Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.
Dylan Matthews: Todd, in your recap you note that the season-three finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," is "deliberately mirrored" in "Time & Life." That's the main lens through which I watched it, at least as soon as McCann's endgame was made clear. And it was an exciting parallel, especially coming so late in the final season. Mad Men is, as you've argued, extremely adept at using subtext to convey major emotional shifts.
But it's also a show that, contrary to Matthew Weiner's own thinking (to quote from your video: "Telling somebody what happened on Mad Men, that's like a sentence"), often works best when there's a clear plot. "Shut the Door," "The Other Woman," "In Care Of": all of these contain hugely consequential events that felt natural, earned, and, most important, big. Even "The Suitcase" — on some level just an episode of Don and Peggy hanging out — counts under this rubric. They were just hanging out, but the fight and reconciliation were themselves important events in the pair's lives.
"Time & Life" doesn't feel big. Part of that is because our would-be heroes lose, and not in the aftermath of a spirited fight, either. It's not that the partners get thisclose to making Sterling Cooper West happen, only to be foiled. They barely broach the idea, and then it's shut down.
But honestly, the quick defeat didn't even bother me too much. I like the theme of Don, Roger, Pete, Joan, and Ted not being able to get what they want, of rehashing "Shut the Door" to prove that 1970 is not 1964, that people like them don't always get to win anymore, and, crucially, that they're the establishment now, not the rebels.
The problem is that the very fact that Sterling Cooper & Partners isn't the underdog makes the stakes of a McCann takeover feel rather low. In "Shut the Door," McCann really did feel like a corporate overlord that would stifle Don's creativity, and the new company really did feel like a bold startup with the potential to do things differently. But by 1970, what's distinctive about SC&P? What sets it apart from McCann, really? And at this point, does it even matter to Don, who's been disengaged from his work since the back half of the season began?
Maybe that's the point. Maybe the partners only tried to resist a takeover because that's what they do in this situation. "We were founded to resist a McCann takeover! We're the people who bolt when the suits come! How can we not fight back?" Maybe they're just going through the motions, and as soon as Jim Hobart points that out to them, their will collapses.
But I ultimately have a hard time recognizing this as a "shitty deal," as you put it. They lose their autonomy? Which of them really cares for their autonomy anymore? When's the last time you heard Roger, Ted, Joan, or Pete say anything that suggested passion for their work?
When Don went around the office asking people what they wanted out of the future of the company, basically everyone said "a bigger account," or some version thereof. Well, McCann has big accounts. It has Coca-freaking-Cola. Satisfied? Or is it just the thrill of nabbing one that motivates these people, rather than getting to shape how the nation's biggest companies sell themselves?
Don, of course, wasn't satisfied with "a bigger account." He wanted something more, something bigger. But that's just Don being Don. He's deeply depressed and prone to existential ruminating. What else is new? There's no development at his workplace that could change that in Don.
In "Shut the Door," I really bought that the future of these people's careers was on the line. They knew what they were there for. Don lived for creative work; Roger thrived on his personal relationships with clients. But I don't buy it anymore.
No one seems to really care about, or for, their job anymore. So who cares if it changes slightly?
Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for Libby's first thoughts.