It finally didn’t work: Don and his partners’ panache for reinventing their firm finally didn’t pay off in “Time & Life,” the eleventh episode of Mad Men’s seventh and final season. And who would have thought way back in Season Three, when they first jumped ship at Sterling Cooper to start Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to avoid McCann Erickson, that McCann would be one of the Big Bads of the series? Don was right halfway through this season in “Waterloo”: “Don’t fool yourself: You know they’re not gonna leave us alone,” he told Roger, who concocted the plan to have McCann buy SC&P as a subsidiary to save it from being torn apart by Cutler in the wake of Cooper’s death. McCann waited a year and now wants to swallow up the little company that could, moving them out of the Time-Life building and into their own offices. No more subsidiary, and don’t even think of turning to the old hijinks. No more clandestine meetings; no more stealing company supplies and starting a new agency out of a hotel room. Even Kenny isn’t buying it. Don’s charm and Roger and Pete’s business savvy can’t save them now.
Don’s futile declaration to SC&P staff that “This is the beginning of something, not the end!” was a perfect cap to an emotional episode, one that brought us closer to the end of the series with the characters asking “Was it worth it?” Time passes, things change, and that’s life. You can come out swingin’ against your adversaries, but sometimes, that only means you go down swingin’, as Joan aptly put it. The partners, now one year into their 5-year contracts, have nothing to do but accept the fate they knew was a possibility. Control — not to mention the millions of dollars — swayed them toward the subsidiary gamble. They won, in some ways — they’re all rich, some even richer than before, and they aren’t out of jobs. But they are out of their dream jobs, at their own agency, playing by their own rules. Sterling Cooper & Partners is no more; what is its legacy?
That question, and a look at choices made in the name of giving oneself and one’s children a chance at a better shot, permeated “Time & Life,” written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jared Harris (Lane!). Roger contemplated as much; with Margaret the only Sterling heir, the line — and name — pretty much ends, gone along with the company he helped build. Pete and Trudy assumed the Campbell family name was good enough to get Tammy into the school Greenwich Country Day, but unfortunately, the headmaster is a MacDonald. “You should know that his clan took advantage of the gift of hospitality and murdered my ancestors while they slept!,” he told Trudy after disrespecting her. “The king ordered it!,” Pete replied. (The MacDonald-Campbell feud is real, btw!) Three hundred years later, and a family’s name — and past — still matters. Trudy’s line to Pete after he punched the MacDonald and wanted to punch someone else who hadn’t treated her well highlighted a key theme: “Peter, you can’t punch everyone!” You can’t right every wrong, and you can’t always get your way.
One of the more moving sequences centered on Peggy, and here Weiner and staff made callbacks to key episodes of the series. As Peggy opened up to Stan about her having had a child and given the boy up for adoption, Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” plays on the radio in the background. This is the third time the tune has appeared on the show; first in Season Two’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” the episode that saw Peggy tell Pete about their child as well as Betty tell Don she was pregnant with Gene; the second in Season Six’s “Favors,” in which Don pulls strings to keep Arnold and Sylvia’s son from being sent to Vietnam. The parents in all the situations wanted what was best for their children, and they chose different paths to get them that. But choices do not come as equal opportunities, as Peggy made clear to Stan in perhaps the series’ most feminist and empowering exchanges.
Surrounded by children at the office for a Play-Doh campaign, Peggy was already uncomfortable and on edge. A mother left her young daughter alone at the office, and after Stan and Peggy brought the girl to Peggy’s office, she accidentally hurt herself by stapling her finger. The mother returned and blamed Peggy for not paying attention; Peggy blamed the mother for leaving the girl alone in the first place. Their emotions were raw, and their words betrayed deeper feelings about parenthood that are hard to understand unless you’ve been there.
Peggy: “I keep thinking about that woman.”
Stan: “Her kid got hurt; she felt guilty.”
P: “I know what she felt. I understand the entire psychological situation. She shouldn’t have talked to me that way.”
S: “She shouldn’t have kids.”
P: “That’s not for you to say!”
S: “Jesus, I can’t even agree with you.”
P: “I don’t hate kids.”
S: “Look. You got to a certain point in your life, and it didn’t happen. I understand you’re angry about it, but you’ve got a lot of other things.”
P: “Don’t do that.”
S: “I mean it! You couldn’t have done all you’ve done otherwise.”
P: “I guess that’s the secret to your spectacular career, the fact you don’t have kids?”
S: “Not that I know of.”
P: “That’s funny to you, because it wouldn’t matter if you did. You can walk away.”
S: “I would never do that.”
P: “But you wouldn’t know — that’s what you said. … It’s been a long day.”
S: “You’re right. I didn’t mean to judge her.”
P: “But you did, and you don’t understand it at all.”
S: “I had a mother! And she wasn’t great, and I don’t know that she wanted me, so maybe I understand something.”
P: “But you don’t understand your mother!”
S: “Well maybe I don’t want to!”
P: “Maybe she was very young, and followed her heart and got in trouble. And no one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.”
S: “You’re right.”
P: “I know. Maybe you’d do what you thought was the best thing.”
Peggy’s lines recall her remarks to Ted at the end of Season Six, when he rejects her and insists she’ll thank him one day for the decision he made to move to California with his family and leave her behind. “Well aren’t you lucky — to have decisions.” Joan is feeling much of the same; of all the big-name clients Jim Hobart named off to the SC&P partners to assuage them of their fears, no client was named for Joan. Moving under McCann, she will lose her one account, Avon, and perhaps the chance to have another. She’s made big, life-altering decisions in the name of security for herself and her family, and she’s succeeded, at least financially. But what else, besides a paycheck, does she have to show for it?
Joan at least is happy in her personal life with Richard. Roger has Marie, and Ted has rekindled a relationship with a woman he knew in college. Who does Don have? He goes looking for Diana, who called him, but she’s gone. He presumably living in a hotel, his realtor still apartment-hunting for him. His last-ditch effort to create Sterling Cooper West didn’t pan out … but there’s always California. He’s drawn to it, as he tells Ted. And his non-compete contract is for Don Draper, not Dick Whitman. This development could bring him one step closer to the change he desperately needs — the change all the main Mad Men characters need. It’s not enough to save the agency and their careers; they need to focus on saving themselves. The playing of “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket” as the partners watched the staff walk away from them, not interested in whatever lines of encouragement they had to offer. The jig is up: You got the money you wanted. You did what you thought was best, but for whom was it really best? Notice where they were gathered, and remember the vision Don saw in that same spot a year earlier:
The best things in life are free, indeed.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.