Mad Men, “Time & Life”

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It’s funny that we go right from Don trying to figure out “The Forcecast” to this episode, where everything kind of turns on its head for Don and the partners. When he was tasked to make a grand sweeping gesture and claim about the future, Don couldn’t see it for the company, nor for himself. This episode again kept the stories very concentrated and let the three-ish main storylines burn slowly and slowly through the hour until it sizzled into the final painful moments of the biggest loss the company has had to face since Cooper’s death. Really, this whole episode – perhaps the whole series – explored the different losses everyone is facing, especially with the rise of the grand corporation / big business of McCann. This episode, as opposed to death, we look at losses the characters are facing live, in the present – those losses of control and autonomy.

The smallest measure of this occurs with Pete as he plays the role of father once again.

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Though it’s a way smaller plot point, Pete’s story is just the tip of what’s to come. Trudy calls in a fluster about their daughter Tammy not being accepted to the best pre school in Greenwich, CT. The attitude Pete takes – that his position, privilege, businessman talk can get him whatever he wants – is one that the partners and Peggy (to some degree) take to solve the issues that arise in the episode, but he, like everyone, quickly learns that that’s no longer appealing, that his powers are no match for the fight. The scene is quite humorous, actually, for even though Pete is being a total snob, you kind of rally behind him, and it probably felt mildly satisfying to see Pete able to fight back for himself. It went from the school administrations man, a McDonald, claiming that Tammy was underdeveloped, to making accusations about Trudy’s choices, and finally to him calling out Pete on his bullshit and saying that they have deep underlying family rivalry crap going on. To which, of course, Pete had to stand up for himself and punched the guy. It’s funny how much of Trudy’s unravelling life as a single mother got laid out in one little scene, too. This was a masterfully composed scene to catch you up on Trudy, and to actually show that Pete and Trudy are sort of meant for each other. But that’s beside the point. I’m sure anyone could’ve predicted that confrontation would not end well – Pete isn’t always the guy who gets what he wants – but here, in the context of this episode, it really means something that he hoped his name and his ad-man talk would get him somewhere, but it no longer does.

Congruous to this, is Peggy, who, oddly enough, is also contending with, ultimately, a child in this episode.

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They’ve largely ignored the connection to Peggy and the child she gave up season 1, but in the last season, it’s slowly cropped itself up. If there’s anything Peggy is missing out on, because of her career, it’s a family, a real love life. Joan at least has a child. Peggy’s absorption into her own work has created a loss in her life that her biological clock seems to be reminding her of as these times continue to change and sway towards the big man taking over. It’s funny, too, that Pete and Peggy cross paths in this episode – their connection is still there, even if it’s no longer sexual or romantic. They will always have something between them, which prompts him to share with Peggy the news that, after all this time, SCP is finally getting absorbed by McCann. Peggy here deals with two things – first, she deals with her inability to connect with children and that frustration, representative of the big loss in her life of her child. Secondly, she also deals with the loss of control over her own destiny. She’s pretty much been her own self-made, determined woman, successfully climbing up to her position. She even strove for the highest of achievements when Don asked her about her vision of the future last week: she wants to be the first female creative director of the agency. Those dreams have washed away, and she doesn’t want to lose control over what she has, or be sucked into a corporate machine. Though she tries to make moves with a head hunter, she is instead met with the fate that everyone else has to ultimately face: she’s better off taking advantage of the absorption into McCann, but for a little while until she REALLY has enough clout to go out on her own and chase bigger dogs. Basically, her achievements on her own have not been enough. Let’s face the facts: she’s still a woman in a man’s world. But the man’s world she’s been able to dominate is crumbling, so where does that leave her?

More than that, again, another powerful moment is observing Peggy’s uncertainty around children. The first scene we really understand things are coming to a head for her own personal realization is when she is trying to run a casting call with Stan. She approaches the situation coldly, from a distance, with a complete lack of understanding of how to deal. Stan unsurprisingly is much more in tune and cooler with the kids, being the one to actually engage with them. A little girl hugs Peggy out of the blue, of course perfectly timed with Pete calling out to Peggy to have a chat about the future of SCP. Later, after a casting call completed, Peggy is left with a lone girl waiting to get picked up and takes in responsibility over her until her mother comes back with Stan. Their hands-off babysitting approach leads to the girl being reckless with a stapler, and as they try to help, Peggy has a confrontation with the mother, Peggy yelling at the mother almost what she could have yelled at herself when she made her decision so many years ago: how could you have a child and just leave her/him behind? Peggy’s reveal to Stan is an amazing moment of self-realization for her, like for the first time Peggy is acknowledging there’s more to life than just this. The writing here is so genius, because she never has to spell it out, and Stan never has to ask super directly. The Stan-Peggy friendship has been a fun installation of the last few seasons, and it’s great that Stan is one of the few men who really GETS Peggy immediately. Don is Peggy’s professional bestie, and Stan is the emotional bestie. In those moments, Peggy has measured the weight of her losses, professional and personal, and it leaves her in a dark, uncertain place.

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The theme of the partners in this episode is no one listening to them anymore, and it’s interesting how this plays out until it culminates into their ultimate loss. First, we open with Don and Pete trying to wine and dine Ken, now their client, even though we know Ken is messing with them and their money and not really caring what they have to say anymore. (That eyepatch really helps that evil look in his is eye, by the way. The show is still so darkly humorous) Things go nutty when Roger misunderstands the notice in the mail about SCP losing the building. Again, darkly humorous, we see the line of blame get passed from Caroline, his original secretary, to Shirley, and then even to Dawn. It’s like this silly display of the power Roger inherited by taking over Cooper’s seat. Wisely, it is Joan who figures out that it’s more than just “not paying the rent,” and they call McCann to find they have a meeting in the morning. Joan and Roger share the news with the main partners – Pete, Ted, and Don – and shortly thereafter we have another comic slapping in the face: Lou calls Don to basically give his notice and say he’s going to do better than them since he sold his long beloved cartoon Scout’s Honor.

Don gets a flash of inspiration to turn the situation around by saying if they’re going to lose the building because they can’t afford to dish out money for the rent, instead of absorption, why not EXPORT the team to LA to deal with conflict accounts that they still want to manage for themselves. They work on landing at least three to show it’d be worth the business. Again, Pete and this time Roger experience the slap in the face of no one listening to them or caring about them anymore when Ken comes in, sips a glass of wine, and soundly rejects their business. Oddly, Pete also gets his own flash of inspiration in the episode when he takes Trudy back home after their failed efforts to get Tammy admitted to a school, and Trudy notes that Pete never likes to take no for an answer. In the slickest move yet for Pete, he meets the partners in the office as they leave for their meeting at McCann, holds the door for them, and notes that he landed a different account than expected to save them.

Again, the movements in this scene show the artistry of everyone who works on this show. The partners each symbolically take a seat in five seats perfectly laid out for them. It’s an amazing moment to mirror one not too long ago when these same people (minus Ted) made a very huge decision for themselves:

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Notice, though, they stand in full command of themselves back then, backs to us, facing outward to their (at the time) bright future. Now, we find them seated, facing us, facing the present, facing the man who’s about to take away the control and power they once had. Don tries to get up and starts making his sweeping speech to pitch the idea of SCP West. He is immediately shut down from completing his presentation – the shock on his face is so raw, and you can tell he’s never been told to shut up professionally in a little while. McCann frames the future for them in a very “we’re taking you over, but you won our test round” fashion, revealing the bigger fish of the different types of dream accounts everyone wanted – from Sterling’s car, to Ted’s pharmaceutical, to Pete’s big cookie company, to Don’s big soft drink. Over drinks, the partners commiserate over the loss and send up a round of cheers to Cooper, to the fact that he never had to see this day come. Joan knowingly notes to Pete that there was no major account attached to her, and she knows that despite the contract and her partnership, her power is pretty much gone, too (like Peggy’s). Again, Pete has kind of a cool human being moment comforting Joan that McCann is about to absorb a powerhouse in Joan and they don’t even know it.

In the final moments, as if to complete the utter loss of their autonomy, their power, their cool, the partners announce to the company, especially amidst the sea of rumors that have already spread (like with Dawn and Shirley), the absorption. Everyone immediately erupts into conversation and stops listening to them because, guess what? They no longer are the bosses, really. They don’t have the power. Who’s going to listen to them now that they’ve been bought, that they’ve sold out, that these five are the only ones with any measure of security in the great uncertain future?

This episode was so carefully calculated and measured. And, it’s such beautiful irony that the director of this episode, is one Lane Price, whose own loss caused major ripples. The character who died heralded the show into a major loss, a major death of the David in this David and Goliath story of advertising. So what are we really heading into in Mad Men? The utter loss of self in the vast expansion of corporate America? Just the utter loss of self with the passage of time? Seems to be that way. Wonder what else we have left to bring in these final episodes. What more can they lose now to really show that it’s over?

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