Mad Men Monday Recap: “Time & Life”

By: Daniel Reynolds

Welcome to the final stretch of the Mad Men Monday Recap. A show as deep as this one needs some diverse commentary so jump in and enjoy our irreverent breakdown of each episode. 

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What’s Happening on Madison Avenue?

It is worth taking a minute to discuss what happened in each episode. If you’re looking for some straight talk on what we just saw on Mad Men, read this section (and then read the other sections because, why not).

You know that thing when someone looks you in the eye and tells you everything is going to be fine. You want to believe them because, well, why not, you like when things are fine. But also, at the back of your head you’re thinking: how do you know? How can anyone be certain things will be fine? The future doesn’t necessarily have to be bright, no matter what the commercials tell you.

Despite this being the fourth episode in a season of seven, last night’s Mad Men felt very penultimate and climactic. If this were an HBO show, next week would be the finale and we’d be dealing with the fallout from the sudden realignment of characters and companies. We’d be looking forward to a conclusive montage a graceful denouement for the final hour. Instead, we’ve got three episodes to go and I’ll be honest, I have to remind myself that everything will be fine.

So Sterling, Cooper and Partners (SC&P) is no more. After avoiding the long arm of McCann-Erickson, going back all the way to Season 3 and that original acquisition slash organizational dodge from PPL, our venerable little company that could has reached a state of corporate nirvana (or “advertising heaven” as big man Jim Hobart calls it). Like his attempts to stave off death, memory and the forever encroachment of unhappiness, Don moves to rally the troops one last time to keep their little dream afloat (this time by moving the whole company to California). Instead we get a callback to that famous shot from back in Season 3. In that moment, a five-some of Don, Lane, Joan, Roger and Bert looked out the windows of their new offices and saw the future. It was the beginning of something, and everything looked fine.

Now, everything is in reverse, the quick talking of Don gets everyone on side but there is no beautiful gaze off into the future. McCann-Erickson is the inevitable future. We get a shot of the new five-some (because Lane and Bert are dead) that now includes Pete and Ted, and we can’t help but feel it’s like the end. They sit in stunned silence as someone else has decided things for them. They’ve passed the test, but they don’t know what their reward will be. (And as Roger reminds, somehow Jim Cutler came out ahead; all that money, and no McCann!)

Peggy is mostly left out of all these high-level company machinations. Her storyline weaves in and around the tale of corporate re-jigging but it’s on a much more personal level. Is she left with the only game in town being McCann-Erickson? Does she lose her little fiefdom she’s built at SC&P with Stan and the rest of the creative underlings? There’s a callback in her storyline too, when Pete comes over to tell her about the company’s absorption. The two of them sit on the couch so that Pete can dole out a serious talk. We can’t help but remember the time when Peggy sat Pete down to give him a serious talk. This time they’re talking about a corporate future and assuring each other that it remains bright. That first time though, it was Peggy informing Pete that she’d given away their child. She had convinced herself she was fine and Pete had to accept it. Peggy’s guilt – about living away from her family, about not getting married, about not having children – has always informed her character. She’s had to keep convincing herself it was all for the best, each sacrifice the beginning of something new. Now, as always keeps happening to her, she doesn’t really know what happens next.

This wasn’t the final episode of Mad Men. At the end, after Don’s attempts to give one last stirring speech, we’re again left with the five-some standing on the second floor watching as their employees scurry away like ants. Don’s trying to reassure them this is not an end but a beginning. But we’ve just seen all the scenes of quiet reflection, of Joan wondering if she’ll be taken seriously again, of Roger wondering if the Sterling name really will die with him, of Ted just hoping to let someone else drive for awhile, of Don looking hopelessly for Diana the waitress one last time. They all want to believe things will be fine. Roger even stares Don right in the face and tells him he’ll be OK.

But the SC&P people walk away anyway, grumbling to themselves and each other. Roger tries to silence them, Don tries (even Harry tries), but who are they? No one really knows if it will be fine. We’ll just have to see when we get there.

The Symbolism Rankings

Enjoy, with minimal comment, the weekly rankings for whatever symbolism Matthew Weiner has heavily stacked into each Mad Men episode. A show set in the world of advertising is only as good as its symbolism, right?

1) Staple in the thumb

2) Pete Campbell’s hairline

3) Two gay guys in an apartment

Back in the Day

Remember the 1960s? Mad Men really values its sense of place. To that end, here’s where we make mention of whatever historical element popped up this week.

I can’t believe I’m going to waste this section on Lou Avery but his final storyline is just too ridiculous to ignore. Outta nowhere, Lou calls up Don to gloat about moving to Tokyo. First, let’s unpack the fact that Don could give a shit about what Lou Avery is doing now and forevermore. Up until the very moment Don hangs up the phone, I’m fairly certain he’d forgotten SC&P even had a west coast office. (I know I had.) His confusion on this point and subsequent “what are you talking about?” reaction were priceless. Second, let’s remember that Lou Avery is an uncreative hack whose “Scout’s Honor” comic strip is probably terrible. Third, it is bullshit that Lou Avery, of all people, gets to live out his dream. Were you as enraged as I was when he let loose that final satisfied chuckle after hanging up the phone? Yeesh.

Anyway, as Avery mentions, Tatsunoko Productions is the anime company responsible for the old Speed Racer cartoon from the late 1960s. You know the one, lots of speed lines, psychedelic colours and a monkey? It even got made into a live action movie thanks to the Wachowskis. Anyway, they still make cartoons to this day and while it sticks in my craw that a goon like Lou Avery could somehow make his way to Tokyo on their invitation, it must mean he’s got some kind of idea there. Maybe my crack about him being an uncreative hack was too harsh.

Or maybe, as Roger suggests with a typical lack of political correctness, “the Japs will eat him alive.”

This Week in Ken! (Cosgrove. Accounts.)

As the most likeable guy in the entire series, Ken Cosgrove deserves his chance to shine. Here’s where we discuss what everyone’s favourite earnest moonlighting sci-fi writer was doing or not doing on the last episode.

“I’ve toyed with you long enough. [dramatic pause] No. Sorry about that.”

And with that, we say a possible goodbye (forever???) to Ken Cosgrove. Now, before we start to have a collective freakout, there is still the potential he could come back. Maybe Dow Chemical will force Ken to work with McCann after they’ve folded SC&P into the company. Maybe they’ll realize it was only nepotism that got him his job in the first place. Maybe… maybe… oh, who are we kidding? Ken is gone, people. And quite frankly, I say we let him go. It was clear Ken was unhappy; he’d been scarred by his time in Detroit, he was forced to wear an eye patch for life, and the memories of that drugged-fuelled tap dancing nightmare still haunted him. And what of those writerly ambitions? Crushed under the heel of advertising, of Roger Sterling, of the demands of keeping things professional. Yes, I say we accept Ken’s dignified (sort of) letter of resignation.

With that one final “no”, which is about as mild an ending I could have imagined for him, Ken got what feels like the last word. And while we could sit here and second guess how final it really is (I mean, he’s still got to go to work tomorrow for Dow Chemical; that sounds pretty boring.), it was his final word and he got to decide how to say it. If it turns out that is the last moment of our time together with Ken Cosgrove, let’s hope he has better days ahead.

Cheers to you Ken! (Cosgrove. Accounts.) You took this little section as far as it could possibly go. For the final time, I wish you only… Godspeed.

Know Your Role

Since so much of Mad Men is predicated on minute character interactions, here’s where we discuss the top conflicts that happen in each week’s episode and decide on a winner.

We’ve got a tie in this weeks Know Your Role section and each one came down to a matter of lineage. In one corner, we have Peggy and her fight with a random mother in the office. Throughout most of the episode (OK, throughout all of the episode) Peggy is uncomfortable with the influx of kids in her professional space. The children are there to audition for a commercial but Peggy sees every child through the lens of her own, the son she gave away. It’s a touchy subject. (Meanwhile Stan is great with kids, mostly because he’s still a kid himself, but I digress.)

Anyway, that random mother. Her daughter is left alone in the office and while minding her business at a desk, she manages to put a staple into her thumb. A fight ensues in which the mother blames Peggy for not adequately supervising the girl and Peggy goes at the mother for abandoning her in the office. The mother gets the last strong word in by laying in on the whole “these are my kids and I can do what I want” thing, which, as I said, only serves to remind Peggy of what she’s lost.

Let’s just say the conflict is missing something.

Fortunately, we have Pete Campbell. Now, what if I told you that Pete was actually part of a long line of Campbells that had screwed over a line of McDonalds going back some 300 years. And what if I told you that the latest McDonald is in charge of admissions at the prestigious private school where the Campbells (yes, Trudy is on hand) would like to send their daughter, Tammy. And, what if I told you this McDonald not only thinks their kid is too dumb to get into said school, but that no Campbell would be admitted under his watch. That, in fact, the Campbells were all a bunch of terrible backstabbers. What if I told you that this particular conflict ended with Pete punching this guy in the face?

That’s what I thought.

Winner: Pete.

Actual Advertising

Between bouts of drinking, sometimes the people of Madison Avenue actually do some work on advertisements. Here is where we sit in the seat of the client, trying to figure out what the hell these ad guys are talking about.

Has anything in advertising really changed in 45 years? Think about it. Sure, it’s true we’ve seen the explosion of corporate culture, the globalization of the economy, and the invention of entirely new streams of marketing since 1969. But advertising is still a matter of companies paying people to create the illusion of need, to foster desire, and to offer the cure to an unhappy life.

Near the end of tonight’s episode we meet Jim Hobart, who comes on like a friendlier version of Ned Beatty from NetworkHe’s one of the big dogs at McCann Erickson, a terrifyingly real life advertising company that’s been around since 1902, and its clear he believes in the power of what he is preaching. These are primal forces of nature after all. While Don and the rest of SC&P scramble to assemble enough earthbound clients to justify the company’s escape to California, Jim offers something different. He scoffs at their quaint efforts and instead invites them to join the rarefied air of “advertising heaven,” a level achieved by only the very best and brightest. This is a place where the companies present – Buick, Coca-Cola, Nabisco – are named in hushed tones. As Beatty confirms in Network, these are the true shapers the times; this is the real power of era.

And now, those aforementioned companies (like McCann Erickson) are larger than even before, they’ve consolidated everything they can get their hands on, and continue to get people like Don, Roger, Pete, Joan and Ted, to sell us all the things we didn’t even know we needed.

Yep, nothing much has changed at all. There’s just more of it, in fewer pairs of hands. It really is advertising heaven.

The five chiefs at SC&P staring into an uncertain future.

The five chiefs at SC&P staring into an uncertain future.

Next Episode Predictions

This is where we watch the totally opaque preview for next week’s episode and make wild guesses as to what will happen next.

We tossed a bunch of garbage in Lou Avery’s direction up there, but he still only nabs the silver in the Asshole Olympics. The gold medal winner? The one, the only, the immortal Harry Crane.

Ol’Harry had a light week this time out – just a little telephone tough guy action in the background – but he’s apparently set to make a big return next week. How big? Well, he tells Roger in the preview: “I’m not going to let you spoil the moment. My moment.”

Heaven help us, now we have to wait a week to learn what Harry Crane’s big moment could be. Did he bag one of those younger chicks he’s always chasing after? Did someone finally compliment his glasses? Did the Rolling Stones return his calls?

I’m on the edge of my seat. (Also, what an asshole.)

3 responses to “Mad Men Monday Recap: “Time & Life”

  1. You’ve a section on symbolism & you dedicate a lot of space to Ken, even when he doesn’t appear in an episode like the third one. So what do you make of Ken working for Dow chemicals as we’re constantly reminded? Any significance to Ken being associated with Dow, it being a major supplier of chemical products to the U.S. government during the Vietnam War era?

  2. The idea of the Ken and symbolism sections is to be a little more light-hearted with the analysis of the episode. (Also, I chose to focus on Ken in particular because he was always the most “good” of the guys on the show, until the end, anyway.)

    I do think it is sad that Ken has chosen to forgo his dreams of being a writer to work for a destructive chemical company that he clearly doesn’t like. It’s made him unhappy, even if it’s provided him with a more stable life for himself and his family. Sure, he gets to reject Roger (the guy who basically told him to stop writing) but it feels like he’s a shell of himself.

    The end of the 60s really did crush a lot of idealism, right?

  3. Yeah, we all know that Ken’s Isaac Asimov II in the making & that evil Roger frustrated his dream. So Ken giving Roger the big FO and walking out of the room is poetic justice. Everyman scores one and returns to his pedestrian life. I take issue with your last sentence. A facile comment. Idealism is being crushed even in 2015. Get over it. We all want to be vice-president of the world but then reality sets in. The 60s is my favorite decade but it also began the dumbing down of America. You have the low information hippy-dippy dissidents protesting against Dow chemicals while at the same time using Saran Wrap (a billion dollar Dow product) as a substitute for Trojans. What a decade. What hypocrisy. Put that little tidbit in your inventory of anecdotes.

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