27th Apr2015

‘Mad Men 7×11: Time & Life’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Stop struggling.  You won.”

The Sterling-Cooper dream team has died and gone to advertising heaven. Jim Hobart enunciates the name “Coca Cola” like he’s asking Don and the other partners how they enjoyed their simultaneous touchless orgasms, but in reality he’s stealing their name, tossing probably half their employees out into the street, and consigning them to serve out in drudgery the four-year contracts they signed when McCann bought their agency.  Through seven seasons these people have managed to keep one step ahead of McCann, thumbing their noses at a company they’ve often scorned as a “sausage factory,” and now it’s over.  In Ken’s words, “They finally got you.  They ate you up.”

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The triumph of mediocrity is everywhere in ‘Time & Life.’  Even Lou Avery, squarest of the square and blandest of the bland, finally gets to see his beloved ‘Scout’s Honor’ turned into an animated TV show by Tatsunoko Productions, the same people who made ‘Speed Racer.’  Lou signs off to Don with a jaunty, “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life,” going on to his own personal creative Mecca while the rest of Sterling, Cooper & Partners gets swallowed whole by an indolent leviathan.  Mad Men has always been able to see the sublime in the creative side of advertising, but the world of business is something it portrays as unequivocally ugly.  Exciting, full of risk, ripe with dramatic potential, but ugly and without a soul.  This is what winning means in a field dominated by greed and excess and shamelessly promoting the same, the empty payoff to the private dreams and ambitions of the agency’s personnel Don hunted down and then scorned in last week’s ‘The Forecast.’

This is also the day Don’s voice, the instrument he used to snake-charm fearful Lucky Strike executives, to bring Peggy out of her fog, to chastise and inspire and titillate who knows how many hundreds, is rendered useless.  Hobart cuts him off mid-pitch, a vindictive Ken doesn’t even give him a chance to speak, and at the episode’s close he’s unable even to bring his own employees to order or ease their concerns.  He spends the whole episode pursuing conversations and finding either a mind already made up or else no one at all, as when he goes searching for Diana and finds her apartment occupied by two gay men.  There just aren’t any problems he can solve by talking.  The decisions, as Hobart placidly informs SC&P, have already been made.

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The scene in which Pete and Trudy discover that their daughter is being barred from a prestigious kindergarten because the new headmaster is a McDonald and holds the Massacre of Glencoe a little too close to heart is accessing the sublime through the bizarre.  Pete’s punching the irate teacher in the face feels like a reflexive jab at the impossibility of a world in which a feud almost 4oo years old can keep his kid out of school.  No matter what you do, no matter how much you have or who your parents were, there’s always going to be some fired-up weirdo ready to derail your day and damn the consequences.  And anyway, what was that headmaster’s problem?  The king ordered it!

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It would be a real disservice to review this episode without looking at its pronounced feminist through-line.  Things taken at face value by men, like the idea of a bastard child or the consequences of a change in workplace dynamics, are continuously questioned or dragged out for explanation by the show’s women, most notably Peggy and Joan.  A day spent working with children leaves Peggy in a fragile place, and when Stan jokes that he might have kids out there somewhere she takes him to task with real anger in her voice.  Levy’s and Weiner’s script, Jay R. Ferguson’s and Elizabeth Moss’s performances, and Jared Harris’s muted direction bring soul-effacing believability to Stan’s slow slide from “God, mom” frustration to pity and then to understanding.

Watching a show change a man’s mind by forcing him to view the world through a women’s eyes sounds like a recipe for a stilted soapbox polemic, but Peggy’s exchange with Stan goes the distance.  We see him internalize her pain and make an effort to know it, and that’s huge.  Joan’s exchange with the obscenely wealthy void she’s dating for some reason is more understated but no less cutting.  When she finds out she can’t escape going over to McCann, her fear isn’t that her creative life will be stifled but that she’ll be subjected to four years of the disgusting behavior she endured in a meeting with a team of junior executives from the larger firm.  Richard’s attempts to calm and console her are met with a firm reminder that he doesn’t experience the world the way she does.  Joan has an unfortunately clear view of her place in the world and how tenuous the respect she’s fought for is.

Even Meredith gets a slam-dunk moment when she gives Don his marching orders after he keeps her in the dark about the merger.  While the partners are running around playing Batman and trying, futilely, to salvage their agency, people like Meredith are forced to worry about whether or not they’ll still have a job tomorrow.  She wants to be shown respect, and that means being clued in.  Don doesn’t really get it, but watching Meredith angrily refuse him his Alka-Seltzer is good enough for me(though not better than Shirley flatly stating to her face, “Goodness, Ms. Meredith, we should put a bell on you”).

Jared Harris, the once and future Lane Pryce, helms the episode beautifully.  The whole of ‘Time & Life’ is packed full of references both visual and verbal, with Don crying out “This is the beginning of something!” to his panicking employees in a hapless mirror of the opening scene of the season 7 premiere, ‘Time Zones’ coming just minutes after a shot framing the remaining SC&P bigwigs in a reverse of the famous window-frame shot from ‘The Phantom.’  Mad Men has such a rich visual history to call back to, and doing so now helps to reframe even SC&P’s earlier, independent financial victories as hollow accomplishments.  What has this company ever really done for anyone?

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As Mad Men gets its coat and hat and prepares to abandon its audience like Don Draper walking out on his kids, I find myself thinking about what sets this show apart.  It looks great, sure, like historically great, Jon Hamm is exactly as good as the world says he is, everyone’s beautiful, and the scripts will justly live forever as a high bar for creatives of all types, but what makes Mad Men great is that it’s funny.  Joan’s bitterly frosty “That’s nice,” Lou’s insufferable words of parting, and Roger planting a kiss on a drunk and grinning Don all scratch at the humor buried in the fear and aimlessness of living life as a human being weighted down by thoughts, regrets, and dreams.

That’s something you don’t always see in work that comes at Life’s Big Questions, but I’m pretty sure all the manifold joys and terrors of life are contained in Peggy apologetically muttering “She stapled her finger” to the mother of a weeping child.

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