April 26, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), AMC
“This is good news!” “Hold on. This is the beginning of something, not the end.”
There’s something about losing that lends everything permanence. Victory is fleeting, and leads only to arrogant plans for the next big conquest. Defeat, though, is sobering. Defeat is a small reminder of mortality, a tiny inkling of the biggest battle you’re ever going to lose. And when you lose something, it can easily begin to feel like you’re about to lose everything, like all that matters might just slip through your fingers, might walk out a door and never come back. Throughout “Time & Life,” there’s a pervasive feeling that all of this is about to end, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and awakening. Characters say goodbye and assure each other it isn’t for the last time. They may be right, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
We’ve seen this group pull rabbits out of some pretty scrappy hats before this. We’ve seen them completely reinvent themselves time and time again to avoid disaster, to stay one step ahead of the end that’s always been chasing them. Since the seminal “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” the partners of SC&P have been desperate to avoid being acquired, for all that the word implies. These are people who thrive on the idea of total freedom, on the romance of reinvention and the chance to make good on past mistakes, to get it right next time. But this time, there is no next time. This time, no big speech can save the day. This time, our heroes lose.
It’s absolutely fantastic that this loss comes in a form that everyone must keep reminding themselves is good news. Once again, these people are failing upwards, finding themselves in enviable positions at one of the greatest advertising firms in the world. On the outside, what happens to them is in no uncertain terms a victory. But internally, its devastating. Everyone knows that this means SC&P has ultimately failed. They didn’t become McCann, they became part of McCann. They didn’t gain great jobs, they lost the greatest jobs they’ve ever had. The good years are gone. The peak has been passed. It’s time for the long, slow decline into obsolescence.
Throughout “Time & Life,” characters are trying out old tricks that have always worked before and finding that they don’t go off as planned. Pete can’t use his name to get Tammy into a prestigious private school, and it seems unlikely he’ll be able to use his charm to get back into Trudy’s life in any meaningful way. The team scrambles to save themselves, only to find out their fates were sealed weeks ago. Don begins a big pitch, only to be told “Don, stop. This isn’t necessary.” Nothing can change what is happening. The old tricks just don’t work like they used to. Jim Hobart tells them all “You are dying and going to advertising Heaven,” but only the first half of that sentence seems to register with any of them.
Everything in “Time & Life” is fixated on history, not just in the sense of characters willing it to repeat itself for them, but in the ways that history weighs them down. There’s an unspoken reason why Pete tells Peggy about the impending merger that lurks beneath the episode’s text until it all comes spilling out in the wake of Peggy’s shouting match with the stage mom. Stan blithely comforts Peggy without realizing what’s going on, at first, telling her she’s accomplished all she has at the agency precisely because she doesn’t have kids. He’s right, of course. The Peggy who gave birth to Pete’s son would have been wholly unable to do what Peggy has done without making the sacrifice she made. It’s a decision that has informed everything Peggy has done over the course of the series since. It’s a decision that impacts her every thought, every day. That has to be for something. She has to have given up her son for something. What she comes up with in the conversation with Stan is “I don’t know, but its 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.” Peggy has gone on with her life, with the life she thought she wanted and the life she still thinks she wants. She made her choice, and of all the characters on this show, she can be said to be the happiest for it. Yet in her current company, that may not be saying much, and she still bears the scars of the decisions she made.
Think of Ted and the blissful happiness he exudes when he tells Don that he ran into an old college girlfriend and the two of them couldn’t even remember why they ever broke up. He says it as if this means they were meant together, but that isn’t what it means, not really. All that it means is that Ted is, like everyone on this show, falling blindly back into old patterns, priming himself to make the same mistakes again.
Don Draper is a man endlessly possessed by an urge to be the author of his own story, to control perceptions, and in that way, maybe, to control reality. Don has always believed he is capable of moving mountains and shifting the world to fit how he sees it. For most of his life, he’s been almost right about that. He could never shift himself through the sheer power of illusion, but Don Draper has crafted quite a kingdom from the power of his words. Tonight, though, no one is listening. He can’t pitch McCann on the allure of a West Coast office made up of their offal, and he can’t pitch the staff of SC&P on this as anything other than what it is: an ending, and one that’s coming fast. Last week, Don asked Ted if he ever felt like there was less to do and more to think about, while reminiscing on the days when he was worried about whether the agency would even survive. Don tries to seize back those days when he could distract himself with the immediacy of survival, but he’s thwarted. He’ll have a lot of time to think at McCann. He may not like what he comes up with. Don has lived his life from crisis to crisis. He’s not a man well accustomed to smooth sailing. He’s not someone who likes a clear view of the horizon, not unless there’s a chance he can catch it. A long time ago, Dr. Faye told Don “You only like the beginnings of things,” and here, years later, Don is left pitching a new beginning to an unhearing audience. Don sees every new beginning as a new opportunity to make good, but in doing so, he misses all the endings he can never quite escape as cleanly as he might desire. After every beginning is over, there’s only one thing left.
- “Do you read the mail, or do you just open it?”
- “Greenwich, Connecticut is built on divorced money!”
- “Do what you would do if we weren’t watching! Really? That’s what you would do?”
- “We’re bringing you home.” “This is my home!”
- “They waited so long I thought we were safe.”
- “Sayonara, my friend. Enjoy the rest of your miserable life.”
- “But what else is out there?”
- “We’ve done this before. You know we can.”
- “How do I describe California in a way that doesn’t make them jealous?” “Tell them my ex-wife lives there.” “Mine too, so what?” “I know you’re attached to California. I don’t know what it means to you, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.” “It does mean something to me.”
- “The King ordered it!” This is probably the quintessential Pete Campbell line.
- “Peter, you can’t punch everyone.”
- “You do what you want with your children, I do what I want with mine!”
- “Stop struggling. You won.”
- “Don’t be a baby. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
- “For the first time, I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen.” “That’s nice.”
- “Jesus, I can’t even agree with you!”
- “You’re right. I didn’t mean to judge her.” “But you did. And you don’t understand at all.”
- “She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.”
- “You’re a young man with an incredible future ahead of you.”
- “When I married my secretary, you were hard on me. And then you went and did the same thing.”
- “Everything’s going to be fine.” “I’m so dumb I believe you.”
Throughout “Time & Life,” there’s a pervasive feeling that all of this is about to end, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and awakening.