Overtime and Afterlife

This is all so unnecessary. By “unnecessary,” I don’t mean pointless, or a waste of time (or life). Rather, I mean untethered from an obligation to do anything, or to arrive anywhere, in particular ...

This is all so unnecessary. By “unnecessary,” I don’t mean pointless, or a waste of time (or life). Rather, I mean untethered from an obligation to do anything, or to arrive anywhere, in particular. That has always been the secret ingredient of Mad Men, perhaps the signal distinction from many of its 21st-century peers—its privileging of the meander over the arrow. “Pointless” in this context seems to me high praise, or at least a helpful tonic, in light of such manifestly instructive endgames as the closing strokes of Breaking Bad, or the end of any season of The Wire. In that weirdly self-congratulatory paratextual chitchat that prefaced “Time & Life,” John Slattery (Roger Sterling), informs us of the wondrous truth that “all the dots connect,” when we look at the entirety of characters in Mad Men. But of course you can always make dots connect; that is the nature of dots (or, we might say, episodes). “All the dots connect” is a very different kind of advertisement from “all the pieces matter,” Lester Freamon’s famous motto; if pieces imply a whole that needs to be restored, dots allow for multiple possibilities of linking, or not linking. Likewise, Christina Hendricks’s (Joan Harris) announcement (via Matthew Weiner) that character journeys are “inevitable” simply illustrates that, if you create enough dots, any line will looks inevitable in retrospect. Inevitability is the audience’s desire to rationalize the meandering. Mad Men is fonder of dots, I would suggest, than it is of shapes.

Riffing on the title of this episode, I propose that we are in the overtime and afterlife of Mad Men—and that we may have been in the overtime and afterlife for some while. Has anything, in this seasonlet, happened that we feel changes some fundamental organization of the storyworld, or the structures of the characters? Even the absorption by McCann (another inevitability that could just as easily not have happened) speaks to the rapidly decreasing lifespan of each iteration of the agency. The initial Sterling Cooper lasted for 39 episodes, through the caper-romance at the end of season 3 (“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”). The next version, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, lasted for 32 episodes, until Don and Ted brainstormed the merger with Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough in the middle stages of season 6 (“For Immediate Release”). Its successor, Sterling Cooper & Partners, lasted for 14 episodes, until yet another prestidigitation, Roger’s deal with McCann, saved Don’s hide at the midpoint of season 7 (“Waterloo”). The independent subsidiary of McCann only made it through four installments, and last night’s tale of corporate woe. At this rate, we will be getting breakups and realignments between every commercial break.

The acceleration can be seen as a lesson in capitalist merger and accumulation, scheduled aptly alongside Comcast’s temporarily delayed bid for Time Warner. That’s fine, if you care about such things. But as a narrative practice, these increasingly shorter half-lives undercut the consequences, or the necessariness, of any one of these collisions. Hence my suggestion that we are living in a zone of freedom, perhaps as free as the gently plummeting silhouette of the opening credits, where Mad Men as we may have thought we knew it—where transformations alter what things mean—gives way to the Mad Men it has always been—where you’re born alone and you die alone (Don’s words to Rachel Menken in the pilot), and nothing matters more than anything else. We have been liberated from design. There are no less persuasive words in this entire episode than Pete’s declaration to Joan, in the back of a cab, that “for the first time, I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen.” The only possible rejoinder to that cosmological idiocy is Joan’s “That’s nice.” Nothing is supposed to happen; shit, as the agency’s campaign for Dow’s bathroom cleaner implies, just happens. Burger Chef, Peggy’s crowning achievement of “Waterloo,” has been exiled. Tinker Bell cookies, we hardly knew ye. Of course we understood that Lucky Strikes and Utz and Hilton and Jaguar could be lost, along the way; but the illusion was that winning and maintaining each of those accounts somehow formed a central substance of the series. Now, it’s all wafting in the air. You can whisper Coca-Cola in my ear, Jim Hobart; but all I hear is Coke Zero.

And that is both hunky and dory. The weight of final seasons has been too much with us, to mangle Wordsworth. Lou Avery is off to Tatsunoko Productions, to remediate his low-grade derivative serial into anime! Who gives a crap? Precisely so. Late-stage episodes are always full of leave-takings, often relatively incidental, as we check in on possibly forgotten parts of the universe. But recall the purposeful rediscovery of Badger and Skinny Pete as buffoonish hit men in their last appearance of Breaking Bad, where their eccentric charms are deployed (however parodically) as instruments of Walter White’s elaborate revenge concoction. Juxtapose that with Lou’s cartoonish abrasiveness in a surly valediction to Don—“Enjoy the rest of your miserable life”—that is meant to grate in precisely the manner that Lou has always grated, with no significant result necessary. Granted, “enjoy the rest of your miserable life” might be a possible diagnosis of what Don has in store for himself; but what matters is that the diagnosis and its diagnostician may be no more or less central to what happens next than any other combination of diagnoses and diagnosticians. Lou’s fuck-you is matched by Ken Cosgrove’s apparently more civil exit line of rejection—“Sorry about that”—as the familiar tropes of slammed phones and closed doors seem purposely to limit directions the series might go. But we understand that there are too many directions to invest any one of them with real avoirdupois. Anything goes, and will continue to go.

No one in this episode is more delightfully unnecessary than Trudy. We all love Trudy, the smart, fetching, wronged brunette—the Gallant to Betty Draper’s bad-mother blonde Goofus. While it would have been a terrible shame not to have seen Alison Brie look annoyed one more time at Vincent Kartheiser, there is no more requirement to renew our acquaintances with her than there is with Sal Romano (still lingering on the margins of the diegesis) or with Faye Miller or with Rachel Menken. We thrill to the sight of Trudy in curlers, dragging Pete back to Connecticut and the familial and the parental, to his immutable sense of aristocratic privilege that has been the character’s trademark, and comic dimension, from the very beginning. The unnecessary hijinks of a Scottish stramash within the farcical environment of an oak-paneled prep school offers a send-up of the expectation of continuation, or rather a send-up of the idea that one’s own timeline governs the world. The Campbells may have been there for generations, but there are traditions that precede Pete’s idea of ancestral obligation. (I don’t care what Wikipedia says; the Caledonian king who ordered the Campbells to slay their hosts was clearly named McCann.) Trudy, unlike everyone at the center of the episode, may be able to see the future: “In 10 years, everyone will leave me alone.” Pete’s clueless effort at assuagement—“You’re ageless”—speaks to the illusion that re-invention, or perhaps simply the logic of period drama, can make change look invisible. Trudy understands the cyclical nature of the world, where particular people and stories get fed into the thresher, where what we imagine to be the uniqueness of a self is simply something we have all seen versions of many times before.

Again, I see this not as enervated redundancy but as an embrace of the spirit of creative recycling, rebutting the teleological seriousness that we may conventionally want a final demi-season to embrace. Pete—off-key with the energies of the episode once again—scoffs at MacDonald’s outrage, at “some stupid story” that is “300 years old.” The Greenwich Country Day guy has the right idea: you can’t get away from the old stories, and the repetitions. (“Another sucker punch from the Campbells!”) The opening scene of the episode showed us Ken and Pete at Toots Shor’s—a place that, while unnamed here, is identifiable as the location of the opening scene of the second episode of the series, “Ladies Room,” when Roger, Mona, Betty, and Don dine and imbibe together for the first time. That earlier image was already belated, echoing as it did the image of public drinking of the opening scene of the pilot, with Don scrawling ideas on a paper napkin. “One egg is good,” Roger declared to Mona as the waiter built a Caesar salad at their table; “two eggs are better.” The self-consciousness of two following one, of the baby steps of serial accumulation, are everywhere in “Time & Place”: two bottles of Chateau Margaux ’53 for Ken Cosgrove; two messages from Diana; the two floors of the Time Life building denoted by SC&P’s soon-expiring lease; Shirley’s unfortunate status as Roger’s “second secretary.” “For the second time today, I surrender,” Don says to Roger on hearing the news about Marie Calvet, after Roger points out that Don copied, or seconded him, by marrying his secretary. (And, of course, Secor Laxatives have particular powers when it comes to number two.)

Seconds (or thirds or fourths) do not always have the same effects as their originals, as Roger and Don learn. Roger echoes Don’s “we’ve done it before” to the partners with “we’ve done this before” to Ken; but this turns into “we didn’t do this” when the staff mutinies at the end. What had weight before no longer has weight. The move toward the end of the series, rather than embedding in concrete both the world and structure of Mad Men, has made everything loose and partial. (Tammy Campbell’s draw-a-man skills may be inadequate for the Greenwich Country Day admissions committee, but really all that Mad Men requires at this point for its story lines are a head, a mustache, and a necktie. And that’s just fine.)

Don Draper still believes that the act of finishing matters—his famous show-and-tell performances for clients aim for demarcated beginnings, middles, and ends, with appropriate weights and flourishes. But Jim Hobart, ignoring Roger’s protestations, won’t let Don finish. McCann Erickson is the agent of interruption, an agent that Sterling Cooper Whatever has tried to hold off for several years, trusting in the old-fashioned virtues of self-invention, and the resultant sense that one can choose one’s own terms of finality. But Bert Cooper is gone, along with his Season 1 depiction of New York City as “a marvelous machine, filled with the mesh of levers and gears and springs, like a fine watch, wound tight, always ticking”; that may not be teleology, but it is stability. “Sounds more like a bomb,” Don replied at the time. And McCann Erickson is that bomb, blowing up something that has barely been assembled, rendering unstable and unreliable rather than fixed the infrastructure of the world we are about to depart. That image of the five partners, filleted into separate accounts by Jim Hobart, recycles similar gestures of dis-integration at the end of “Babylon” in the first season, and “The Phantom” in the fifth.

The fact of conclusion is vitally important; containment marks the season and series of our era as different from, if neither better nor worse than, soap opera. But why do the constituent parts of conclusion matter so much? This seems especially uncertain when it comes to a period drama, when we know that some version of history will rush past the merely temporary barriers of 1970, or 1971, or 1999, or whatever year Mad Men chooses as its stopping point. “Time & Life” proposes one of the possible endings of Mad Men—in a different deployment of the tradition of split endings that the series has paraded all along, starting with the parallel universe of Don’s bifurcated first-season home-returns at the end of “The Wheel.” The garish self-consciousness of Don’s final words—“This is the beginning of something, not the end”—is the kind of move that the show would love to dangle in front of us, following the logic of the Carousel once more.1 Carouseler.” ] Ferg Donnelly told us earlier that “this was supposed to be the last thing done, not the first.” Which end is up? The first episode of the third season of Six Feet Under made explicit the problem of serial multiplication, by illustrating the many competing directions the show could pursue in the wake of Nate Fisher’s brain surgery. Mad Men has always preferred to address the arbitrariness of narrative decisions not in the beginnings of somethings, but in their ends. I’ll wager that we get at least one more big Event before the show concludes, possibly even in a final scene; but I’ll persist in reading this as a variation on a theme, rather than as the single choice that connects all the dots into inevitability.2

The one story line I’ve scrupulously avoided so far is the one that seems most deleterious to my argument: Peggy, Stan, and the problem of motherhood. This looks like what people want “meaning” to look like. But will this conversation matter any more than meaning’s finest Mad Men hour, “The Suitcase”? The irrevocable bond between Don and Peggy in that episode, the cathected heart of the series that spoke to the show’s very core, manifests itself in “Time & Life,” at this moment of characterological need and tribulation … in exactly zero scenes featuring Peggy and Don together. Instead, Pete delivers the McCann news to Peggy, a moment that includes the ridiculous but hardly unprecedented image of her consoling him. Peggy doesn’t even put in an appearance during the final announcement—as if the weightless McCann plot has to be segregated completely from the illusion of consequence of the dialogue between Stan and Peggy. How the hell did that turn into that? That’s the question that Stan rightly asks—and we all love Stan, as we all love Trudy. (This ‘shipper is hoping against hope for Trudy-Stan wedding bells three weeks from now.) But he’s the very incarnation of the drifter, the charming rogue that the show needs for its tone and cultural perspective and its contingent representation of art—but not the brooding soul around which melancholia wraps its needy arms. He’s the genius loci of Season 7. The jerry-built plotline that displays Peggy hopelessly unable to connect to children labors to make her regret meaningful; but really it seems arbitrary, a device to get her to have a moment with her workplace collaborator. “Do what you do if we weren’t watching,” she informs the children, a line registering not only an empathetic blind spot but also the viewer’s own desire to believe that the world of Mad Men operates on its own, separate from the ministrations of audiences and authorship. That’s one version of ending: the characters choose and proceed, freed from the self-consciousness that the serial itself is wrapping up.

A more meaningful ending would try forcefully to connect narrative shape to storytelling independence. Me, I’m happy to keep Peggy Olson’s child offstage, both literally and as a subject for speculation. Like Richard Burghoff’s invisible secretary Lisa, and like Tammy Campbell in this episode, what we don’t see can matter just as much as what we do see. Mad Men will want to make its many visible endings, and its many invisible ones, available to us. Roger Sterling says that the agency doesn’t exist any more; McCann Erickson says that it does. In three weeks’ time, both will be true. icon

  1. Note the recursion embedded in the girl whose name Peggy calls out: “Betsy Wheeler.” I believe you mean “Betty [Draper
  2. Another way of reading the disgruntled crowd in the final shot is as a tableau of spoiler-consequence. Meredith (unlikely survivor Meredith!) informs Don that “rumors are flying like bats” and “everyone’s living in a fright.” This is what happens when information leaks—the audience grows restless. Maybe Roger and Don could have pulled it off if they were all in a state of AMC-preview ignorance.