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Mad Men recap: The end of an era

In its final run of episodes, Mad Men is dismantling everything that once defined it.

Mad Men is repeating itself again. This week's "Time & Life" features another clash between Don Draper and McCann-Erickson, the advertising giant who acquired Sterling Cooper & Partners in last year's midseason finale. But there's a key difference separating this corporate clash from the many, many corporate clashes that have come before it: This time, Don Draper lost.

McCann-Erickson has been the bogeyman tailing Don since Mad Men began. It began with a manipulative job offer early in the show's first season, and it ended last year with a full-scale acquisition of Sterling Cooper & Partners — the firm Don cofounded in a desperate attempt to get away from McCann.

In "Time & Life," the sword of Damocles finally dropped. For all intents and purposes, Sterling Cooper & Partners is over — an unruly stepchild being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the uniformity of the McCann family, who will absorb SC&P's clients (and as many SC&P employees as it cares to take in). The firm that Don and the rest of the Sterling Cooper castoffs originally founded in a crowded Manhattan hotel room will be remembered a cute, curious footnote in McCann's larger corporate history.

Of course, Don and his fellow partners don't just lie down and wait for McCann to grind them up. In previous episodes, Don has always come up with a brilliant, last-ditch scheme to save Sterling Cooper — most notably, when he engineered the elaborate escape from McCann's corporate hierarchy in season three's "Shut the Door, Have a Seat." That time, Don kicked off his plan by delivering an impassioned speech about his hatred for the way their little firm had been treated: "I'm sick of being batted around like a ping pong ball. Who the hell is in charge? A bunch of accountants trying to make a dollar into a dollar ten? I want to work. I want to build something of my own."

Don's plan in "Time & Life" comes from a similar basic philosophy: the desire to be left alone. As soon as he realizes that McCann plans to absorb SC&P altogether, Don comes up with a compromise: Sterling Cooper West, a more modest, California-based McCann subsidiary dedicated to clients like Sunkist, Burger Chef, and Secor Laxatives. That's $18 million in billings McCann won't have if it dissolves SC&P, and as Don sees it, there's no reason he shouldn't be allowed to operate in autonomy, generating guaranteed extra income for his corporate overlords.

But for the first time in Mad Men history, Don's seemingly slam-dunk proposal is an unequivocal failure. As he winds up a classic Don Draper pitch for Sterling Cooper West, McCann head Jim Hobart stops him mid-sentence and tells him to sit down. Hobart lays down his own Pollyanna spiel about the future McCann will offer SC&P's partners: an "advertising heaven" filled with clients like Buick, Nabisco, and Coca-Cola. But as rosy a picture as Hobart paints, you can't manipulate a panel of professional manipulators; the partners forgo the champagne Hobart suggests in favor of cheap beer at a dive bar, as they lament the dismantling of the firm they worked so hard to build.

Will McCann really be such a terrible place to work? That probably depends on who you are. Someone like Harry Crane, with a foothold in media, will likely be deemed essential. Someone like Don, who still carries some talent and a degree of mystique, can probably carve out a place for himself. Someone like Roger, who glides by on name and charm, might end up on the chopping block. The news is worst of all for Joan, who has already been trivialized and leered at by the McCann employees she encountered, and who will be probably forced to re-climb the ladder all over again — if they even let her get a foot on the rung.

But the McCann acquisition is probably best for Peggy, who is well-positioned to benefit from the resources and responsibilities afforded by the bigger firm. When Pete Campbell tells her the McCann news, she asks a headhunter to give her the full array of options. As it turns out, staying put is the best option of all; at McCann, she stands to quadruple her salary within four years.

But as much as "Time & Life" gives Peggy an excuse to look toward the future, she spends much of the episode focused on her past. It's been a long time since Peggy has directly addressed the baby she had out of wedlock, which she put up for adoption at the end of Mad Men's first season. But a heated confrontation with an angry stage-mom serves as a reminder that her professional success has come with costs to the life she should have had. "I'm here, and he's with a family, somewhere," she explains to Stan. "I don't know. 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."

It's a powerful and affecting acknowledgment of Peggy's long arc, and a refutation of Don's onetime insistence that it would "shock [Peggy] how much it never happened." Don may see Peggy as a protégé, but she hasn't internalized every lesson, and her ability to move forward without dismissing the past as meaningless seems a lot healthier than his constant efforts to ignore or escape his problems.

It's a lesson Don may need to take as he maps out his own uncertain future — which comes, as his secretary Meredith notes, without an apartment or an office. The big meeting with McCann ends with a shot of the SC&P partners:

The last time we saw the SC&P partners framed by a block of windows, they were staring away from us, taking in the gorgeous view from their newly rented office, and preparing for what was on the horizon:

But this time, the partners are framed staring at the camera, helpless and unhappy, with each window frame doubling as a prison block. They're not fooled by Hobart's pitch — and when they return to share the news with the rest of SC&P, no one else is fooled, either. "Hold on. This is the beginning of something, not the end," insists Don as SC&P's employees chatter fearfully over him, in another desperate and unconvincing pitch.

Whatever Don says, Mad Men isn't trying to fool the audience. This final run of episodes was promoted as the "end of an era," and "Time & Life" is the exact midpoint of this half-season, offering a clear path for Mad Men's remaining trio of episodes. As Mad Men's characters say goodbye to SC&P, so will we.

Read more Mad Men recaps:

* Mad Men recap: 'The Forecast'* Mad Men recap: 'New Business' feels like old news
* Mad Men season premiere recap: Is that all there is?

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