‘Mad Men’ Recap: Children of All Ages

Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.

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.

John Slattery as Roger Sterling and Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris.John Slattery as Roger Sterling and Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris. Courtesy of AMC

The trouble begins when Roger discovers that someone, somehow, neglected to renew SC&P’s lease on their two-floor office in the Time-Life Building. This was no oversight, but rather part of parent mega-agency McCann Erickson’s plan to absorb their previously independent operation into the main entity. Four of the five partners left standing—Roger, Joan, Don, and Pete—dread the loss of clients, employees, and autonomy sure to accompany the move. Only Ted, who’s become something of a house cat since his relationship with Peggy, his time in California, and his marriage all went up in smoke, welcomes the chance to ensconce himself comfortably in a company he doesn’t have to run. Still, he’s nothing if not a team player, so the fab five present a united front against absorption.

And while kids’ stuff bedevils Peggy, it presents Don with an opportunity to save the firm from oblivion. When his goofy rival Lou Avery quits the company in order to move to Japan and develop a children’s cartoon based on his chimp-in-the-military comic-strip concept Scout’s Honor (“They made Speed Racer, Don!”), it leaves SC&P’s West Coast satellite office vacant. If they can persuade the clients they’d otherwise have to drop due to conflicts at McCann to stay with them, Don argues, they can move to California, set up shop in a smaller, cheaper building, and earn their owners money while saving them rent.

But McCann’s not interested, and its head honcho Jim Hobart lets them know in the most shocking way possible: He interrupts a Draper Pitch, which is to Mad Men what the Red Wedding was to Game of Thrones. He sees the move as a reward, not a punishment. Indeed, he rattles off a list of clients he’ll be giving to the Sterling Cooper crew that the smaller agency would have killed for in any of its many incarnations. This includes the mother of them all, Coca-Cola; to continue talking in GoT terms, this is like giving Don Draper a flock of dragons and telling him to go seize the Iron Throne, and the moment is no less exciting. “It’s done,” he tells them. “You passed the test.”

That childlike metaphor has extra resonance for Pete, who’d come to this meeting straight from a disastrous one with the headmaster of a prestigious day school into which Pete’s daughter has failed to gain admittance. The official excuse is that she flunked the “draw a man test,” producing only a head, mustache (“mustache?” Pete asks, suddenly curious about how his ex-wife Trudy’s been spending her nights), and necktie instead of a full figure. But it turns out that this, as well as a subsequent story about being turned off by Trudy’s arrogance, is all a smokescreen for the real reason: an absurd grudge that Headmaster McDonald bears against Clan Campbell over a 300-year-old massacre in Scotland. Pete, cold-cocks the guy. Boys and their toys, folks.

2a4a4b9a-4de6-ef6d-1cae-0e8f51461d4d_MM_711_JM_0508_0314Justina Mintz/AMC

The timing of the move is exquisitely poor for Peggy as well, given her task of casting those kids. Stan’s constant ribbing about how bad she is with children and a blow-up with an obnoxious stage mother (“You do what you want with your children, I’ll do what I want with mine!”) provide painful reminders of the baby she gave up for adoption at precisely the moment when, facing a future as a cog in the McCann Erickson machine, the value of the trade-off is easy to question. Ultimately she stands up for herself and her decision, but anyone who’s found their professional and personal lives in conflict will recognize her sensitivity and self-doubt even as they’re overcome.

b3c88d0c-1762-82f9-fe57-7efbd75c5619_MM 711 Pete PeggyCourtesy of AMC

Her superiors at work have all made similar sacrifices, but the majority of them are currently maintaining some kind of balance. After a beery send-off to the old firm, the partners go their separate ways—Pete to comfort Trudy, Ted to see the old college girlfriend with whom he’s reunited, Joan to a date with her apparently very serious long-distance boyfriend Richard, and Roger to a liaison dangereuse with Don’s former mother-in-law Marie Calvet. All a drunken Don can do is attempt to track down Diana, the forlorn diner waitress who’d previously left him a message she then instructed his answering service to delete. Instead he finds a gay couple who now live in her old apartment, and who, despite the younger half’s obviously propensity for infidelity, still have a happier home life than he does.

a Mintz/AMCJustin Mintz/AMC

The next day, Roger and Don attempt to put a positive spin on the merger at a companywide meeting, but their employees see right through it; they don’t even stay long enough to hear the end of the spiel. That’s the second time Don’s failed to sell his most important product: the agency built on his genius. He and the other partners are left alone in the crowd, losers in the proverbial battle royale. His lover, his furniture, his apartment, now his company: Mad Men’s final episodes are stripping Don down piece by piece. You can’t take your ball and go home if you’ve got no home to go to.

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