“Time & Life” opens with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) getting gleefully teased by Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), now the head of marketing for Dow Chemical, who denies Pete the easy approval of their mutual business for the sheer pleasure of watching him squirm. Once Don (Jon Hamm) enters, however, Ken quickly buttons up and agrees to SC&P’s plans for Dow. In essence, Ken’s unyielding dislike for Pete is simply outmatched by his idolization of Don, and last night’s episode catches Ken, along with several other characters, trying to move beyond intimate grudges in the dubious hopes of brighter skies ahead. Indeed, the dark truth at the center of “Time & Life” is that business is always personal, inseparable from the emotional baggage and mercurial philosophies each party brings to the table, to say nothing of the dreams, both failed and realized, that people naturally build into their careers.
Of course, all business seemed dwarfed upon the announcement that McCann would be absorbing SC&P entirely, giving up the office in the Time Life building. It’s telling that Sterling (John Slattery) finds out about the move when he thinks that his office manager and secretaries made an offense worthy of termination; when he tries to fire them, he seems borderline happy to be doing it. In this way, McCann’s announcement works as a sort of reckoning, making the head honchos at SC&P finally act like what they are: employees. And there’s a mild thrill in watching the partners, including Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Ted (Kevin Rahm), get stirred up into action by Don’s hail-mary concept of moving SC&P to the West Coast, allowing McCann to keep business that they would otherwise have to give up due to contractual conflicts.
Creator Matthew Weiner, who penned the episode, tips his hand by making the first meeting Sterling and Pete take to secure SC&P business be Ken, who quickly and quietly declines their offer and leaves. The scene potently evokes the feeling of being stumped by total disinterest, and having nothing to say in the face of a completely made-up mind. Pete also faces similar feelings when his family lineage turns out to be the real reason why his daughter can’t get into his and Trudy’s (Alison Brie) school of choice. As it so often is in Mad Men, the past is an insidious force that is all but impossible to get loose from, whether it’s the admissions flunky’s sense of familial pride or Don himself, believing he can outsell Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene), the head of McCann, who immediately, if politely, shoots down the West coast plan. The sequence with Hobart communicates the power and seduction of McCann as a business with grace and subtlety, Hobart closing on each partner with just the mention of their big-name clients. The salient detail is how Hobart describes his firm as “advertising heaven,” quietly equating their absorption into McCann’s offices with death.
It’s not the staff firings that the SC&P partners are necessarily worried about, but rather the dearth of ambition, identity, and independence that they must accept in the McCann move. They all remember being asked to tow the company line and not take chances, and the memory haunts them. It’s similar to the way that an old family grudge continues to have a strange hold on the man who wouldn’t let Pete’s daughter into his school, but as Weiner so eloquently points out, this isn’t primarily a man’s problem. At one point, Trudy tells Pete about all the married men who try to score dates with her because she’s been labeled “divorced” by the neighborhood and is therefore seen as loose. Her issues are relatively mild as compared to those Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) faces when she finds herself in the middle of an argument with a rushed stage mother who left her child at an SC&P audition. Subsequently, Peggy struggles with the stigma, stirred up by Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), of women having to choose between a career and motherhood, which causes Peggy to think about the child she gave up. Mad Men has happily debunked that stereotype before, but for Peggy, the uncertainty remains and Moss’s performance here summons the helplessness of trying to shake the doubt following a tough decision. Weiner knowingly connects these feelings of being branded for life by personal choices with the upheavals in her career to underline just how these two elements of life are inextricable from one another. The excellent final scene, wherein a simple, basic business announcement from the SC&P partners is overwhelmed by a building uproar of personal chatter and gossip from the worried employees, only reaffirms that sentiment.
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