"This is the beginning of something, not the end."

How many times has Don Draper said those words, or something to that effect? How many times have he and his compatriots at Sterling Cooper reinvented themselves?  Every time one door has closed, they've managed to jimmy open a window. It's what they do, and we're reminded throughout "Time & Life" just how many times they've gotten away with it. "Are we really playing this game?" Joan asks, and the again is implied. "We've done it before," Don says to the partners. "Boldness is always rewarded," Roger says to Ken. "We've done this before, you know we can."

As I said last week, an empty space is just an opportunity for Don, a blank piece of paper that he can fill with inspiration and longing. Don is the undisputed master of the pitch, the man who can sell anything, the man who can make his audience see—and want—the vision of the future that he sees.

But it doesn't work this time. Don goes into pitch mode three separate times in "Time & Life," and only once is he successful. He manages to sell his partners on his plan to transform the agency into "Sterling Cooper West." But he can't sell McCann-Erickson on the idea: they shut his pitch down before he even gets started. And he can't sell his employees on the notion that the move to McCann is somehow a good thing. "This is the beginning of something, not the end," he says at the end of the episode, to the gathered workforce of SC&P.

But—for the first time—no one is listening.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) in Time & LIfe

It doesn't work on us, either. It can't. When Don says this is not an ending, we know he is wrong. There are three episodes of Mad Men left after this one, and so we know that we've probably run out of time for new beginnings and reinventions.

And it's appropriate that—for one brief, shining moment–the blissful mirage on the horizon looks like California. "I know you're attached to California," Ted says. "I don't know what it means to you, but it doesn't mean anything to me." But, as I've written before, California has always represented the future on Mad Men. "I was in California," Don said, back in Season Three's "Love Among the Ruins." "Everything is new, and it's clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay." (We get an echo of that sentiment here when Pete tells Trudy that "the city's become a toilet.") California is the home of Anna, the first Mrs. Draper, who provided an approving bridge between who Dick Whitman was and the man he wanted to be. It was in California that Don proposed to Megan—in the aptly named Season Four episode "Tomorrowland"—because everything suddenly seemed so optimistic and bright. California is Hollywood, California is glamor, California is astronauts, and sexually liberated young jet setters, and the promise of reinventing your life by writing a Star Trek spec script. (Hell, even Lou Avery can realize his dreams in California.) The story of America is a tale of westward expansion, and so—on this show that is fundamentally about the American dream—California represents hope.

And so it will not surprise me if Don Draper—or some version of the man we think of as "Don Draper"—ends up in California when Mad Men is over. (For all the dark speculation among the fans, and all the supposed foreshadowing of the falling man from the credits, I do not see Don committing suicide.) But Sterling Cooper & Partners—the former "Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce," which was the former "Sterling Cooper"—will not be there. In fact, Sterling Cooper will not be at all. Bert Cooper is dead, and Roger Sterling is the last of his name—"No more Sterlings"—and the agency with their names will no longer exist.

Don (Jon Hamm) and Roger (John Slattery) in Time & Life

There will only be McCann-Erickson—the real life company that is still one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, and whose clients today include American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, and Microsoft. They, it turns out, are the real future, and that's the part no one at SC&P wants to accept. "I don't think you understand what's happened," McCann executive Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene) tells the partners. "It's done. You passed the test. You're getting five of the most coveted jobs in advertising. Travel, adventure, and international presence. I shouldn't have to sell you on this. You are dying and going to advertising heaven." (Peggy, too, is told that the move to McCann is the best thing that could possibly happen to her.)

But is that exactly the problem? As we've discussed many times before—because it is impossible to discuss this show without talking about it—the American dream is not so much about having as it is about wanting. As we've seen from Don's ongoing existential crisis this season, having is boring. (Note how the kids at the audition stare dully at Peggy when she says, "I'm giving you permission to play with all these great toys." That's basically how the partners stare at Hobart when he says the same thing to them during the meeting.) "Stop struggling, you've won," Hobart tells them, but it's the struggle that matters: the endless longing for whatever is just out of reach is the whole point.

I'm not going to cover that ground again here—I did it as recently as last week—but I think what's important to note is how happy Don seems this episode, after all his recent moping. Just last week Don had existential writer's block when he was asked to imagine the future: there was nothing left he wanted to want. But this new crisis lights a fire in him: it's another opportunity to reinvent himself, and there's nothing he loves more. "I always envied that," Roger tells him. "The way you're always reaching."

Last week I might still have bought the Don-will-commit-suicide prediction, but now things are different: success and stability might be fatal to Don, but an empty space looks like the happiest place on earth to him.

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in Time & Life

Of course, Mad Men is self-aware enough to realize that perpetual reinvention is a luxury of privilege. Don can go to McCann-Erickson and be a star, or he can go to California and fix hot rods (as he was once tempted to do). But not everyone has those options, and not everyone will welcome the chance to struggle all over again for things they already had to fight to attain.

The lower ranks of SC&P are terrified by the move to McCann, and this is particularly true for the women, and it is particularly true for the women of color. ("The last thing they need is another office manager," Dawn [Teyonah Parris] says. "Or another black secretary," Shirley [Sola Bamis] agrees.) And, though Joan is included in being offered "one of the five most coveted jobs in advertising," it doesn't escape her notice that she's the only partner at the table who is not offered a juicy account to tempt her. (Even Don's plan does not make room for her account.) "We both know they'll never take me seriously over there," Joan says, and—sadly—she's probably right. "They don't know who they're dealing with," Pete says comfortingly, but that's exactly the problem: all of the hard-fought progress she's made may be lost when her value is determined by people who don't know her. (Certainly, if the reception she got at McCann the last time she was there is any indication, Joan may not welcome this new beginning.)

Peggy, too, has had to struggle to achieve her current status, and—because she's not a man who came up through the old boys' network—the future is uncertain for her as well. "Who wants me?" she asks her headhunter (Anthony Starke). "Considering that most firms are Ivy League only, and you don't even have a degree, the landscape looks very promising," he tells her, before advising her that McCann is still her best bet.

Peggy has had to make sacrifices that the men have not had to make, as she informs Stan this week. An encounter with a horrible stage mom leaves her rattled, particularly when the mother says "You do what you want with your children, I'll do what I want with mine." "Fuck her," Peggy says to Stan, but after she has time to think about it her sympathy for what other women have to deal with surfaces. "You don't understand your mother," she tells Stan. "Maybe she was very young, and followed her heart, and got in trouble…She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does."

Men—people like Don and Roger, Pete and Stan—can have children (or not), and raise them (or not), and it doesn't impact their careers either way. "You could walk away," she tells Stan, of his hypothetical children. But it's different for women, as Joan's story emphasized last week. Peggy gave up her own child because she wanted a career. "I'm here, and he's with a family, somewhere," she tells Stan. "I don't know, but 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." (Pete knows about this child—his child—but he has never mentioned it again: it doesn't haunt him as it does Peggy.) Peggy had to give up that entire side of her life in order to pursue her career dreams, and now it may turn out to have been for nothing. She was this close to reaching her goal—"to be the first female creative director of this agency," as she said last week—but the likelihood of that happening is small at McCann.

(Incidentally, the first Executive Creative Director at McCann-Erickson in real life—Nina DiSesa—did not get the job until 1994. And the challenges women like Peggy faced never really went away. "I wouldn't have this job if I had kids," DiSesa has said.)

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) in Time & Life

Mad Men has always managed to tell the story of a turbulent decade in America's history through it's characters: one of the things the show has done so well—with only occasional missteps—is embody the larger questions in actual people. Now, as the show draws to an end, I'm encouraged that those questions continue to surface in personal ways. What did it all mean? How far have we really come? Was any of it worth it? The final answers will almost certainly be a little ambiguous, because the wheel keeps on turning for everyone, and nothing ever really is answered definitively: every ending is another beginning. But I'm glad the show, in this final stretch, seems determined to keep its final meaning grounded in these individuals.  The big business deal didn't work this time, but Mad Men was never really about the big deals: it was about the people. Whatever larger meaning Mad Men's final episodes arrive at, it has to be built on the long, strong foundation of these characters and everything they've been through.

What strikes me most about "Time & Life" is how it is, in the end, a strangely cheerful episode of Mad Men, one that brims with surprising hope and warmth. The past is a mixed bag of successes and compromises, and the future is uncertain, but the atmosphere of this episode is neither regretful nor trepidatious. In fact, this hour is full of the characters we love demonstrating real affection for one another, and offering each other hope. "You never take no for an answer," Trudy tells Pete. "You are ageless," he tells her. "They don't know who they're dealing with," Pete tells Joan. "Don't be a baby, I'll see you tomorrow," Joan tells Roger. "Stay on the phone, will you?" Peggy asks Stan, when she needs a friend, and he does. "You are a young man with an incredible future ahead of you," Don says to Roger, the last of the Sterlings. "You are okay," Roger assures Don in turn, and kisses him on the cheek.

For perhaps the first time this season, I think Roger is probably right. And, if Mad Men ends on this sort of note, I think I'll be okay too.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • It seems oddly appropriate that this episode about failed new beginnings was directed by Jared Harris, who played the late, lamented Lane Pryce. Lane was instrumental in the first major reinvention of the agency—in Season Three's "Shut the Door, Have a Seat"—but he himself eventually ran out of new beginnings.
  • Ken's 11th hour transformation into a super-villain is funny, but it doesn't really work for me: his bitterness towards Roger came about way too quickly, more or less out of nowhere, and it clashes badly with what an affable team player he has been all along. (Now, if it was Harry being such a vindictive dick, that would have been totally earned.)
  • I don't know quite what to do with the storyline in which the lingering enmity of the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe sabotages little Tammy Campbell's pre-school prospects, but whatever. I enjoyed the sweet, conciliatory tone of Trudy and Pete's scenes, and I liked the way Tammy's failure at the "draw-a-man" test emphasizes the theme of men getting to be largely absent from their children's lives.
  • Lou Avery gets his moment of triumph—off to Tokyo to produce a "Scout's Honor" cartoon—and Don could not possibly care less. People are always obsessing about Don, when Don gives exactly zero fucks about them. ("I feel bad for you," Michael Ginsberg once told him. "I don't think about you at all," Don replied.)
  • Diana called Don's service twice, and didn't leave a message. He goes to her apartment, but she's moved out. I guess this means we are not—as I had hoped—done with the Diana storyline.
  • Stan's shocked question after the stage-mom fiasco is funny, and it also serves as a good summation of what everyone is asking about everything that has happened on Mad Men: "How the hell did that turn into that?"

NEXT: Episode 7×12 – "Lost Horizon"

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