Time & Life

 

Finally: an episode-long love letter to both veteran detractors who complain that ‘nothing’ ‘happens’, and critics of recent episodes’ neglect of established characters. Though neither camp appeals to me–who would happily watch Museum Hours-style full episodes devoted to period paperweights–I have to imagine that viewers partial to plot events found some satisfaction here.

But the problem with viewing Mad Men as a story in which nothing happens is not only one of inaccurate evidence–remember Ken’s lawnmower?–but also of ineffective concept, insofar as this stance delimits what counts as an event so narrowly, that the majority of stories told and ways of telling exceed its purview. In other words, the critique evinces an approach unsuited to the text. It’s a different show if your sense of event is comparatively receptive, expansive–enough to let a theme or even an image be a thing that can happen, within the world of the story, but also to you.

In one of the series’ most memorable frames, the old guard pauses before wall-length windows as if hitting and holding their marks. Joan has taken them up to the new prospective office space, and rather than see the city’s light on their faces, or even see them seeing what the square footage affords, we see them: together, with Joan at the heart. This image looms over “Time & Life,” as the original crew rallies, yet again, to fight and to win.

First Roger and then Don asserts that they’ve done “this” before, citing at least three previous professional resurrections: the hotel room reboot at the end of Season 3; the CGC partnership to land Chevy; and Roger’s own victory at Waterloo, saving SC&P–and specifically, Don’s employment–by becoming a subsidiary of McCann. As in these past battles, the partners scramble uphill, contriving an alternative complete with poster board. But just because the sky was blue yesterday and the day before doesn’t ensure its blueness tomorrow. Their Hail Mary is well telegraphed but who knows how late, given that their last victory is revealed to have been an audition.

The window, then, has two sad analogs. First, when Roger and Joan break the news of their imminent absorption, and the partners stand in Don’s office to pour one out for SC&P. Their “toast” sets the tone for a more explicit picture of defeat: the partners gazing blankly from their side of the table, having come early to a meeting to which they were never quite invited. Like Satan, Jim Hobart tempts each of the men with the brand they’ve long wanted, though the subsequent drinking is more funereal than celebratory, beers > popped bottles. Joan’s exclusion from the appeal is instantly clear–to us, but as she articulates it on the ride home with Pete, we find her having to translate what might otherwise to all of them appear a neutral, if menacing, encounter. The fact that only Joan sees light from the oncoming train doesn’t double as protection from impact.

Back at the ranch, Peggy too explains experience under patriarchy in her emotional disclosure to Stan: “No one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.” Peggy’s oblique, palindromic caption to her secret pregnancy begs the question: what is a man? Is it Richard booking a redeye to New York the instant Joan’s voice catches on the phone? Is it Pete, suckerpunching a headmaster in ex-wife Trudy’s defense? (See also: long-belated restitution for the punches he’s absorbed from Lane, Howard Dawes, and one intrepid rail conductor.)

What is a man? Poor Tammy Campbell fails her ‘Draw a Man’ test, the success of which we learn is based on volume of detail. Given the past seven seasons, it’s shocking to hear that hers–depicting a head, mustache, and necktie–suddenly constitutes an insufficiently intelligent impression. You can imagine the rubric held by Greenwich Country Day: what about his sports coat? His wet bar? His secrets?

Peggy has done her best to live her life like a man can: to develop her talent, to position herself such that said talent earns artistic and economic value, and to fiercely protect her autonomy, even at intimacy’s occasional expense. That said, “Time & Life” remains ambivalent toward what a man is and can do. While Roger has perhaps found in Marie Calvet(!) a woman of Mona’s maturity and Jane’s magnetism, and even Ted has met someone “a little deep,” Don finds himself ever more alone, with mirrors to his loneliness held from every angle. His eventual visit to Diana’s apartment is the equivalent of texting You up? to the last person who made you feel. He can’t keep love, and he can’t save the ship. There is darkness to Peggy verbalizing her aspiration toward equal opportunity at the very moment when Don’s life is most characterized by failure. Life “as a man” may alleviate the genuine pressure of certain obligations, but regret stays in the picture.

The partners’ attempt to quell office gossip by announcing their assimilation is a last opportunity for “Time & Life” to measure the distance between former success and present downfall. Don tries to make his usual galvanizing speech, but as the camera pulls back, unrest can’t be soothed. He’s not necessarily wrong in saying, “This is the beginning of something, not the end”–but the fallacy is in imagining that all beginnings are good ones, and that all conversations can be changed. Enjoy the rest of your miserable life, crows Lou from the site of their brief, dashed dream. 

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Thanks to Javier O'Neil-Ortiz.

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