the parent Interpublic in the Time-Life building. McCann certainly is the enemy on Mad Men and they have been all along, so kudos to Matt Weiner for bringing the agency to what seems like an inevitable conclusion. I agree with you that Don is gonna go West to finally be free. At least I hope so. I also loved Pete and Trudy in this episode. I thought they were history, but who knows?
I'm not ready to give up on Joan and hope she'll create a business of her own rather than falling in with whatever McCann (or Richard) offers her. Her intelligence, agency experience and physical presence, combined with her wealth, relationship with Avon (originally known as the California Perfume Company), and personal connections (including the long-time friendship with the woman who made it big with Mary Kay) make her perfect for the kind of revamped advertising and marketing that companies like Avon were forced to undertake as the role -- and place -- of women changed in the '70s. (Sidenote: that great-smelling shampoo Diana bought in her living room in Racine was probably an Avon product.) Just don't go backward, Joan.
An oddity -- The music playing behind the tender scene with Peggy and Stan, Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore," was the same song that played when Betty had anonymous sex with a stranger in the backroom of a hotel bar a few seasons back. It connects two very different scenes in an unexpected way.
As for Don, he'll survive. Fracturing Sandburg, the learning and blundering Don Draper will live on, so peculiar in renewal and comeback, the fireborn are at home in fire, you can't laugh off his capacity to take it.
I like it when they discuss real ads and real, past advertisers. In this episode they mentioned or depicted, Coca-Cola, Buick, Ortho Pharma, Nabisco, Dow, Schlitz beer, Sunkist, Burger Chef, Avon, McDonald(‘s) versus Campbell (Soup).
Wanted to add…”A stapler is a dangerous thing”…really.
Wonderful review for a favorite episode. So much going on here. The real emotion between colleagues who see a show about to end parrallels the story line for the end of a professional era. The scenes were so beautifully nuanced. It felt like a different director this time and indeed it was. Peggy and Pete should win Emmy's for this episode.
Thanks, Barbara, for yet another thought provoking analysis. This episode brought me back to the the time when Ogilvy, threatened with a hostile takeover, sold our subsidiary multilingual marketing company to MacMillan raise some cash to fend off the barbarians. Suddenly, we were out of jobs and suffering from corporately-induced PTSD. Recalling those emotions, I can easily identify with the Sterling Cooper partners. "You've won!" really means, "You've lost!"
Hairline Pete... too funny, Barbara! Still confused about Peggy's baby. Didn't we see two babies in her sister's home? Telling Stan that her baby was with a family -- is shereferring to
her sister's family?
No one puts this show on the shrink couch like you, Barbara. My only beef was the scene where Roger announces the news of being absorbed into McCann, and the rank and file employees walk away–– it was false. Idealistic, sure, but the fact is most of those people would have been clamoring for news about their job security and future, not using their feet to make a statement. And, let's face it, for an ordinary staff person, McCann would look better on the resume than Sterling Cooper.
Aside from that, a brilliant episode. I agree with your assessment that Don is headed west. I also think he'll change careers–– screenwriting? Novelist? I think he'll also recreate himself (again). Perhaps as Dick Whitman.
Is it fair to ask if a public agency would give up 18 mio in billings and 250 thou in bottom line profits to get a creative director for Coke, an account guy for something or other, and a bunch of new employees? No it's not because then you'd have to question the wacko admissions director. A funny show, Mad Men, in that you have to separate the satire from the straight drama. I worked for 14 years at Carl Ally and every once in a while a memo would go out: "Please gather in the reception area at 4:30 for an important meeting." It never was good news, and most times it was a disaster made all the more disastrous by Carl Ally's refusal to hide the disaster. Although a little overdone, I really liked the employees-walking-away scene and it couldn't figure out if it was satire or drama.
Good (half-)season so far, but I agree that the denoument with the Sterling Cooper rank-and-file chattering and breaking apart and ignoring the partners was dramatically effective and completely unbelievable, especially for 1970. Otherwise, it seems Weiner is taking away everything from Don/Dick, piece by piece, and the last episode will likely end with Don/Dick's death or symbolic rebirth after being completely stripped of everything he created in his false identity. Or maybe somethign else altogether. Who knows?
Thanks for all the great comments. I agree that the last scene-- of the staff walking and not listening as the partners speak-- strained credulity. they would be desperate to know if they still had jobs and what the specifics were. I loved the bar wake scene-- in which they toasted to Bert and Joan says she's glad he missed it. When Roger kissed Don and said "you're okay" it was foreshadowing the speech to the agency the next day. He was Judas.
It was like a dream scene when everyone talked above them and walked away when told they were being absorbed. No they would not be. It was imagery. They knew it and it didn't matter to walk away. The smaller agency was like a home and McCann like a factory where the media radio estimators had no idea who the buyers were on account not to mention other estimators in TV or newspaper or billboard. By contrast, in Phila. all media buyers had to do it all even at the larger agencies. Yes, gossip and news flew through faster than on fbeast. Jobs never were advertised; the avails were passed through which made the break through to work in "advertising" harder.
Barbara, your reviews would make a great book that would come either with the DVD set or as an add on, sold and marketed together. It would be a great asset as the compliment to the viewing audience and help see the episodes clearer even for the second watchings. (Sure, others have done reviews, but not like yours with your loyal readers, Dorothy. Be the first to approach to parlay. Hello View.)
Don won't die. For him to revert to Dick in California would be too predictable for the Ovidian Wiener. (who was the first to recognize Odessius when he returned home?) They will all push on except maybe Rodger. He doesn't do much and doesn't care much anymore. McCann won't need him to hang onto clients. Don's daughter can't stand what he does, but loves him so there will be a tenuious relationship. He still has the purse strings for her. Henry can't fullfill her daddy needs. Henry can't fullfill much, but he fills some of the blanks for the family he bought. He may not survive, but Don does not want her back. Dianna does not get found like Anna.