Though it’s vague, weighty, and ruminative enough to be the title of just about any hour of Mad Men, anyone who’s paid much attention to the show over the past few years could have guessed that “Time & Life” literally referred to the Time-Life Building, the home of Sterling Cooper and Partners. Indeed, last night’s standout episode began with a shock: McCann Erickson, planning to move Don Draper et al. into their own building, had stopped paying the office’s rent.
If this storyline — SC&P gets royally screwed after agreeing to a takeover — sounds familiar, it’s supposed to be. Four episodes from the series finale, Mad Men gives us the advertising equivalent of the “one last job” trope, as the five partners scramble to save their company’s independence by convincing a handful of clients to follow them to the firm’s tiny California office, rather than getting dropped from McCann due to a conflict of interest. Of course, since this is Mad Men, the trope has a higher purpose: to set the tone for an episode in which all the characters seem to do is revisit the decisions that have shaped their lives. In some cases, it even seems like they’ll get the chance to right old wrongs. (But, again, since this is Mad Men, most of them will probably just repeat them.)
Before we get into what the company’s dissolution means for individual character, though, let’s take a minute to acknowledge how crazy an idea it is to move all of SC&P to a 1500-square-foot office space on the other coast. Remember, first of all, that the McCann deal has made every one of the partners — Don, Roger, Joan, Pete, and Ted — rich, if they weren’t already. It would be easy for the five of them to spend the contractually required four additional years phoning it in at McCann and then retire. Instead, what they want to do is uproot their entire lives in order to maintain their precious independence and keep the (work) family intact. Because, if it wasn’t already clear, their entire lives are Sterling Cooper & Partners. Even after Jim Hobart patiently explains to them that being absorbed by McCann is a good thing and plies them with such Holy Grail clients as Nabisco and Coca-Cola, there’s more than a hint of sadness to their celebratory drinks.
It makes sense that Ted is the only one who never intends to leave New York. Don’s living, breathing redundancy (as opposed to his office doppelganger, Bob Benson), he’s also the sole partner who remains enough of a human being to prioritize his personal life over work. As he reveals to (who else?) Don, he’s met someone. Well, actually, he’s gotten back together with an old college girlfriend. “She’s gorgeous, and a little bit deep,” Ted says, with a vulnerability that verges on, well, the collegiate.
There’s certainly some poignancy to the fact that he’s reunited with an old lover rather than finding a new one, and the fact that neither he nor she can remember why they broke up all those years ago carries with it the distinct possibility of impending doom. What’s most important, I think, is the way we see Ted continue to get into the same trouble as Don, Roger, and his other peers: infidelity, overwork, repeating past mistakes. The difference is, he does all of it with a heartbreaking genuineness — and when things go wrong, it hurts him in a far more direct and understandable way.
This brings us to Don, who plays a relatively (and refreshingly, in my opinion) small role in “Time & Life.” It’s obvious why he’s so eager to relocate across the country; as poor Meredith — who should have a bell on her! — observes, he’s about to have no office and no home. Plus, as of last week, his daughter hates him. It’s a bit alarming that he’d set up shop in the same town as Megan, sure, but clearly there’s something alluring to Don in the possibility of running into her and getting stuck in that relationship loop again.
More shocking is the fact that Don delivers two informal pitches in the episode, and both fail. Hobart shuts him down midway through his plea for SC&P’s independence, during which he resorts to the jaw-droppingly terrible chestnut, “California: it’s a gold rush out there!” At the very end of the hour, when Roger (who doesn’t get nearly enough of a storyline in “Time & Life”) fails to assuage his employees’ fears about the McCann move, Don steps in with a Draper classic that also calls back to Faye’s parting shot, “You only like the beginnings of things.” He tells them, “This is the beginning of something, not the end.” And they walk out.
Joan’s plight is clear, and depressing. As she tells Pete in the car home from the partners’ drinks, “Hobart listed off accounts for everyone but me… We both know they’re never gonna take me seriously over there.” I had actually suspected the same thing that Pete mentions, that the Ortho Pharmaceutical account was for Joan. (Though they were a drug company, Ortho’s focus was on contraception, from diaphragms to pills — a subtle reference to Peggy’s storyline this week, probably.) But Joan is skeptical, and since she’s more intelligent than both me and Pete, it’s likely she’s right. This is crushing, considering what she told Richard last week about having finally gotten the job she always wanted. Now, she seems to have a choice: take the money and the rich dude or keep fighting for her career.
Speaking of Pete, he spent the episode being bafflingly nice to women! The man who played such an instrumental role in pimping out Joan a few season back has only kind and respectful words for her. And after learning that Tammy has been waitlisted at Greenwich Country Day, he shows up to support Trudy in a meeting with their head of admissions. It goes terrifically poorly, with Pete punching out the gatekeeper, who reveals that he’s rejecting their daughter because of a 300-year-old feud between his family and the Campbells — one that dates back to their Scottish ancestors. (Talk about repeating old mistakes!) Later, when Trudy confesses to Pete that all the husbands in town stare at her, but won’t in ten years, he tells her, “You’re ageless.” The interaction that follows implies that there’s hope for reconciliation here, and that Pete may even be maturing enough to deserve it.
Still, it’s a bit of surprise when Pete (and not Don, who fails on all counts as a manager and mentor this week) takes Peggy aside and tells her the McCann news. Of course, he’s largely motivated by the desire to have her comfort him — and she does. “I’ve never worked anywhere else,” says Pete. “You’ll do great,” says Peggy, who had to leave the company to get to where she is but still isn’t a partner.
What makes this so uncomfortable, obviously, is the past Pete and Peggy share. Their awful encounter and the baby she gave up as a result of it is the subtext to their every conversation, but in “Time & Life,” that history comes to the surface in the way it hasn’t in years. Stan watches as Peggy exhausts herself trying to get some kids, in the office for a campaign, to play. Then, he sees her vicious argument with a mother who left her young daughter at SC&P — and who stapled her own finger when Peggy and Stan were supposed to be watching her. “You do what you want with your children, and I’ll do what I want with mine,” the mother tells Peggy. It’s impossible for the woman to know how hurtful that comment will be.
In a conversation later, Stan surmises that Peggy simply hates kids, and begins to psychoanalyze that. But when she delivers a monologue including such Don Draper-adapted revelations about childbearing as, “She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does,” he guesses that there’s more to her story. Stan asks her what she did. “I’m here… and he’s with a family, somewhere,” Peggy says. “I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because you’re not supposed to know, or you couldn’t go on with your life.” She’s been so strong and successful and competent in the past few years that it’s been easy to forget what Peggy has been through. This exchange is proof that the guilt over giving up her son has followed her through the years, even if she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
It also looks like proof of what made both my heart and my Twitter feed rejoice last night: that the heavily shipped Peggy and Stan (in a futile attempt at being an adult about this, I will not call them “Steggy”) belong together. Not only does he offering understanding and sympathy when confronted with her darkest secret, but he decides to go to McCann purely, it seems, because she’s going.
Now, Peggy has a chance to avoid one of Don’s biggest curses: relationships plagued by lies. Deep down, I believe Mad Men is a show about people who will never stop making themselves unhappy — even Peggy, who I love and identify with. A romantic ending, if only just for two people, would seem a bit hollow. And yet, I also want nothing more than to see Stan and Peggy together forever.