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The last chance the Mad Men characters had at a new beginning was in season 3

Nobody works up a high dudgeon quite like Pete Campbell.
Nobody works up a high dudgeon quite like Pete Campbell.
AMC

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.

Libby Nelson: "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" is my all-time favorite episode of Mad Men. That doesn't mean I think it's the best thing the show's ever done — I know it's not — but it's by far the episode I enjoy most, the one I'll return to and rewatch for fun.

Dylan, I agree with you that Mad Men is at its best when it has a plot, even if telling someone what happens is not synonymous with spoiling an episode. And so I loved "Time & Life," with all of the echoes and callbacks to the third-season finale that Todd pointed out in his recap.

I've spent most of my professional life so far working at startups. So to me, Dylan, the fear that SC&P will lose its autonomy and its identity to McCann — even though the partners should have known this was possible, and maybe even likely, when they sold the company — rings very true. I believe that's how the partners who were present at the creation feel. This was their dream, and they didn't just give up on it when they sold the company; now they're going to see it battered to pieces.

But the four seasons since "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" have complicated the narrative of the founders' triumph. Since Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the predecessor to SC&P) was founded, Lane has killed himself; Joan was essentially pimped out in order to win the Cadillac account; Bert has died; Don has lost his job and fallen apart. Was it worth it? The agency hasn't felt like itself since the merger with Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough, and with a few exceptions, like the Burger Chef pitch, the advertising storylines have withered.

If these characters still care about their work, Matthew Weiner certainly hasn't shown it. Last week, I assumed this was part of the withering relationships between the characters: advertising is a collaborative industry, and the more isolated Don, Pete, Roger, Peggy, and Joan have become, the less we've seen them working together toward a common goal. Then this episode comes and blows all that away.

I can't remember the last time we saw so many great interpersonal interactions between these characters — from Joan and Roger's hug to Ken Cosgrove relishing every minute of his new role to every scene Pete Campbell was in. As an education reporter, I should probably weigh in on the predictive validity of the draw-a-man test — it was very modern in the 1960s — and talk about the evolution of New York's competitive preschool admissions market. But I'm going to put that on the back burner for now. Everything about the scene in the school admissions office is too good to spoil with standardized testing jargon or explanations of ancient Scottish feuds.

So instead I'll dwell on, to me, the indelible moment from "Time & Life": the raw, open conversation between Peggy and Stan, the first time she's admitted to anyone other than Pete (and presumably Don, who was present after the child's birth) that she had a baby and gave him up for adoption. (Even more time has elapsed for these characters than for us, so her son would be around 9 years old by now — older than the children she was playing with.) Mad Men has never stopped nodding in that direction, but in its waning days, it seems to be giving up on subtlety in favor of blasting its message loud and clear.

And one of those messages is that you can't escape the past. "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" was the last time Mad Men felt like it believed in a fresh start. Didn't Matthew Weiner used to talk about Mad Men as a story about the fall of New York and the rise of California? Ending with SCDP becoming Sterling Cooper West seemed like a plausible conclusion for much of its life. But instead, we got Ted and Pete moving to California and coming back. Don is the only one who still believes he can go west and reinvent himself, even in Megan's city. The past is never really over.

Todd, what did you make of Peggy's confession? What other loose ends are we going to revisit in the final three episodes? Am I right that it feels like Joan, not just Don, is on the verge of a revelation? And who was right: the MacDonalds or the Campbells?

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts from Todd.

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