A distinct feeling of déjà vu pervaded a big chunk of this week’s episode, as the five principals of Sterling Cooper & Partners, once again faced with an existential threat to the firm, scrambled to fight for its survival.
What at first looks like a clerical lapse—SC&P has not paid its rent, and receives notice of its eviction from their office space in the Time & Life building—turns out to be an intentional move by the firm’s new corporate parent to dissolve and absorb it into McCann Erickson.
Mad Men has rarely been better than in the moments when the characters are trying to keep themselves afloat professionally; there is an Ocean’s Eleven, putting the team together, sneaky scam kind of vibe to the episodes where the old Sterling Cooper fought off a takeover by radically shrinking and becoming Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and again when it merged with Ted Chaough’s firm to become Sterling Cooper & Partners, and again at the end of last season when Roger engineered the McCann buyout. So on the one hand, it was exciting to see another of these schemes getting started, but on the other there was a bit of, “Oh, come on. This again?”
Which is why it was refreshing (albeit sad) when it didn’t work this time. Don’s pitch to McCann to move to the vacant Los Angeles office and remain a wholly owned subsidiary—Sterling Cooper West—fell on deaf ears, as the McCann honcho explained that it was a done deal, that they would no longer have to fight for clients or even find them. “You’ve died and gone to advertising heaven. Stop struggling.”
But it’s really only good news for the partners and the few employees (like Peggy and Stan) important enough to come with them. Everyone else is probably going to be left in the cold, and not even the great Don Draper is able to spin that.
Salon’s Sonia Saraiya (say that three times fast) admires the episode’s use of symmetry:
“Time & Life” is an episode about symmetry. The symmetry is in the title, those two four-letter, slant-rhyming words that could be interchanged—life and time, time and life. It’s in the bicoastal balancing act that the five remaining partners of Sterling Cooper & Partners is desperately trying to sell McCann Erickson. And it’s in the framing of shot after shot, starting with Pete obscured by a waiter as Ken drinks wine at a restaurant, moving through Peggy and Pete on a couch, Pete and Trudy on a couch, the five partners in the McCann meeting room, Don and Ted sitting at the SC&P conference table. The shots in this episode are gorgeously composed—a combination of cinematography and production design that makes extraordinary use of color, shape, blocking, and furniture. This is an episode of “Mad Men” that is pulling the full weight of “Mad Men,” and the results are fabulous. In order to create symmetry, you have to approach a situation head-on. That’s how the camera creates those fantastic shots; that’s also how the characters approach “Time & Life,” an episode built on the corporate drama that “Mad Men” tells so well. The five partners remaining discover that McCann is planning to fold SC&P into the parent company—and they go to the mattresses, to use the term from “The Godfather.” The episode moves forward on the galvanic energy of their mission, which is to create an office in Los Angeles. But the plan in which they pour their dreams and energy ends up being an elaborate, detailed red herring: McCann sees this folding as a privilege for the partners (especially the male ones). The head-on approach crashes and burns—symmetrically, of course. The last shot of that scene is the most perfectly composed shot of all—the five partners, with four chairs facing them, backed by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. The vertical lines between each pane of glass frame each partner in their moment of failure. Three lights hang down from the ceiling, in evenly spaced columns. Don, as the tallest, takes up the center of the five chairs; the two mustachioed men, Roger and Ted, are on either end. A blue ashtray, awkwardly large, sits on the table in front of Don. The only point of dissonance is a lamp, placed off to the left behind the partners—but even that dissonance is calculated, an eyelinered-on mole next to a Marilyn Monroe pout. The shot is so perfect, indeed, that it’s freeze-framed. Like a photograph of a mushroom cloud.
The A.V. Club’s John Teti drills into the scene where Peggy reveals to Stan that she gave up a son for adoption:
Peggy doesn’t know the whereabouts of the son she gave up, she confesses, “but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.” Go on. That’s the advice that Don gave her years ago when she was in the hospital maternity ward, confused and afraid. “This never happened,” he told her. “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Instead, it shocks Peggy how much it did happen. The Don Draper model of self-serving amnesia is not effective here. Peggy’s memory of her abandoned child places a lasting pressure on her—she must succeed to justify the portentous choice she made. Peggy gave up her son under the theory that it would give her the freedom she needed to build a prosperous, fulfilling career. So she’s thrown when a headhunter advises her to stick around at McCann, parking herself in its soul-deadening confines for a few years. Spending time at a mega-agency will burnish her resume and make her name more valuable, but this isn’t the triumph nor the artistic satisfaction Peggy had hoped for. Still, she feels obligated to make the call that benefits her career. She can’t shortchange the dream now; she sacrificed a child to get this far. “I’m fine. I have work to do,” Peggy tells Stan to end their conversation about her forgotten son, and it sounds like a line she has used on herself before. As long as she finds meaning in her work, she can convince herself that she’s doing okay. That she made the right call. This calculus is what makes her immediate future at McCann so frightening, because McCann threatens to take even more luster off the aspirations that once prompted Peggy to choose the childless path. The legacy she strives to build is haunted by the legacy that she declined in the name of Sterling Cooper.
Sean T. Collins of Wired sees the kids' casting session as a great metaphor for the larger episode:
At Sterling Cooper, having fun is now mandatory. Attempting to cast a kids’ commercial with non-actors, Peggy and Stan have gathered a group of young hopefuls and provided them with a table full of Play-Doh, Slinkys, and assorted other geegaws. “I’m giving you permission to play with all these great toys!” Peggy chirps. “Do what you’d do if we weren’t watching.” The children, however, aren’t buying what she’s selling. They sit there silent and sullen until Stan takes charge, asking a kid how far he can throw a ball, which the boy promptly lobs past Peggy’s head. But before that happens, Peggy comes up with a plan of her own. “They all have their own toy,” she observers. “If we want enthusiasm, we should just have one toy.” “Like a battle royale,” Stan deadpans back. “Just throw it in there and the last kid standing gets the gig.” “It would work,” Peggy insists. She’s got a point. Directed by Mad Men alumnus Jared Harris (aka the late great Lane Pryce, whose boyish Mets pennant currently adorns Don Draper’s office wall right next to Gene Draper’s crayon scribbles), “Time and Life” is all about the flurry of frantic, enthusiastic activity that can result when people are forced to fight over dwindling resources. Unfortunately for the firm, things go no better than they would have if Peggy and Stan had forced five kids to do battle for a single Hula-Hoop.
Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter sees the episode as the end of the professional half of the series:
This Mad Men development is significant because while previous episodes had hinted at it, “Time & Life” made it clear. In the words of Don, he and everybody else had “surrendered.” It was over. They were being absorbed by M-E. And while that’s certainly not the end of the road for them – it was made very clear that they’ll be running the best brands (except probably Joan, whose struggles for acceptance go on) and making lots of money, the thrill of what work is and represents is certainly gone. And if life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans, the SC&P partners found that out in this episode. There is no thrill anymore. Credit series creator Matt Weiner with doing a fine job of mustering up what for all intents and purposes looked like another Don Draper-led Houdini act where everybody (except Ted) was going to go to California and be Sterling Cooper West – in essence, still existing, still living. But you had to know that the run was over.
The New York Times' Logan Hill reflects on how the episode calls back to the series' most famous line of dialogue:
The failed California office gambit underscores how each compromise has led to more compromises, and how the pursuit of money hasn’t necessarily led to anything but more money. And why should it? The partners want that corporate cash, plus the illusion of independence. But McCann doesn’t owe Don a shell office that will make him feel like a maverick. McCann doesn’t owe Roger his name on the stationery. As Don once told Peggy when she was angling for credit, “That’s what the money is for.” The partners got paid, handsomely. They knew what they were doing. How dare they ask for more? “That’s what the money is for” has got to be the “Mad Men” line I think of most often (especially on bad work days as a freelancer). And it’s the line I thought about at the end of the episode, as Don tried to rally the troops and everyone ignored his half-hearted speech about how this is “the beginning of something” and “not the end.” That beautifully shot scene, with the roar of the office drowning out the now-irrelevant executives — the five of them lined up, off-center, with Roger in a royal-blue double-breasted jacket, looking like an extra in basically any Wes Anderson movie — was a reminder that their employees’ fear and devotion didn’t derive from their genius. It came from the fact that they were signing their employees’ checks. That authority? That was what the money was for. They sold it. This isn’t a beginning. This is the end.
And Tom and Lorenzo see the episode as the end of the Legend Of Don Draper, Ad Man:
Don, like Roger and Ted, is trying to find a way to accept this. Ted is just plain happy about it because, to be honest, Pete’s cruel assessment was right. He is a bit of a sheep. He just wants to do his work and not be asked to make big decisions. He literally wants to be a cog in a larger machine. For Roger, he’ll always have his money and in typical Roger fashion, is giddy at the beginning of a possible new relationship. Don is, whether he can admit it or not, intrigued by the power and possibilities Jim Hobart is offering him and trying not to see the loss of his autonomy. “This is the beginning of something, not the end” he pleads, in yet another failed pitch – this time, to the annoyed and scared employees of SC&P, who literally walk out of a Don Draper speech because they don’t believe the bulls–t he’s shoveling. The mystique of Don is well and truly dead. He can’t even make secretaries listen to him or pay him any respect anymore. “What’s in a name?” he asks Roger. Don Draper has lost his family, his wife, his home, and now his career. The only thing he has left is his name – and it’s not his name.