Mad Men 7×11 ‘Time and Life’: Rise and fall

Mad Men 7x11 Cover

We all know the story.  We’ve heard it a thousand times.  A man builds a dynasty.  That dynasty flourishes.  That dynasty is threatened.  That dynasty is destroyed.  Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Scarface, Goodfellas, we as a society are fascinated with the rise and fall of empires.  Maybe it’s because, as built our own empires and relationships in our lives, whether it be career-oriented or family-oriented, we know that someday those empires will have to crumble to make room for other empires.  The world continues to turn and move, and we gain relevance in that world and then lose it.  We’re afraid of what happens when we no longer have our empires, of what beginnings can be made out of those endings, or if we can even muster up the energy to create those new beginnings instead of wasting away into oblivion.

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Source: AMC

“Time and Life” reflects heavily on this notion of rising and falling, of legacy, and of identity.  Because of that focus, it’s certainly the best episode to come out of either of these half-seasons, and maybe the best episode in seasons (the only one to even begin to rival it is “The Crash” from Season 6).  For all of the short-story episodes that this half-season has had to offer, this is the first to take an active approach at pushing the characters into the series’ end game.  This isn’t to say that the previous three episodes haven’t been doing that at all.  They have taken a more character-based approach at doing so, showing us the various things that Don is losing, along with the opportunity for growth.  Thematically, they have been expertly situating the end of the series around the concepts of death and rebirth, as well as the possibility of Don to experience one or both.

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Source: AMC

“Time and Life” shows us the dissolution of SC&P, with McCann having planned the complete absorption of SC&P for quite some time now.  After receiving the notice, Roger promptly informs the rest of the partners about the end of the company, which they take badly, even though they’re told that they still have jobs.  They know well enough that just having jobs doesn’t mean that they’re going to have what they had before.  In fact, none of them are going to have what they had.  They’ll either be taken off accounts, paired up with sexist morons, or phased out entirely when they’re found out to be obsolete.  They’re all feeling more control slipping away from their grasp, as they’re taken along for the ride instead of actively grasping their futures.  Eventually, control is shown to have been an illusion.  The only reason that we have control is because it is given to us.  We don’t actually own it.

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Source: AMC

The other storylines echo this same sentiment as well, attaching this notion of control or the lack thereof to names and identity.  Pete’s storyline, which was seemingly detached from the rest of the episode, showed him trying to use his name to get Tammy (his daughter) into Greenwich County Day School, a prestigious school that Pete says has been a part of the family name forever.  Ultimately, when he steps in, he sees that his name holds a completely different meaning than the prestigious meaning he believed it did.  Instead, the headmaster at the school spits vitriol at Pete based on that name, yelling at him to the point where Pete punches him in the face.  Pete doesn’t understand how to move about the world when he doesn’t have his name to back him up.  He always used his name to get what he wanted, and now that he’s getting older, he’s going to keep losing relevancy.

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Source: AMC

Another storyline that stood apart from the SC&P plotline was Peggy and Stan casting children for a commercial.  In Peggy’s case, she has understood the damage that the past can do to a person.  The storyline revolves around Peggy reflecting on having given birth to a child, and how she gave away that child when she realized how the child would damage her life.  After a kid is left at the agency, forced to wait for her mother (who just yells back at Peggy for “letting” her kid staple her own finger), Peggy can’t help but see another version of her own life.  The scene between Stan and Peggy at the end of the episode goes to show that Peggy is looking at the dissolution of SC&P the same way that she looked at her child.  She is frightened with the large decision she has to make, but knows what decision is best for her.  Just as she knew that giving away her child was the best decision for her, she knows that joining McCann will help her career the most.  Sometimes the best decisions are the ones that are the most frightening.  But we have to endure the fear of the unknown in order to move forward in our lives.

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Source: AMC

But the entire episode does revolve around Don furiously attempting to keep SC&P alive, which he does by pitching the idea of Sterling Cooper West.  It’s a division of McCann based out of California that would handle clients that otherwise would leave McCann upon the dissolution of SC&P.  We’ve seen Don cook up this kind of scheme before.  This episode has us look back at episodes like “Shut the Door.  Have a Seat.”, where Don and Roger worked together to push Sterling Cooper into the next era.  But eventually there is no next era.  After Don and the partners secure a few clients to dangle in front of McCann, they think that their hard work warrants them a chance.  But they have no chance.  McCann’s leadership doesn’t care about any proposal.  Don has no control, and the name Sterling Cooper just doesn’t mean anything anymore.

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Source: AMC

Because that lack of control means doom for the plans that Don and the partners had for their futures.  Joan has a name and a presence that means something at SC&P but will incite rampant sexism from the people at McCann who will see her as a joke.  Roger will basically become a redundant administrator at McCann, where he was once the leadership of an agency.  Don and Pete will have clients, but they’ll be with a sea of other workers that are more loyal and established than they are.  At McCann, their names don’t carry the weight they used to, and they have to find some other meaning to take its place.  Even when Don attempts to calm the crowd at the agency meeting at the end of the episode, nobody is listening.  He isn’t the mysterious genius he was in “The Wheel”.  He’s someone that wants to be important, but doesn’t know how to fit in anymore.  We don’t give ourselves the power of our names.  That is bestowed onto us by others, and if nobody cares about our names, then how are we supposed to have that power?

“Time and Life” does a great job shaking up the status quo for the final few episodes, all in order to position Don for one final decision.  It’s obvious that Don isn’t happy with going off to McCann, as he loses control over his life, but he has control over how he views himself.  The dramatic stakes for this half-season come from the struggle between death and rebirth.  Everybody here has the chance to experience either one.  It’s easy to die, to accept your fate and fall into the oblivion that awaits all of us.  It’s far more difficult to be born anew, creating something new in the process.

The real question here is: Does Don have the energy and the willpower to become something new?  Or will he lose himself in the doom and the misery and fade away into the nothingness that awaits him?

What do you think is going to happen, now that SC&P is disappearing?  Is Don going to quit the advertising business altogether?  Is he going to commit suicide?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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