Monday, April 27, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 89: "Time and Date"

In which they keep telling me their future’s in California.

“You never saw the old Sterling Cooper.  It was mammoth.” -Don

“Stop struggling.  You won.”  -Jim Hobart

Before sitting down to watch “Time and Date”, last night’s fourth to last episode of Mad Men, I jotted down a brief brainstorm at the top of the page where I keep my notes.  It read “Final episodes as epilogue/hangover?”  It was an attempt at insight, but also a stab at finding a coherent path forward in my writing. 

As many of you know, writing about these final episodes was probably going to be in the cards for me all along, but the series of essays I wrote about my time teaching Season 1 of the show cemented my desire to follow the adventures of the Sterling Cooper universe to the end.  And because of the timing of the end of those teaching essays (I finished “The Wheel” two days before the premiere of “Severance”), this drive to continue on also thrust me into unknown territory.  Four years of teaching Season 1 had embedded almost every bit of nuance and historical context into my memory, as well as providing me with a treasure trove of pedagogical anecdotes to share.  But trying to write about these new episodes without knowing what came next proved to be more daunting than I thought.

Thus my note from last night, a sort of pep talk to myself.  As you can probably tell from reading these essays the last three Mondays, I’ve greatly enjoyed the first three of these final episodes.  But their often oblique nature has made writing about them challenging.  Thinking of these episodes as an epilogue to the drama of the past six plus seasons seemed to be a viable path to pursue.  Either that or accept the fact that Matt Weiner has been attempting to one up the final days of The Sopranos by really grinding in the concept that no one really changes, that ennui is the inevitable endgame of life.

Well, “Time and Date” proceeded to summarily explode that theory.  Although in true Mad Men fashion, it did so while also reinforcing parts of it.

As I’ve noted before, one of the great strengths of Mad Men is something it’s borrowed from The Sopranos: a narrative sense of disconnection that creates a perpetual state of looming dread.  Now obviously, the gangland milieu of David Chase’s show gave that dread more immediacy.  But the emotional warfare and turmoil of Matt Weiner’s fictional world can be equally devastating in its context.  The way that each show springs major plot developments on the viewer is shocking in the moment, although retrospective examination shows them to be the culmination of long-brewing conflict.

Such is the case in “Time and Date”, in which McCann Erickson’s decision to absorb SC&P hits the characters as a surprise, springing as it does from the unexpected non-renewal of their office lease.  There’s no great plot buildup to this moment for the viewer, and yet it’s also the logical conclusion of a major corporation buying a smaller ad firm.  In “The Forecast”, Don and Ted might muse about the sudden security that comes with living under the corporate umbrella, but Don knew several seasons back that McCann was “a sausage factory” (as he called it in Season 3’s “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.”)  And sausage factories tend not to be romantic about the process.

So much of Mad Men’s grand narrative has been based around how the heavy hand of the past both guides and limits its characters.  Two weeks ago, “New Business” dealt with the seemingly endless cycles of behavior in which they’re often trapped.  But “Time and Date” does it one better, building a narrative around callbacks to so many of the show’s more memorable moments, while simultaneously subverting each of them.  It’s both metafictional commentary and (perhaps) one last go around with the defining traits of the Sterling Cooper crew.

When Pete and Trudy’s meeting at the tony Greenwich private school that the Campbells have long attended (and from which Tammy has been rejected) devolves into Pete slugging the arrogant headmaster, it’s a reference to his famous bare knuckle brawl with Lane Pryce in Season 5’s “Signal 30”, another duel between two men of proper upbringing (Jared Harris directed “Time and Date”.)  It’s also the continuation (or the ending) of the matter that first gave Pete some audience sympathy way back in Season 1’s “New Amsterdam”: the burden of his family’s legacy.  Throughout six plus seasons, he’s struggled with balancing his youthful progressivism with the expectations and entitlement that come from the Dyckman-Campbell name.  His father’s penniless death and his mother’s gradual decline into dementia removed some of the mythology from said name.  But the punch he throws in this episode is a reversal of much of what has come before, as Pete defends that legacy (prompted by the headmaster advising Trudy that she can escape the rotten Campbell name by remarrying.)  In the aftermath, when he tells her that he’ll fix things with Tammy by writing a check, it’s a quietly powerful moment, an assimilation of his two sides in an effort to do the right thing for his family.

And it’s Trudy’s subsequent comment that “You never take no for an answer” that births another reference to past glories: Pete’s Season 1 Nixon campaign coup with Secor Laxatives (in which he blocks the Kennedy campaign’s swing state efforts by buying up all remaining television ad space with Secor commercials.)  In this case, his memory of that stroke of genius prompts him to enlist Secor to be the final piece in the financial puzzle that would theoretically allow the five SC&P partners to escape to the California offices of Sterling Cooper West, enough accounts in hand to retain the vestiges of their dwindling company.  (There's even a callback joke about Secor's lack of humor about their product.)

If this all sounds familiar, it should: it’s essentially a rehashing of “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” Season 3’s game-changing finale, in which the core Sterling Cooper crew literally absconds with the company in the middle of the night, escaping McCann’s purchase of Putnam, Powell, and Lowe.  In a show that thrives on frustrating expectations, that episode was the closest things to a victory lap that Matt Weiner could provide, a breezy caper episode in which a plan comes together.  In “Time and Date”, those machinations of survival are once again set in motion, with all the attendant classic signifiers (Don coming up with the idea while lying on the couch, the covert meeting with the main players, the mad rush for the minimum amount of clients needed to stay afloat.)

And at the heart of it all is the California dream, that most classic of mid-20th century signifiers of fulfillment and renewal.  New York has always been a central character in Mad Men, a concept, a mindset, and a dream of classic splendor.  But as Pete tells Trudy when she laments leaving the city, “it’s become a toilet”.  We’re only five years away from Gerald Ford denying federal assistance to the debt-ravaged city that never sleeps, a deterioration that’s been mirrored in the lives of these very New York-centric characters.  Don, of course, has always dreamed of the redemptive powers of California, from his Season 2 psychological hiatus there with Anna Draper (and, right before, with the euro-nomads of “The Jet Set”), to his vision of a bicoastal marriage with Megan.  And in “Severance”, Pete laments that he saw relocation to California as a new (if ultimately ill-fated) start for his life.  It’s that Gatsby-esque green light at the end of the cultural dock, its innumerable pleasures just that far out of reach.  An escape from impending doom.  A sun-dazzled afterlife.

It’s a different sort of afterlife that’s presented to the five SC&P partners during their climactic meeting with Jim Hobart and Ferg Donnelly, one of the more powerful scenes in the show’s history.  It’s the classic Mad Men script all over again: disparate feuding co-workers come together for the common good, hatching a plan that plays to their strengths, all rallying behind Don’s superhuman charisma and presentational charm.  And it’s here that Weiner and company completely upend those expectations in brutal fashion, as Hobart cuts off Don before he can even get past the first paragraph of his pitch.  The look on Jon Hamm’s face during this moment is devastating.  In a series of episodes in which he’s been stripped of so many of his external signifiers, losing his ability to sell anyone anything is perhaps the cruelest blow of all.

“You are dying and going to advertising heaven” is the way that Hobart puts it, an offer of their wildest account dreams to each of the partners (Buick for Roger, Nabisco for Pete. Ortho-Pharmaceutical for Ted, Coca-Cola for Don….although nothing explicit for Joan, much to her chagrin.)  The big question here is whether Jim Hobart is St. Peter at the pearly gates or the Devil himself laying out the ultimate Faustian pact.  The pride that’s come with running their own shop, with creating something of lasting value, has so defined these five people (maybe a bit less with Ted) throughout the show’s run that leaving it behind for guaranteed glory seems almost obscene.  Season 5’s finale (“The Phantom”) famously featured a shot of the then-partners each framed within a separate window of the news second floor for SCD&P, the new horizons which they gazed upon outside the building offset by their visual sense of isolation.  “Time and Date” ‘s climactic meeting ends with a mirror image of this shot (featured at the beginning of this essay).  But this time, all the partners aren’t gazing out into the wild blue yonder, but straight back at the camera, and into the depths of the McCann-Erickson offices, blank looks on all their faces.  They’ve gained the world, but have they lost their souls?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Peggy in this essay, as the McCann meeting scene is immediately followed by one of Elisabeth Moss’s most memorable scenes, and another reference to the heavy hand of the past.  Following an episode-long casting call for a child actor, Peggy is left distraught in the aftermath of her blowup with one of the children’s mothers and the news of the McCann absorption.  This moment of crisis allows her to share an authentic emotional moment with the two men (aside from Don), who have served as creative partners in her professional life: Pete and Stan.  When Pete reveals the McCann news to Peggy, it’s directly inspired by him seeing her being gripped by a young child, an obvious callback to the son that they’ll never share.  One more time, they sit on his couch, and one more time these two people who have been allies in so many unexpected ways over the years share in the passing of an era. 

Stan has always served as a sort of bookend to Pete in Peggy’s life, the countercultural caveman figure to his proper Ivy League prep school snob.  But beneath both men’s semi-cartoonish exteriors lies the soul of a poet.  Stan and Peggy’s relationship has always been platonic, even though a certain sexual tension has always existed between them.  It’s only logical that after years spent together, she’d finally reveal the existence of her adopted child to him, the specter of which has haunted her since that fateful night in the maternity ward ten years hence.  When she vents to him in this episode, it’s a feminist cry for equality, the ability for her to reinvent herself just as men like Don have, but it’s also moment of stark emotional catharsis (even if the armor that the Peggy of 1970 has built for herself only allows her to begrudgingly admit this.)  Much credit here should also go to Jay R. Ferguson.  Stan has predominantly been a comic relief figure since he came on the scene, but Ferguson has always managed to find the humanity beneath the humor, and to really nail the range required for scenes like this. 

One of the personal highlights of my Season 1 essays was being able to discuss the natural chemistry and bonhomie between Jon Hamm and John Slattery.  This episode recalls those moments with one more late night bar conversation between the two, in which they too reminisce about their shared glories and failures.  So much of this chemistry has been a complex mixture of generational affinity, Don viewing Roger as combination father figure and drinking buddy, Roger envisioning Don as the younger man he’d love to be and a confidante of a younger generation from which he feels estranged.  And both men have recognized in each other a world class ballbuster (most memorably depicted in Season 1’s emasculation fest “Red in the Face.”)  Their bar scene in that episode ends in a deflated Roger scheming his way into dinner with Don and Betty; one season later, a post-firing of Freddy Rumsen bar conversation unexpectedly leads Roger to leave Mona for Jane, the fallout of which leaves Don deeply embittered at Roger through Season 3.  In the wake for the death of the Sterling Cooper dream, Roger jokes to Don that “When I married my secretary, you gave me a hard time.  And then you went and did the same thing.”  And he admits his admiration for Don’s attempt to take the creative game to an almost Shakespearean level.  Having finally been forced to abandon the visions of independent success that so drove them to internal warfare, these two men can finally boil down their relationship to its admirational core.

But it’s the mildly despairing look on Don’s face after Roger leaves (to rendezvous with Marie Calvet!) that really tells the tale.  The gradual stripping away of his life signifiers began when he and Megan split, continuing on with the loss of his furniture, his apartment, his persuasive power, and now his agency.  For most of his adult life, he’s been able to fill the gaping maw inside him with markers of material success.  But adrift in this new state of enforced, quasi-zen abandon, he’s finally forced to confront himself.  Alone at the bar again, he goes looking for the mysterious Diana (who’s given another identifier here in the last name of Bauer), only to find her apartment now occupied by two gay men (who were instructed by the landlord to sell her furniture.)  This nocturnal journey to a squalid apartment recalls Don’s past visits to Midge’s bohemian Village pad, as well his infamous trip to his brother Adam’s hotel room.  In “Time and Date”, Diana is but a ghost, a pair of missed messages on an answering service that weren’t supposed to be conveyed, an unreachable respite from a state of existential uncertainty.  The question of her identity remains unanswered.

The previous three episodes ended with Don alone, visually and figuratively isolated in a state of loss.  At the end of this episode, he and the other four partners try to reassure the SC&P staff that all will be fine in the transition to McCann.  But like Don’s failed presentation to Jim Hobart, the audience isn’t buying what they’re selling this time.  As dissension and dissolution grows amidst the employees, the camera slowly dollies back as Don implores them that “This is the beginning of something, not the end.”  But after saying those words so often, in such convincing fashion, they now ring hollow.  And even though Don is with four other like-minded people in this moment, they’re as alone as he’s been in the previous episodes.  As Dean Martin appropriately croons over the closing credits “Money burns a hole in my pocket/So I’m bringing you perfume and candy and roses of red/And wishing they were diamonds instead.”

Some notes to end with:

*That’s Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” that plays underneath Stan and Peggy’s conversation about her child.  It was an instrumental hit in 1961, and its presence here echoes Don and Peggy’s “My Way” scene in the first half of this season, while also offering a dual sense of isolation and parental longing (Bilk originally wrote it for his daughter.)

*Looking back now, the hidden story of Mad Men has been McCann-Erickson’s long term bid to take over Sterling Cooper, beginning with Season 1’s recruitment of Don (which revolved around Betty’s modeling gig with Coca-Cola, the brand that Jim Hobart offers Don in this episode.)  David Simon famously based The Wire on the framework of Greek mythology, with modern day institutions standing in for the gods of yore.  In a similar context, McCann has been the god figure in this narrative, Sterling Cooper the nimble and plucky hero who repeatedly avoids the wrath of said god.  But divine wrath can only be postponed.  And in a show about the passage of time, McCann’s presence is a harbinger of the new corporate culture that rules society today, in which the cold reality of the bottom line trumps all else.

*After latching on with Dow Chemical as their Head of Advertising, Ken Cosgrove finally gets his sweet revenge on Roger and Pete when he denies their offer to join their account portfolio at Sterling Cooper West.  His presence in the first scene of the episode also serves as a sort of microcosm for what’s to come, as he wants the new advertising campaign to deny the filth and grime inherent in a germ killer (much as the SC&P crew have wanted to deny the inevitability of McCann’s corporate philosophy destroying them.)

*Did anyone ever think that Lou Avery’s Scout’s Honor storyline would result in him getting a cartoon deal?  Lou being one of the few people to emerge completely fulfilled would be a very Mad Men concept.   


Blogger said...

I've just installed iStripper, and now I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.

Blogger said...

Do you drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi?
ANSWER THE POLL and you could get a prepaid VISA gift card!