Review: 'Mad Men' - 'Time & Life': Everything must go?
A review of tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as the king ordered it...
"Hold on. This is the beginning of something. Not the end." -Don
Hey, there's the "Mad Men" I know and love and was expecting to get in the home stretch!
"Time & Life" seemed at first like it was going to be the latest performance of the show's most popular trick, where Don and the other partners scramble at the last minute to completely restructure the agency — in this case, to avoid being absorbed into the soulless advertising machine that is McCann-Erickson. "We've done it before," Don reminds the others — and one of those times was specifically to stay out of Jim Hobart's clutches — and as the old team puts their heads together for one last caper, it sure seems like they're going to pull it off again.
But they don't because they can't. Hobart made up his mind long before they had the first inkling this was coming, and there isn't another Houdini act in their immediate future.
It is, in fact, an episode loaded with characters trying to repeat old patterns, or simply being reminded of them, only to learn that their fate was decided too far in the past to change now. Pete and Trudy can't get Tammy into the private school they want because of a feud Pete's ancestors had back in the old country with the headmaster's clan. Ken won't sign on for the tentative Sterling Cooper West plan because he holds too many grudges against Roger and McCann (just like Ferg Donnelly fired him for leaving them years before). And while Peggy's romantic history with Pete encourages him to tip her off about the big changes coming, she's again forced to reckon with the decision to not be a mother to their son.
This was a crackling episode not only because the focus was more on the work — always the series' stronger element — but because it was able to make the personal relationships, and the long tail of history attached to them, feel like a part of the professional stories in a way that the recent curtain calls for Glen, Megan and others didn't. History has hung over this whole half-season, but these are the parts of the history that are most compelling, even as so many characters get boxed in by what they've done before.
It was an hour overflowing with historical nods, whether verbal, emotional, or visual (the shot of the five current partners looking dumbstruck in the McCann conference room a deliberate mirror of the five living partners surveying all the possibilities of that second floor).
Every meaningful scene in the episode was informed by all these people had been through together — sometimes personally, sometimes professionally, sometimes both — and all were so much richer for it. Pete had heartfelt moments with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, and Joan, whose rise to partner he made possible, even if his feelings for her at the time were far less generous than they were in their shared cab ride here. He and Peggy don't discuss their son — it's not something for them to talk about, even in these increasingly rare moments where they remember how much they once cared for each other — but the conversation primes us and Peggy nicely for her shouting match with the neglectful stage mom.
As Stan notes, before finally piecing together what it is that has Peggy so riled up about this woman, she accomplished all she has at that agency precisely because she didn't have kids. This is a decision she can't take back — she hasn't even tried to know what happened to the boy, "because you're not supposed to know, or you can't go on with your life" — and unlike so many of the episode's other pieces of history, it's one that has done her enormous good in her career: the headhunter even promises her a quadrupled salary and limitless options if she spends three years at McCann. But this is twice now in one season(*) where Peggy has had to reckon with that choice and come out wondering if she would make it again if she could have a do-over. She has a job she's great at, an erratic mentor who can inspire her or crush her dreams, and a best friend who will stay on the phone with her for hours just because she needs to know he's there, but is that enough for her?
(*) Assuming we are going along with AMC's silliness and treating these 14 episodes as one season instead of two, then her feelings for Julio count.
And even if Peggy were to somehow travel back in time to that hospital bed, she would likely just do the same thing again, given how much this late stage of the series has featured characters simply repeating the worst pieces of their history. Pete and Trudy get along better now, but could they reunite without getting the same selective amnesia currently afflicting Ted and his once-and-future girlfriend, who can't recall why things fell apart for them in college?
For all of Jim Hobart's promises of what awaited (most of) the partners in advertising heaven, our heroes know what awaits them will feel much more like purgatory, if not the hotter place down below. Ted wants to be relieved of his responsibilities, but that's because Ted has always struggled with responsibility. But the other four? At McCann, Roger is a redundant administrator, Don and Pete are just cogs in a giant machine, and if Joan's lucky, the worst she'll have to endure is the disgusting frat boy treatment she and Peggy dealt with while discussing the Topaz problem a few episodes back. There's no way out of this(**), which means they have to just smile and accept their fates.
(**) Though maybe there is for Don? Several times this season, he's complained about the hollowness of their profession. He has to stay at McCann if he wants to stay in advertising, and if he wants to get all the money he has coming to him from the sale, but what if he cares about neither and just decides to go hobo again?