Relatively few Americans are watching the final season of Mad Men as it airs live. Unlike with Breaking Bad, AMC’s other prestige drama that ended on a bifurcated episode order, the availability of Mad Men on streaming hasn’t brought the show any closer to the phenomenon status of Game of Thrones or the megablockbuster spoils of The Walking Dead. It seems the slow pace, narrative digressions, literary allusions and absence of obvious narrative momentum aren’t driving people to furiously binge-watch and catch up as they did, urgently, for the end of Breaking Bad.
The show has few, if any, loose plot threads to tie up, and its characters hardly appear close to the happy endings some viewers might be expecting. But with the instant-classic episode “Time & Life” (which aired on April 27; yes, I’m behind), creator Matthew Weiner proved once again that he is singular among television writers for creating drama out of circumstances that seem to have passed their expiration date.
In a convenient case of life imitating art, the final season of “Mad Men” has seen the characters dealing with their own expiration dates, whether explicitly or in the background. Don faces the end of his second marriage, the loss of his apartment and the crumbling of his home agency. Peggy realizes that her impressive climb up the professional ladder has come at the expense of opportunities for romance and maternity. Roger’s thick mustache and lingering health problems lurk as he makes one valiant attempt to save the agency that’s saved him as many times as he’s saved it.
“Time & Life” deals beautifully with this dense web of character threads. The season’s previous three episodes focused heavily on personal turmoil separate from the office, but this one tied the professional struggles to the personal ones. One last valiant attempt to save the agency ended not in a down-to-the-minute triumph like in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” and “For Immediate Release,” but with a deflated thud. Sometimes old dogs can’t learn new tricks, and McCann saw Sterling Cooper’s old trick coming a mile away.
As the wrenching dolly away from the lineup of Sterling Cooper partners at the end of the episode underscored, what worked in the past won’t work anymore. Slick talk and emotional appeals mean nothing for the practical concerns of the agency’s underlings. The trifles Don and the partners present in the McCann can’t hold a candle to the financial might of that advertising giant. And the men (and woman) who used to hold sway in the office now find themselves too entrenched in the agency’s system to relate to its day-to-day operations. (It wouldn’t be difficult to draw a line between the difficulties in leadership at Sterling Cooper and Weiner’s own struggles with leading this show for so long. But it also might not be fair to make such a direct comparison.)
All of this irrelevance might be depressing if Weiner and the episode’s co-writer Erin Levy didn’t inject the dialogue and each storyline with the indispensable energy of Mad Men at its finest. Pete Campbell gets several extraordinary scenes – when he lets Peggy in on the partners’ secret and opens up about his worries, when he punches the headmaster of a preparatory school that won’t let his daughter attend because of a longstanding feud with the Campbell family, when he accompanies Joan on her way home from the post-McCann meeting “celebration.” Vincent Kartheiser lets these moments play out with a mixture of toughness and vulnerability, exposing the character’s still-present fundamental defects while sympathizing with his difficult circumstances.
Peggy and Stan also stand out. The scene in which Peggy quietly helps Stan understand that she had a baby and let it go pays off years of the undiscussed but ever-present toll that the baby drama from season one took on Peggy, who worked hard to compensate by advancing further than any woman in the company. And her relationship with Stan, played with grace by Jay R. Ferguson, has been a quiet marvel of borderline-romantic but firmly platonic love and respect. Here, their friendship reaches unspoken heights.
The character stories in “Time & Life” deliver moments of character interaction that almost always yield fruitful results: Don and Roger at the bar, Pete and Trudy in the Campbell family home, Joan and Dawn at a moment of high stress in the office. But the episode deals explicitly with the idea that the past can only repeat so many times. Peggy ponders a move to McCann, Ken strikes down a familiar offer to move Dow Chemical’s business to Sterling Cooper West, Ted sets his sights on a new love interest. Change is in the air, and the characters who survive and thrive will be the ones who embrace that change head-on. Don, Roger and Pete might be left in the dust.
Under the sure directorial hand of Jared Harris, who played the show’s tragic Lane Pryce until the character committed suicide at the end of season five, this episode makes frequent and poignant visual callbacks to the show’s history while also continuing the show’s recent foray into the excesses and gaudiness of the 70s. From the shot of the five partners staring down the camera in a formidable row to the patented Pete Campbell punch, Harris reaches deep into the show’s history.
In the process, “Time & Life” showcases nearly all of the qualities that make Mad Men a show worth celebrating and dissecting as it comes to an end. Though awards-giving bodies and even some critics have fallen out of love with the show, its command of character complexity and visual storytelling remains marvelous. As its winds towards what will almost certainly be a challenging, divisive and ambiguous conclusion, the show is taking stock of its legacy and cementing it at the same time. Don Draper and the Sterling Cooper brand are going out of style, but Mad Men is still hot.