As Mad Men has moved out of its pomp and into its autumn years, the truly great episodes have become a little rarer. Still, though, every season always has a few occasions when you can exhale with relief and say “At last”. And ‘Time & Life’ is the first such moment of this mini-season. It’s absolutely brilliant from first to last. (And directed by Jared Harris, Lane Pryce himself, who is unsurprisingly adept at fitting into the Mad Men house style.)
At least in part this is because, after three episodes of scene-setting, this one is actually about something: the pace quickens, the stakes are higher, and with time running out on Mad Men the significance of what’s going on is heightened. It’s helped also by the fact that it focusses on the main cast, and on the ad agency which has been the engine for so much of the show’s drama. It sparks off when Roger accidentally discovers that the lease on their premises hasn’t been paid, for which he’s originally prepared to sack office manager Dawn. He finds out, though, that McCann Erickson have cancelled the lease; they’re going to move Sterling Cooper into their own building.
For the partners, this looks as if they’re being absorbed, swallowed up, which isn’t what they signed up for. And although they’re sworn to secrecy, as is the way of things word starts to get out: Peggy goes to a recruitment consultant to find out what might be available, and is told that her best option is to… go to McCann Erickson. Don and the other partners put together a presentation for McCann, in which they suggest that they could service some clients out of their California office while maintaining their independence, but are told that they’re missing the point; they’ve passed the test. They’re in the big league, with the big clients. They’re “dying and going to advertising heaven”, as Jim Hobart at McCann puts it, dangling Coca-Cola and Buick in front of them. Which is very tempting – and you can see that they’re tempted – but also means, on one level, giving up everything that they’ve worked for; which, with the show just about done, has a particular poignancy for the viewer.
But it isn’t simply about the storytelling. For those of us who’ve been in from the start, there are callbacks everywhere. Lou finally gets to make his stupid cartoon, after being ragged by everyone in the office about it: “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life!” he crows to Don as he announces that he’s going to Tokyo. Joan, once again, has to reflect on the likelihood that she’s never going to be taken seriously in the world of advertising. As an aside, I wonder whether the people at McCann Erickson know about the circumstances in which she became a partner at Sterling Cooper; given how gossipy most professions are, it would almost be more of a surprise if they didn’t.
Pete and his ex-wife Trudy join forces to try and get their daughter admitted to a tony school, and although Pete can be somewhat contemptuous of Trudy he’s still protective – to the point of violence – if anyone else criticises her. (For Scottish Mad Men devotees like me the fight between Pete and the school’s headmaster turns on a nice point of clan history.) Ken makes Pete squirm and beg for business. And Roger and Don hit a bar to discuss the finer points of marrying your secretary.
The most affecting backstory, though, is Peggy’s; there are children in the office to form a focus group for some toy or other, and her manner with them is both awkward – after all, she’s never had to bring up a child – and heartbreaking. In every interaction with a child, we can see what it is she gave up; no matter what Don said to her all these years ago, it never goes away, and after Stan makes a few ill-chosen comments about the mothers of the children in the office she unburdens herself, just a little, while at the same time recognising that she’s got where she is because she hasn’t had to cope with working in a male-dominated profession and being a single mother at the same time. It’s breathtaking stuff.
In the episode’s closing scene, the partners finally tell their employees what’s going on, and attempt to present it as great news. The staff members, though, aren’t buying it for a second, and immediately start talking to each other, drowning Don and Roger out, then they drift away from the meeting. “Hold on. This is the beginning of something, not the end”, shouts Don. Which is a little meta: given that there are only three episodes to go after this one, we’re very close to the end of something. On any view, there can’t be many great Mad Men episodes to go; being pessimistic, this could be the last one. If it is, though, it’s a reminder of just how good this show can be.