Mad Men Recap: ‘I Thought We Were Safe’

Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC
Mad Men
Mad Men
Episode Title
Time & Life
Editor’s Rating

"Time & Life" begins and ends with images of erasure. This seems altogether right. The episode was written by Erin Levy and series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Jared Harris, whose character, Lane Pryce, died the ghastliest of the series’ many deaths and has figuratively haunted the firm ever since. The entire hour takes us one step closer to the abyss of which Mad Men and its characters have always been conscious, whether they say so or not.

The episode starts with a wide shot of Ken Cosgrove seemingly sitting by himself, frame right, as a waiter, center frame, pours a glass of wine; then the waiter moves to reveal Pete Campbell. Until the waiter stepped aside, we didn’t know Pete was there, and in a sense his presence is irrelevant — not just to the scene, but to Ken’s arc in the episode. Ken, a former employee of Sterling Cooper, is now a vengeful client from hell, toying with his former co-workers, first as they try to get him to commit to a strategy to sell their household cleaner; then, while trying to resist being professionally absorbed and eradicated by their owners, McCann-Erickson, they attempt to get Ken to convince his company to come along as they move to Los Angeles with a handful of loyal clients. Ken’s final words, spoken to Pete and Roger in a hotel room fully stocked with Ken’s preferred wine right before he leaves them to twist in the wind, is, “No — I’m sorry about that.”

The final shot is just as coolly indifferent to what our main characters need and desire: The partners gather all the employees to tell them about the absorption, and instead of a lemonade-from-lemons reaction, they immediately begin talking among themselves and drifting away to figure out their next moves. The camera dollies slowly backward — a camera move that has ended the last four episodes, interestingly, and that here feels like the visual equivalent of the show warning us to back away slowly — as Don instinctively steps up to improvise yet another of his patented rally-the-troops speeches, telling Sterling Cooper’s staff that they should think of the change as “the beginning of something, not the end.” Nobody’s listening because they know that the end is exactly what this is. On some level Don knows it, too; even though he came up with the move-to-L.A. plan (after learning that Lou Avery was vacating the agency's California office to go to Tokyo and turn his awful comic strip into a TV series), his first reaction on hearing the news was to pour himself a drink, much to Pete’s irritation. (This is part of a larger pattern of Don accepting unpleasant news more sanguinely than he used to, rather than locking instantly into rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light mode.) “They waited so long,” Don says quietly, contemplating the McCann maneuver in an early scene, “I thought we were safe.”

As the camera pulls back to a wide shot at the end of the episode, diminishing Don and Roger in the frame until they become mere pieces of the production design, we realize, if we haven’t already, that this final batch of episodes has amounted to a metanarrative about the death of a TV series as a capital-D Death: something that cannot be denied or reversed but must be accepted gracefully, and that can be accepted gracefully if you have enough advance notice. 

We might also realize that Mad Men is finding unconventional ways to end conventionally. Though some spectacular and unforeseen upheaval could still happen in the final three episodes and reverse everything, what’s been going on feels like a “life goes on” TV-series ramp-down that ties up loose ends in its own way — something more along the line of Cheers than Lost or The Sopranos. Many viewers have complained that Weiner and Company have given us too many episodes in which Nothing Happens, but if you look at this unusually (for Mad Men) eventful episode, plus the three comparatively slow, dense, and oblique chapters that led to it, you can see that the show is giving us closure, in its way. We’re seeing characters consider their futures and take steps toward it, whatever that means. Professionally, everyone is going to have to either get used to the idea of working in-house at McCann — whose decision to shut down Sterling Cooper’s New York office was a fait accompli, immune even to a Don Draper Hail Mary presentation — or go somewhere else. (“Stop struggling,” says McCann's Hobart to the partners, words that a killer might whisper to a victim, before adding, “You won.”) By the end of “Time & Life” (a phrase that refers to the building that houses Sterling Cooper), we’ve gotten at least an inkling of where all these characters might settle in the near future, if not forever, in their jobs and beyond.

Personally, most of the major characters have settled into what seem like stable relationships, or have at least been giving some intimation that such a thing is possible. Joan has Richard, a genuinely good guy who hears the news of the absorption and tells her, “I don’t care how bad it is, it’s not that bad,” then says he’s coming to New York to comfort her. Don met Diana, a very Don-like waitress who fled her own personal disaster to remake herself in New York, and spent part of the episode trying to find her (she’d moved away suddenly, and now a gay couple lives in her apartment). Peggy met a compatible and seemingly good man, Stevie, and would’ve gone to Paris with him if she’d been able to find her passport, and the show hasn’t given us any hint that this door is permanently closed. Roger has hooked up with Megan’s mother, Marie, who shtupped him in Don’s apartment after vengefully emptying it of furniture; Roger reveals this new relationship to Don in their final scene together, and says he would’ve told him sooner but wanted to wait to make sure it was real. Ted, who cratered his marriage in season six, has met an old flame and is so infatuated with her that he’s fine with the McCann absorption, because she wants to stay in New York and he can’t live without her. There are even small suggestions that Pete and Trudy might get back together: He defends her honor by punching a vindictive prep-school headmaster in the face, and was willing to punch the school administrator who got “fresh” with her. When Trudy tells Pete that their divorce has made her single-woman prey for married men as well as a social pariah (a recurring predicament throughout Mad Men; remember Glen’s mother?), he calls her “ageless,” and she smiles in spite of herself.

Professionally, too, we’re getting a sense of how things will go. After a fruitless headhunter search that confirmed that her lack of a college degree makes her a dicey hire, Peggy has resolved to go to McCann. It appears that her confidant Stan Rizzo might go there as well, though he may need a few more bourbon breakfasts to get used to that idea. It seems like Ted, Joan, Roger, and Don — partners who all signed four-year contracts with non-compete clauses — don’t have a choice but to say yes, unless they suddenly don’t want to be rich from the buyout. Farther down the corporate ladder, things get trickier. Everyone’s worrying about what’s next. Shirley worries to Dawn that McCann will cut costs and not let, say, Roger have two secretaries, and that maybe the firm doesn’t need “two black girls.” Don’s secretary Meredith spends most of the episode on the outside of the gossip bubble, always the last to learn everything. It appears she’ll be going to McCann with Don, and the scene where she presses him on it is a gem that folds some of the show’s gender commentary into the professional melodrama: Earlier he’d absentmindedly called her “honey,” but here she bristles when he diminishes her as “sweetheart.”

“Time & Life” has a couple of preoccupations besides the big one (the End). One is how the notion of opportunity or autonomy varies depending on class, gender, and race. In addition to Shirley and Dawn’s conversation, we’ve got multiple scenes where Joan is figuratively erased from conversations about the firm’s future. Hobart tries to placate the shocked partners by telling them which important clients they’ll get after the move (actor H. Richard Green, who has played Hobart since season one, should get a special Emmy simply for his lascivious pronunciation of “Coca-Cola”), but he doesn’t offer one for Joan, and in a cab ride home from the post-meeting commiseration, she tells Pete that “we both know they’re never gonna take me seriously over there.” “Well, they don’t know who they’re dealing with,” Pete replies. It’s a sweet thing to say, but the expression on Joan’s face — expertly calibrated by Christina Hendricks so that it falls somewhere between warm gratitude and no-bullshit realism — confirms that she’s not buying it.

Peggy and Don’s status as class outliers is confirmed as well. Besides Peggy’s headhunter disappointment, there’s a wonderful moment between Don and Roger where Roger talks about the erasure of his patriarchal bloodline as well as his family business (“no more Sterling Cooper, and no more Sterlings”), and Don replies, “What’s in a name?” That’s a hell of a phrase coming from Dick Whitman, but rather than bust his chops over it, Roger says, “I always envied that — the way you’re always reaching.” “I always envied that you didn’t have to,” Don says. “In another lifetime, I’d have been your chauffeur.” “And you would’ve been screwing my grandmother,” Roger says. We get a sense here of Don perhaps modeling himself on Roger, consciously or unconsciously. Roger, after all, plucked Don from obscurity and made an adman out of him; they act like big brother-little brother, but there’s a hint of father-son to their relationship as well, and it comes out here, in their lighthearted acknowledgment of the class differences that have separated them and maybe always will. “When I married my secretary, you were hard on me, then you went and did the same thing,” Roger says. “You know what?” Don says, “for the second time today, I surrender.” Don’s getting much better at that: surrendering. He’s not in Alcoholics Anonymous, as far as we know (if he is, he’s not taking it very seriously), but in his way, he’s living the credo.

There’s a sub-theme in “Time & Life”: grudge-carriers patiently nursing their griveances until they can crush their enemies. The most pathetic one is Lou Avery’s: He thinks the entire world is rooting for his artistic failure when in fact they merely find him irritating, and when he gets a deal to turn his comic strip into a series, he lords it over Don as if he’d just been elected mayor of New York. Then there’s Ken’s grudge: His pettiness is McCann’s pettiness in microcosm. He makes no bones about the fact that he’s been waiting for years to really stick it to Pete and Roger, and he finally gets his chance. 

Likewise, it seems as though McCann, a longtime rival of Sterling Cooper, had a master plan to buy the competition, shut them down, and cannibalize the more useful parts while making it seem as though they were constructing a more equitable partnership, and that’s exactly what happens in “Time & Life.” Hobart has been trying to buy and neutralize Don Draper, and by extension, his firm, since season one’s “Shoot.” Now, finally, Hobart owns Don and the business Don helped build.

It only took him ten years, which is nothing compared to the elapsed time between the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe and the headmaster of Greenwich Country Day school turning away Pete and Trudy’s daughter — a masterstroke of borderline-surreal social comedy. The headmaster, it turns out, is still mad about Pete's Campbell ancestors treacherously killing some of his own McDonald forebears during the aforementioned skirmish on the Scottish Highlands. “The king ordered it!” Pete protests, repeating the official line, then playacts alpha-maleness by hitting the descendant of the hated McDonald clan in the face. (“Another sucker-punch from the Campbells!” his victim cries.) 

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Roger’s lament over his doomed bloodline is echoed in the scenes between Pete and Peggy and those of Stan and Peggy, which orbit around casting for a commercial involving children. As has been the case in prior Mad Men episodes, the presence of kids in the Sterling Cooper office unearths ugly memories of Peggy’s impregnation by Pete and her subsequent decision to give the child (a son) up for adoption.

Appropriately, Don ceremonially welcomes the auditionees into the office by opening the elevator door for them and their stage mothers. The episode treats the stage moms as rather mercenary types (albeit harried ones), but the abused and neglected Don regards them warmly because to him, any mom who isn’t terrible is good. (As Roger alludes, this is a guy who married a young woman he barely knew just because she treated his children kindly.) Also, it’s Don who counsels Peggy post-birth and tells her, “It will shock you how much this never happened” — a line that rings hollow in episodes like this one, where the implications of a character’s actions are right there in front of her.  So it’s fitting that he would be, in more than one sense, a gatekeeper for what happens to Peggy, though Pete hastens the process by suddenly telling her about the supposedly secret McCann deal after seeing her in the office with a child wrapped around her waist. (From Peggy’s anxious face, you’d think a small octopus had embraced her.)

The climactic scene between Peggy and Stan is one of the most quietly powerful exchanges in the show’s run, comparable in insight to the best moments of “The Suitcase” and “The Other Woman.” It’s not just Peggy whose buried issues are driven into the light by the presence of kids in the office; it’s Stan, too. They argue about whether or not the mother of a girl who injured herself with a stapler should have had kids, and Peggy rightly says, “That’s not for you to say,” then blurts out, “I don’t hate kids." When she tells Stan that he wouldn’t understand her feelings because he doesn’t have any children, he grins and jokes, “Not that I know of,” a standard jocular response from a certain kind of single guy, and one that drives home the social imbalance between them. “That’s funny to you,” she says. Stan explains, “I had a mother, and she wasn’t great, and I don’t know that she wanted me, so … I understand something.” “But you don’t understand your mother,” Peggy says, probably also correctly. “Well, maybe I don’t want to,” he shoots back.

Everybody’s projecting their issues onto the child actors in the office: Stan, Peggy, Pete, even (briefly) Don. Peggy accusing the girl’s mother of “abandoning” her is clearly an instance of this. The mother’s assumption that Peggy is a judgmental mother stings her even more because we know that she gave her child up for adoption, and the pain is deepened by the suggestion that if Peggy were raising a child, she’d be bad at it — the kind of parent that would let an audition of child actors run two hours late, throwing the stage parents’ schedules into chaos. On some level, Peggy thinks the fates rescued her from being a terrible mom, and this comes pouring out in her interactions with Stan, who, for all his burly machismo, is a great listener; but this is a fair and compassionate show, so there are many small touches that indicate that Peggy might have been a good, if nontraditional, mom, such as the way Peggy and Stan and the little girl instantly form a makeshift nuclear family, and the way that the girl playacts at being a businesswoman after spending an hour or two in Peggy’s presence. (“Hello, Suzy’s office, how may I help you?”) This whole subplot is the most affecting part of the episode because it says so much without telling us how we’re supposed to feel about anything. No sooner than you've gotten a read on what you think the scene’s verdict is on the characters, you’re reminded that there is no verdict, because this is not the sort of show that issues them. It just listens to its characters, watching them move through time and life. 

Correction: An earlier version of this recap misidentified Marie as Megan's mother-in-law.