“Time and Life”: Everything Must Go

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Time and Life

Everything Must Go

By James B. South

 

This week’s episode of Mad Men, “Time and Life,” is full of echoes of past episodes, but also full of reversals. Let’s start with something easy, and then move to the more difficult interpretative work. The title of the episode alludes on a very literal level to that fact that Sterling Cooper & Partners take up two floors in the Time-Life building. The episode is about losing those two floors, and by extension, the identity of the company and, more importantly, the role identities of the characters who work for Sterling Cooper & Partners. Those role identities are what make up the lives of the characters who, as we’ve repeatedly seen, have made messes of their personal lives and put too much time into their work.

But “time” and “life” are awfully weighty words and I’ll return to them in a bit after noting some echoes, at least one of which goes all the way back to the beginning of the series. This strikes me as fitting for an episode that sees the dissolution of Sterling Cooper & Partners, the company grown out of the ashes of the old Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency to which we were introduced in the first episode. Now, though, Roger, Don, and company find they have thirty days before they are going to lose their lease in the Time-Life building and become a full-fledged part of the giant company McCann Erickson. Before discussing the earliest echo, though, consider that back in the ninth episode of the first season, “Shoot,” Don finds himself being wooed by Ted Hobart of McCann Erickson—the first time we are introduced to him.

As Ted Hobart makes clear, McCann Erickson could offer him large accounts, such as Pan Am, and assure him of an international profile. By the end of the episode, though, Don has decided to stay at what was then the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. By “Time and Life,” though, Don is working for McCann Erickson, though he (and Roger) maintain an illusion that they are an independent branch of the company. It’s that illusion of independence that is ripped apart ruthlessly in the episode.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remarking on a sub-plot of “Shoot,” which involves Betty being given a chance to model for one of McCann Erickson’s biggest clients, all a part of trying to convince Don to join the company. That client is Coca-Cola. When Don decides to decline the offer from the large agency, they retaliate by finding a model other than Betty. When in “Shoot,” Don tells Roger that he’s staying at Sterling Cooper rather than take a job at McCann Erickson, he also states he’ll leave advertising if he ever leaves Sterling Cooper. The dialogue is intriguing:

Don: If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.

Roger: What else is there?

Don: I don’t know, life being lived? I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.

Ten years later, he’s still attached to Sterling Cooper, even though he is now a partner, not the no-contract employee he was in “Shoot.” But the obvious message is that he’s still talking about life and not living it.

Regarding time, Roger and Don have thirty days to save Sterling Cooper & Partners from McCann Erickson. We have seen them pull rabbits out of hats before in the face of impending disaster for the company. They try to do it again, devising a plan to move to a small west coast office and take a few clients with them who would be in conflict with McCann Erickson’s roster. When an important part of the plan falls through, Pete Campbell rescues it by getting Secor Laxatives to agree to be part of their client base. This reference to Secor again has its roots in the earlier episode “Shoot,” where Pete and Harry had come up with a plan to thwart Kennedy buying airtime in undecided states by themselves buying up airtime for Secor advertisements.

Roger, Don, Ted, Joan, and Pete assume all will be well and proceed to a meeting with Ted Hobart. But this time their plan fails. McCann Erickson was playing a different game than Don and company thought. They weren’t using Sterling Cooper and Partners to deal with conflicting accounts: they were auditioning them. He tells them they passed the test and rolls off the accounts that will be theirs, including Buick for Roger, a pharmaceutical company for Ted, Nabisco for Pete, and—another echo from “Shoot”—Coca-Cola for Don. And Hobart promises Don what he’d promised in “Shoot:” travel, adventure, and an international presence. As he makes very clear, McCann Erickson has been in charge the whole time, ever since Don, Roger, and company had squeezed out Jim Cutler by joining with McCann Erickson. They may have thought they were acting independently, but as Hobart makes clear, nothing about the acquisition was capricious.

At the end of the episode, we see Don, usually such a compelling presence, trying to get the attention of the employees, trying to explain that, “This is the beginning of something, not the end.” But the employees are busy talking amongst themselves and they walk around the big lobby in a bewildering fashion, a very model of things coming apart, an image of human entropy. No one is focused, time has run out for Don.

Last week, I used a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as a way in to some themes of the episode. That episode was, as I tried to suggest, about the passage of time, the way that plans never work out, and the problems with raised hopes. With McCann Erickson, though, we see that there are plans that work out—at least short term—and even the best counter-plan is useless in the face of money and power. With this week’s episode, another quote from a different Pynchon novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1974), came to my mind: “Shit, money, and the World, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops [the family lineage of a character in Gravity’s Rainbow], clasped them for good to the country’s fate.”

I think this passage occurred to me because of all the scatological references throughout “Time and Life,” though the more I thought about it, the more the reference to money and American mobility became apparent. The scatological references begin with a meeting between Ken Cosgrove, former employee of Sterling Cooper & Partners, Pete, and Don. It’s the opening scene of the episode and Pete is trying to convince Ken to give them the Dow account for Ziplock. Ziplock, a plastic product in keeping with the themes I’ve talked about in previous episodes, also suggests to me something quite formidable. Something that traps things, locks them in and zips them up. One could almost imagine that it’s a product for corpses.

Ken isn’t sure he wants Pete to have the account, and in response, Pete reels off the accounts for Dow that have over performed, including “corporate image cleaner”—no doubt an oblique reference to the napalm that by this time only Dow was producing—and “bathroom cleaner.” Ken confesses that “bathroom cleaner” leads him to think of “germ cleaner,” adding: “It makes people think of shit.” Don tells him not to second-guess, and Ken responds, “Okay.” With that, they begin ordering food.  But, honestly, that word “shit” stands out. It is unexpected and not the kind of language we’re used to in Mad Men, and we hear variations on it throughout the episode. We also hear that word “okay” again.

Later in the episode, we see Pete and his ex-wife Trudy in her suburban home. The ostensible reason for their meeting is to try to convince a prestigious day school to admit their daughter. Trudy, though, points out how lonely she is in the suburbs and how awful the married men are whenever she goes anywhere. She mentions that she wants to move back to the city, but Pete spits out, “The city is a toilet.”

Even more clearly, there’s an almost surreal scene of Harry Crane talking on the phone in the background while other conversation is going on in the foreground. We hear him say very loudly to the person on the other end of the line, “You’re acting like an asshole,” and then he moderates his voice and we don’t hear him anymore as his phone conversation returns to the background.

These scatological references, along with the line “We lost our lease. Everything must go.” have a cumulative affect by making us think about toilets, bowel movements, and shit. It is really quite striking and one wonders what to make of it. My best guess is that McCann Erikson, in swallowing up Sterling Cooper and Partners in a planned way, is now metabolizing them, as it were, and all the characters are now more or less glamorous waste products. (I could go into the notion of W.A.S.T.E. as it is used in Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, but that would make this post interminable).

The theme of money is highlighted in the choice of music over the closing credits. As so often is the case, this music is worth noting. This episode, the choice is an old 1954 version of Dean Martin singing “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket,” from the movie staring Martin and Jerry Lewis entitled, “Living It Up.” The title of the movie puts me in mind of Don’s claim in “Shoot” about how he’d like to get back to living life and the movie’s plot revolves around someone who thinks he has only three weeks to live, which is how many episodes of Mad Men are left. Still despite this apparently knowing and sly nod from the plot of the movie, the lyrics reinforce the Pynchonian theme of “Shit, money and the World.” The lyrics as we hear them:

Money burns a hole in my pocket

How I wish I had millions of dollars and nothing to do

But just buy pretty presents for you

 

Money burns a hole in my pocket

How I wish I had oil wells in Texas to keep me supplied

With money while I sit by your side

 

Every day of the week

We would visit the store

All the beautiful things you see

The last line fades out, just as Don’s attempted pep talk about “the beginning of something” is drowned out by the employees talking and not paying attention to him.

Several relevant themes emerge from the song. We know that Don has millions and nothing that he has to do now. His attempt to stay clear of McCann Erickson has failed and he and the rest have been “swallowed up.” In addition, the phrase “pretty presents” could refer not only to gifts, but the present time. Don could be living his life. Finally, we miss the closing line of the verse of the song:

Would soon be yours

‘Cause money burns a hole in my pocket

So I’m bringing you perfume and candy and roses of red

And wishing they were diamonds instead

All the beautiful presents could be someone’s, but whose? Don’s? Diana’s? The audience’s? Candy and roses evoke the notion of time and it’s passing while diamonds signify something much more permanent including, obviously, rings, which inevitably reminds us of Don’s failed marriages, and, as we’ll see below, another ring.

We also see money and privilege get the best of a character in the discussion between Pete, Trudy, and the headmaster of the day school, Bruce MacDonald. Even though Pete thinks he can throw money at the problem, Mr. MacDonald refers to a 300 year old feud between the MacDonald’s and the Campbell’s. Pete is frustrated that his money and his family’s “American mobility” are of no use to him in the face of the power MacDonald has. He can only impotently sucker punch MacDonald on his way out. The resonances between MacDonald and McAnn are, presumably, no accident. As Pete and Joan sit in a taxi after this encounter, Pete says, “For the first time I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen.” He’s resigned himself to the fatality of money and American mobility.

This issue of American mobility plays out in another very interesting scene between Don and Roger after their attempt to thwart McCann Erickson has failed. Sitting in a bar, Roger confesses that this is the end of the Sterling name: “No more Sterling Cooper and no more Sterlings. Margaret is the only daughter of an only son of an only son. All that’s left is a mausoleum at Greenwood.” Don replies, with a quote from Shakespeare that has particular relevance for him and his mobility: “What’s in a name?” Roger admits to envying Don’s aspiration, while Don admits that he’s always envied Roger’s not having to aspire. “In another lifetime,” Don says, I’d have been your chauffeur.” Of course, it’s quite obvious that in this lifetime that could have been Don’s fate as Dick Whitman. While the Shakespeare quote is from Romeo and Juliet, I was reminded of a quote from Hamlet that picks up even more on themes of this episode:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Is this really Don’s place? Not at the top of the corporate heap, but almost the Fool? We come back to the question of money and American mobility. Roger ends the discussion, after revealing to Don that he is dating Megan’s mother, with the soothing line, accompanied by a kiss to the cheek: “You are okay.” The “You are okay“ is yet another echo, this time to the first episode of the series where Don memorably discusses happiness: “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

In her essay, “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion discusses her time in New York City and her decision to leave for California:

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”

And again from the same essay:

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

These two passages capture, I want to claim, the sense of where Don is at. He needs someone telling him it’s okay, obviously enough, but he also needs someone to tell him that maybe it’s time to leave New York, especially if he keeps his promise never to work for anyone besides Sterling Cooper. Especially crucial evidence—in addition to the closing scene—is a conversation with Ted about California. In apologizing for having taken Don’s spot in California in a previous season, Ted says, “I know you’re attached to California. I don’t know what it means to you, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.“ Don replies, “It does mean something to me.”

We’ve seen that meaning in the episode “Tomorrowland.” It was in that episode that Don impulsively invited Megan to California to watch over his children while he was on a working vacation. He is so moved by Megan’s ability to deal well with the children and her own youthful enthusiasm that he proposes marriage and she accepts. There’s a beginning that was easy to see but whose ending was hard to see. We also saw him interacting with Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife, who is now ill. Anna’s niece give Don the wedding ring that the real Don once gave to Anna, when our Don Draper was still merely Dick Whitman. There’s another beginning easy to see: Dick Whitman becoming Don Draper. But how is that going to end? We now know that, as in last week’s show, our hopes for tomorrow are often dashed. As Aimee Mann wrote in “Fifty Years After the Fair:” But it does no good to compare / ’cause nothing ever measures up / I guess just for a second we thought / That all good things would rise to the top.

There’s that American mobility theme. But if California means something to Don, what can it be? Is it somehow more real to him because someone there had a memory of who he really is—Dick Whitman? Is the façade of Don Draper about to fade? Is that the ending we’re going to see? Is the hero no longer as optimistic as he once was?

Didion again:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.

Is Don about to achieve self-respect or is he locked within himself? His fruitless search for Diana Bower suggests he’s still looking for something. And her name, Bower, suggests a place of peace. But is it a peace he will find in California or in a mausoleum?

There are other elements of the episode that deserve discussion—Peggy and Stan (and children), Joan and Richard, Don and Diana. But, I have taken up enough of your time and life for this week. And so I close this post with an apposite quote from Antonin Artaud, the French playwright and poet: “Where there is a stink of shit, there is a smell of being.” Are all the scatological references double-edged? Things are going downhill and yet there is still a chance of life. Is the “Shit” Pynchon talks about a sign of life, of a sign of filth? Is Don about to live his life or about to end it? And what would be the difference? In three weeks time, will we stop talking about the show and get back to living our lives?

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