This review contains spoilers.
7.11 Time & Life
His ex-lover. His marriage. His apartment. And now his firm. These concluding instalments of Mad Men are stripping Don Draper like a postulant. He’s being prepped to go, unshod and shorn, towards some kind of reckoning.
There was an inescapable sense of the endtimes to Time & Life—a suitably momentous title for an episode that blasted Mad Men’s central premise to pieces. Without SCP, this workplace drama no longer has a workplace. Don’s not the only one being dismantled in time for the ultimate episode, “everything must go”, as Roger drily observed.
Having the countdown in our minds (is it really three more episodes? Only three?) turns Mad Men’s audience into members of our own Armageddon cult. We’ve had a peek ahead at the divine timetable and know the end is nigh, so, unlike the show’s unwitting characters, we see the signs all around them. Their conversations are loaded with poignancy. Their declarations that “we’re being swallowed up!” and—my favourite this week, “we don’t exist!”—take on additional meaning. From now on, each time a character walks off screen, we know that could be the last time we see them.
The foreknowledge may be tough to bear, but it made for an excellent episode. Time & Life, skilfully directed by Jared Harris, balanced comic moments with pathos that was entirely earned, not a last-minute import to wring some tears out in time for the finale.
The episode revisited fraught emotional territory for Peggy, and did so with beautiful and characteristic restraint. In another drama, we might have been bashed over the head with her adoption storyline each week, repeatedly reminded of her history with mawkish flashbacks and sobbing confessions. Not here. Peggy’s hesitating account to Stan (“I’m… here… and he’s with a family, somewhere”) was all the more powerful for being elliptical. You could call it a replay of one of the show’s finest script moments—Don and Peggy’s “playgrounds” conversation at the bar in season four’s The Suitcase.
More than once in fact, this week’s episode had the feeling of a Mad Men greatest hits compilation. Peggy and Stan aside, there was also the exhilarating thrill of Shut The Door, Have A Seat in Don’s plan to start afresh in the Californian office. (“You think we can secure three accounts in twenty-four hours?” “We’ve done it before.”) We had Pete throwing yet another punch. We saw the drumroll to a classic Draper pitch in that McCann Erickson board room. Finally, there was a closing whole-office announcement, a regular in the show’s repertoire.
The difference being that most of these replayed moments ended in failure this time around. They didn’t secure the clients and open the new office, Don didn’t wow McCann Erickson with his pitch (he didn’t even get to deliver it), and the staff walked out at hearing news of the office move, ignoring Roger’s denial of guilt and Don’s attempt at a rousing speech, promising “this is the beginning of something, not the end.”
No, it’s most certainly the end. That much was evident from the number of goodbyes and poignant reconciliations in the episode. Lou Avery and Ken Cosgrove may have said the former with a ‘fuck you’, but erstwhile couples Peggy and Pete, Trudy and Pete, and Joan and Roger, all came together for brief moments of kinship (even if Pete giving Peggy that heads-up seemed motivated by his guilt on seeing her in the arms of that child).
Speaking of Pete, his and Trudy’s school subplot wasn’t just a chance to revisit another face from the past in Alison Brie, but also a comment on the risks of looking too far backwards. Grown adults fighting about centuries-old clan history (“The king ordered it!”) is a farcical sight, a reminder of the absurd confrontations the weight of history can lead to. Well, that, or it was all just a fun joke about Pete being descended from a long line of cowardly, dishonourable yes-men.
While the rest of SCP were worried about their role in the future, Roger, like Pete, was more concerned with his past and his name. On the verge of being evicted from the building where he’d grown up, he was considering his legacy as the son-less only son of an only son (little illegitimate Kevin must have escaped his mind).
At least Roger had the dubious pleasure of Marie Calvet’s comfort. Like the last hour on the dancefloor at a club, Mad Men’s characters were beginning to pair off. Roger and Marie. Joan and Richard. Ted and his college girlfriend. Only Don was left uncharacteristically woman-less, Diana and her mysterious phone messages appearing to have moved untraceably on.
Last week we were left asking what’s next for Don? This week provided an answer: a four year contract in advertising heaven with McCann Erickson. Come on though, really? After all we’ve been through with him, that can’t be the afterlife he’s heading towards.
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Forecast, here.
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