Last week, Don Draper struggled to summarize Sterling Cooper & Partners' prospects for the future. As it turns out, he was right to be blocked: It doesn't have one. A notice that their lease has been terminated clues Roger Sterling in to McCann's mastery plan: They've going to swallow SC&P lock, stock and Pete Campbell. At the end of the previous episode, "The Forecast," our man Draper was given 30 days to move out of his apartment. (He's making do for now by moving his patio furniture into the living room.) Now, in tonight's installment "Time & Life," the firm that's given him his purpose in life has to be out of their offices by the end of the month as well.
The agency has fended off or outwitted attempts to break up the team before, but this time there's no getting away from it. A plan to relocate to the firm's West Coast offices — about to be vacated by Lou Avery, who's finally sold his comic strip "Scout's Honor" to a Japanese cartoon company — fizzle when McCann tells Don, Pete, Roger and Ted Chaough they're not just moving in but up: They're each being awarded one of McCann's gold-star accounts. (Joan is pointedly left off the list, suggesting that McCann's "black Irish thugs" haven't yet entered the feminist era.) Draper lands the biggest prize of all: Coca-Cola. "You are dying and going to advertising heaven," he is told, glossing over the whole "dying" part.
The shot of SC&P's five surviving partners sitting a a McCann conference table both deliberately echoes and reverses the iconic Season Five-ending image of five figures facing the light-flooded expanse of newly acquired office space. Where the future once seemed limitless, now they each know exactly what it has in store; the prospects are bright, but they're still fenced-in. As the late Bert Cooper said the last time the company was threatened with a loss of autonomy: “We took their money. We have to do what they say."
It's not looking great for the next generation, either. Roger, bereft of a masculine heir, laments that the Sterling name will die with him. Pete and Trudy can't get their daughter into Greenwich Country Day School, even though he argues that "there's always been a Campbell" there. It turns out the head of admissions still hasn't forgiven the clan's treachery at the massacre of Glencoe in 1692, which makes Ken Cosgrove and Ferg Donnelly's grudge-holding seem pedestrian by comparison. Pete's attempt to argue "The king ordered it!" does not help matters, so he gives that WASP a sock in the old jaw, which seems to turn Trudy ever so faintly on. (Composer David Carbonara gets to fire up the Latin rhythms after a string of comparatively sedate episodes.)
Meanwhile, Peggy Olson can't go forward and she can't go back: She puts out feelers for job prospects only for a headhunter to tell her that the best move is to jump right into McCann's maw, and a casting call for child actors inflames her regrets over giving her baby up for adoption. Her speech to Stan Rizzo about how men can make mistakes without being defined by them plays like an accidental feminist manifesto, but the bearded gent listens closely enough to hear a specific regret behind her principled objections. It's not "mistakes" she's talking about; it's her mistake, and the difficulty of living with what she still feels was the right decision. The tenderness between them is a 'shipper's dream, so close to bringing to fruition the compatibility between them. When Peggy tells Stan she's going to McCann and "you can come too," it's enough to make you swoon. (Cue up the fan fiction!)
As for Don? He's still getting calls from Diana the Waitress of Doom, but the service isn't supposed to give him her messages, and when he drops by her apartment, it's occupied by a gay couple. (Unlike Megan, she didn't even take her furniture; the new tenants have permission to sell it.) His real estate agent's showing him two-bedroom apartments — bachelor pads, but with a spare room for the kids. "This is the beginning of something, not the end," he tells the assembled hordes of SC&P staffers after the McCann move is announced, but he's drowned out by their anxious chatter, ignored as they scatter to the winds. Mad Men has ended each of the four previous episodes with a shot of Don isolated in the frame: Here he's surrounded by people, but still alone, just an ad man with a line nobody's buying.
"Time & Life" was the show's busiest hour in weeks, a welcome change of pace full of intensely enjoyable moments that hearkened back to Sterling Cooper's glory days. But it also felt, in spite of Don's desperate sloganeering, like the beginning of the end. Notwithstanding the group's old-fashioned beer mugs, the shot of the five partners drowning their sorrows at a crowded table felt startlingly modern; update the suits, and they could be a group of office workers at your neighborhood bar. Mad Men's era is ending, and it's moving towards ours. (It's no accident that the brands bestowed upon the partners by McCann — Coke, Nabisco, Ortho — are still around today.) Clocking time inside a corporate behemoth is, as Peggy's headhunter tells her, the smart play: Just ask Matthew Weiner, whose first job was on a network sitcom. But they're giving up a dream, becoming a line on an org chart rather than a co-captain of the ship. Life goes on, but that time is ending fast.
Previously: Free as a Bird