Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘Time & Life’: Everything must go?

A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as the king ordered it…

“Hold on. This is the beginning of something. Not the end.” -Don

Hey, there's the “Mad Men” I know and love and was expecting to get in the home stretch!

“Time & Life” seemed at first like it was going to be the latest performance of the show's most popular trick, where Don and the other partners scramble at the last minute to completely restructure the agency – in this case, to avoid being absorbed into the soulless advertising machine that is McCann-Erickson. “We've done it before,” Don reminds the others – and one of those times was specifically to stay out of Jim Hobart's clutches – and as the old team puts their heads together for one last caper, it sure seems like they're going to pull it off again.

But they don't because they can't. Hobart made up his mind long before they had the first inkling this was coming, and there isn't another Houdini act in their immediate future.

It is, in fact, an episode loaded with characters trying to repeat old patterns, or simply being reminded of them, only to learn that their fate was decided too far in the past to change now. Pete and Trudy can't get Tammy into the private school they want because of a feud Pete's ancestors had back in the old country with the headmaster's clan. Ken won't sign on for the tentative Sterling Cooper West plan because he holds too many grudges against Roger and McCann (just like Ferg Donnelly fired him for leaving them years before). And while Peggy's romantic history with Pete encourages him to tip her off about the big changes coming, she's again forced to reckon with the decision to not be a mother to their son.

This was a crackling episode not only because the focus was more on the work – always the series' stronger element – but because it was able to make the personal relationships, and the long tail of history attached to them, feel like a part of the professional stories in a way that the recent curtain calls for Glen, Megan and others didn't. History has hung over this whole half-season, but these are the parts of the history that are most compelling, even as so many characters get boxed in by what they've done before.

It was an hour overflowing with historical nods, whether verbal, emotional, or visual (the shot of the five current partners looking dumbstruck in the McCann conference room a deliberate mirror of the five living partners surveying all the possibilities of that second floor).

Every meaningful scene in the episode was informed by all these people had been through together – sometimes personally, sometimes professionally, sometimes both – and all were so much richer for it. Pete had heartfelt moments with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, and Joan, whose rise to partner he made possible, even if his feelings for her at the time were far less generous than they were in their shared cab ride here. He and Peggy don't discuss their son – it's not something for them to talk about, even in these increasingly rare moments where they remember how much they once cared for each other – but the conversation primes us and Peggy nicely for her shouting match with the neglectful stage mom.

As Stan notes, before finally piecing together what it is that has Peggy so riled up about this woman, she accomplished all she has at that agency precisely because she didn't have kids. This is a decision she can't take back – she hasn't even tried to know what happened to the boy, “because you're not supposed to know, or you can't go on with your life” – and unlike so many of the episode's other pieces of history, it's one that has done her enormous good in her career: the headhunter even promises her a quadrupled salary and limitless options if she spends three years at McCann. But this is twice now in one season(*) where Peggy has had to reckon with that choice and come out wondering if she would make it again if she could have a do-over. She has a job she's great at, an erratic mentor who can inspire her or crush her dreams, and a best friend who will stay on the phone with her for hours just because she needs to know he's there, but is that enough for her?

(*) Assuming we are going along with AMC's silliness and treating these 14 episodes as one season instead of two, then her feelings for Julio count.

And even if Peggy were to somehow travel back in time to that hospital bed, she would likely just do the same thing again, given how much this late stage of the series has featured characters simply repeating the worst pieces of their history. Pete and Trudy get along better now, but could they reunite without getting the same selective amnesia currently afflicting Ted and his once-and-future girlfriend, who can't recall why things fell apart for them in college?

For all of Jim Hobart's promises of what awaited (most of) the partners in advertising heaven, our heroes know what awaits them will feel much more like purgatory, if not the hotter place down below. Ted wants to be relieved of his responsibilities, but that's because Ted has always struggled with responsibility. But the other four? At McCann, Roger is a redundant administrator, Don and Pete are just cogs in a giant machine, and if Joan's lucky, the worst she'll have to endure is the disgusting frat boy treatment she and Peggy dealt with while discussing the Topaz problem a few episodes back. There's no way out of this(**), which means they have to just smile and accept their fates.

(**) Though maybe there is for Don? Several times this season, he's complained about the hollowness of their profession. He has to stay at McCann if he wants to stay in advertising, and if he wants to get all the money he has coming to him from the sale, but what if he cares about neither and just decides to go hobo again?

It might have been fun to see Don pull one last rabbit out of his hat, but the series' impending demise meant that he didn't need to, and “Time & Life” was so much more powerful as a result. The old plays no longer work, whether Pete again pulling in Secor Laxative at the last minute (just as he did when they stole the agency out from under the British and McCann) or Don trying to give an inspiring speech to the assembled troops. Secor doesn't matter because McCann has no interest in letting Sterling Cooper remain independent in any form, and Don can't even get anyone to listen to him, let alone be swayed by his way with words. Joan tells Don, “We went down swinging,” but it felt more like they were counted out before the fight really even began. That renders their drunken evening after even more poignant. Even leaving Ted aside, these four have been through many wars together, have at times been the best of friends and at others the worst of enemies, but they remained tied together by that agency, under whatever its name was in a given week. Now that's all gone, and even if all survive at McCann, they're likely to find themselves drifting further apart from one another. These actors are superb under any circumstance, but there was a real feeling of life bleeding into art in that scene. There are three episodes to go, and this may not be the last scene they share with each other, but it was hard not to feel like Christina Hendricks was congratulating Jon Hamm on their time together as much as Joan was lamenting their defeat to Don.

“Mad Men” has never been a show that cares much about narrative momentum, particularly early in seasons. But with the end so close, the business-as-usual quality of the episodes leading up to this one stuck out more than they would have in an earlier season (or a longer one). For a while, it seemed as if Matthew Weiner and company were going to deliberately fly against our desire for finality and closure at the end of a series, and simply give us one last batch of short stories in the “Mad Men” universe, suggesting that life would simply go on and on for Don, Peggy, and everyone else. That feeling of malaise is gone now, though, and while “Time & Life” doesn't retroactively make some of the earlier stories more exciting, it does show that the whole season has been meticulously taking things away from Don: his wife, his furniture, his apartment, and now his entire agency.

What's left to take away at this point? I don't know, but if we're now entering the end game, I can't wait to see what happens next. Though I may have to watch that last Peggy and Stan scene a few dozen times before we get there.

Some other thoughts:

* Lane Pryce is long gone (RIP), but Jared Harris got to return to direct this episode, which included Pete faring much better in a fight (albeit by sucker punching his opponent) than the time he squared off with Lane in the conference room.

* Don's wardrobe had stayed remarkably consistent for a decade, but now he's giving into the '70s rapidly. That cream-colored suit with the pinstriped shirt is a look the Don of 1965 would have sneered at. Can a more contemporary hairstyle be far behind?

* Another sign of the changing times: Diana's abandoned apartment is now occupied by a gay couple who don't feel the need to hide anything, even if only one of them was interested in having Don join them that night.

* Harry Hamlin's absence this season had implied that Cutler cashed out, but we got confirmation here, as Roger vents about Cutler getting the money without having to deal with McCann.

* Richard remains a part of Joan's life, and though we haven't seen him interact with Kevin, he's at least empathetic enough to drop everything at a moment's notice to fly to New York to comfort Joan. Maybe he's not so shabby a consolation prize, after all?

* Pete seems thrown by the mention that Tammy's application drawing of a man included a mustache, which suggested a new man in Trudy's life. But their later conversation paints her as lonely: the only men hitting on her are already married, which also makes it impossible for her to make new friends. Some days, it's not easy being Alison Brie.

* This week in Alan Wants a Web Series: “Lou in Translation,” where Lou Avery tries to make his way in Tokyo, learn the language, and keep his creative vision for “Scout's Honor” pure, given that it doesn't seem like the kind of show Tatsunoko Productions was making at this point in time.

* After yet another episode where Meredith got to shine, are we at the point where we have to wonder if she's the best secretary Don's ever had? Peggy was still learning and clearly not built to handle Don's unique needs in that area. Lois was a nincompoop, Allison was competent but slept with the boss (though Meredith did at one point try to seduce Don), Jane slept with Don's boss, Megan was like Peggy in that she was bound for other things (and also slept with the boss), and Miss Blankenship was… an astronaut. So unless we're counting Joan (who filled in on his desk a few times), that leaves Dawn or Meredith, to my mind.

* Once upon a time, AMC had a once-per-season quota for their shows to drop muted f-bombs, but we've been getting a lot of them of late, including Peggy saying something unkind about the stage mom after her exit.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at