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.
Todd VanDerWerff: Clearly the correct answer to your final query, Libby, is that the Campbells were in the right. When the king tells you to do something, you hop to it.
But you've also got me thinking about how the season is presenting the characters' lack of options not as doom but, rather, as a kind of erasure of the self. To be sure, I have that word on the brain because Matt Zoller Seitz's excellent recap over at Vulture points out how both the first and last shots literally involve characters being erased, so it almost doesn't matter that they're there.
The waiter steps away to reveal Pete, whose importance to the meeting is minimal; the other employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners interrupt the partners with their own chatter, as if they're ghosts haunting the halls of the office they founded.
That also got me to thinking about your point, Dylan, that what's at stake in "Time & Life" is small potatoes compared with what's at stake in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." This is essentially true, but I think the stakes are far higher than you grant.
Don Draper, after all, is a man who has built his life on the idea that there should always be an easily accessible escape route. In fighting so hard to come back to his old job, then, he's essentially doomed himself to a life without escape routes — not without completely forgoing the person he's become and going back to poverty. He probably has enough in his bank account to last a good while, but without money rolling in — and with $1 million out to Megan — he's boxed himself in.
So what does he do? Go back to being Dick Whitman? Make a fuss? Grin and bear it? No — he tries to believe, tries to convince himself that McCann is the place he wants to be. All of the partners do. But the rest of the firm isn't having it — they don't have nearly the cushion the partners do, nor the cushion that, say, Peggy has. Their jobs are very well on the line, even if Don and company are too far away to see this.
But as Seitz points out, escape routes are being blocked out all over. Joan gained the power and money she never could have had in her old Sterling Cooper days, only to find herself sucked right back into that world, without the promise of something of her very own. Roger Sterling is the last of his name — all the rest are in a mausoleum out in Greenwood. Don's apartment sits empty and ready for another chapter, but he's still in it.
To a degree, this is the message of the show. The past is the past, and sometimes it should stay the past. That centuries old grudge between the Campbells and MacDonalds is such a bitterly funny joke because it occurs on a show where the characters are forever haunted by wounds that extend beyond the boundaries of their own lives. It's okay for things to change, for people and nations to evolve.
In that sense, then, the characters on the show are the smudges of chalk left behind on the blackboard after someone scrubs it clear. You can see the tracks of the words left there, but the figure isn't fully formed. At first, I thought Tammy's failed draw-a-man test was a groan-worthy symbol of how Pete hasn't been a part of her life. It still probably is that, but it's also a thematic echo of the thought that without freedom and autonomy, these characters cease to exist. They become the fat, happy dinosaurs they thought they were struggling against.
The irony, of course, is that Mad Men was always a show about dinosaurs. It's a series about privileged white men in an era when that privilege would be eroded, in tiny, tiny bits. And throughout the run, the various iterations of Sterling Cooper have never been as cutting-edge as some of their flashier competitors. Yes, they promoted Peggy, but Peggy's ads were generally very good versions of straight down the middle. That's what her agencies sold, and that's what her clients wanted.
But the straight-down-the-middle pitch of the American dream was — as the show pointed out again and again — always a lie. The truth of the matter is that it was just an image, created by men like Don to sell things. And in being absorbed by McCann, a fate worse than death threatens to swallow the characters whole. They're in danger of becoming frozen in place, forever smiling, like the specters of an America that never quite was populating their ads.
Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts.