Last night’s episode of Mad Men “Time & Life” lies squarely in the middle of the second half of the seventh season, which might be one reason it orients itself around the concept of “transitions.” In fact, McCann-Erickson surreptitiously did not renew Sterling Cooper and Pryce’s lease meaning the agency will literally be transitioning to a new home base. The final three episodes will no doubt tell the story of this transition within a show also in transition (to not existing) — but if The Sopranos is any indication of Matt Weiner’s sensibilities, I doubt we will receive anything like closure on the series finale. Anyway, along with the overarching transition happening this episode comes but the success and failures that led the characters of Mad Men to this point.
After the partners get notified in a backhanded fashion about McCann’s decision to absorb SC&P, Don characteristically leads the charge to try and remain independent by staking a claim to all of their conflicting accounts (say McCann’s Coca-Cola versus SC&P’s Sunkist). Don’s the idea guy and as we have seen time and time again he has the gift of gab, with a history of hitting home pitches no one else could have secured. Yet when Don launches into his presentation for McCann he gets interrupted (gasp) and dispatched with a couple of amused, “Don’s” (double gasp). Don’s identity crisis last week brought on by Mathis suggesting he might be more charm and good looks echoes here where a Don pep talk is not enough to save the company. Luckily for the partners McCann reframes the move in their minds from dissolving the agency to rewarding each partner on success since the merger.
The partners subsequently go out to a bar to celebrate and one by one they all leave to do things with family and friends. Eventually Don and Roger are the only ones left, and even Roger leaves – to meet up with Marie Calvet no less. A sloppy drunk Don so desperately searches for connection that he heads over to Diana’s gross old apartment only to find a gay couple. Even gay men a year after Stonewall are capable of an intimate relationship, while Don can’t even find the trainwreck that is Diana. Even Meredith stands up to Don this episode for being the last to know about the whole McCann situation and she tells him that in a few months he won’t have either an apartment or an office. He has lost his mojo and these past few episodes have illustrated that his transition into self awareness has brought him from bad to worse.
An artful zoom in to the faces of the partners on one side of a conference table mirrors a later zoom out at the end of the episode as they lose control when telling the office what they thought to be good news. Platitudes from the upper echelon don’t drown out the dissenting chatter, highlighting the privileged view both the partners have that insulates them from fear among the many lower level employees who won’t make it to the new office. Don tells them, “this is the beginning of something; not the end.” Well not according to Matt Weiner and again Don fails at keeping the calm with his trademark charisma. Transitions mean different things to different people, and this transition to McCann means even the partners will become cogs in a larger machine.
Peggy particularly understands her status as a cog this episode after hiring a headhunter who informs her a job at McCann offers both the highest salary and prestige across the board. She probably has her last sexist encounter with the McCann guys looming in her mind because as she mentions later in the episode, she wishes she could succeed just like a man does. From this stems another important development where Peggy conducts a focus group with children that highlights the transitional stage Peggy is in biologically. Her attempts at relating to the children are laughable and the focus group can only proceed when Stan intervenes and gets the ball rolling, in this case literally. In a touching moment later in the episode Peggy mentions that men have the luxury of ignorance, whether it be of how to play with children or even if they have children. She tells Stan she chooses to not know where her and Pete’s son is because it would hurt too much to know, and implicitly she might keep herself ignorant of children as a method of distancing herself from the family she has had to forego in order to succeed.
Save Don, nonromantic relationships get a boon this episode to the point where even Pete patches things up with Trudy. A slightly absurd storyline has Pete questioning the headmaster of Greenwich Country Day for placing dear Tammy on the waitlist, only to find out it’s due to a longstanding MacDonald-Campbell feud in which the headmaster and Pete are opposed. More to the point, he offers compassion to Trudy even though she was at fault for applying to no other schools. Don may have started out the show on top with a wife, kids and a debonair attitude that helped him score accounts and women on the side, but Pete in at least being up front about the kind of person he is and has been able to meaningfully grow into someone increasingly likeable.