When you’re already cheering during the opening credits, you know it’s gonna be a good one.
“Time & Life” is an utter knock out. Director Jared Harris plays joyfully with moments of sweeping momentum, hushed attention, and surprising warmth. It’s a relief to return our focus to the work lives of our characters, and it couldn’t have happened in a more enjoyable way. In the end, things aren’t exactly looking up, but the whole thing has been so fun that it doesn’t matter.
In “Time & Life,” things aren’t working how they should be. Don’s answering service are a bunch of “bird brains,” giving him messages he wasn’t intended to receive—messages from Diana without return numbers, good for nothing but haunting him. Peter Dykeman Campbell’s family name, for the first time ever, works against him. Peggy straight-up short circuits when she has to interact with children—and Stan notices. McCann-Erickson botches (was that a mistake or a power play?) the announcement of its game-changing news. Tammy has failed her Draw-a-Man test. And Scout’s Honor has been purchased. SCOUT’S HONOR HAS BEEN PURCHASED!
Of course, I’m leaving out the most profound disappointment, the most disruptive fly in the ointment. But let’s get to that later.
As we moved through this episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch. I was lucky enough to write about “The Strategy” last year, and in that recap I wrote about family in the form of colleagues. Don, Peggy, and Pete sitting in that clean, well-lighted place, laughing over burgers and shakes, content for a moment in each other’s company, and in the knowledge that they’d done good work. “Time & Life” hits this concept over and over again: the value of the unlikely family. It hits it so hard that by episode’s end, even in the face of an inarguably depressing turn of events, we are positively swooning.
The relationships we see here have quieted over time. They’re now more loaded with history than angst. The characters are remarkably accepting of each other, in a simple, steadfast way that we’ve rarely seen on this show. The years behind them are present in every moment, and the man who gave us Lane Pryce (director Jared Harris) makes sure to let those moments breathe and pop so they bring peace and depth rather than treacle. If that’s all there is, well, that’s not so bad.
Forgive me, but I’d like to go through these moments by focusing on each longtime pairing that comes into play. We only have three episodes left: let’s indulge.
Joan and Roger
History: They have a secret son. Roger has a history of professing deep love and esteem for Joan, but, when it counts, he tends to abandon and degrade her. He humiliated and undermined her with Jane. He didn’t object to the role Pete asked her to play in winning Jaguar. Jim Cutler, not Roger, recognized her value and made her an Account Executive. Last year, Joan let Roger into Kevin’s life, but not into hers.
“Time & Life”: When Roger receives the letter notifying him of the failure to pay the lease, he stands at his desk, yelling for Joan. (She rightfully saunters in in her own damn time and tells him, “Don’t do that.”) But Roger, childish as his reaction is, isn’t exactly summoning a secretary here. His tone is desperate, and he’s calling the person he hopes can fix everything. He might as well be yelling, “Help!” In turn, Joan takes one look at the letter, intones, “I’ll take care of this,” and marches out. Later, when the bad news comes, they huddle together, Joan listening in on the call. Afterward, she rests her head on his shoulder as he says, “What do I do?” They look not like lovers, but teammates. This snuggle is collegiate.
Later, when the Sterling Cooper partners cap off an afternoon of drowning their sorrows with a toast to Bert Cooper, Joan rises to leave. It’s Roger who entreats her to stay longer, come back after her plans. She says, “Don’t be a baby—I’ll see you tomorrow,” and puts her cheek against his.
You see? Quiet. Affectionate. Accepting. History without acrimony. Time and life
Roger and Don
History: Roger once came on to Betty, so Don tricked Roger into climbing thirty flights of stairs after a giant oyster lunch, causing him to puke spectacularly on some clients’ feet. Roger left his wife for Don’s secretary. Roger went along with the plan to put Don on leave after his Hershey pitch. Roger also fought to bring Don back.
“Time & Life”: After Don comes mighty close to helping Roger pull yet another “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” they end up alone together, the last two at the bar. The revelation of Roger’s relationship with Marie Calvet comes gently. The two are mind-blowingly adult about it. There is no subtext here. They tease each other a bit, and then Don says, “For the second time today, I surrender. I’m happy for you.” And we believe him. Roger grabs Don’s face with both hands and kisses his cheek like a grandma. “You are okay,” he says insistently, absolvingly. Don looks back in surprise. Oof.
Genuine absence of negative feelings. Fondness. Regard. Good wishes. Time and life.
Don and Ted
History: Perhaps the most acrimonious history of all. Don essentially ruined Ted.
“Time & Life”: Don and Ted talk openly about ex wives, Ted’s new girlfriend, and what California means to Don. They’ve both had profound disappointments, and each bears some responsibility for the other’s recent implosion. But now they’re just talking. They are friends. This is happening, and we believe it.
No heat, no competition. They’re on the same team. Time and life.
Don and Joan
History: They once seemed like the two voices of reason in the room. Their mutual respect and knowing banter was dreamy (“But that’s life: one minute you’re on top of the world, and the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.”) Their relationship has seriously soured over the years: Joan resented Don’s shock at her actions regarding Jaguar and was deeply bitter about his recklessness where their shared business was concerned. Joan wanted Don out, and she wanted him to stay out.
“Time & Life”: THANK GOD, it seems Joan and Don are back together again. Joan gives a resigned, “You can’t just tell Don, Roger,” as she parades the rest of the partners into Don’s office to tell them about the McCann development. She doesn’t love this dynamic, but she knows it inside out and is confident she can deal with it. Now, they are squarely united, fighting desperately for the same thing. They speak as equals as they strategize the California plan. When he says she needs to stay at McCann for Avon, he’s not telling her what to do; he’s pointing out a fact that they both know is true. As she tells him at the bar, with a lingering hug (so many cuddles and kisses in this episode!), “We went down swingin’.”
There is love here! These people love each other!
Joan and Pete
History: If Ken Cosgrove had been alone at that meeting with Jaguar, no one would have ever heard anything about it.
“Time & Life”: When Joan confides to Pete that McCann will never take her seriously, Pete responds, “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.” This moment feels huge, less for what it says about the relationship between Joan and Pete than what that it means for each of them individually. This is the first time we’ve seen Pete express genuine regard for Joan as a professional, and we know he means it. Given their history and his record, we know it cost him something to say it. It’s also worth noting that, for Joan, this is likely a compliment that could only be meaningful coming from a coworker. She has an evidently supportive partner in Richard, but the truth is Richard has little idea who he’s dealing with either, because he can’t see her at work.
This moment never could have happened before now. Time and life.
Pete and Trudy
This one doesn’t quite fit, but I’m going there anyway. Because Alison Brie is back and Trudy Campbell slays me.
Pete and Trudy’s marriage certainly struck all the wrong chords for a modern audience, but gender inequality, infidelity, and the suburbs aside, they’ve always knocked “being a team” out of the park. At least in the professional realm, Trudy was the savvy, well-trained partner Pete needed to progress, and she seemed to relish her role. Remember their dancing at Roger’s garden party? That wasn’t spontaneous. That kind of social finesse represents two lifetimes of preparation for a very specific kind of partnership. Though the Pete-and-Trudy act doesn’t buy Tammy a spot at the right school, it’s great to see them back in business together. Seeing Pete treat all three of the women in this episode with respect, and even tenderness, is quite something. He leaves the bar because he “should call Trudy. She had quite a day as well.” What?! Since when does Pete think about Trudy’s days? And his “You’re ageless!” I’m still not over that.
You can’t tell me anything but time and life could have wrought such a change in the man whose treatment of women has so often turned our stomachs. As with many of these examples, there is an element of loss and sadness to the characters’ growth. It wouldn’t be Mad Men otherwise, would it?
Pete and Peggy
History: You know. As the years have gone by, Pete and Peggy have developed a relationship that is, above all else, knowing. They’ve always understood each other pretty well, at least professionally. As antagonists or allies, they carry their history in every moment they share, sometimes lightly, and sometimes not.
“Time & Life”: Pete’s first action after learning about the McCann absorption is to tell Peggy. They are eerily synchronized here, right down to their conversing cream, brown, and blue diagonal stripes (I haven’t spent years gobbling up Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style for nothing). It’s a sweet callback to another couch conversation, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Pete declared his love and Peggy revealed her pregnancy. Now, they are in their own worlds, processing the news. But they are considerate of each other. He thought to tell her, and he’s strategizing her next moves, however vaguely in the face of his own concerns. She clicks into secretary mode for a moment, assuming that old role with him, comforting him softly: “You’ll do great.”
Who would have guessed they’d end up here? Friends.
Peggy and Stan
History: You know! Let us never forget the glory that was Peggy calling Stan’s bluff and forcing him to strip to his underwear while they worked. They’ve come a long way. Their relationship has been intimate and loving (there are many expressions of love) for awhile now.
“Time & Life”: Stan takes most of the episode to catch on that there’s something deeper behind Peggy’s unease with children. Finally, Peggy lays it all out: “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.” After that moment, very little more is said between them. Stan doesn’t make Peggy say anything explicitly. They know each other deeply at this point, and his caring for her is apparent. (I’ve never had much of an opinion on whether Stan and Peggy should “be together;” I love their relationship, whatever it is, and I don’t feel the need to see Peggy paired off before this show ends. This episode was the first time I wondered: have we been watching these two people fall in love this whole time? They stay on the phone with each other while they work, for Pete’s sake.)
This storyline is a knock out in itself. THANK GOD this moment got its due. I’ve wondered before whether Peggy’s arc actually ended last season, with her Burger Chef pitch. What else could possibly be resolved for her, in seven episodes, that would top that?
I stand corrected. Peggy was confronted in “Time & Life” with questions she likely doesn’t often allow herself to ask. She’s alluded to her baby only once or twice since she gave it away. (In “The Suitcase,” to Don: “…it comes up out of nowhere. Playgrounds.”) She wears the weight of his loss beautifully here. “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.”
In any case, Peggy and Stan are family. No question.
So, the good news is, the fire’s gone out. People are mellowing, and they may even be growing more compassionate as they do so. In “Time & Life,” they seem more willing to look each other in the eye, to live and let live.
The bad news, unfortunately, is the same: the fire’s gone out.
In an episode full of surprises, the biggest shock comes during the partners’ meeting with McCann Erickson: Jim Hobart interrupts Don’s pitch.
When Don Draper gets up in front of a room, we relax. We trust him to take us somewhere. You can see that trust on the faces of his partners when he begins this presentation: they sit expectantly, tiny smiles creeping onto their faces as he speaks. He’s got this. We’ve seen it a million times. It’ll be a good show.
And then, like it’s nothing, Hobart interrupts. Not only that, he shuts down the conversation, dismissing the idea and the motivation behind it. “Stop struggling; you won,” he says, chillingly.
So even though they have indeed “done this before,” even though we know they can do it, no matter how much like “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” this episode has felt up until now, it’s not happening this time. It’s over.
As the partners sit and listen to Hobart detail how lucky they are, we see the energy drain from them. They do stop struggling. But they don’t look happy.
What’s so bad about going to McCann Erickson?
To start with the obvious: it’s selling out; their snot-nosed executives treated Joan like shit just a couple of episodes back; they tried to snare Don years ago by taking advantage of Betty (there’s no way that “COCA. COLA.” Hobart directed at Don was inadvertent); Roger won’t have his name in the lobby anymore; Peggy probably won’t become Creative Director there (though she’ll surely move on—and up—quickly, elsewhere). They are a fish that Hobart has wanted to catch for a long time, and chances are working for him will feel like it. But other than that, what’s going on here? Why are they struggling?
This team has always been at its best when it’s fighting for survival. From sneaking out of the original Sterling Cooper, to teaming up with CGC, to selling to McCann, to this very morning’s dreams of California, they’re all addicted to that let’s-put-on-a-show romance. We see it most clearly and enduringly in Don, of course, and this final swing is his idea. But it touches all of them. Even Ted, with his new subdued-but-not-unhappy vibe (“Because you’re a sheep!”), was ready to make this happen. Even Joan, the eternal pragmatist, probably with the least to gain, wanted it. Roger and Pete, sometimes in spite of themselves, have always loved throwing themselves into Don’s romantic aspirations. As Roger says to Don later, “I always envied that. The way you’re always reaching.”
We’re addicted, too. What’s more exciting than watching our gang break from the conference room and set about trying to collect their clients? Who wasn’t already daydreaming about Don and Peggy running the California office, with Roger and Pete tan and bickering, and Stan scribbling in the background? Maybe Don can help Stephanie raise her baby! Maybe Joan will break her contract and find a new, fabulous job outside of advertising and move there too! Maybe they’ll all have picnics on Sundays, and Richard and Roger will become best friends! I have a good feeling about things!!
But it isn’t to be. Not even Don Draper and his team of rogues can pull this one off. So they sit and listen to what their lives are going to look like now. Someone else is going to drive.
This is why Peggy is deflated when her headhunter recommends she go to McCann. She’s addicted to the magic, just like everyone else. Putting on a show—especially when you barely have the money and the stakes are high and the feelings are profound—is magical. McCann Erickson isn’t magical.
A few years ago, in a parking garage in Baltimore, I watched as my dad had trouble figuring out how to work the payment machine. He’s not old, or unintelligent; he just wasn’t getting that machine. The people behind him—mean-looking teenagers on a shopping trip—started mumbling. They were making fun of him. He never noticed, but I did. And I wanted to run. I hated, hated, hated seeing my dad look ineffectual, and seeing other people dismiss him. That’s exactly how I felt watching Don spout his tried-and-true spiel—“This is the beginning of something! Not the end!”—as all the young people of Sterling Cooper walked away, buzzing with resentment and disinterest. They’re over it. They don’t trust him. There’s no magic here; he can’t spin this. Meredith, over the course of this season, has gone from flirting with Don to chiding him. It’s easy to imagine how she sees him now: as an aging, inconsiderate, privileged man who needs his secretary to run his life and tell him when to call company meetings. She is serving him, but she’s not on his team.
Who is on Don’s team? The people standing beside him, looking just as perplexed and crestfallen as he does. The ones who’ve shared his triumphs, failures, and, now, whatever this scenario is. Who’ve seen him at his best and at his worst, who learned his worst secret and let him back in anyway. The ones who know him and accept him—finally—for what he is. “You’re okay.” Whatever happens next, “Time & Life” is the first episode in Mad Men’s final season that doesn’t end with Don by himself. If that’s not family, then what is? Peggy really knew what she was talking about with Burger Chef.
I’m painting a pretty picture here. But it’s not wrong, is it?
Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.