Last night’s episode of “Mad Men” really pounded home the idea that we’re near the end. (For those counting: just three more episodes left, including the finale.) We watched a now-familiar plot development: With Sterling Cooper’s demise threatened, the partners scramble to come up with a nifty plan to re-invent and save themselves — Sterling Cooper West, in California. But before we can get comfortable with images of Roger in the Playboy Mansion and Joan getting a pedicure by the pool, it’s shut down: McCann Erickson is having none of this. They’ll swallow up SC, while employing the five partners (Roger, Don, Ted, Joan, and Pete, all of whom are under contract and can’t bolt) and possibly some other staff; shutting down the SC offices and ending its name. “No more Sterlings,” ponders a sodden Roger later, noting that he has an only daughter, no sons. (Actually, he does have a son — Joan’s — but not a Sterling.) “What’s in a name?” replied the former Dick Whitman, who ought to know.
So often, we’ve seen Don save the day with a clever plan, or a perfect pitch; this time, we watched Don’s smile grow hollow. “Sit down, Don,” says McCann’s Jim Hobart, stopping him mid-pitch — he wasn’t listening. Likewise, the staff turned away as Don and Roger announced the news, at the end of the episode; the master of spin couldn’t spin this one, or even get the crowd to pay attention. This felt as new as the striped dress shirt Don was wearing (seriously, the guy’s the last of the white-shirt-to-work men). He couldn’t even find Diana, who seems to have disappeared; I won’t miss her. So many of this season’s shots have featured Don alone — in a hallway, in his empty apartment, in his soon-to-be-former office, in a diner. The loutish Lou Avery, we learn, has found his dream; Don’s seems, with just three episodes to go, unobtainable. (I genuinely have no idea where Matthew Weiner is going with Don. Which I love.)
Re-invention has been a theme throughout the duration of “Mad Men”; another, brought forward last night, is parenthood (itself a form of re-invention). Peggy’s child –fathered by Pete, born at the end of a secret pregnancy and placed for adoption– has been a secret rarely mentioned on the show. We no longer see Peggy’s family; Pete appears to have chosen, in Pete fashion, to pretend that it ever happened, and the only SC person to know is Don, with whom she appears to have only spoken of it, after the fact, once. (It was during “The Suitcase,” and I remember the heartbreaking spin Elisabeth Moss put on a single word, as Peggy acknowledged to Don that she remembers, sometimes: “Playgrounds.”) Now, working on an ad campaign that involves kids, that baby — now perhaps nine years old — is on her mind. “He’s with a family, somewhere,” she tells a stunned Stan, so very quietly. “Maybe you do what you thought was the best thing.” A man, she notes, can have a child and walk away; she, wanting other dreams, has done the same, but is a bit haunted by it. Funny how Stan assumes that, at 30, Peggy’s childbearing years are over. Also funny: the way Peggy interacted with the kids on the ad campaign, with a stiff “Now I just want you to play.” It wasn’t entirely believable — we know Peggy to be close to her nephews, and to the little boy who formerly lived in her building, so it doesn’t make sense that she would be suddenly uncomfortable with children — but it’s nice to see “Mad Men” drifting back to the past, if only for a moment.
Other parents and children: Pete and Trudy, trying to coparent their daughter and deal with the tragedy of Tammy not being accepted in a posh school. (Such bad luck — the headmaster is a McDonald, whose clan has long feuded with the Campbells. You just knew this would end in fisticuffs, and it did. “No McDonald will ever mix with a Campbell!”) Joan, leaving the SC wake early and telling Roger, “Don’t be a baby.” Pete, seeing Peggy with one of the children, which triggers something in his better nature; he then calls her to his office and warns her of the upcoming news. They sit quietly together, not mentioning the one thing that binds them.
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This wasn’t a particularly funny episode (despite one last crack at the expense of Secor Laxatives, and the absolutely hilarious way Vincent Kartheiser delivers the word “poop”), but it was a rich one, and the shot of the five partners at the table in silence, facing the end of the thing that they created, was unexpectedly moving. Substitute Bert for Ted, and you might think of another, very different shot of five people from a couple of seasons back: the partners standing in a vast, empty room, on the new office floor into which they would expand, in that hopeful future. But that future went backwards; that hope is no more. What happens next? What do you think?