Mad Men episode 7.11, Time & Life, is Jared Harris’s directorial debut, and I can only say, Welcome! This is the best episode of Mad Men since Waterloo. Harris deftly juggled a huge range of moods, subtly and not-so-subtly calling back to earlier episodes, and toying with our expectations throughout.
I’m not going to end with a bunch of bullets this week, so I’ll give you quote of the week up front. Naturally, it belongs to Roger: He loves feeling the tip of your nose in the seat of his pants. Ha!
In our first scene at Sterling Cooper, we see Roger’s desk piled high with folders. Since the beginning of the second half of Season 7, we’ve seen Roger working hard; something he’s never done before. Caroline pulling Shirley in to help her was treated as a joke, both in the script and by the audience, but there’s a serious component here; Roger has a lot to do, probably for the first time in his life. He’s taking the work very seriously as well, living up to the responsibility he took on as president of SC&P, to make the company work, and to honor Bert Cooper’s memory. The fact that it was Roger who figured out that the lease had expired, and then followed up on what that meant, is proof enough. In the past, wouldn’t he have pawned that off on Joan, or at least Dawn?
Isn’t hard work supposed to amount to something?
In Time & Life, a lot of people are trying to preserve a lot of things, things they’ve worked very hard to keep. Most of the partners want to keep SC&P as a separate entity, Pete wants to keep the tradition of a Campbell in Greenwich Country Day School, and Joan wants to preserve the professional respect she has at SC&P—something she (and we) knows she can’t get at McCann.
The episode also walks us through moment after moment of the past coming back to haunt people. What did I do? Roger asks, of selling the company to McCann Erickson. He’s remorseful, he apologizes. But the past, the things we’ve done, are everywhere in this episode. Ted, the one partner who is comfortable with what’s happened, is dating his old college girlfriend. Don reminds the partners, We’ve done it before. Pete gets in a fight over a three-hundred year-old conflict between the Campbells and the MacDonalds. Pete also calls Trudy “
timeless ageless.” Ted looks back on his time in California with deep regret, apologizing to Don for taking his slot out there. In the episode’s most devastating scene, Peggy’s past returns to haunt her.
The direction deftly echoes this theme of recurrence in shots and motifs that remind us of past episodes. We are explicitly reminded of Shut the Door. Have a Seat. We’ve done it before. So much so that I was absolutely convinced they could pull it off. I started thinking about how Mad Men has always had a trajectory towards California, and how many people have predicted the series would end with Don Draper out west.
But if this show has ever had a villain, that villain has been Jim Hobart since we met him in Season 1, and Don is defeated, leaving the partners at the conference table, lined up and devastated, in a reversal of the hopeful shot of the partners from behind that was one of the final shots of Season 5.
At the end of that very dark night of drinking, the partners one by one leave, until it’s just Roger and Don at the bar. Roger confesses his relationship with Marie Calvet—another relationship from the past that came back, if you’re keeping score—and then says to Don, You are okay.
Is that, like, the most famous quote from Mad Men or what?
Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.
When Pete and Peggy sat on the couch at the end of Meditations in an Emergency, the scene, shot by shot, echoed a Season 1 scene of the two of them on the couch. The most significant moments these two have shared have been on the couch in his office or hers. So here they are on the couch again, and clearly the visual reference is there. Even if you don’t remember it as explicitly as I do, for a fan of the show, I think the image must at least evoke a subconscious feeling; the physical placement is so intimate for these two. Because of their past. In Meditations in an Emergency, Pete and Peggy sat on a couch together as she told him that she gave up his baby for adoption. In Time & Life, Pete comes upon Peggy being hugged by a child, and then they shut the door and have a seat on a couch together. He says he’s coming to her to be helpful, but in the end, she comforts him, and it’s clear that’s what he really went there for.
Time happens. Life happens. You struggle, you give things up, you make decisions. You do the work, as Freddy Rumsen once said. You do it because it produces results.
Except this time. This time, you just have to surrender. You just have to stand there with the realization that you lost.
It’s at this moment of loss, the end of the road for SC&P, that we return to Peggy, and that, dear reader, is when I cried. I don’t hate kids. Peggy is sitting on another couch. In this moment with Stan, I didn’t know how far it would go, how much she’d confess (if anything), and how much he’d understand. But the moment was so incredibly full, that it seemed inevitable, and so very earned, that the scene went all the way. Full confession. I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. So the next day, when she says she wants him to go to McCann, and you know she’ll be able to make a place for him, you know that they trust each other fully, and this will be okay. I have never been a hardcore Stan/Peggy ‘shipper, but this one did it for me. Go for it, you crazy kids!
What’s in a name? Don asks. Roger thinks he’s quoting Shakespeare, but Don is thinking as much about Dick Whitman as about Sterling Cooper. Everyone wants to preserve a name, a presence, a sense of making a mark on earth. Peggy’s mark, her child, is invisible and forever lost to her. The Sterling name is gone, and Cooper lost his balls in the war. Now Sterling Cooper as a name is gone too. Joan wants to preserve her name as an “account man.” And Don? Don’s the guy with the gung-ho speeches, the ability to see the future, to paint a vision of tomorrow that inspires. He’s done it time and again. And this time? Hold on, this is the beginning of something, not the end.
They all walk away.