We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
This week’s episode of Mad Men, “Time & Life,” might’ve felt a little familiar. Doors were closed. Men invited other men to sit down. Sterling Cooper and Partners got a new name.
This is starting to feel like a pattern. Think of the episode “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” Think of Bert Cooper asking Don to shut the door in “Waterloo,” before he tapdanced his way toward heaven. Think of Lane Pryce’s body hanging from his office door. Think of what Roger Sterling said in “The Doorway”:
What are the events in life? It’s like you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, “What’s on the other side of the door?” Then you open a few doors, and you say, ‘I think I want to go over the bridge this time. I’m tired of doors.’ Finally you go through one of these things, you realize that’s all there are: doors, and windows, and bridges and gates. And they all open the same way. And they all close behind you. Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change, you, change your direction. But it turns out that’s not true. Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket. You’re just going in a straight line to You Know Where.”
On the surface, the title “Time & Life” is a reference to the old name of the Time-Life Building, where Sterling Cooper & Partners has its headquarters. (There’s currently a Don Draper statue sitting there.) But “time” and “life” are also two words you use when you’re really talking about something else: death. Or as McCann Erickson calls it, “advertising heaven.”
No one on Mad Men wants to admit that they’re nearing the end. The show is stuck in a time loop, with characters repeating the same mistakes and plotlines getting respun. (The agency is doomed! The agency restructures! The agency is saved!) Ted is even dating the exact same woman he dated in college. Roger’s joke about how Don would be screwing his grandmother is a nod to the “grandfather paradox,” a time travel problem that both changes the course of history, and prevents history from being changed. It also feels like a good metaphor for what’s happening with Sterling Cooper and Partners. Now that they’re being absorbed by McCann Erickson, they’re starting over, and they’re also preventing themselves from existing. “This is the beginning of something, not the end!” insists Don. But the beginning and the end are the same thing. We all come from nothing, and return to nothing. What matters is what you do in between.
As Peggy knows, no one ever said on her deathbed, I wish I’d spent more time at the office, searching for my passport to Paris. For many people at Sterling Cooper and Partners, though, it’s still hard to tell the difference between work and life, which might be why men like Roger and Don end up marrying their secretaries. When Meredith asks why he looks depressed, Don says, “It’s personal,” even though he’s really upset about the way business is going. And Joan and Peggy are both reminded that they exchanged something very personal for success at work. Joan’s choice to trade a one night stand for a partnership cost her greatly, especially since it looks like McCann Erickson might not absorb her accounts. But Peggy was able to move up the ranks because she gave up her baby for adoption. “You do what you want with your children,” the mother of the little girl from casting yells at her. And, ultimately, that’s exactly what Peggy did: what she wanted.
NEXT: More time loops…