“For the first time I feel that whatever happens is supposed to happen.”
With only three more episodes to go after this one, this week’s Mad Men felt for the first time like it was entering the end game of the series. Although the show’s initial focus was on Don Draper, its roster of characters has grown since then into a well-drawn ensemble – the question I kept asking myself was, how will concluding Don’s narrative serve as a sense of closure for all these people? I’m amazed I missed the obvious answer. The end of the show can only be about the end of the agency – the final destiny of Sterling Cooper & Partners, which has been the centre of all these people’s lives since the show began.
You could tell this by the camera direction, which kept cutting to wide shots of “the whole gang” (or at least the partners). A brief glance at the directorial credit would clue you in as to why the direction worked so well – it was by Jared Harris, who previously incarnated the much-missed Lane Pryce. If anyone knows how to handle actors on this show, it’s him. And in true Mad Men style, the ep’s title – Time & Life – reflected not only the building SC&P were about to vacate, but the show’s overriding themes.
For an ep so obviously concerned with plotting the end game, the script by Erin Levy (with, as ever, Matthew Weiner) was surprisingly light hearted. In a show often freighted with doomy portents, broad comedy can be hard to find – yet this show often manages it. We were there again this week, particularly with the ever-unfortunate Pete Campbell, his social climbing ex-wife Trudie (Allison Brie, yay!), and even Don’s ditzy secretary Meredith.
Yet the ep also had moments of aching poignancy, especially in regard to Peggy Olson. The plotline of the child she bore (and gave up) after a one night stand with Pete Campbell has hung heavy over the show since the end of season one; and in keeping with the general style, it’s more been about what’s unsaid than what’s said. Talk about a slow burn – it’s taken her ten years (in the show’s timeline) to finally tell anybody other than Pete. And even then, she couldn’t outright tell him.
And of course it was Stan she eventually ‘told’. After basically bashing us over the head with Peggy’s regret over her child, courtesy of a blackly amusing ‘audition’ for child actors, the two of them had a beautifully handled scene together where Stan, a smart guy, figured out exactly what was behind Peggy’s distress about that pushy mother. Trying to put herself in the bossy parent’s shoes, Peggy ever more evidently was talking about herself: “maybe you’d do what you thought was the best thing”.
It was a measure of how well this show draws its characters that this quiet, understated scene actually had me in tears. I actually really care about these people, fictional or not, and the whole thing was devastatingly played by Elisabeth Moss and Jay R Ferguson. For years now, I (and presumably others) have found Peggy and Stan to be one of those perfect couples who never quite get it together, Moonlighting style. I know it’s unusual for Mad Men, but I’d really like these two to have a happy ending.
At the other end of the pathos scale, I positively whooped to see the return of Allison Brie as Trudie Campbell. Together with the unexpected return of Community on Yahoo Screen, I can see her twice this week! It’s a measure of how good an actress she is that she can so perfectly inhabit two such disparate parts – status-conscious, social climbing Trudie is a world away from bright but neurotic Annie Edison in Dan Harmon’s cult sitcom.
Pete, as ever, was having a horrible time this week. Is it just me, or is Vincent Kartheiser taking The Method pretty seriously with this character? I’ve noted before that he seems to be shaving his head to accentuate Pete’s receding hairline and combover; he’s also got a pretty noticeable middle age spread and an increasing double chin. Though it might just be that he’s getting older himself…
Be that as it may, outside of the ructions at the office, he had to deal with one of the show’s more off the wall plotlines when confronting the truculent headmaster of the prestigious school that refused to admit his daughter. Turned out the teacher was a MacDonald, and they’re not at all well-disposed to Campbells – yes, he still held a grudge about the Glencoe Massacre in 1692! As if that wasn’t funny enough, Pete forsook his status as being the ‘not-mad’ one when it became clear (with a better punch than the one he landed on Lane Pryce) that he hadn’t forgotten either. It was a funny bit, but it also cleaved to one of the show’s continuing themes – you can’t escape the past, no matter how hard you try. Although you’d think 278 years would be long enough…
But of course the core of the episode was a more serious restatement of that very fact, as it became clear (courtesy of an admin error, all too believable) that McCann Erickson had been far from a white knight riding to SC&P’s rescue from Jim Cutler last season. Again, this was a slow burn – if you cast your mind back to season 3, it was McCann to whom Lane’s former employer Powell Puttnam and Lowe sold the original Sterling Cooper.
Back then, it was one of those rare moments of triumphalism in the show when Don, Bert, Roger and Pete took their best people – and their best accounts – off to form a new agency, in a big “fuck you” to McCann (who are a real ad agency by the way, and surprisingly OK with being portrayed in such a negative light). But it was now clear that McCann had been playing the long game – having finally got SC&P as a subsidiary, it was time to ‘absorb’ them, as it were. Given how hard Roger and Don fought for their autonomy last time, it was a crushing blow.
In one of the ep’s more predictable twists, ‘the gang’ tried to pull that off all over again, only to discover that McCann weren’t buying it. The foreshadowing and reminder of their previous triumph with so many of the characters confidently saying, “we’ve done it before”, was pretty much a guarantee that it wouldn’t work out this time. So it proved – despite dangling carrots like the accounts for Buick and Coca-Cola, it was pretty clear that this was the end for Sterling Cooper & Partners.
So – in the words of Buffy – where do we go from here? To the pub, of course. It was another standout scene as Don, Roger, Joan and Pete went off to drown their sorrows at a nearby bar. And there were the first hints of closure for some of them; notably in the amusing moment when Roger revealed that he’s now setting up house with Don’s former mother-in-law, Marie Calvet. And again, there was that feeling of a farewell. Yes, I know there’s another three eps to go, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of Roger; but he’s one of my favourite characters, and this almost felt like a sign off. Kudos to John Slattery for being consistently the most entertaining character in the show.
Very few this week – the ep was far more concerned with advancing the plot than any paltry mise en scene. However, one pop culture note courtesy of the surprisingly sympathetic Lou Avery. In another of those comical misunderstanding moments, it became clear that he didn’t know what Don was talking about with regard to McCann; he was far more concerned that his (actually not too bad) cartoon had been optioned by Japanese production house Tatsunoko, who also produced the Westernised anime Speed Racer.
You go, Lou, even though you’re basically just Shelley Levene out of Glengarry Glen Ross.
And while it may not have been a Big Historical Event, it was notable (though, as ever, understated) that we were now seeing black people in the SC&P elevator who weren’t actually operating it:
Not to mention Don’s (again, wryly amusing) encounter with the gay couple occupying Diane’s former apartment:
The times, they are indeed a-changin’.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Again, too much going on for there to be much fascination with fashion fauxs pas this week. Still, it might not be a fashion thing, but it was kinda funny to see how Trudie prepares herself for the world of appearances:
Elsewhere, Ken Cosgrove (taking much deserved revenge on Pete) was sporting an old favourite – the Eye-Burningly Hideous Checked Sport Coat:
While most of the office (Roger’s moustache notwithstanding) looked fairly restrained, heaven alone knows why Ted Chaough thought this suit was a good idea:
This really felt like a transitional episode, and the proper Beginning of the End for Mad Men. There’s closure for some (Roger and Marie) the potential of closure for others (Peggy and Stan) and… as ever, there’s Don. What’s the betting that the mysterious old flame who Ted (suddenly relevant for the first time in a couple of years) is actually Don’s obsession Diana? Given how much Don and Ted have been played as equivalents/rivals for years, I’d be amazed if that wasn’t what happened. Can Don Draper finally capture that elusive American Dream of happiness and contentment? With three more eps to go, I’m thinking… no.