Mad Men: The End of a Dream

The five partners of SC&P finally face a new era.

Michael Yarish / AMC

Every week for the seventh and final season of AMC's hit period-drama Mad Men, Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Lenika Cruz will discuss the possible fates facing Don Draper and those in his orbit.

Sims: After a meandering start to the half-season, Mad Men finally kicked into a higher gear with "Time & Life," finding new energy (perhaps unsurprisingly) with a story that was about the firm, rather than Don's depressing love life. Much of the episode echoed some of the series' greatest moments, like the third-season finale, "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," which saw Don and company break away from their firm to create Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, or even the mid-season finale last year where Roger convinced McCann Erickson to acquire the company; a decision that came full circle here.

Alerted by the fact that their office lease had been unceremoniously terminated, the partners learned they were going to be absorbed into McCann Erickson, the giant advertising conglomerate they'd resisted joining for so long (remember, that third-season declaration of independence came when their last firm was absorbed by McCann). So Don, Roger, Pete, Joan and Ted set about trying to engineer one last great escape, a jump to the California office with a few tasty clients who'd otherwise be lost due to conflicts of interest. As it historically has in the past, the intrigue of advertising-firm politics offered a much needed kick in the pants for the energy and pace of the show.

“Time & Life” had the same melancholy tone as all of the recent episodes, with the main characters recalling happier times while nervously regarding the future. But it had a less depressing quality to it, even as the partner’s plans collapsed around them. McCann finally had enough of Sterling-Cooper’s quasi-independent status and expensive rent at the Time Life Building, and the CEO told the five partners that it was time for them to come into the fold. In the episode’s best scene, he dropped client names like Coca-Cola and Nabisco as if reciting holy liturgy, and the camera lingered on SC&P’s five partners sitting in sad silence, a mirror image of the shot of their backs in their new, unfurnished office building years ago, gazing out onto the city.

Now, the choice for everyone is a somewhat fraught one (although let’s not forget the partners are all millionaires, so they’ll be fine no matter what). Don, Roger, Pete, Joan, and Ted are all prevented from working anywhere else because of non-compete clauses, so they have to decide now whether to embrace McCann's corporate structure or bid advertising goodbye. For Joan, this could mean more of the egregious treatment she received from McCann flunkies over Topaz. For Don and Roger, it could signal a loss of the independence they’ve craved for so many years. Ted seems quietly happy to be robbed of the responsibility that’s so often tortured him, while Pete continues to live his sad divorced life—his biggest moment of triumph this week was justly punching a snooty private-school administrator in the face.

“Time & Life” gave the real sense that it was saying goodbye, especially as the partners had one last drink together, toasting their final failed escape attempt and pondering their futures. It also finally offered a real sense of high stakes, rather than just reminding viewers of the empty life Don leads—echoed with a sad, but tremendously well-handled scene where Peggy confronted the decision to give up her child for adoption, possibly passing up the opportunity to have kids once and for all. But if there’s a final romantic pairing to cheer for as the series draws to a close, it might be her and Stan. Sophie, what did you make of Peggy’s admission this week, and the larger crumbling of SC&P?

Gilbert: I agree, David, that this was a much better episode than the past two, mainly because, much like The Avengers franchise, the show works better when it harnesses the combined power of its various superheroes. For the past two episodes, we’ve seen an awful lot of sad-sack Don facing his empty apartment and his empty future, and as charismatic as Jon Hamm is, it got a wee bit stifling. Instead, “Time & Life” showed the five partners at their best: Don crafting a Hail Mary pass to move the entire firm to the West Coast, Pete punching an elementary-school principal over a centuries-long clan rivalry (how weird was that entire scene!), Roger and Joan colluding to try and snatch away three major clients in 24 hours, and Ted … well, Ted having his eyes light up at the sound of a pharmaceutical account, as only Ted's eyes could do.

I liked, too, the way the episode referenced buried secrets from episodes long ago. There was Peggy’s conversation with Stan (more on that later), but also Roger’s confession to Don that Margaret is “the only daughter of an only son of an only son,” and that his family line dies with her. (Never mind sweet, blonde Kevin, his rightful heir: Let’s hope that redeye-hopping Richard is a better father figure for Kevin than Roger and his mustache could have been.* The show certainly seems to be suggesting that he’ll be a better partner for Joan in the long term.)

As for Peggy, the juxtaposition of her trying manfully to talk to a room full of ordinary children like adults and then being grasped in a bear hug by a young actress was pretty funny, but the scene where she confided in Stan after getting unexpectedly attached to the child abandoned in the SC&P lobby was pitch perfect. “I’m here, and … he’s with a family somewhere,” she said. “It’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.” The scene was exquisitely paced, from Stan’s gentle but hypnotic prompting to Peggy’s jolt back to self-control at the very end.

This sense of abandonment is one that’s been dredged up a lot recently, particularly with Diana, who it seemed might pop up at any moment like a Chekhovian diner waitress. Margaret, Roger’s daughter, abandoned her own husband and child to go live in a commune. Marie Calvet, it seems, has left her husband and family to shack up with Roger. Lou, obviously, is abandoning the firm to move to Tokyo and pursue his cartoon dreams. And then there was the final, rather glorious scene of watching the various employees of SC&P walk out on their bosses after learning they’d been effectively sold out. For a show that’s always emphasized power as currency, watching the five partners see the visible manifestation of their loss in status was fascinating. They might have their millions, and they might be in advertising heaven now, but to people who’ve put such a premium on getting respect for so long, it looked a lot like hell.

There’s so much else I want to unpack—the parallels between Pete and Trudy pushing their daughter into Greenwich Country Day (with Tammy’s idea of a man being a head with a necktie and a mustache) and the stage mothers pushing their daughters into showbusiness. The way Don’s eyes briefly lit up when he heard the whispered “Coca-Cola.” The mythic significance of California for Don, and how it maybe represents a kind of liberation from the class anxiety he feels so acutely on the East Coast? But I’ll finish with a close reading of the four accounts SC&P wanted to start afresh with: Dow Chemicals (manufacturer of Napalm, breast implants, and pesticides, among other things), Sunkist, Peter Pan peanut butter, and Secor Laxatives.

My thinking as we approach the end is that for seven seasons, Matthew Weiner has been poking holes in the mythology of the American Dream—the idea that having stuff, no matter how wholesome and American and nostalgic that stuff might appear to be, can make you happy. The reverent prospect of Coca-Cola as Don’s newest account feels like the culmination of all of that—it’s something that’s sugary sweet, American as hell, and ultimately horribly bad for the people who ingest it in ever larger quantities. This is the dream Don’s been selling for the duration of his career. Is it any wonder he’s left pondering the meaning of it?

Cruz: “What’s in a name?” Don’s offhand Shakespeare reference picked up on something you referenced, Sophie, which I think this episode touched on in various ways—a fixation with names, the history they hold, and the legacies they symbolize. “Time & Life” began with Ken disagreeing with Pete over labeling a bathroom cleaner a “germ-killer” because the latter “makes people think of poop.” (Vincent Kartheiser again proved himself the master of hilariously flustered one-liners). From this subtle start, the show delved into Pete’s personal life: It turned out little Tammy’s future hinged not on her parents’ marriage status, but on her father’s last name and his family’s supposed Hatfield-and-McCoy-esque rivalry with the McDonalds (bizarre, indeed).

While the dissolving of SC&P connotes so much—including, as you mentioned David, the forfeiting of independence and the small-guy stature the firm thrived on—it also means a loss of identity. The firm’s name, to be fair, has changed so much over the years. When the show first began, it was Sterling Cooper. It later became Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then just Sterling Cooper and Partners (even though Bert died). Now it won’t even be SC&P, “a division of McCann Erickson”: The building will be different, the people will largely be the same, but the name will be gone entirely, all of which inevitably gestures at some grander ontological implications. Let’s not forget the biggest instance of this: the Dick Whitman/Don Draper transformation.

The loss of a name doesn’t just matter for the present, for convenience’s sake, for the face you present to the world now—it matters for the future. In both Roger and Pete’s cases, they have secret sons by colleagues who won’t be able to bear their family name (and daughters from their non-secret marriages who won’t, either). Hence the surprising number of children this episode featured (and the Draper children weren’t even involved!). Peggy’s awkwardness around kids is, of course, borne of genuine inexperience, but also a painful kind of cognitive dissonance, given her son. But she finally got to articulate something the show had vigorously implied for ages: “No one should be able to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.” That Peggy the workhorse let herself have a moment of vulnerability translated into a rare moment of genuine emotional connection with Stan—and one of the best scenes of the episode.

But back to the firm. Sophie, you mentioned the final scene, which like so many other moments in this episode seemed to allude to past moments from the show (the final rally to save the firm, the big meeting where the account executives woo the clients over). But those earlier moments tended to have a far more victorious, self-assured air, whereas the conclusion of “Time & Life” felt cruelly deflated. As did the meeting where Don, the steamrolling charmer, was told to put his presentation boards away and sit down.

As the employee chatter drowned out Roger’s words, it became clear that he and the others had lost control of the message. In an industry where defining the conversation is all that matters, the SC&P partners have haplessly surrendered everything—to both McCann and their lower-level staff. The marquee luster of names like Nabisco and Coca-Cola has faded, and all that remains is the harsh fluorescence of their soon-to-be-vacated offices. It finally feels like Mad Men is starting its final goodbye, and “Time & Life” did a terrific job of showing how difficult and refreshingly honest that goodbye is going to be.

* This post has been updated to reflect that Roger in fact knows that Kevin is his illegitimate son.