‘Mad Men’ recap: “Time and Life”

Last night’s episode of Mad Men, “Time and Life” was strange – the writing was strong and the actors were great, but I still felt unsatisfied at the end. But before I get to the recap, I have to share a tiny anecdote about Mad Men that relates directly to last night’s episode. My partner and I were discussing how there were only three episodes left. I noted that unlike a lot of soon-to-be-departing shows, Mad Men hasn’t gotten around to tying up loose ends or making grand gestures (deaths, marriages, babies, that sort of thing). My partner pointed out that Mad Men wasn’t about easy and fulfilling endings – he suggested that maybe Mad Men won’t have a major ending, but instead just end like any other episode. I thought about Six Feet Under and its leap into the future, but my partner poo-pooed that suggestion, saying it would be cheap – and he’s right.

So, I settled into “Time and Life” thinking that it would be more of the same that we’ve seen this past half season. But I was wrong because “Time and Life” seems like a definite step in setting up some kind of dramatic ending. Viewers learned that McCann-Erickson is swallowing up Sterling Cooper, and the characters find out because McCann-Erikson has given notice on Sterling Cooper’s office lease. The problem is no one at Sterling knew about this. None of the senior folks at Sterling had a clue, and as such, the move feels like a dick one. Of course, everyone is scared about losing his/her job. Interestingly enough, Don predicted this when he protested selling to McCann-Erickson, but to his credit, I didn’t hear even one “I told you so.”

And while the sale of Sterling Cooper left Don, Roger, Pete, and Joan independently wealthy, it also left them to do what they love: work. And with this move, it’s unclear whether they will have substantial roles in the new office. Joan, in particular, is in a strange position because though she’s talented and very competent, unlike the others, she didn’t become partner through her excellent work, but because she was willing to prostitute herself for a major client. She’s understandably nervous about where she fits in with McCann-Erickson. Like Joan, Roger should also be nervous because he’s the epitome of time passed. He hasn’t been able to weather the changes of the late 1960s very well, and still believes things work the way they did in his salad days. Don, like Roger, also has this problem – and never is this more apparent than in the few moments in this episode when he failed to conjure up that ole Draper magic to sell something: a last minute, somewhat desperate, attempt at convincing McCann-Erickson to let Sterling Cooper work from its L.A. office; and Don’s pathetic stab at rallying the troops when the news is announced to the whole staff at Sterling Cooper. He makes these sad, impotent gestures, and his brow furrows in confusion when his words do nothing. I always thought Don will be eventually humbled, but it’s still hard to watch.

As with any kind of major hubbub at the office, everyone, including the secretaries, are skittish about their prospects. As Dawn sagely pointed out, “they won’t need two office managers.” Peggy, whose professional life has been rather fraught these past couple seasons, is prodded by a head hunter to stay with McCann-Erickson. At Sterling Cooper, she was a major player – the position was a result of a lot of hard work, and if she has to work in a large outfit like McCann-Erickson, it’s unclear if she would maintain her lofty position.

But when the senior partners of Sterling Cooper meet with McCann-Erickson, they are placated by a promise that they’ve “won.” The absorption of Sterling Cooper should be seen as a reward for the senior partners, who will now have the backing of a major firm to do their work. Obviously, the reception is ambiguous, and the post-meeting drink at a bar confirms that they’re all feeling mightily bruised. And when Don has to break the news to everyone at the agency that Sterling Cooper is moving, his inept attempts at grandiose speechifying is drowned out by the disquieting buzz of an office full of people fearing for their futures. It’s a great scene because Don’s in a position of selling something he doesn’t believe in, and as such, his “clients” see through his pathetic ruse, and see that they’re all screwed royally. Maybe this episode should’ve been named Waterloo.

There were two minor plots beneath this main one about the office’s future: one had Pete and Trudy team up to try and get their kid into a poncy kindergarten, the other had Peggy deal with issues of motherhood. It’s interesting that both story lines dealt with children and the lengths parents would go to secure a future for their offspring. With Trudy, it means involving Pete (and using his lineage) to smooth over the process of getting their daughter into a prestigious and pretentious school. The story unfolds to reveal that Pete’s family and the principal’s family had a rancorous history, and the wounds still hurt. To be honest, this subplot didn’t work for me – it felt shoehorned in, and it was so slight. The only good thing about it was the welcomed return of Alison Brie and the wonderful Trudy Campbell. The writers gift her with a tiny moment in which she assesses her position in society – a divorcee who is slowly approaching middle-age, and it’s a wonderful mini-moment that outshines the school admission stuff, which felt ham-fisted and heavy handed (we get it, names and legacies don’t mean much anymore).

Peggy’s tousle with motherhood is much more interesting because it refers to a very sad plot line from the first season in which Peggy was pregnant with Pete’s baby. That Pete is so wrapped up in trying to affirm the legacy of his daughter Tammy, while his other kid is off with some unknown family is pretty sad. The experience has left Peggy pretty traumatized when it comes to kids. Stan takes this angst as hating children. When auditioning kiddie actors for a commercial, she’s overbearing with her discomfort around little tykes. She cannot relate to children, and instead talks at them with a forced, pained attempt at whimsy. Stan is more at ease with kids and the contrast is striking. Later on, Peggy discovers that a stage mom left her daughter at the office to pick up her other kid at another audition. Times were different back then, but leaving your kid in a strange office is still not cool – especially Sterling Cooper, where at any given moment, a kid can hear Harry Crane bellow “asshole” to someone on the telephone.

When the kid’s mom returns, it just so happens that the little girl staples her finger (I’ve done that a couple times – it hurts like hell). Peggy and the stage mom trade some nasty insults, both accusing the other of neglect. Stan of course takes Peggy’s side, and snidely remarks that the woman shouldn’t have children. Peggy finds Stan’s judgmental attitude a problem and slaps his nasty comments aside, reminding him that it’s different for women. If a woman and a man have a one-night stand which results in a pregnancy, the man has an easier time of just walking away. As she thinks out loud about how women should have it just as easy, she’s also admitting to Stan about her own baby. She doesn’t know where her son is ” because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.” It’s in that line that Peggy advises Stan never to judge a mother because it’s a circumstance that he’ll never fully understand because he’ll never experience it first hand.

Like Don, Peggy sacrificed a personal life for her career. Unlike Don, though, she didn’t have the option to at least have a stab at a normal family life. She wouldn’t find a man who would be content to stay at home and raise the kids, while she went off to work. She wouldn’t have found her own Betty. Instead, she decided that she’d be alone, that her work would be her solace. Joan, like Peggy, also finds succor in work, but unlike Peggy, has managed to carve out a life for herself outside the office doors.

I’m still unsure why I felt the episode a bit lacking. Maybe it’s because I feel like we’ve already done this before when Sterling Cooper was fending off the Brits. There has been a lot of stasis in this season – characters who should move forward, but instead are spinning their wheels. Knowing that it’s so close to the end, I’m worried that we won’t a conclusive end. That it’ll be like the end of Seinfeld, where it’s just another day. Mad Men is a great show because it doesn’t kowtow to TV conventions, nor does it offer easy answers to questions of money, power, gender, or sex. Instead, it reflects a murky reflection of our reality. It’s not escapist entertainment. I’m interested to see how the absorption of Sterling Cooper will impact the relationships of the characters as well as their careers.

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