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At some point Mad Men had to come out and show it, and maybe say it on top of showing it. In a season about endings, about changes, about the inevitable passage of time, Sterling Cooper & Partners — but most importantly the partner Don Draper — had to suffer defeat.
On a professional level, things were very different with McCann-Erickson owning SC&P. Most notably, none of the partners really had a lust for it anymore. Advertising, that is. Working, even. They were paid out. They had made it. They were, as Peggy said to Joan, “filthy rich.” And they acted like it at times: Joan shopping away the pain. Don writing a check for a million dollars to Megan. The ever-complaining Pete complaining to Ken that he’d have to buy a bunch of property just to hold on to his money and not get it all taxed to death.
Peggy, Ken, Stan, etc. — they still have struggles ahead. In that bunch, Peggy is the biggest player. But at the end of the “Time & Life” episode, Peggy had agreed with her head hunter that staying at McCann-Erickson was the best move for her, professionally. Stay three years, make a fortune and then move on to more power (maybe as a partner somewhere or helming her own firm). Everybody else, however, was essentially cashing out of their working lives. They had the golden handcuffs. For Ted, that was fine. Let someone else do the work. He doesn’t want the hassle anymore.
This Mad Men development is significant because while previous episodes had hinted at abdication, “Time & Life” made it clear. In the words of Don, he and everybody else had “surrendered.” It was over. They were being absorbed by M-E. And while that’s certainly not the end of the road for them — it was made very clear that they’ll be running the best brands (except probably Joan, whose struggles for acceptance go on) and making lots of money — the thrill of what work is and represents is certainly gone.
The SC&P partners found out in this episode that, indeed, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. There is no thrill anymore. Credit series creator Matt Weiner with doing a fine job of mustering up what, for all intents and purposes, looked like another Don Draper-led Houdini act where everybody (except Ted) was going to go to California and be Sterling Cooper West — in essence, still existing, still living.
But you had to know that the run was over.
First, Ken quashed the Dow Chemical dream. Then M-E prematurely ended Don’s pitch about California. Shutting down Don Draper mid pitch, while a little part of Don, himself, knew that he couldn’t rally, was a perfect slice of the end. Mad Men has let viewers live on Don’s salesmanship — his ability to sell us and everyone else whatever he wants, whatever he needs to. That’s over. In that pitch to M-E, he was like a car that stalled. Or ran out of gas. It was something to behold.
And in the final scene, first it was Roger (“We didn’t do this”) trying to get the Sterling Cooper employees to calm down. But it was too late. They knew what was up and what was real. “Hold on,” Don said, stepping forward and raising his hand, about to sell the dream once again. “This is the beginning of something. Not the end.” But nobody heard him. They had talked over him, turned their backs and started walking out. We may not get a more stark depiction of Don’s end in advertising as that simple scene.
This is the episode that had to happen. At some point, we had to have an exclamation point on the end of the professional aspects of these characters lives. More can still happen, but more doesn’t really need to happen. It happened in “Time & Life.” They both march on. Yada yada. We just witnessed it.
Now Mad Men can get back to its core mission of telling the personal stories. But you’ll notice that pretty clear hints were expertly interwoven in this episode about the future relationships of all of the major characters — except Don.
The biggest maybe in the personal arena is a reconciliation between Pete and Trudy. Who knows if it will happen, but after this episode, it shouldn’t be removed from the realm of possibility.
Joan’s newfound flame, Richard, is willing to get on a red-eye and come comfort her. That relationship is probably moving forward. Roger finally told Don that he’s with Marie. “She’s crazy, you know,” Don says. Then adds: “For the second time today, I surrender. I’m happy for you.”
Ted ran into an old flame and the two have rekindled — to the point where Ted was adamant he wasn’t going back to California (and, I think for the first time, flat out says he’d divorced and his ex lives back there). Anyway, he’s all but locked into a relationship and happy about it.
After the big Pete guess, a smaller relationship bet would have to be placed on Peggy and Stan. In a lot of ways, they’re perfect for each other — each offsetting the others’ weaknesses’. Not only did Stan make it clear he’s not with his girlfriend, Peggy’s sharing of her story about having a child was a big step towards intimacy. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they get together.
That leaves one.
“You are OK,” Roger says to Don as they drink the night away. He then kisses Don on the cheek. This was an episode where, once or twice, Don looked as emotional as we’ve seen him since news of Rachel’s death. Roger, of all people, is settling down. Like Ted’s relationship, the woman is age-appropriate. Who knows if it makes sense or not, but it’s a thing. Roger appears to be cashing out his lothario status.
Meanwhile, Diana called Don twice, but didn’t leave a number and made a request that those calls not be noted. But they were. And Don, after drinking with Roger, is the last man alone. So he goes to Diana’s apartment — but she’s gone. She left all her furniture there and moved.
And so we’re left, at the end of this episode — and with three remaining — watching Don Draper drifting without purpose. (A wry smile for his “What’s in a name” quip to Roger, since we know he’s still Dick Whitman.) But that moment also served as a very small reminder about where we are with Don now. He’s not really needed at work. His worth has always lay in being the big idea man, the most valuable player at a firm. At M-E he’s not. Unless he breaks off, his professional life is written. And in his personal life, the selfish pursuit of happiness in women ranging from Betty to Megan, countless women in between, has left him nowhere except sitting with Roger, buzzed in a bar. His latest big effort was try to save Diana, who didn’t want to be saved.
So this is what happens when you wake up and the actions that you’ve taken in your life lead you to a more sobering stretch run. It’s not the end, of course. But it looks like almost everyone else could be pairing up, finding happiness or finding something that passes for happy. Most of the players in Mad Men either have moved or are moving in from the cold.
Except for Don, our forever outlier. We have three episodes to find out how he acknowledges his situation, deals with it or doesn’t. But change isn’t just here, it’s already happened.
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