'Mad Men' Turns Up The Heat As The End Nears

04/27/2015 03:25 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “Time & Life,” the eleventh episode of the final season of “Mad Men.”

“This is the beginning of something, not the end.”

What a classic Don Draper line. Too bad nobody heard it.

As the news about the takeover sank in at SC&P, nobody cared what he had to say. The senior partners gathered to tell the staff the details, but they had precious few, and they could barely keep the attention of their employees. It was especially comical when Roger began speaking -- I mean, if you were a twentysomething office worker in 1970 and some rich guy sporting a white handlebar mustache and a double-breasted blazer began speaking, would you listen? Would you care?

Nope. The message throughout this hour, which was filled with visual and thematic callbacks to the history of the show, was that Don Draper and his cronies were dinosaurs. They had been fed into the machine so smoothly that they didn’t even realize they’d been digested. They were done; they were no longer in power, and they were the last people to realize that.

But what power this episode had, what skill. Nothing is more fun than “Mad Men” when it's firing on all cylinders, and as we’ve seen in the past, the best episodes are often the ones that involve maximum office intrigue and secret work shenanigans. Wait a second, the team has to throw a survival plan into motion and has less than 24 hours to make it all work? Every scene was instantly injected with the kind of delicious urgency that made me wonder what would happen next, and David Carbonara’s wonderful heist-movie music gave the proceedings that lovely fizzy feeling. When "Mad Men" realizes what a great ensemble show it is and when it makes the office intrigue really sing, all I can say is, "Yes, please! Bring it on!"

“Mad Men,” you are a wonderful, frustrating demon of a television program. The last couple of episodes made me wonder if the show had gone on at least a season too long. It seemed to be limping to the finish line (and if they bring back Glen Bishop again, I might shoot the damn show myself, to put us all out of its misery). But just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in with an episode that both crackles with energy and delves into a theme that has become more and more apparent over time: The glory days of the swaggering kings of Madison Avenue are over.

This isn’t a new theme for the show: Think back to Pete’s prediction that Nixon would lose to Kennedy, and the general disbelief that greeted that sentiment. There have been innumerable situations in which the senior employees of Don’s firm -- all the various incarnations of it -- have seemed clueless, out of touch, tin-eared, unwilling or unable to truly understand the changes the world was going through. They all ape the fashions of the times and have grown their hair out, but do they grasp that many centers of power have shifted radically in the last decade? Not really. They tried to harness the energy of the youthquake of the ‘60s here and there, but the true import of all the cultural and social changes of the last decade more or less passed them by.

But that may not matter as much as their inability to spot the financial evolutions affecting not just their business but all of corporate America. The days of a scrappy crew building up a firm out of almost nothing and becoming major competitors were almost a thing of the past. It could still be done, and it still can be done, but it's more difficult than it was during Don and Roger's heyday. As the '70s dawned, many industries were heading toward waves of mergers and acquisitions; it was all about the achievement of behemoth status. The fact is, Don and his crew came very close to embarrassing themselves in that meeting with Jim Hobart. The most notable fact about that meeting came after Don Draper’s patented Draper Pitch came to a screeching halt almost before it got started. He didn't really get it -- did McCann really want to leave $275,000 on the table?

The look on Hobart’s face was priceless: That smirk translated to “You’re adorable.” Sure, that would amount to $1,650,000 in 2014 dollars, and either amount sounds a lot like real money to me, but to McCann, those figures are rounding errors. They simply don’t matter. That pile of coins is small change. This way of thinking is a big change for the SC&P partners.

Here’s a visual contrast for you: An expansive view was shrunk down to a very constricted image. The five partners have been literally cut down to size.

But can we blame these old fighters for thinking they have a chance? Who doesn’t want to think that they have a choice about their future? Nobody wants to just give up and passively accept being a cog in a giant machine (well, nobody but Ted Chaough, and honestly, who can judge the guy? If he’s happier not being in charge, so be it).

If they’re going to be phased out, if they’re going to be mere widgets on the assembly line, well, maybe that was inevitable. Or maybe they brought it on themselves by not reading the culture and the world more closely. Maybe they were too self-absorbed and too close-minded. But you know what? This episode of “Mad Men” focused on the show's most rewarding relationships and dynamics, and it reminded me why I love these characters. Thus, it's a little bit sad but also kind of satisfying to see them, as Joan put it, go down swinging.

It feels appropriate to steal from, er, I mean, pay homage to another writer at this juncture. With apologies to Alan Sepinwall, who has often invoked the concept of Dayenu, a song of thanksgiving, when listing the fabulous things about a particular episode of television, I give you a list of things to love about “Time & Life.”

  • If it had just given us a secret plan to keep the firm independent and had just involved Joan being awesome, dayenu.
  • If it had just involved a hotel-room client meetings, late nights and slinky heist-movie music, dayenu.
  • If it had just involved a Don Draper pitch and Don and Roger trading comedy lines on the way out the door, dayenu.
  • If it had just involved Lou Avery being the worst and Pete Campbell punching a dude, dayenu.
  • If it had just involved great moments between Joan and Pete, Joan and Roger, Peggy and Pete and a Peggy and Stan heart-to-heart and phone call, dayenu.
  • If it had made sure that Don avoided meeting his Sad Brunette again, dayenu.

So many highly enjoyable moments, all of which were even more fun the second time through. But even on first viewing, it was impossible not to spot how alone Don is (if even Meredith notices something, it’s pretty freakin’ obvious).

When they all got the bad news, various characters were able to find comfort with a lover or a friend: The moment between Joan and Roger in his office was a sweet callback to their long, complicated history. But things weren’t complicated at that poignant moment, it was just a case of two old friends realizing that everything they’d built might be going away forever, and they just held on to each other for support.

One of my favorite moments of the episode was Joan calling her new beau, Richard, who was immediately and totally supportive of her, to the extent he was willing to drop everything and fly out to be with her at a moment’s notice. I love that she’s with someone who’s that good to her, and it might be a risky thing to hope that “Mad Men” does flash-fowards showing us where the characters end up, but I’ve got one all planned out for Joan. I hope Joan takes everything she learned from Avon and from her career up to this point and creates a business along the lines of Mary Kay makeup or something like that. I can totally see her moving to the West Coast with Richard, who helps her build up her own beauty business into a national contender. And if that does happen, I hope she gets McCann to audition for her, just so she can pretend to politely listen to their pitch before she throws them all out on their condescending ears.

Where was I? Oh yes. Even Roger has someone to go to: He is still seeing New York’s least happy French-Canadian, Marie Calvet, and somehow that's understandable. Let's face it, who else would put up with either of them? A side note about Roger: Every scene with him now is shot through with an extra layer of tension because I expect the man to drop dead at any second. Who could live as he has for the past decade and not pay for it, and soon? The final sweet kiss from Joan and the way he said goodbye to Don -- with another platonic kiss -- makes me really think Roger is not long for this world. But he will probably be alive until the closing moments of the finale, if not beyond, because Matt Weiner is determined to mess with my head right until the end.

Pete had that lovely little moment with Peggy (which was preceded by a pained acknowledgement of the child they had together years ago), and the episode showed he still has a strong bond with Trudy. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two got back together, given how much chemistry they still have, but who knows. That said, if “Time & Life” represents the last time we’ll see Alison Brie on the show, what a sendoff! The strange segue to the scene with the demented headmaster at Greenwich Country Day was pretty surreal, but Weiner can’t resist going to some odd comic places with the Campbell family (recall the barely restrained insanity of the Manolo situation in years past). In any event, we got to see Pete Campbell punch a guy who really had it coming. I can’t ask for much more from an hour of “Mad Men.”

It’ll be interesting to see how the show resolves the most intense bond in its history -- the one between Don and Peggy. We didn’t see them alone together in this episode at all, and it’s telling that Peggy didn’t even bother going to the all-hands meeting. Instead, she stayed on the phone with Stan, which was clearly a much better use of her time.

Will Don and Pegs both go to McCann and serve as cogs in that giant machine? Notice how Don’s eyes lit up when Jim whispered, “Coca Cola.” That is the holy grail for Don: An enormous account that is not only national, but one that serves as something of a cultural touchstone. He completely screwed up the Hershey’s pitch a while back, but Coke was, and is, a much bigger deal. Poor little Dick Whitman, who could barely afford a Coke back in the day, working on the incredibly prestigious account of the cola maker? Who’d have thunk it?

I can only imagine that Peggy would have the same response -- she’s the one who, only an episode ago, talked about wanting to land a huge account. She’d love to know that they were going to get a big pharmaceutical company. That’s if Jim Hobart wasn’t just blowing smoke -- and if Peggy got to work on those accounts with Don. That's really the dream for both of them -- they're both married to the work, which makes their bond the sturdiest one of all.

But can Don survive as a high-priced functionary, a drone with all the perks but no real freedom? For some time, he’s seemed pretty checked out of most of the creative work the firm has been doing -- he mostly leaves all that to Peggy and her team -- and in the last few episodes, we’ve gotten even more shots than usual of what looks like Dead Don. This week and last week, we saw him lying on his office couch, and some of the time he was shot from above. It almost looked like he was in a casket. Is Weiner hinting at a literal or figurative death?

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I don’t think Don is going to die. All those walls are falling away, as they are in the show’s opening credits -- Don’s apartment will soon be a thing of the past, and his office will be gone before the month is up also. Nothing is nailed down in his life -- it all is flying apart, and yet he seems strangely serene.

There are a few reasons for that: His emotional walls have been coming down for a long time too, and that's not a bad thing. His kids and his friends know his real history, and the opening credits, as I've noted before, could be a reference to Don's carefully constructed false persona coming apart (which isn't necessarily a negative development in the long run). I honestly think as long as he has Peggy to bounce ideas off and some work situation that is nagging him, he’ll be fine. Don needs the grit, he needs the conflict. As long as his feisty daughter, his finest colleague and McCann can supply all of that, he'll be OK, I think. Don needs to be unhappy to be happy, if you know what I mean.

Regardless of Don's end, the show, and this episode, did a fine job of puncturing many of Don’s obsessively tended fantasies. “It does mean something to me,” Don mutters when California comes up in conversation with Ted. It’s only fitting, in an episode in which things were cut down to size, that the mythic proportions that Californian reinvention had always had in Don’s head petered out into a throwaway line. There would be no West Coast reinvention for Don, at least not any time soon.

Think about this: Don was willing to demote himself and the entire partnership and leave town, and he was told he wasn’t allowed to do that. This was framed as a gift, but "stop struggling" is something that is said to coerce compliance, not inspire confidence. If this is Don winning, it's a modest, hedged, compromised win. And if “Mad Men” started out as the mythic history of an enigmatic, individualistic anti-hero, it’s ending as the story of a man whose ambitions keep shrinking and whose territory keeps getting smaller. If the trade-off is that his heart is more open and accessible to the few people who really know and value him, I'm OK with that.

There would be no Sad Brunette to take away Don’s pain: Diana wasn’t interested and her messages were supposed to be thrown away. His wives and kids see him for what he is and even Meredith won’t get him an Alka-Seltzer. See how the mighty have fallen, and despair.

One of the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” was called “Ozymandias,” and there are parallels to be found between the tail end of that show and the closing episodes of this one. Shelley spoke of “that colossal wreck,” a term that could be used in reference to the lives of both Don Draper and Walter White -- men who re-made themselves into something grand and big, but who lost control of their empires and left waves of wreckage around them.

And yet, “Time and Life” wasn’t a wrenching, devastating affair; it was quite the opposite. On some level, Don accepts his fate, and the limitations on his behavior and ambitions. He's not so toxic that he must get his way or else. Maybe it was that sense of acceptance that gave the jaunty, wry energy to this hour. If we don't grow wiser when we get older -- or at least more able to laugh at the most highly ironic setbacks -- what's the point?

Anyway, they went down swingin’ -- and they’re not done yet.

A final list of bullet points:

  • So now we know that Ted Chaough is divorced, and that’s why he’s free to go to parties with Don and on dates with an old flame.
  • We also know that Jim Cutler left when the firm was bought by McCann -- he left with the cash and didn’t have to deal with their knucklehead management. I kind of hate that guy too!
  • I’m a little sad that Ken’s final mode in “Mad Men” -- and I have to believe we won’t see him again -- is vengeance against those who wronged him. I still recall fondly the gentler Ken who didn’t let work get to him and penned sensitive sci-fi stories. Ah, well.
  • So many visual callbacks in this episode, including the banquette that Pete and Ken shared in the restaurant. So many dark banquettes have figured so prominently in this show’s history. Another callback: The image of Don and Roger at the bar recalled several other images of those two drinking together in the past. Roger charging into Don’s office is a classic Roger move. And then this contrast/callback was the most poignant of all: The first image is from the Season 5 finale, when the gang went to check out their new space in the Time & Life building, and then in "Time & Life," we see five SC&P partners, framed against similar windows but cut down to size at McCann.
  • Lou Avery: Still the worst! “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life!” I can’t think of a better line for Lou to go out on.
  • Tiny details I couldn’t help but notice: The ship painting and the ship encased in glass in Pete’s office. I guess they don’t bother him, but they do remind me of his mother’s untimely end at sea.
  • They kind of overdid it with the references to Peggy and maternity, but if the end result was that awesome scene between Peggy and Stan, it was worth it. Terrific work by Elisabeth Moss as Peggy, who clearly has thought about the child she gave up every day of her life. She’s tried to live her life as a man with a daily reminder that she’ll never have the same kinds of freedoms as Don or Stan or Pete. Anyway, if Stan and Peggy don’t get together for good before the show’s over, I will explode.
  • “Another sucker punch from the Campbells!” I am still not done laughing at that scene. “Peter, you can’t punch everyone.” But why not?
  • “Were they difficult to move?” Bwahahhhahah.
  • In all seriousness, the Secor gambit was exactly what was wrong with Team SC&P's whole approach. The Secor account was so small that McCann could lose 10 just like it and not notice. Also, the big move of the new Sterling Cooper West team was to score a laxative firm. Um, can you say sexy? That move may have worked a few years ago, but now it just seems a little sad.
  • “My goodness, Meredith, we should put a bell on you.” Bless. Hilarious line, perfectly delivered.
  • Even more ineffective than Roger and Don: Harry Crane, trying to calm everyone with, “This is good news!” Go back to yelling at people on the phone, Harry.
  • That whole ending sequence -- and everything else -- was very well directed by Jared Harris, a.k.a. Lane Pryce.
  • "The king ordered it!" It's the perfect comeback for just about every situation.
  • Ryan McGee and I will talk about “Mad Men’s” season thus far on this week’s Talking TV podcast, which should be posted Monday evening.

Also on HuffPost:

  • 1. Jon Hamm/Don Draper
    "Be slick. Be glib. Be you," Roger Sterling told Don in season four. He forgot "Be an alcoholic, womanising, advertising genius"... but no matter. For the fact remains: 'Mad Men' introduced us to Jon Hamm - and for that, all of womankind will be forever grateful.
  • What do women want, Jon?
  • They want to do this to you.
  • 2. Elisabeth Moss/Peggy Olson
    Using her talent and smarts to rise from humble secretary to copy chief, the driven, complex Peggy is arguably the show's greatest female role model.
  • And who can forget "I'm Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana"? Not us!
  • Go Peggy!
  • 3. Christina Hendricks/Joan Holloway
    Like Peggy, the sex bomb that is Joan worked her way up the corporate ladder - and words cannot express how much we're going to miss watching Christina Hendricks in action. Not least because she uses her eyes like this...
  • ...like this...
  • ...and like this...
  • ...and leaves a room like this.
  • 4. The fashion
    The men's impeccable suits. The women's impeccable party wear. Yes, the coveted clothes in 'Mad Men' have taken us from 1960 to the early 1970s...
  • Via Betty's ice queen, Grace Kelly style...
  • Joan's sassy pencil skirts...
  • ...(and sassy dresses)...
  • And the men's dapper suits and (occasionally bow) ties.
  • Oh, and there's the hats.
  • Never forget the hats.
  • No you don't, Roger. You look like cool advertising guys in hats.
  • 5. The drinking
    The whiskies! The cocktails! The drinking at work! Naturally, we're not going to condone the smoking in 'Mad Men', but the drinking...
  • ...well, that's a little harder to resist.
  • No. No, you're not, Peggy.
  • (Let's allow Roger to explain.)
  • 6. The design
    The offices, the homes, the bars... and the furniture in all those offices, homes and bars. Whatever the scene setting, 'Mad Men' just looks so gosh darn wonderful.
  • In fact, the show's attention to detail even evokes nostalgia for orange sofas. Orange sofas!
  • It's amazing, really, that they let Jon Hamm destroy any of it.
  • Careful, Jon!
  • 7. The music
    The music in 'Mad Men' is, as one commentator put it,"true to the story, true to the characters and true to life." From Acker Bilk to Frank Sinatra, 'The Twist' to 'Zou Bisou Bisou', the musical choices are perfect...
  • ...and also a reminder that people really should start dancing like this again.
  • And like this.
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