One door opens for Sterling Cooper and Partners. And another one closes behind them.
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…
How amazing was that scene when Peggy finally revealed her secret to Stan? Only Elisabeth Moss could’ve played a scene that emotional without a shred of self-pity. “Maybe she was very young, and followed her heart and got in trouble” Peggy says, talking about the stage mother, but really talking about herself. “No one should be able to make a mistake and not move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life. Just like a man does.” In a way, that moment was a time loop, too. Just as Don Draper came clean about his past as Dick Whitman, Peggy is owning up to who she really is. But where Don will never get over the pain of losing his mother, Peggy is dealing with losing a child in the best way she can.
Long ago, in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don insisted that “happiness is… a billboard by the side of the road that screams, with reassurance, that no matter what you’re doing, you’re okay. You are okay.” Well, Stan tells Peggy, “Everything’s going to be fine.” And I believe Stan. But when Roger tells Don, “You are okay,” I’m not so sure. He’s lost his wife, his apartment, and now he’s basically lost his job. The SC&P partners clink glasses as if they’re toasting something that’s gone. Like the SC&P employees who Don and Roger reassure in that final scene, they’re all okay. For now. Until they’re not.
It makes sense to me that Don’s California dreaming didn’t go as planned. California has always been Don’s spiritual center, so it would be fitting for him to end up there, just as Ted predicted. But that would be a little too easy, especially now that California has become a symbol of his past, filled with memories of Anna and Megan and “the life not lived,” as Ken Cosgrove put it. So when Don gives McCann Erickson his big West Coast pitch, the old magic he used with his “Carousel” pitch doesn’t work. McCann Erickson can’t see the West as the future because SC&P has no future. It’s over. They’re done.
And, soon, Mad Men will be, too. I’d like to share my colleague Jeff Jensen’s belief that Don will prosper in decades to come, coming up with Coke’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing” jingle, one of the most important commercials ever made. (“How genius is it that Big Phony Don is working on Coke just as Coke adopted ‘It’s the real thing’ as its slogan?” Jeff pointed out to me after tonight’s episode.) Still, I fear we’re headed for a much grimmer place, for everyone except Peggy. These final episodes might feel like pennies you pick up off the floor and stick in your pocket. But everything’s going in a straight line to You Know Where.