Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Time & Life" (season 7, episode 11)

Mad Men - "Time & Life" (season 7, episode 11)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 26, 2015/written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner; directed by Jared Harris): A few minor storylines dance around the edge of the big black hole at the center of "Time & Life". Don learns that Diana left him a couple messages, told his service not to deliver them, and fled her apartment, which has now been rented to a gay couple (Anthony Gioe and Scot Zeller) who've already sold off her furniture. Little Tammy Campbell has been waitlisted at Greenwich Country Day despite a family legacy going back generations (turns out that the head of admissions has a family feud with the Campbells going back even further, to seventeenth-century Scotland); the boisterous meeting results in Pete punching the vindictive Bruce MacDonald (William R. Moses). Pete and Trudy draw closer together, as she tells him the difficulties she's having as a single mother in the suburbs. Peggy and Stan are in charge of a brood of juvenile actors auditioning for a commercial; when it comes to dealing with them, she's a stiff and he's a natural, grumbling "You hate kids," which she takes to heart. The day ends with little Susie (Ava Acres) accidentally stapling her finger under the creative team's not-so-careful watch, before Peggy tells Stan her whole sad story of maternal sacrifice. He apologizes and consoles her.

Oh, and Lou Avery is going to Tokyo to adapt Scout's Honor as a Saturday morning cartoon with a Japanese studio. Anyone else have "Lou Avery exits stage left to create an anime" on their bingo card when he showed up at SC&P as a lumbering stick-in-the-mud replacement for Don? Just me? Ok, I think that does it for the peripheral stuff.

The nuclear explosion of this season begins with what looks like a microscopic matter - even if it does almost result in the firing of three loyal employees. When Roger realizes that Dawn, Caroline, and Shirley didn't actually forget to pay the lease for the Time-Life building, that in fact McCann Erickson gave notice in writing to the landlords that SC&P would be moving out, the partners are (mostly) horrified. The day has finally come, far sooner than expected if expected at all. Hobart played them all for fools and they are going to be swallowed whole and dissolved on their way down gullet of one of the biggest names on Madison Avenue. Clinging to any possible shred of hope, Don concocts one more escape hatch, as is his specialty (Lou, in fact, provides the inspiration). Why not grab all the clients who would create potential conflicts for McCann, secure their loyalty over the next twenty-four hours, and then create a dazzling presentation for Hobart: introducing Sterling Cooper West, relocated to the now-abandoned L.A. office to conquer the new frontier. Ken has way too much fun saying "No" to Roger and Pete for Dow to be onboard, but enough others sign on for the plan to be successful. The music perks up, the confident crew marches in tandem, and Don puts all of his charisma to the test.

And then Hobart shuts it all down. The deal is done, client casualties are no worry, and he wants them all to think of it as reward: "You've died and gone to advertising heaven," he assures them, promising five of the most plum jobs in the industry and listing off potential clients climaxing with "Coca-Cola" as he looks straight into Don's eyes. "This is the beginning of something," he promises. "Not the end." But it doesn't really feel that way as the five partners - experiencing that disorienting, bittersweet mix of resignation, relief, disappointment, and at least a twinge of excitement - gather at McSorley's Old Ale House. (I initially thought this was an error on the writers' part, since I'd always heard that this infamous New York pub was closed to women until the nineties, but in fact the script is right on the money; the court case that allowed Joan inside was decided in 1970.) It's hard to believe it's all over, and even harder to believe how easy it is to move on, even if they didn't go down without a fight.

Is that all there is?

My Response: I knew it wasn't going to work this time. The Sterling Cooper gang dodged this bullet on too many previous occasions, and with three episodes to go there isn't much point to yet another miraculous escape. And the show knows we know this; there isn't a great deal of build-up. The pacing is not quite as manic as when SCDP was founded or CGC merged into the future SC&P, the mise en scene is not as dramatic as when Don was hesitantly re-hired, and the stakes don't seem quite as high as when Don was saved by the McCann Erickson buy-out. (Incidentally, I'm only now realizing that Jim Cutler must have departed with his share, given Roger's oblique offhand reference; I don't think we've seen him all season and this episode clarifies that absence because he'd certainly be present for this.)

However, if Mad Men is tipping its hand that Don's latest last-minute save will be an anticlimax, the episode still does the work to make the presentation convincing. This is Erin Levy's tenth and last episode writing a teleplay for Mad Men, coming full circle since she debuted with the SCDP founding in season three. She has a flair for crisis mode, also writing the episodes in which Lucky Strike's departure became public and Megan quit advertising. Once again the whole ensemble is humming with energy and conviction, even good old Lane making his debut behind the camera. One last escape hatch to the long-running promised land of the series is a logical move (indeed, with an upcoming episode referencing "milk and honey" I'm pretty sure we aren't done with the west yet). We've already invested some time establishing the sleepy L.A. office, so we have a landing pad. Nor does it feel like we're quite done with Megan - snapping at her sister doesn't play like proper farewell, and the show has never been content to merely dispense with ex-wives when the marriages end. So there's plenty of material to work with in California. Yet it's all over before Don gets to lift the first posterboard.

The fact that the Sterling Cooper stars' first and final defeat is sold as a victory only makes the McCann coup all the more humbling. And our second diabolical Jim is pretty hard to trust, not least because he's always looked like such a villain. On paper, or rather in the imaginary picture he paints, everything he says is convincing. Of course he'd want these talents under his wing. Of course it's better business to consolidate by spreading the wealth around, much as many ancient empires allowed diverse cultural practices to keep the conquered populace satisfied. Of course they all have nothing to worry about...right? In a way, I hope that's correct. Because the dangling of such security provides the perfect backdrop for an odyssey, and I suspect Don isn't going to settle for a cushy, prestigious job in someone else's company - a decade ago that was part of his hungry climb but at this stage it feels too much like a premature conclusion, a plateau rather than a peak. For Peggy, on the other hand, this opportunity paves the way for several more crucial steps before the show closes out. I'll admit I've already seen an image involving her from the next episode (years ago, but it's also the icon for the next episode on the DVD I'm watching, so hardly a spoiler). I can't wait to see how it plays in the intriguingly-titled "Lost Horizon."

Next (active on February 21, 8am): "Lost Horizon"Previous: "The Forecast"

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