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Maclean’s Mad Men panel: Look on my works, ye mighty

A recap of the fourth episode of Mad Men’s season 7B and analysis of a single moment: the end of an agency


 
(AMC)

(AMC)

After seven seasons, it ends on May 17: Mad Men, that sartorially splendid, slow-burning show from AMC, will wind down its clock. What will become of the lusty, booze-swilling ad man, Don Draper? Every week, Adrian Lee, Colin Horgan and Sonya Bell quickly recap what stood out most from each of the final episodes and, in true Mad Men fan form, find one detail to obsess over, analyzing its many prisms, as the episode’s Mad Moment. There are spoilers ahead, for those who have not seen the latest episode. You can read last week’s panel here.

THE ROUNDTABLE

ADRIAN LEE: Legacy-building—and the fear of losing one’s legacy—is the animating premise of this episode. Roger’s effort to save Don at the end of the first half of the seventh season ends up coming with a price. Roger had convinced giant agency McCann Erickson to buy a majority stake in Sterling Cooper & Partners so he could have the upper hand over Jim Cutler, but McCann Erickson decides to do the logical thing and merge the two firms. SC&P will be no more.

This becomes, though, an existential conflict to the partners. In a fit of clarity, Roger blurts that SC&P is his “home.” He later shouts at a disbelieving Pete that, now, “We don’t exist!” Don decides that this is a concern that’s worth cancelling rather urgent efforts to find a new home, having sold his in the last episode. And their fight, after all, boils down to one about memory—a fight to retain the names on the building, legacy writ large, literally. So when the energetic Ocean’s Eleven-style machinations end up falling short—McCann Erickson denies SC&P’s request to move into the California offices—it takes the tone of a funeral.

Of course, legacy-building comes in other forms in this episode. Pete goes back to the suburbs to try to prove to his daughter’s principal that she deserves to attend a top private school, but winds up in a fistfight over, quite literally, historical wrongs perpetrated over last names. And then there’s the matter of Peggy: After failing tragicomically to cajole children to play with toys for an ad campaign (“I’m giving you permission to play with all these toys,” she said, clutching a clipboard), and then being harangued for her half-hearted efforts to babysit a child abandoned post-audition, she reveals to Stan what we knew since Season 1: that she had to give up a baby (Stan doesn’t know it’s Pete’s). And she wrestles with it, for one of the first explicit times since the first season.

By episode’s end, SC&P is done. Don still has no home. We have three episodes left. Buckle in—because Don doesn’t seem to have a place to buckle into.

COLIN HORGAN: Is it possible that Mad Men will end on a happy note? Still with three episodes to go, it seems as if things are looking up, for the most part. Rather than losing all he’d worked for, Don is on the cusp on being handed some of the biggest accounts in advertising (Coca-Cola), as Sterling Cooper gets folded into McCann, as are four of the other five partners, while Joan notices she’s overlooked. Even when Roger leaves Don alone at the bar after the team has had some celebratory drinks, he grabs Don’s face and says: “You are OK.”

Much has been made about the falling man in the title credits, tumbling through the world of adverts and cigarettes and women and drinks. The thinking goes that, if not a predictor of Don’s fate (death), it’s at the very least representative of the downward spiral he (and most everyone else) appeared to be in from the very beginning.

And yet, as evidenced a few times in this episode, the common thread between all these characters isn’t really that they’re on the decline, or falling from some great height. It’s actually the opposite. They all are striving to be better. Peter and Trudy want their daughter to go to the best school. Peggy wants a better job, and perhaps a family, too. Don wants Sally to be more than just her looks. Even Lou Avery is looking for something better and, it turns out, he’s found it in Japan.

“I always envied you. You were always reaching,” Roger tells Don.
“I always envied you didn’t have to,” Don replies.

Then again, there’s still time. Perhaps it won’t all end happily. After all, now that Don’s reached Roger’s heights, isn’t down the only place left to go?

SONYA BELL: Colin, you raise an interesting question. I don’t think anyone has ever pictured Mad Men ending with Don’s fist in the air, Breakfast Club style. But, at this point, with all the speculation and deep readings into the show, maybe a happy ending is the only way for Matthew Weiner to surprise us.

Jim Hobart described the firm’s dissolution in very interesting terms: “You are dying and going to advertising heaven.”

That’s something that didn’t come as a surprise: one last arc about a merger/acquisition/name change at the ad firm. What’s it even called again? Mad Men is so much about the characters that every season’s firm upheaval always seemed out of place to me, even though it’s technically a workplace drama.

I won’t complain too much, though, because it’s giving a push to the final few episodes that might otherwise just be about tying loose ends into a bow: Roger told Don he’s dating his ex-mother-in-law and that was totally fine. Lou announced Scout’s Honor is being made into a cartoon and he’s moving to Tokyo, suckers. And Peggy had the long-awaited reflection on giving her son up for adoption. I wasn’t sure we’d ever hear about that again, and I’m glad we did—as long as there’s no corny reunion between her, the child and Pete.

mad men

THE MAD MOMENT

Every week in this segment, our Mad Men experts find one particularly fascinating detail to analyze deeply, reading into it for its clues and its contexts. This week’s Mad Moment: It dawns on each of the five partners that the fight to keep SC&P is over, and the camera pans out to look at Pete, Don, Joan, Roger and Ted, sitting in a boardroom, after they fail to convince McCann Erickson to let the agency live on in California. 

ADRIAN: Really, this is Breaking Bad‘s fault. The AMC show that started after Mad Men—but finished before it remains, two years after its rousing series finale—is the new barometer by which pedigree cable shows are measured. And that show took obsessions with legacy-building to new heights—with protagonist Walter White’s entry into the crystal-meth field, just to leave some money behind for his family after he’s lost to cancer—eventually transforming into a warped, dark thing: a desire to become known for his perfect meth, to be known as the figure Heisenberg. He wanted legend status, proof that, in these works, there will be a memory of his existence. It’s best captured by this trailer for Breaking Bad‘s final season, featuring Walter White reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

Legacy-building: It’s why architects design skyscrapers, why people erect statues, why inventors make machines, why awards are engraved, why writers write (ahem). And this week’s Mad Moment was the equivalent of Breaking Bad‘s final scene where Walter, standing among his meth tanks and machines, pats them, bleeding, then dies: the moment where it’s clear that a legacy doesn’t matter at all.

The scene itself is a visual cue to one of the show’s most memorable shots: the five partners, backs to the camera and facing the sunlit city, hopeful, as they step foot into their new offices at the end of Season 5. They dared to dream, and here they were, an agency of their own, clients a-calling, the world ahead of them. Here, it’s in reverse: It’s five partners, in stark relief, but now facing the cameras, their faces drained pallid, facing the reality that all that optimism didn’t matter one whit.

That’s the tricky thing about that Ozymandias poem, after all. “Look on my works, ye mighty”—that famously bold, certain statement of one’s lasting effect on history is, centuries later, eminently meaningless, just rubble in the sand and debris of time. “Nothing beside remains.” If this wasn’t the moment the partners realized that, it must have been by episode’s end, when they announce the news to all the employees—and their pleas to be heard are overtaken by the hubbub. 

Don has spent the last few episodes saying farewell, in some ways, to many of the most important women in his life. (This week, too, he tries to find Diana after a night of drinks, and learns that she’s abruptly moved away.) This episode served as a goodbye to the lady who took most of his time: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. So when he says, plaintively, that the merger is “the beginning of something, not the end” at the end of his announcement to the agency, it’s pleading, begging, sad—rendering unimportant all the self-belief and the selfish machinations of the partners, amid the sand and debris of real life.

COLIN: Adrian, it’s interesting that you think nothing has really been built here, that “all their optimism didn’t matter one whit.” Perhaps she’s not doing it entirely unselfishly (though can she be blamed?), but Joan is doing something that will resonate beyond her years. Whether she immediately gets an account at McCann-Erickson or not, she’s at that table. And, as Pete later tells her, regarding not having an account waiting for her, “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.” True words, Peter Campbell. Joan is a force.

Peggy, too, is pushing for something more lasting than her own personal promotion (though that, of course, is part of her motivation). “No one should make a mistake like a man and not be able to move on,” Peggy tells Stan as she reveals she had a baby and gave it up. “She should be able to move on, just like a man does.”

“Move forward,” Don told Peggy when he saw her in the hospital after her pregnancy. In a professional sense, she has. But otherwise? What progress did she really make by giving up that kid for the sake of her job? I go back to that scene earlier this half-season, when she and Joan were standing together in the elevator, arguing about how those ad bros talked to Joan. As I said, Peggy was the most experienced of the two of them in that regard, having learned to look past that kind of thing for the sake of her career. But what does Peggy see when she looks at Joan? More than just a single mother, surely, but one suspects that’s at least part of it. Peggy was never destined to be a Trudy Campbell, out in the suburbs, quietly sobbing about her spent youth. Still, Joan did what Peggy couldn’t.

It seems to me that if anyone in this episode is left looking most likely to leave nothing behind, it’s the men—exclusively. Roger, somewhat estranged still from his daughter, is stuck on a wheel of rotating women, as always. Jim is dating an old, reacquainted friend, content to coast. Don, despite his constant desire to continue onward and upward, is left, as you point out, Adrian, shouting about what they all built into deaf ears. And so on.

Even the secretaries have more of a generational-advancement trajectory than any of them.

SONYA: Do you think the partners really believed they would pull off the California dream? It seemed like a pitch the old Don could sell, but I think Colin’s right that momentum right now is with the show’s other players, such as when Peggy meets with a recruiter and hears there are plenty of other firms interested in her. Meanwhile, when Roger faced his first big test as company president, he failed. (That’s depending on your perspective, though: Welcoming them to McCann-Erickson, Jim tells them, “You passed the test.”)

What I liked best about the boardroom scene Adrian described was the back-and-forth, the awkward dynamic of advertising bigwigs trying to sell other advertising bigwigs on their idea. Either none of them is actually good at his or her job or all of them are just too jaded, because nobody left that meeting having convinced anybody else of anything.

Last week, Peggy talked openly about wanting to leave a legacy. In her performance review with Don, she said her goal is to create something that lasts. If that’s what she wants, a giant like McCann-Erickson might be the best place for her. I can imagine her thriving there. Don is another story.

As I said earlier, I’m not a big fan of the show’s firm upheaval storylines, but this one seems important. It will be very telling whether Don falls in line and dreams up a dynamite Coca-Cola catchphrase, or whether he wiggles out of it after finally figuring out what he really wants.


 

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