Mad Men: Time & Life, or Passing the Test

McCann Conference Room

All season long our friends on Mad Men have been grappling with the question of how to achieve satisfaction in a material world – a very material world. If they don’t achieve their dreams the mad men aren’t happy; but if they DO reach them they’re STILL unhappy. This theme continues in spades in “Time & Life,” although there are finally a few glimpses of what might bring contentment.

I hope you liked “Time & Life” as much as I did, because it’s probably the end of the line for the Mad Men we’ve all come to enjoy so much. The road ahead is uncertain. We could jump ahead a month, a year or five years.   The Mad Men formula as introduced in the pilot has held firm for seven TV seasons and ten plot years. The premise of the show is that we are following eight to ten characters as they interact in a 1960’s ad agency. Well, the Sixties are over and so is the agency.

In a last-ditch effort to keep Don from being fired in July 1969, Roger arranged for Sterling Cooper to be acquired by the giant agency McCann Erickson. He dangled the McCann millions in front of the SCP partners and they all grabbed it and became rich. Now it’s a year later – July 1970 (which we know because Don hasn’t moved out of his apartment yet) – and the partners are reaping the consequences of selling out. They no longer control their own fate. SCP is being swallowed up by McCann and the partners are wage slaves of the corporate behemoth. If they want to keep their millions they have to work at McCann for four more years.

I always enjoy Mad Men most when it focuses on corporate machinations, and this episode was a gem. The gang is back together for one more time as they try to squirm out of the trap they’ve set for themselves.   In one of the great Matt Weiner decoys, Don comes up with the brilliant idea to open a satellite agency in California using their existing but conflicted clients as a base. For a few minutes, every fan could envision how the rest of the series would play out: with Don in California – the land that has always meant freedom and a reconnection to his true self. It’s fun to watch them cobble together a plan, just as they did in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” that great episode at the end of Season Three, when they escaped the clutches of their then-British owner Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe, which was being sold to, of all people, McCann Erickson.

They avoid being swallowed up by McCann in 1963 but not this time around. When they present their idea for a California agency to Jim Hobart he shuts them down fast. He’s not interested in sending them off to LA to form a California subsidiary – he’s not interested in Sterling Cooper in any form. As far as he’s concerned, what he’s bought is talent and clients. He tells them they “passed the test” and that he’s giving the five SCP partners five of the most desirable jobs in advertising; they’ll be able to experience “travel, adventure, international presence.”  And, joy of joys, they’ll be able to work on some of the biggest brands in advertising. He tells them they’ve died and gone to “advertising heaven,” and the way he pronounces the names of the brands, you’d think he was reciting the celestial spheres of heaven from Dante’s “Paradiso.” Buick, Ortho Pharmaceutical, Nabisco and most heavenly of all, Coca Cola. Let the choirs of angels rejoice!

By rights, the partners should be happy, since they’ve achieved their professional goals and could even have better prospects ahead. But they’ve lost their independence.  How much more confident they were when they first rented the space in the Time & Life Building (see below compared to the boardroom photo above) than when then leave it.

mad-men-window

The lease for the SCP headquarters at the Time & Life Building is up in 30 days, which means that the next time we see our friends they’ll be dispersed within the McCann empire. Maybe they’ll be working together and maybe they won’t. And this, I have to say, feels like real life. People work together for years and years, become friends and maybe even create workplace families, but then it’s over and life goes on. Where Mad Men is headed is someplace we almost never see on TV: what happens when the natural “story” of a series is over. The Sterling Cooper tale is complete but the show continues for three more episodes.

In the final scene we see the further consequences of the sell-out. The partners pull together the SCP employees to announce the news and a revolt nearly breaks out. Sensing that the partners are no longer their bosses, the staff grumbles and eventually disperses, not bothering to listen to their platitudes. Even Don can’t summon them back with his forcefulness and eloquence: “This is the beginning of something,” he shouts at them, “not the end.” No one’s listening by this point. The old Draper magic is gone.

The corporate plot was great, but “Time & Life” was an episode that fired on all cylinders. In addition to the edge-of-your-seat corporate machinations, the episode featured laugh-out-loud humor and a remarkably touching sub-plot about Peggy’s dark secret.

Like most of the episodes this season, much in “Time & Life” harkens back to Season One. Certainly we are meant to recall that Jim Hobart tried to recruit Don to McCann in 1960, which is how Don ended up a partner at Sterling Cooper. And Roger bellows “Joan, come in here,” just like he did in Season One (although he gets a very different response now, when she simply says: “Don’t do that.”). But the real call-back to Season One is the allusion to Peggy’s baby, conceived in the pilot episode because of Pete’s selfish need for affirmation on the eve of his wedding.

We have seen that Peggy is nervous around children, and Stan jokes that she hates kids, which is a dagger to her heart. They are trying to cast children for that lousy Tinkerbell cookie ad they came up with last episode, and Pete melts a little when he sees one of the urchins embracing Peggy in a loving way. Only Don and Pete know about her pregnancy, and only Pete knows he’s the father, a secret never spoken of by anyone.

The issue boils over when one of the stage mothers leaves her daughter behind for the try-out while she goes to pick up her son who’s at a casting call somewhere else. The little girl staples her finger, which freaks out the mother, causing Peggy to get all judgey: “you shouldn’t have abandoned her in a midtown office building,” (good point) and “I bet you love cashing her checks.” The mother has the ultimate put-down, though, “You do what you want with your children and I’ll do what I want with mine.”

This leads to one of the most touching scenes in Mad Men history, with Peggy gradually letting Stan in on her secret. Peggy chastises Stan for judging the Mom (even though she just did it herself) saying he doesn’t know anything about her circumstances. It slowly becomes clear that the conversation — on choices and the consequences of mistakes — has evolved from being about the Mom to being about Peggy. And what a great friend Stan is, absorbing her criticism and just listening as she asserts “she should be able to live the rest of her life like a man does,” in other words, a life without constant regret for her mistakes. “No one should have to make a mistake – just like a man does – and not be able to move on.” Of course she has no idea what Pete thinks about having a son that he’s never met, but she assumes that he’s moved on without pain.

As for that son, she explains, “I’m here, and he’s with a family somewhere. I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t get on with your life.” Fantastic acting in this scene by Elizabeth Moss, Scientology membership notwithstanding.   And beautifully directed – in a show with many short, information-packed scenes, this scene lingered beautifully, as the secret slowly unfolded.

All season long – all series-long really – Mad Men has confronted the Peggy Lee question: is that all there is? There was less despair in “Time & Life” than in previous episodes, but the characters are still unhappy with the consequences of their decisions, even though they all nominally have the material rewards they crave. Joan worries that she won’t be taken seriously at McCann, Roger’s worried that the Sterling name is dying out, and Don is unhappy that money and security doesn’t bring satisfaction.

There are a few clues, though, on a way out. When Joan tells her new squeeze Richard that she’s having a bad day at work, he says a bad day at work can’t be that bad, something we never understand until we are away from work and have perspective on what’s important. More pointedly, Jim Hobart tells the partners to stop struggling – because they’ve won. “Stop the struggling” is excellent advice in all aspects of life. And Pete goes all Zen in the cab with Joan.   “For the first time I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen. “ The Dalai Lama could not have said it better.

And there is, after all, one character who’s reasonably happy – Ted. In the previous episode, “The Forecast,” his prosaic dream – to get a major pharmaceutical client – seemed like a joke on limited expectations, but here he is at McCann, getting to work on Ortho Pharmaceutical and he’s happy as a clam. He was a wreck at the end of both Season Six and Seven(a), in a bad marriage and feeling guilty about his kids. Now we learn that his wife stayed in California when he moved back to NYC and for some reason his spirits have soared. He has reconnected with his college girlfriend, who’s gorgeous, not too young, and a little bit deep; he’s developed self-awareness and compassion, acknowledging that Don should have gone to California instead of him; and he seems professionally satisfied, while somehow understanding that a job is not an identity. He might have a terrible Seventies moustache, but he could provide a path for the rest of his colleagues if they want to find fulfillment in life.

Some other thoughts on the episode:

— The closing song, “Money Burns a Hole in my Pocket” is a 1954 Dean Martin hit. Dino was one of those guys like Frank Sinatra and Don Draper who peaked in the Fifties and early Sixties and seemed corny and out of step in 1970. The song itself is anachronistic but the lyrics, with the implication that money will buy happiness, are not: (“Money burns a hole in my pocket/How I wish I had millions of dollars and nothing to do/But just buy pretty presents for you.)

— This was one of the all-time funniest episodes, and who would have thought the high point would be a scene with Pete and Trudy? Any scene with Trudy is by definition a call back to the first season, when she always managed to get what she wanted out of Pete. They’ve been estranged for years but come together in a joint crusade to get little Tammy into the exclusive Greenwich Country Day School, where the Campbells have been attending since it was a barn. Trudy first thinks Tammy’s being blackballed because she and Pete are divorced, but the headmaster, a Mr. MacDonald, explains that it was because she failed her “draw a man test.” But the truth will out: it seems he has a prejudice against all Campbells because the Campbell clan (supporters of King William after the Glorious Revolution of 1688) massacred the MacDonalds (supporters of the recently deposed King James) at the Battle of Glencoe. The complete absurdity of this feud still causing trouble 300 years later is what gives this incident its humor, to say nothing of how Pete defends the Campbell honor (“The king ordered it!”) before finally punching the headmaster, who responds “Another sucker punch for the Campbells!”

slug

Never take a nap in front of a sleep stabber

— The other hilarious incident is when Lou Avery calls Don to quit because his moronic cartoon, Scout’s Honor, has been picked up by a Japanese syndication company. “I wish I could see your face now,” Lou cackles, assuming that Don gives a rat’s ass about him and his $15,000 advance. “Sayonara, my friend. Enjoy the rest of your miserable life.” He then hangs up so very pleased with himself.

— The episode was directed by Jared Harris, who played Lane Pryce in earlier seasons. A nice touch that Harris was directing when Pete punched MacDonald, given that Lane was the one who beat up Pete several seasons ago.

— Lou’s minor victory leaves open the possibility that the only two Md Men characters who will have ever achieved their dream will be the two villains from Season Seven(a) – Lou Avery himself and Jim Cutler, who got his million and doesn’t have to work at McCann.

Someone else who gets to live out his fantasy is Ken, who gets to fire Roger and Pete. From Ken’s perspective, though, he’s going to find that the momentary satisfaction of getting revenge on your co-workers fades fast when he’s trapped in a job he hates.

Exeunt Time & Life Building. We hardly knew ye. Here’s a little background of the Time & Life building during the Mad Men days.

There is some age-appropriate romancing going on in this episode. Ted and his college sweetheart; Roger and Marie Calvert; the growing romance between Joan and Mr. Leisure Suit; potentially a reconciliation between Trudy and Pete (she seemed very impressed with the way he defended her honor: “Peter, you can’t punch everyone.”)

People are surprisingly tender with each other: Peggy and Stan (as discussed); Pete and Joan consoling each other in the cab; Joan laying her head on Roger’s shoulder when they get the bad news about the move to McCann; Peggy bucking Pete up (“You’ll do great”); Joan hugging Don (“We went down swinging.”)

Let’s remember that if Joan is unhappy with her situation, it’s her own fault. As “Benedict Joan,” she precipitated the sale to McCann last year by siding with Cutler in his campaign against Don. It was only in desperation to save Don that Roger sought out the McCann deal in the first place.

Once again, a stellar episode for Meredith, refusing to give Don his Alka Seltzer until he clears the air with the staff, insisting on knowing if she’ll be joining him at McCann, hanging around Don’s office too long until she’s shoed out, and generally asserting herself – so sweetly – where she doesn’t belong.

Diana, the Waitress So Sad, called and left two messages for Don, then suddenly moved out of her apartment. All of Mad Men Nation heaved a sigh of relief when two gay guys (and not Diana) were discovered to be living in that rat-hole.   I’m sure everyone is as uneasy as I about where this is headed, though. I’d have sworn we’d seen the end of her.

— Peggy continues to channel her inner Hermione Granger. When the headhunter comes by to discuss her career, she sprightly asks “Who wants me?” This on top of last week’s request for a praise-laden performance review.

— For the second episode in a row, there were no historical signifiers. If Don hadn’t been still in his apartment, we would not know it was early July 1970.

— Not to be overly granular, but didn’t McCann only buy 51% of Sterling Cooper and Partners? If so, should they pay for the remaining 49% before dissolving the company? That should be another windfall for the remaining partners.

— Harry Crane thinks the new arrangements will be great.  Which almost certainly means that Harry Crane will be fired.  Does McCann really need another media buyer?

Am I the only one who wishes AMC would step handling the countdown this way? “Only two more episodes until the Series Finale.” Can we just say three episodes left, please?

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1 comment
  1. I finally was able to catch up tonight. Great review. I can’t imagine at this point what the end will be.

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