As "Time and Life," the 11th episode of Mad Men's final season, aired, one thought kept popping up on my Twitter feed: this episode felt like a series finale.
Now, that's not precisely true. There's still so much left hanging in the air when the episode ends, but it gave this fledgling half-season a purpose it's been lacking and a welcome sense of direction.
The characters are going to have to fight to preserve what's left of their autonomy now that Sterling Cooper & Partners has been absorbed by McCann Erickson. A last-ditch effort to rebrand SC&P as "Sterling Cooper West" and relocate to California failed. Now everybody is left with an uncertain future.
But there's a good reason this episode felt like a series finale. As scripted by Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy (the team that co-wrote the Emmy-winning third-season finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," which will become important in a bit) and directed by Jared Harris (who once played Lane Pryce on the show), the episode was stuffed with callbacks to the series' past, something that gave it a feeling of circling back to the show's beginnings.
I could make a list dozens deep, but let's talk about 11 of the best ones in brief.
1) Peggy remembers her son
Peggy's plot in this episode feels in some ways like a remix of every Peggy plot ever, mostly in a good way. She tries to find a new job, only to learn she's pretty much stuck at the one she has. She flirts a bit with Stan and even has a significant conversation with Pete on a couch, just like when they had a child together, one she put up for adoption.
But it's that child who ties all of this together and most directly ties Peggy's story to the show's past. She's tasked with watching tiny children as they wander the office on a casting call, later forced to watch over one girl in particular when the girl's mother isn't on time to pick her daughter up.
And throughout it all, the child Peggy gave up for adoption resonates in every choice she makes, every line of dialogue she has (right down to when she uses the word "abandoned" to describe what the mother did to the young girl). And then it all comes pouring out in a late-night conversation with Stan. Peggy hasn't stopped thinking about her son. She'll just never know what happened to him, and that's how it has to be. She should be free to make mistakes like a man and move on with her life, she says.
"I don't know," she says of her son's whereabouts, "because you're not supposed to know or you can't go on with your life." It's a stunner of a scene, and Elisabeth Moss's performance makes up for how little Peggy's been in this season so far.
2) Don and Roger at the bar
After the partners of SC&P go to a bar to drown their miseries, the others peel away, one by one, until only Don and Roger are left, getting soused together at the bar, talking about the journey that's brought them all this way.
So much of the show has boiled down to these two simply sitting together and talking about what to do next. It was only appropriate that so momentous an episode would do just that. In any final season of television, you want the sense that some things will go on as they always have, and Don and Roger's friendship being a constant of both their lives seems a great way to do that.
3) Don's pitch gets interrupted
For the first several seasons of the show, Don Draper's pitches were not to be trifled with. They were masterpieces of the form.
Starting in season six, however, these pitches begin to break down. First, Don himself screws up by talking about his past in too great of detail (i.e., mentioning the brothel he grew up in) in a pitch for Hershey's chocolate. Then his pitches were delivered by the sweaty, desperate Freddy Rumsen, while Don was on leave from SC&P. Finally, in the midseason finale, "Waterloo," Don granted the floor to Peggy, who delivered a terrific pitch.
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.
4) One last all-hands-on-deck meeting
The episode ends with an "all hands on deck" meeting. The show has had a number of these throughout the years, with the principal characters announcing to the minor players good news and bad, but always with the sense that everybody's in it together.
This meeting ends quite differently. When Don announces the news, a cacophony of voices breaks out. Nobody wants to hear what the partners have to say, except Harry Crane, who insists this is good news. (Any time Harry is insisting anything, it's time to run in the opposite direction.) "We didn't do this!" Roger cries out over the din of everybody's voice, but it doesn't matter. Nobody cares who did this. They only care if they get to keep their jobs.
Notice, again, that Don doesn't get his pitch out before he's interrupted. His power is losing its sway completely.
5) Bert Cooper's ghost returns (metaphorically, at least)
One gets the sense that Bert Cooper might not have let this happen somehow. He often had some sly trick up his sleeve.
But Bert Cooper's dead. All that's left is to remember him through a mention of his name and a toast to his memory.
6) Roger and Joan hug
Another reason this episode feels so much like circling back to the past is that the characters keep interacting with each other in ways that will be familiar from the previous 88 episodes. It's a welcome change from this half-season's first three episodes, which featured the characters seeming increasingly disconnected from each other.
There's perhaps no better evidence of this shift than the scenes between Roger and Joan, two characters whose flirtatious relationship has been a backbone of the show all along. Now that the two of them are equal partners in the firm, the show has eased off on the sense that they might end up together, but it's fitting that they're the ones to get the bad news from McCann while leaning together to listen in to the same phone call.
It's also fitting that the episode gives us a long, lasting hug between the two when she leaves to be with her new paramour, Richard. Their lives go on, but they're still important to each other. We have three episodes left, but if that hug is the last time Roger and Joan ever interact, that might be enough for me.
7) The old Sterling Cooper is mentioned
At one point, the characters are told that going back to McCann will be "going home." And there's something true about that. McCann purchased the firm that owned Sterling Cooper back in season three, which necessitated the characters breaking off from the firm that had been their home for the first three seasons to form their own. That episode, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," is deliberately mirrored in this episode numerous times (including with something we're about to discuss).
But Don also mentions the old Sterling Cooper to Ted when Ted says he's never worked at a firm as big as McCann, and there's a moment in Joan's car ride with Pete where we realize that going back home isn't even slightly welcome for some of these characters. Joan has broken free of her old constraints at SC&P. She's become a partner, and she's formed relationships that have brought in business.
But when Hobart mentions the brands the partners can work with at McCann (including the temptation of a whispered "Coca-Cola!" for Don), he doesn't mention anything to Joan. Going backward isn't welcome for a woman who's come so far. But if we know Joan, we know she won't fade away quietly.
8) A clandestine meeting with Ken
I keep mentioning "Shut the Door" for a good reason. The structure of this episode (with the characters sneaking around to pull together a plan to save their firm) is very nearly identical.
Until this moment, at least. Ken Cosgrove, now working at Dow Chemical, meets Pete and Roger for a clandestine meeting that recalls Don successfully wooing Peggy to join his new firm in that previous episode. But this meeting ends very differently. Ken says no, and it presages what's about to happen. The world in which these characters get their way at every turn is rapidly coming to a close.
9) Pete and Trudy Campbell: together again at last
Of all of the failed marriages on Mad Men, the last one I expected the show to suggest might have a prayer of being renewed is the one between Pete and Trudy Campbell.
Now, I don't really expect these two to get back together, but seeing them working together toward the common goal of getting their daughter into a school that had rejected her was a real kick, reminding us of just how great the two could be in the earlier days of the show.
The show has always suggested that Pete is growing, in some ways, into who Don was at the start of the show. But where Don's marriage to Betty will never be resurrected, Pete and Trudy have a prayer, provided they can find a way to forgive each other. And even if they can't, it's fun to watch them work together.
10) The five partners in surrender
The above shot, by Harris, is a spectacular mirroring of another famous shot from the fifth-season finale, "The Phantom."
There, the partners look toward a new future, after an unquestioned success. In the first shot, though, they (with Ted taking the place of the departed Bert) look toward their new, horrifying present. Everything is unraveling. Which brings me to...
11) The word "fuck"
The word "fuck" has been said in each of the last three episodes, something that rarely happens on basic cable. But it all plays into something Weiner has talked about frequently — how Mad Men traces the gradual coarsening of the American culture. It starts small, with men no longer removing their hats around women, and it grows to a point where people are openly shouting the word "fuck" in public, including teenagers.
Weiner isn't saying this is a bad thing or a good thing. He's just saying it happened, and it carried with it a certain weight for those who had lived in the old world and struggled to adjust to the new. That, in micro, is what the entire journey of this show has been, and now that the apocalypse is upon our characters and they are being dragged down to hell, it will be interesting to see how they escape — if they even can.
Please join me again in comments for discussion of this episode and other culture-related topics! They're already open for you to chat among yourselves, but I'll be dropping by at 12 pm Eastern to answer your questions.
Mad Men airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on AMC. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.