I don’t know. For the first time, I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen. — Pete Campbell
Last week was the first time this season where Mad Men felt like it was drawing to some kind of a conclusion; the final act set in motion as Don Draper’s penthouse apartment sells at market value in the hour’s closing moments. This week, the show gave the viewer a heavy glimpse back into the business of Sterling Cooper and their caustic relationship with the behemoth of McCann-Erickson. “Time & Life” was concerned with the professional futures of the core cast of characters and how the work also seems to reflect the personal difficulties or levels of acceptance with which each has arrived in 1970. Whereas in many respects last week was a very heavy episode, this week, while still weight-challenged, was first and foremost an episode of Mad Men the way we fell in love with it.
The brilliance of Mad Men is subjective, as are the reasons behind its success and or failure in your own mind. When the show focuses in on the work and uses it to inform everything outside of the office, that’s the Mad Men I love best. Think back to Season 4 and “The Suitcase,” which ranks as not just one of the best episodes of the series but in fact one of the best episodes of any series. Peggy and Don had an extremely personal moment, but the creative birth came because that hour of drama was so carefully controlled during its own pregnancy. It happened inside the office and it allowed the audience to see both sides of its two most important characters.
One of the latter-season issues with the show has largely been the devolution of Peggy Olson into a loathsome character. She began as the secretary with larger dreams, innocent, taken advantage of and manipulated in all facets of her life. She was intelligent and stubborn and found her way into a better life. The further she’s progressed into that existence, the worse a person she’s become. On Sunday night, Peggy remained awful, but in one scene, describing the choice she went through to give her child up for someone else to raise, we finally got a glimpse into who Peggy Olson used to be, and maybe who she still is deep inside in her most private of moments. We were allowed to root for her again, if only for a fleeting second.
The end of the agency’s independence came abruptly and as Roger himself realized, it was why Don was given an assignment to put together some kind of pitch for the future. The actual forecast was simply so McCann-Erickson could determine whether the perceived little engine that could was stable and secure. Once they “passed the test,” as Jim told them in the meeting, they could be brought in as actual employees, not ugly stepchildren. As he reads off the large clients Don, Roger, Peter, Ted, and potentially, but unlikely Joan will have, names like Coke, Buick, Nabisco, Ortho Pharma, only Ted smiles. He admits later he’s just relieved, wanting someone else to make the decisions for a while. Don and Roger are far less sold, as they wallow into the bottom of an amber-filled glass. Joan knows her days as someone important could also be numbered, telling Pete in the taxi that she would be careful to believe anything anyone at McCann told her.
But what’s the real crux of what’s happening here, because that’s where this episode worked in a big way? The focus here is on power, not on money, but on control. Peggy gave up her daughter so she could be in control of her own life as a young woman who had sowed almost no oats before Peter knocked her up. It sounds crass but especially in that time period, it was completely inappropriate. Roger Sterling has always been in control professionally, but it will change as his name evaporates from the door along with the firm he founded with Bert Cooper. Don Draper hasn’t been in control for quite some time, which makes it all the more interesting to see him take the lead on attempting one last pitch to remain independent through displaced clients. At times, this hour felt very much like the Season 3 finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” which was deliciously fun and felt more like Ocean’s Eleven than Mad Men. However, there’s one very momentous difference between the two episodes. Those people back in Season 3, they were still moving quickly in their lives and still growing and still looking forward, deep into a beautiful horizon. These people Sunday night were looking backward into the moonlight, wondering where the time had gone.
Pete Campbell, still the dill hole he’ll always be, had a great night. Vincent Kartheiser has always played the character as if it were drama’s answer to Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm or an early Michael Scott on The Office. He’s awkward, he constantly puts his foot in his mouth, and he’s ignorant, brash, and exceedingly arrogant. While those things were still true, he also defended his gorgeous wife’s honor at Greenwich Day, pulled a last-second client to the Sterling Cooper West idea, and most importantly of all, informed Peggy of what was actually happening at work past the pitches and the storyboards and the yelling. Pete called her into his office and he did something that first season Peter, even the one who had sex with this woman, never would have done: He treated her like she was his equal.
He told her about the future and he said she deserved to know, which felt so out of place, but not when you recognize that a sideline effect of last night’s entire hour was to show Peter Campbell as a grown up human being, albeit one not above socking a school administrator in the snout. Peter and Peggy together reminded us all of the earliest episodes of the show, which then made the discussion between Peggy and Stan about her daughter that much more effective. It was a very subtle, but effective way to both pull the audience along for a logical, chronologically sound ride.
Don attempted to find Diana, but first missed a few phone messages from her and then, when he showed up at her old apartment, he discovered it was indeed her old apartment. She wasn’t there, but she left all her furniture to the two men now inhabiting the space. They were life partners (or at least fling partners living together) and Don had a look on his face like “I’m getting too old for this shit.” At the drink-fest following the meeting at McCann, Joan left to meet her new beau, Ted left for the woman he rediscovered and was pleased with the professional shift in his life, Roger left to meet Megan’s mother, Pete said he “needed to call Trudy” after her tough day, which again left Don Draper alone to think about his life. His attempt to find Diana didn’t work, so we assume he ended up at home passing out on the bed.
Here again, Don Draper has nothing. He has a job at McCann-Erickson, but as Meredith tells him after finding out about the firm’s absorption through break room gossip, everybody’s in a fright. As they try to announce the “good news” to the firm, everyone stops listening to Roger and Don entirely, instead buzzing in anxiety, scared for their own paychecks. Also, Meredith as the “take no crap” secretary is freaking fantastic to watch. I love that character.
The more time that passes and the closer we get to the finale, now less than three weeks away, we still have the same questions, but last night felt like another step towards closure. The professional side now has its clarity, but the personal is still far from over. Perhaps Peter and Trudy reconcile (who wouldn’t, we’re talking about Alison Brie here â one of the coolest women in all facets on the planet), perhaps Joan gets engaged, and perhaps Peggy goes further past guilt and sorrow over her child and begins to want more than the corner office. But, for Don Draper, he’s the end game. Matthew Weiner has said Don’s voice will be the last one ever heard on Mad Men, but will we be watching him or will be listening to Jon Hamm narrating over scenes of his death? Long ago, this was a series that seemed as if it was speeding towards a tragic ending. In large measure, it’s always been the show of frustration, not of triumph. Don, stripped of everything, trying to find his way in a changing world where his type have begun to fade away just like Roger’s name on the door.
The opening credits feature the nondescript businessman falling from a window after watching his desk, his drink, his fan, and all that ad copy fall into chaos. If the final scene of Mad Men shows Don Draper plunging to his death from the Time Life Building, or from his office at McCann, it won’t be surprising. Because Weiner said he wanted this finish to be a stunner, I’m not sure Don’s demise would achieve that goal, simply because of how long it’s all been telegraphed. Go back to The Shield, Shawn Ryan’s epic crime drama, and look at Vic Mackey. While Shane Vendrell did pass away, Vic Mackey ended up in a position worse than death. Don Draper is careening towards that position now, so the stunner might actually be getting out of it with some permanence and finding something better. Remember, “now we have to find a place for you.” (That’s probably not going to happen, but we’ll see.)
“Time & Life” was such a great name, because it could be literal and figurative. It was about the end of these folks inside the Time Life Building, but also the 30 days left before it happens, and how much time Don has wasted in his life or how much he has left, or for that matter the life of Peggy’s child and the part of her that may have died when she gave him up.
Honestly, I still don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but over the last two weeks, it’s been REALLY good again. Mad Men deserves a strong finish. It’s been so important. The fact that the ending is still somewhere in the fog is extremely exciting. I love the mystery. Three more weeks…
Oh, and Scout’s Honor in Japan with Lou Avery…just tell me you wouldn’t watch that spin-off, if only to watch them “eat him alive.”
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