Each week, Alissa Wilkinson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.

Last week I was walking down some Manhattan street and spotted, out of the corner of my eye, some lettering in a window, something about celebrating conscious living. Huh, I thought. That’s admirable. Quality over quantity. Thinking instead of mindless buying. Is it a new little boutique?

Then I got closer and realized it was an H&M.  The scrappy outer edge has a way of getting institutionalized, once marketers figure out how to package and sell it.

I was thinking of that as I watched “Time & Life,” the eleventh episode of Mad Men’s final season. Mad Men is so richly textured that there a lot of ways to read it. One of those ways—strongly supported by all the marketing for these last seven episodes that declares it is “the end of an era”—is to see it as a window into the changes that post-war America experienced through the tumultuous 1960s and into the 1970s. That’s combined with this season’s pervasive tone of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” with characters returning left and right, usually to tie up some loose ends and then untie some others.

To get a hint of this, we can return to the tenth episode, “The Forecast,” which has all the generations interacting with one another, conspicuously. Joan meets the handsome divorcee in California, a man who is probably a generation older than her. He seems perfect until she reveals that she has a four-year-old boy, to which he responds—quite petulantly—that he’s already raised his family, that he has plans now, and that he couldn’t bring her along if she had a child. Though all seems to turn out well in the end, time (and “Time & Life”) is the test for him.

“The Forecast” also featured the return of neighbor boy Glen Bishop, now all grown up and about to ship out to Vietnam. When he comes to visit Sally, she’s disgusted to see that her mother is taken with him. (Remember that younger Glen had a crush on Betty, and the fallout from that wasn’t very good for her.) After she watches her father flirt gently with one of her own teenage friends, Sally falls, with characteristic Draper viciousness, on her father for how pathetic he is—an anger borne out of both his behavior and Betty’s. Someone flirts with them, she says, “and you just melt.”

Don’s a little shocked, which hints that he’s not ready to see himself as a man too old to woo anyone. He tells Sally the truth—she is just like her parents. But more importantly, both Don and Betty aren’t ready to be the older folks.

And yet the world is giving way, and the events of “Forecast” are one window into this larger cultural shift. They act as a forecast of what’s to come—and also for “Time & Life,” which carries on that same theme.

The characters in “Time & Life” are mostly feeling ignored, something that recurs relatively frequently for Peter Campbell, and certainly shows up in this episode. He is ignored by a blissfully in-control Ken in the very first scene. Peter and Trudy’s daughter Tammy is ignored by the school they’d been planning to have her attend—for reasons, it turns out, that go back many generations. Trudy worries to Peter that she doesn’t have any friends because the women’s husbands won’t leave her alone, but the solution—to age into being forgettable—is very sad.

Elsewhere, everyone’s slowly discovering that SC&P is at last getting absorbed by McCann—something they’d expected, but thought they’d escaped—and Don can’t even get through his presentation to McCann. Nobody wants it to happen, and nobody can do anything about it. “We both know they’re never going to take me seriously over there,” says Joan to Peter. Peggy’s not sure she’ll be able to climb the ladder any higher and starts looking for options. And when the partners announce the news to the firm, they are promptly ignored. All of them. They’re irrelevant, now.

SC&P, despite not being a start-up, has often had the feeling of one. It’s a scrappy little firm that’s always been trying to compete against the big guys—big guys like McCann, in fact. They’ve defined themselves, in some ways, over and against “the man”—the rebels, the ones who have the better ideas, a little daring, a little outside the same boring old stuff you’ll get from the (metaphorical) suits. They hire women. They even hire black women. SC&P, in some ways, has been the progressive all through the 1960s.

Now it’s the 1970s, though. Don is increasingly looking older. Roger is dating an age-appropriate woman (though not appropriate in pretty much any way). People are settling down, and settling in.

So when they’re told “stop struggling—you won,” it’s a very mournful victory, followed by the dourest celebratory round of beers you’ve ever seen. Because in a sense, it’s true. The whole show, all through the 1960s, SC&P has been scrappily struggling to stay in business, to punch way above their pay grade.

And now they’ve made it. “For the first time, I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen,” says Peter. So why aren’t they happier?

I‘m too young to have lived through the 1960s, but a truism I often hear from folks who did is that the revolutionaries of the 1960s wound up becoming the establishment of the 1980s, which I suppose is only fair; I’m at the age where my peers are beginning to take over as influencers in the very institutions we used to gripe about. And the thing is that once you get inside an institution, a business, an organization, whatever—once you reach prominence, you start to realize how complicated the problems are. The struggle becomes less fruitful. You win by default, because everyone else starts dying off.

And there’s something else that happens, too: the scrappy outer edge has a way of getting institutionalized, once marketers figure out how to package and sell it. H&M saw a move toward “conscious consumption” and figured out how to mass-produce it. Hipsters shop in thrift shops, but so do Urban Outfitters designers, looking for the next big thing. The outer ring becomes the inner ring, and on it goes.

Mad Men is very much a show about a culture giving way from one era to the next. It’s on the show’s own advertising. Time, and life, make it inevitable. And it will all happen again.

1 Comment

  1. Great insights. Unlike you, I did live through the 60’s, and your comments are spot on. In the late 80’s, at a formal dinner party, I sat next to a man my age and we compared histories. We discovered we’d been at the University of Florida during the height of the anti-war protests. I’d been there to study and learn, and though I appreciated the stance of the protesters, I didn’t skip classes to join the revolution. My dinner mate, in suit and tie, had been one of the ones who’d turned over the police car in front of Tigert Hall. We’d come via different paths, but those paths converged at that dinner table.

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