Now that’s what I call an episode. For the past two weeks, I’ve been grumbling about Mad Men jogging in place when I wanted it to be sprinting to the finish line. To borrow a phrase, this episode was fired out of a cannon. I need a glass of Chateau Margaux.*
It was a classic setup, one we’ve seen on several occasions during the series’ seven-season run: Sterling Cooper is imperiled, and our heroes have to rise to the occasion—and above their petty grievances and jealousies—to keep the firm alive. Files must be spirited from file-cabinets, client meetings taken on the q.t. Fittingly, this episode was directed, wonderfully, by Jared Harris, who played the late Lane Pryce. It was Lane who helped engineer the plot to save Sterling Cooper from being swallowed by Putnam, Powell, and Lowe in Season 3.
This latest gambit was no less fun a romp for being doomed from the start. Julia, Hanna, did you also know in your bones that it wouldn’t work this time around? That the Irish thugs of McCann would put down this coup, and not even the handiwork of a dastardly Scotsman from Clan Campbell could save SCP? As thrilling as it would have been to see our old friends pull off one more miracle, the victory would have rung hollow. It’s time for the team to break up—a sad reality that I think I only came to grips with in this episode. Part of what bothered me the last two weeks was all the screen time the show devoted to new characters, instead of the ones I’ve come to know over the last eight years. I’m still not sure I love that move dramatically, but I think I understand it now thematically. The future of our main characters isn’t necessarily with each other—it’s with the handsome charmer Joan met on a visit to Sterling Cooper West and the former flame Ted bumped into on Third Avenue.
But just because these characters are moving forward, in separate directions, doesn’t mean they’ll forget one another. The real pleasure of this episode wasn’t the skullduggery of trying to save the firm one last time—it was watching the colleagues lean on each other, seeing the depth of feeling they have for one another, which in turn reminded me of the depth of feeling I have for each of them. Mad Men is rarely sentimental, at least not overly so, and the writers were careful to remind us that we humans have long memories when it comes to slights: McCann couldn’t forgive Ken Cosgrove, Cosgrove can’t forgive Pete and Roger, Clan MacDonald, apparently, can never forgive Clan Campbell. But for each of those blood feuds, this episode offered up an example of an old bond holding true.
These bonds are peculiar ones, but powerful nonetheless. This season has been rather hung up on divorce, and I think I started to understand that tonight as well. This was an episode that celebrated relationships outside the traditional nuclear family. Very few of those have survived the ravages of the 1960s (Cosgrove is still married, I suppose, though not all that happily), but our heroes are not as adrift as Don Draper’s empty apartment would make it seem. Take Pete, for example, who emerged as this episode’s unlikely hero. We know from earlier in this half-season that his love life has been foundering since things with that tape-measure-wielding real estate agent flamed out. And yet he feels enough kinship with Peggy to warn her that the S.S. Sterling has sprung a leak, enough empathy for Joan that he tries to buck her up after the meeting with McCann, and enough lingering admiration for Trudy that he’d rather fight a day-school headmaster than hear her slandered. (I like to imagine that that punch was devised by Jared Harris, who once got the better of Pete in a boardroom boxing match.)
One of Mad Men’s great accomplishments, to my mind, has always been the degree to which it captures the workplace as its own kind of familial unit, though one that can be even more fraught than a traditional family because, at the end of the day, it’s not a family: It’s a business, and people can get fired, or quit, and never come back. But just because corporate ties are dictated by earnings statements and performance reviews, not the bonds of blood, doesn’t mean that those relationships can’t be every bit as powerful as those among family. That kiss between Roger and Don! The two couldn’t be more different—Roger is to the manor born, Don to the boarding house—but they admire one another despite, and because of, their differences: a wayward father and the prodigal son he never had. And that moment, perhaps my favorite in the episode, when Peggy asks Stan to stay on the line with her as they both set about their morning tasks—they are work-husband and work-wife, and it’s a marriage stronger than pretty much any we’ve seen on this series.
Of course, all these ties binding senior management together and warming my heart don’t mean a heck of a lot to the rank and file, who receive the news of the McCann absorption not with the stiff upper lips (and padded savings accounts) of the partners but with nervous chatter and visible frustration. I loved that final scene, with the partners already powerless, weeks before the Time-Life building maintenance team will come to remove Roger Sterling’s name from the door.
Julia, Hanna: Did you guys enjoy this episode as much as I did? I’m eager for you to unpack Peggy’s reckoning with the child she gave up for adoption, a development I wasn’t sure we’d ever see. And are you glad that Peggy seems to be taking her head hunter’s advice and going to McCann? Do you believe Don’s going too (and taking the increasingly indispensible Meredith with him)? I can’t see it, not after the dim view Don seemed to take of the opportunities awaiting him in the ad game last week. Finally, now that Sterling Cooper has been blown up, and we’ve had that great Last Supper shot of the partners at the boardroom table, where will the series go from here? Roadtrip to Racine?
I’m giving you permission to play with these toys,
Correction, April 27, 2015: The article originally misspelled the name of Ken Cosgrove’s favorite vintner, Chateau Margaux. Try the ’53; it was a truly great year. (Return.)