It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Don Draper pitch on “Mad Men.” Since handing the reins to Peggy Olson on Burger Chef in “Waterloo,” Don hasn’t stood up in front of a client and worked his magic once (at least onscreen — he’s presumably holding onto his job somehow). In “Time & Life,” he gives the old pitching muscles a workout, and he falls flat on his face. To be fair, he’s stuck with a bum product: Sterling Cooper West, a last-ditch attempt to prevent McCann Erickson, who now own Sterling Cooper & Partners, from swallowing them whole. Why not let the gang move out to California, into the office space vacated by Lou Avery, who’s off to make a “Scout’s Honor” cartoon in Japan, and thus avoid losing $18 million in billings to clients they’d have to drop because of conflicts with McCann? (It could have been a lot more, but Ken Cosgrove takes the opportunity to pull Dow’s business for good, finally getting his revenge and exiting stage left.)
The trouble is, Don and Roger are thinking way too small: The issue isn’t SC&P’s monthly rent or even the $18 million, which, even though it’s $110 million in today’s dollars, is a drop in the bucket compared to what McCann has planned. It turns out Don and the others have been auditioning for what McCann’s Jim Hobart calls “five of the most coveted jobs in advertising,” and they’ve passed the test. Buick, Nabisco, Ortho Pharmaceuticals and Coca-Cola: These are their new accounts, and all the privileges that come with them. (Joan, passing grade or no, ends up without an account; evidently the women’s movement hasn’t taken root at McCann just yet.) When Jim Hobart whispers “Coca-Cola” to Don, it’s like Willy Wonka handing Charlie the keys to his chocolate factory. Who could resist?
Among other things, “Time & Life” seems to be mourning the end of an era when you could make something of yourself without getting eaten alive by a corporate conglomerate — or at least doing time in one, as the headhunter Peggy meets with suggests. It’s a startlingly modern theme, one that brings “Mad Men’s” themes, if not its suits, in line with the present day. Compared to McCann’s plans, Don and co.’s seem like awfully small potatoes. In the shot right before Jim Hobart cuts him off, he’s framed between the Sterling Cooper West logo on one side — such a sad little mockup — and a map of the earth on the other. Don’s thinking small; McCann wants him to go global. He may not, as Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen has suggested, end up pitching “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” but the idea fits.
Don fails yet again when pitching the merger to SC&P’s rank and file. “This is a beginning,” he tells the assembled hordes, “not an end,” but they’re not buying what he’s selling. He’s drowned out by their anxious chatter, and as they turn and depart, the camera pulls away, too. It’s a move familiar from the last several episodes, which all ended with variations on the same shot, except this time Don’s not alone in the frame. He’s surrounded by people, but unheeded, alone in a crowd.
That final shot also caps a running motif in “Time & Life” of variations on one of “Mad Men’s” iconic images: The closing shot of the season 5 finale, “The Phantom,” where Don, Roger, Bert, Joan and Pete gaze out at the empty space that will become Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s second floor — a void of possibility just waiting to be filled.
Here’s “Time & Life’s” last shot, as the camera pulls back to reveal the firm’s five surviving partners, still on that second floor, but lost amid a tangled mess of vertical lines; they’re not even fully in focus.
Here they are at the end of the McCann meeting, which evokes not only the shot from “The Phantom” but the Last Supper: Jim Hobart does, after all, tell them they’re “dying and going to advertising heaven.” The four chairs across from them may be an accident of framing, but it’s one of several scenes in “Time & Life” that starts with five characters and ends with five: Pete leaves the meeting in Don’s office; Joan skips out on post-meeting drinks earlier. Could it mean one of the five is soon to depart, one way or another?
How will things at McCann turn out? A shot from earlier in “Time & Life” gives us a hint. Peggy convenes a casting call for a Play-Doh commercial. Guess how many kids show up? (And note, again, that four are facing us, and one has her back to the camera.)
“Just act like we’re not here,” Peggy tells the children. But when you’re used to playing unsupervised, constant oversight can kill the mood.
More reviews of “Mad Men,” Season 7, Episode 11, “Time & Life”
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
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!”
Molly Lambert, Grantland
Sterling Cooper West — like Rachel Menken or Ken Cosgrove’s fiction writing career — was another football that Matthew Weiner’s Lucy pulled away, mid-kick, from the viewing public’s Charlie Brown. But unlike Pete, I really do believe that “whatever happens is supposed to happen,” at least when it comes to TV shows. Do I think Weiner has something else up his sleeve for the last couple of episodes? Sure I do. Do I want to guess about what it is? No! What’s the fun in that? I trust Weiner to drive.
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
Long ago, in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don insisted that “happiness is… a billboard by the side of the road that screams, with reassurance, that no matter what you’re doing, you’re okay. You are okay.” Well, Stan tells Peggy, “Everything’s going to be fine.” And I believe Stan. But when Roger tells Don, “You are okay,” I’m not so sure. He’s lost his wife, his apartment, and now he’s basically lost his job. The SC&P partners clink glasses as if they’re toasting something that’s gone. Like the SC&P employees who Don and Roger reassure in that final scene, they’re all okay. For now. Until they’re not
Logan Hill, New York Times
What, exactly, are the partners fighting for? Not much. The grand vision for this new Sterling Cooper and Partners California subsidiary, hatched in a now-familiar vision on Don’s couch, is, basically, to continue selling chemicals for napalm-manufacturer Dow, artery-clogging fast food for Burger Chef, sugary drinks for Sunkist, and laxatives for Secor — only, in a different office. In such a scenario, they would avoid direct oversight by the McCann goons, but that’s just part of the picture. Primarily, it seems, Don wants to be able to look in the mirror and lie to his reflection that he’s working for himself, even though McCann would still be signing his checks. It reminds me a little of today’s work-from-home craze: You’re free… to work all the time. Only, it’s over. They’re employees now.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Mad Men
Though some spectacular and unforeseen upheaval could still happen in the final three episodes and reverse everything, what’s been going on feels like a “life goes on” TV-series ramp-down that ties up loose ends in its own way — something more along the line of “Cheers” than “Lost” or “The Sopranos.” Many viewers have complained that Weiner and Company have given us too many episodes in which Nothing Happens, but if you look at this unusually (for “Mad Men”) eventful episode, plus the three comparatively slow, dense, and oblique chapters that led to it, you can see that the show is giving us closure, in its way.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
So we’re left, at the end of this episode — and with three remaining — watching Don Draper drifting without purpose. (A wry smile for his “What’s in a name” quip to Roger, since we know he’s still Dick Whitman.) But that moment also served as a very small reminder about where we are with Don now. He’s not really needed at work. His worth has always lay in being the big idea man, the most valuable player at a firm. At M-E he’s not. Unless he breaks off, his professional life is written. And in his personal life, the selfish pursuit of happiness in women ranging from Betty to Megan, countless women in between, has left him nowhere except sitting with Roger, buzzed in a bar. His latest big effort was try to save Diana, who didn’t want to be saved.
So this is what happens when you wake up and the actions that you’ve taken in your life lead you to a more sobering stretch run. It’s not the end, of course. But it looks like almost everyone else could be pairing up, finding happiness or finding something that passes for happy. Most of the players in Mad Men either have moved or are moving in from the cold. Except for Don, our forever outlier. We have three episodes to find out how he acknowledges his situation, deals with it or doesn’t. But change isn’t just here, it’s already happened.
Todd VanDerWerff, Vox
In “Time & Life,” however, Don doesn’t even get more than a sentence of his pitch for Sterling Cooper West out of his mouth. McCann head Jim Hobart tells him the deal is already done. The partners are going to have great jobs and a cushy life. They just have to give up their freedom. McCann has always been “Mad Men’s” version of hell, a stuffy agency that’s too big and squashes smaller agencies as a matter of course. That would make Hobart the show’s devil, then, and when he says the characters have died and gone to advertising heaven, well … I wouldn’t take him at his word.
Sonia Saraiya, Salon
Throughout this episode, Don is in his element — the pitchman for a motley crew of partners, preparing for the hardest sell of all, the sell for the right to continue surviving. And he loses. He takes it gracefully, on the chin, but he keenly feels the loss: There’s nothing left. Not even Diana is living in her crappy apartment, working her crappy job. As the episode ends, he stands, in the middle of the five of them again, desperately preaching calm to a milling, panicked company. “This isn’t the end of something. This is the beginning.” They don’t believe him. He doesn’t believe him, not really. And they file out, while he continues to speak, until he is just gesturing at empty air. His fellow partners aren’t listening, either, caught as they are in their own reveries. The symmetry is broken: It’s supposed to be a balanced conversation, but the other side hasn’t shown up.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
Don now has to face the fact that he’s pretty much done with work. As illustrated by the employees’ dismissal of his promise that this is “not the end,” it’s not a bad problem to have but one Don is completely uncomfortable with in his current state. He always seems happiest when he’s pulling off a miracle at work and at his most miserable when there’s no work to be done. Jim Hobart’s speech was enough to con Don into thinking he’s got big things left to do, but really he’ll just be overseeing other people’s ideas. As Ted said, “I’m ready to let someone else drive for a while.” Don is not, and how he copes in the last three episodes should be a fascinating journey to behold…even if we’ve been waiting for it to start these past three weeks.
Katey Rich, Vanity Fair
Is Don our Howard Beale, a man who will spin himself so deeply into his work that it consumes and destroys him? It’s where he’s been headed, after all, almost forcibly removing himself from everyone else in his life, to the point that it might be dopey Meredith who knows him best now. Then again, that scene at the bar with Roger showed a side of Don we’ve seen so little of — willing to let go of the wounds of the past to give Roger and Marie his blessing, looking a little alarmed but grateful for Roger’s affections. Sterling Cooper’s death could be yet another rebirth for Don — if he lets it.