Mad Men Recap: “Time & Life” Predicts a Very Bleak Finale

By  · Published on April 27th, 2015


It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that McCann Erickson is a very real ad agency. Half of which burst onto the scene in 1902, when Alfred W. Erickson pulled a very Don Draperesque move and quit his job as an advertising manager to start his own firm, The Erickson Company.

In 1911, Harry McCann did very much the same thing. He was working on an ad campaign for the Standard Oil Company when the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil was a trust that had to be busted. McCann jumped off his current gig and started the H. K. McCann Company (very oil focused). McCann and Erickson eventually found each other in 1930. You can probably guess the result.

To this day, McCann Erickson remains a major pillar of non-fictional advertising. Their greatest hits include “Army Strong,” “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard,” and allegedly inventing the modern-day incarnation of Santa in a Coke ad. They also did the most recent Mucinex ones where a living snotball follows you into a movie theater.

(Right now, McCann’s homepage is plastered their latest Halo 5 campaign. Can you imagine 70 year-old Peggy or Pete handling an Xbox controller? Spooky).

Thanks to fair use, Mad Men gets to use the name McCann Erickson all it wants, as unflatteringly as it so chooses. Normally, that’s extremely unflattering – at best, a “sausage factory”; at worst, “that was the last time I saw so many retarded people in one building.” But McCann’s an ad agency, so obviously they’re plenty adept at spinning that stuff around. They print fictional business cards, or cut a video of Mad Men characters saying “McCann” and plop it on their site’s front page.

“Time & Life” might be the worst McCann diss yet. Because this hour starts off with what seems like a Mad Men tradition at this point. The firm is going under, and our scrappy underdogs must band together, rustle up enough clients and enough cash, and re-form their beloved agency under yet another new acronym.

This time, SC&P’s impending doom comes from dissolution into McCann. And this time, there’s no last-minute out – impending doom slams into the SC&P partners like a tanker truck. Pete’s last-minute snag-a-client (another Mad Men tradition, it feels like) doesn’t mean anything, because McCann had planned to nuke SC&P and absorb the best bits ever since they bought the firm last season.

Mad Men’s pulling the same move it pulls in basically every season finale, ever, but yanks away the ending we all expect. It’s supposed to hit us like a gut punch. It hits the partners like a gut punch (more than a few gorgeous shots of the fivesome staring off into space with funeral eyes). It didn’t really hit me like that. Maybe I didn’t really grasp how important having their own firm was to these characters. Maybe we weren’t supposed to grasp it at all; not until an hour of “I’ve never worked anywhere else” and “I don’t want to go there” and a realization that maybe in a group of people with near-universally crappy lives, a tight-knit ad agency is the closest thing to a real home.

Because that’s what “Time & Life” tells us.

Last week was the first “End of an Era” episode to really delve into this “End of an Era” thing. It told us the future was uncertain. Or at least, that none of the SC&P heavyweights really knew what they wanted in a future (except for Peggy, who had a reasonably solid plan: land major account, bust through glass ceiling, create something of lasting impact.

At best, all any non-Peggy character could say is oh, I’d love to land a big account. Like, a REALLY huge one. “Time & Life” has that exact moment, with Jim Hobart pointing around the table, imprinting each partner (well, not Joan) with Buick. Ortho Pharmaceutical. Nabisco. Coca-Cola. All monolithic accounts, doled out with the holy importance of a communion wafer. No one seemed particularly fulfilled, did they?

If I had to guess, the real future everyone wanted (but couldn’t muster as a thought) would be to stay right where they were, as the ad world’s scrappy underdogs.

“Time & Life” has such a baffling sense of crossed wires to it (the wonderful, extremely intentional kind of baffling, of course). The partners are, in theory, all getting massive promotions up to the big leagues. Massive salary boosts (again, Joan’s future is shaky but they’ve all got contracts with McCann). Except “Time & Life” plays like the first step towards a very downtrodden, lonely Mad Men finale. Don will finally tell the entire world how to have a Coke, but will also have a work life as lawn-chair-flimsy, deep down, as his current home life. Adding to the crossed wires is how everyone over-stresses that the McCann absorption is totally hush-hush, so don’t tell anyone… which they explain to whomever they’re blabbing to (who then gives the same spiel to the next person).

Is this the beginning of Mad Men’s end? The real end? How much more time will we have in the SC&P office? I was half-terrified that “Time & Life” would be it and we’d never see this brilliantly put-together set again, but the preview for next week had another glimpse or two of SC&P headquarters (history’s first Mad Men preview with an actual piece of relevant information). How long before everyone scatters in the wind? “Time & Life” is a pretty solid indicator that Mad Men’s finale, like most others, will end with everyone going their separate ways and ending the period of their lives where they (and us at home) all saw each other on a weekly basis.

Also, as I’m writing this I happen to be listening to David Carbonara’s soundtrack to Mad Men’s first season. What are the chances we’ll ever hear something like this again?

If McCann is the dingy brown life-suck everyone’s expecting, maybe never. Also, we are in the ’70s now…

We’re also in one of the rare moments where Mad Men has a legitimate ticking clock, and the wait for next week actually has an air of what happens next? to it. That ball could keep rolling through the final three episodes. It could fall away next week. Mad Men was never really the show to get tied down with that stuff anyway. Either way: this episode was marvelous. I hope we can get three more like it.

(Oh, and one final note. We all should have seen a bad end coming for the SC&P gang this week. Any episode that fulfills Lou Avery’s jackass dreams and sends him off with “Sayonara my friend! Enjoy the rest of your miserable life!” followed by a supervillain-tier menacing chuckle is not an episode to be trusted.)