Mad Men: “Time & Life”

Mad Men: “Time & Life”

Pete Campbell is incensed to hear that young Tammy hasn’t been admitted to the Greenwich Country Day School. “What was she doing on the wait list at all? My father’s entire family went to that school,” he fumes. Pete places stock in his family name, and he trades on that stock accordingly. When he tells the Greenwich Country headmaster that “it’s a Campbell family tradition” to attend the institution, he expects this reminder will be enough. The Campbell name is worth that much, he reckons.

Yet the headmaster places a different value on Pete’s imprimatur. He brings up Tammy’s poor performance on the “draw a man” test, a thinly veiled suggestion that Pete’s absence leaves his daughter without a compelling male role model. Without that fatherly connection, she’s a Campbell in name only. Oh, and about that name. It sweeps Pete and his child up in a centuries-old beef between the headmaster’s ancestors and Pete’s “clan.” Pete doesn’t deny the charge that his forebears pruned a few branches off the MacDonald family tree, but, he protests, “The king ordered it!” It’s the eternal Pete Campbell lament. He did as he was told, so why shouldn’t he reap the rewards?

The verbal and literal fisticuffs at Greenwich Country Day capture the amorphous nature of legacy, an idea that dominates this episode. “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks in one scene, via Don Draper. Pete insists that “Campbell” stands for scholarship and privilege. The headmaster perceives treachery and weak moral fiber. A name is what you make of it.

In “Time & Life,” the characters make what they will of the name Sterling Cooper. The words on our heroes’ front door have undergone a number of permutations. Sterling Cooper. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Sterling Cooper & Partners. And now, in Don’s hasty scheme, the business is to be reborn again as Sterling Cooper West.

Don senses the approach of death—the agency is losing its lease in Time & Life, which is as concise as a metaphor can get—and he moves to stave it off. Don’s notion is to build a new agency out of the SC&P accounts that overlap with industries covered by McCann-Erickson—the so-called “conflicts.” It figures that Don sees the potential for renewal in conflict; he became Don Draper in the Korean War. McCann’s Jim Hobart deepens this parallel when he refers to the conflicted accounts as “casualties,” which Don hopes to gather up and run away with.

Don is animated by the prospect of preserving his independence—in essence, his ability to write his own story, a privilege he has long insisted upon. By building an agency solely on conflicts, he sketches a rebellious vision of Sterling Cooper: It’s everything that McCann-Erickson can’t be. The idea possesses a certain romance, which obscures a delusion. Don thinks he’s fighting to maintain his freedom from SC&P’s parent company, yet he concocts a theoretical agency whose portfolio would be defined by the limits of McCann’s business. McCann is still drawing the lines, in other words, and Don is simply deciding which side he wants to stand on. He perceives victory in occupying the side labeled “Sterling Cooper.”

And “West”—a codicil that heightens the idea’s allure. Prepping his pitch for the McCann chieftains, Don asks Ted Chaough, “How do I describe California in a way that doesn’t make them jealous?” At this point his fantasies of paradise are so intense that he’s worried it might sound too good—he has to rein in his persuasive genius! Ted, however, is not under the same spell. “I know you’re attached to California,” he says to Don. “I don’t know what it means to you, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Don replies, “It does mean something to me.” He doesn’t elaborate. Ted turns the conversation toward Megan, assuming she’s the root of Don’s attachment to the state. Don shrugs off the mention of his ex-wife, though. If any California woman occupies his thoughts at that moment, it would probably be Anna Draper, who facilitated his first and most formative break with the past. She made California a place of rebirth for him.

Now, as Don feels the sun setting on his creative empire, he has the urge to go West again, chasing the daylight. He’s adding blank pages to his narrative because he hasn’t figured out the ending. It’s the same way a TV show like Mad Men plays for time as it extends a story into one season after another. But Mad Men is finishing up now, and so is Sterling Cooper. Don just has to admit it.

You can forgive his inclination to resist, given his history. The frequent efforts to save the Sterling Cooper legacy are, as it happens, a large part of the Sterling Cooper legacy. In last week’s episode, Don remarked that all he used to think about was whether the agency would still be in business next year. Sterling Cooper West promises a return to those days, when uncertain short-term prospects offered a distraction from the more daunting vagaries of the long term. So this week, after Pete questions the practicality of a 24-hour scramble to secure accounts, Don answers, “We’ve done it before.” Likewise, Roger reassures Ken, “We’ve done this before. We know we can.” Superficially, they’re right. They have successfully improvised to save Sterling Cooper in the past, and it’s in their nature. The difference is that before, it seemed that Don, Roger, et al. were rescuing something of substance. Now, they’re just fighting to perpetuate a name.

Don’s failure to understand that essential distinction leads him to make one of the oddest pitches of his career. The McCann executives walk into the boardroom, and the Sterling Cooper crew asks them to sit down, taking command of the meeting (in their own minds, at least). Don sets the scene: $18 million in billings that would be lost with SC&P’s dissolution. He pivots: “What if we can service those clients from the modest offices of SC&P West?” And then the big reveal: A placard that reads, “STERLING COOPER WEST, A DIVISION OF McCANN-ERICKSON.”

Don does a fine job. He has a practiced rhythm, and he delivers his lines with the appropriate confidence and smoothness, the way he’s done so many times before. But something fundamental is off here. The Draper magic is typically applied to huge ideas—sweeping campaigns that evoke deep currents of the shared human experience. Here, Don plies his world-class showmanship in service of smallness. “The modest offices.” “A division of.” The epic tone doesn’t match the proscribed content, a dissonance overlooked by Don.

Jim Hobart paints a more striking picture. “I shouldn’t have to sell you on this. You are dying and going to advertising heaven. Buick. Ortho Pharmaceutical. Nabisco. Coca-Cola.” He lists off these accounts to each partner in turn—Joan excepted—and their eyes light up, even Don’s. Hobart’s pitch is an echo of Peggy’s plea to her kiddie focus group: “I’m giving you permission to play with all these great toys! Do what you would do if we weren’t watching!”

Don and his colleagues like their new toys, and they’re also aware that they only get to play with those toys under supervision. That’s the tradeoff here. “Stop struggling. You won,” Hobart tells them. His admonition implicitly defines Sterling Cooper’s legacy: a struggle for meaningful independence in a crass realm. In the new order, the partners will have access to huge brands, fearsome influence, and all the resources they could desire. Their struggle is over, and so, necessarily, is Sterling Cooper. In exchange for all the success they ever desired, they have to take the McCann-Erickson name. On a practical level, it seems like a plum deal for Don, Roger, and the rest. But Jim Hobart is the only one who leaves the meeting with a smile. His legacy is secure. (Okay, Ted looks pretty happy, too. Pete would tell you that’s because Ted’s a “sheep.”)

The SC&P rank-and-file are unhappy to hear about their imminent absorption into the mothership. As the crowd disperses after Don and Roger’s announcement, Don protests, “Hold on. This is the beginning of something, not the end.” In reality, it’s both, but Don prefers to emphasize the former. As Dr. Faye Miller once told him, in a devastatingly accurate assessment of his character, “You only like the beginnings of things.” He likes them because when he focuses on a beginning, he doesn’t have to consider endings—those in the past and those yet to come. Instead, he can dedicate his nervous energy to the potential of an uncharted future.

Don has flirted with the idea of endings in recent episodes. His encounters with Diana this season have happened against the backdrop of one past love or another—Rachel, Sylvia, Megan—as he used the waitress to imagine more satisfactory conclusions to those broken romantic arcs. After an abortive phone message from Diana in this episode, he goes so far as to seek her out at her apartment, craving a final chapter that could at least provide some meaning. But he only finds that Diana has moved on, leaving him behind like the rest of her furniture. Don is struck once again by the disorienting, empty loneliness of the endings in his life.

So, yes, Don’s all about beginnings. When he shares that sentiment with the grumbling SC&P staffers, though, they tune him out and keep walking away. It’s a glimpse of the aura that Don has lost by casting his lot with the entrenched powers of the advertising world. As Mad Men draws to a close, Don is threatened by more than the end of “Sterling Cooper.” He faces the end of “Don Draper,” as life forces him to define, at last, what’s in his name.

Mad Men doesn’t often draw direct connections between Roger and Pete, but “Time & Life” highlights a key similarity between them: They’re both fathers who are estranged from their daughters, and both men have compensated for their paternal failure with the quiet hope that they’ll be perpetuated through their work instead. The agency is Roger and Pete’s adoptive child. That helps explain why these two characters react most emotionally to the McCann news: Roger mutters helplessly, “What do I do?” and Pete storms out of Don’s office in a rage.

In the dissolution of Sterling Cooper, Pete and Roger both perceive the end of their line. “Margaret is the only daughter of an only son of an only son,” Roger mopes, melodramatically implying that the Sterling name had been hanging by a thread for generations anyway. Pete, meanwhile, is moved when he sees a girl wrapping her arms around Peggy, struck by thoughts of their abandoned lovechild—and the alternate universe of familial bliss that never came to pass. “I’ve never worked anywhere else,” he says to Peggy when he fills her in on the McCann development, and the word “worked” carries a double meaning. Pete has never held employment anywhere else, but more to the point, he has never functioned anywhere else. His attempts to go through the motions of a loyal husband were a debacle. As a parent, he’s an absentee on two counts. Only at Sterling Cooper has he managed to build something that endures, and the same goes for Roger. It’s easy to understand their alarm when this enterprise dissolves as well.

Ken Cosgrove certainly understands it. At the beginning of the episode, we see Ken toying with Pete, taunting his former rival with self-satisfied indecision. But while Ken likes to watch Pete squirm, he wants to extract a more significant pound of flesh from his old masters, and the Sterling Cooper West plan presents that opportunity. Pete and Roger try to woo their former colleague to bring Dow’s business over to the new venture. “I fantasized that one day, I would be in this situation with you, Roger,” Ken says when they’re finished, “and Pete, well, you’re not exactly an innocent bystander.” This is his prelude to a simple, delicious “no.” From Ken’s point of view, Pete and Roger conspired to rob him of his future. With his refusal, he gets to exact the same pain on them. An eye for an eye.

Like her cohorts in the SC&P executive suite, Joan has invested herself in her career at the expense of her family life, but you don’t see her fighting like Pete and Roger for the survival of Sterling Cooper. The name means something different to her, something less permanent. Look at what happened to her during the past couple of reinventions. Her detailed knowledge of the agency’s operations was essential to the early days of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and as a reward she got a mid-tier office management job in the new firm. Later, the genesis of Sterling Cooper & Partners coincided with Don’s capricious abandonment of the Jaguar business—an account Joan had sacrificed her dignity to secure. All her Sterling Cooper progress has been transient.

In this light, it’s no surprise that Joan greets Don’s latest flight of fancy with the astonished response, “Are we really playing this game?” She recognizes the familiar cycle of wounded ad men protecting their pride, and she had dared to hope that her partners had matured beyond it. No such luck. Oh, and by the way, Don will need Joan to concede her Avon account to McCann—he’ll have her “hand-deliver” the business, in fact, to make his scheme more palatable. Once again, the work that Joan developed is expendable in the interest of Don’s whims. He sees a fresh start; she sees the return of old disappointments.

Richard hears Joan’s hurt over the phone and resolves to fly out to New York that night for moral support, a gesture that moves her. She’s relieved to speak with a man who takes her career seriously rather than regarding it as a glorified hobby. Contrast Richard’s respectful compassion with Jim Hobart, who, as Joan observes to Pete, “listed off accounts for everyone but me.” With no solid prospects, where does she go now? Does she carve out a niche of business for herself yet again—another Etch-A-Sketch legacy to be bargained away the next time Don feels antsy? Maybe, although at McCann, it’s not even clear she’ll get the chance to do that much. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with,” Pete says by way of consolation. And that’s exactly the problem.

The gaggles of children roaming the SC&P offices are this episode’s ham-fisted (but worthwhile, given the results) way of making Peggy confront her painful choice to give up her son. Peggy is nervous around kids. She tries to browbeat them into playing with their toys, and when a little girl gives her a hug, Peggy practically has an allergic reaction. Stan’s assessment, “You hate kids,” doesn’t seem so far off the mark.

He soon learns that it’s more complicated than that. Peggy is incensed at the mother of the girl who was left behind after the casting session. “I bet you love cashing their checks,” she snaps when the woman finally returns to pick up her kid. Peggy sacrificed a child so that she could work harder; in the stage mom, she sees someone who has children so that she can work less.

But Peggy also identifies with the woman. Even though Peggy resents her, she sees a kindred spirit—someone who had to deal with the same question of motherhood-or-not. So later, when Stan criticizes the mom, Peggy leaps to her defense. “She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does!” Peggy insists, and Stan realizes that Peggy’s talking about herself.

Peggy doesn’t know the whereabouts of the son she gave up, she confesses, “but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.” Go on. That’s the advice that Don gave her years ago when she was in the hospital maternity ward, confused and afraid. “This never happened,” he told her. “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Instead, it shocks Peggy how much it did happen. The Don Draper model of self-serving amnesia is not effective here. Peggy’s memory of her abandoned child places a lasting pressure on her—she must succeed to justify the portentous choice she made.

Peggy gave up her son under the theory that it would give her the freedom she needed to build a prosperous, fulfilling career. So she’s thrown when a headhunter advises her to stick around at McCann, parking herself in its soul-deadening confines for a few years. Spending time at a mega-agency will burnish her resume and make her name more valuable, but this isn’t the triumph nor the artistic satisfaction Peggy had hoped for. Still, she feels obligated to make the call that benefits her career. She can’t shortchange the dream now; she sacrificed a child to get this far.

“I’m fine. I have work to do,” Peggy tells Stan to end their conversation about her forgotten son, and it sounds like a line she has used on herself before. As long as she finds meaning in her work, she can convince herself that she’s doing okay. That she made the right call. This calculus is what makes her immediate future at McCann so frightening, because McCann threatens to take even more luster off the aspirations that once prompted Peggy to choose the childless path. The legacy she strives to build is haunted by the legacy that she declined in the name of Sterling Cooper.

Stray observations

  • This is the final version of tonight’s Mad Men review. Because our readers are always eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, each week I’ll post a review that examines the main storyline of the episode (probably Don’s), and then throughout the night I’ll update the review with analysis of the rest of the show, screenshots, and more Stray Observations from my notes.
  • Roger raises an almost-empty glass in a belated toast to Bert Cooper. Joan says, “Glad he missed it.” Would the castrated, childless Cooper have been displeased with the end of the Sterling Cooper name? Or would he have appreciated the Randian efficiency of the transaction?
  • Don asks Pete whether the Secor Laxatives account was “difficult to move.” Pete says, “All I had to do was not make that joke.” Unlike poor, fired Johnny Mathis, Pete knows he can’t pull off Don’s shtick.
  • When Don starts in on Roger for fooling around with Marie Calvet, Roger has a line ready: “When I married my secretary, you were hard on me. Then you went and did the same thing.” It’s the rare moment when Don is disarmed instead of emboldened by his own hypocrisy.
  • Roger gets to the bottom of the unpaid-lease mystery, but not before threatening to fire two black staffers. All in a day’s work!
  • The most important takeaway from this episode is that Lou Avery got the happy ending he wanted. Scout’s Honor promises to revolutionize the anime world.

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