What’s In A Name: The End of Sterling Cooper

BY RYAN BYRNES

Don and the other partners react to their "victory." (Credit: AMC)
Don and the other partners react to their “victory.” (Credit: AMC)

In the Season 3 finale “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” Sterling Cooper’s major players are saved from being acquired by McCann Erickson by Don’s idea to have Lane Pryce sever their contracts and to secretly start their own agency. In this week’s episode “Time & Life,” directed by the actor (Jared Harris) who played Lane Pryce himself, Don, Roger and company reach for one more trick up their sleeve, but come up as empty as their two floors of the Time-Life Building soon will be.

“What’s in a name?” Don asks toward the end of an episode. For Sterling Cooper, a lot. As the partners say goodbye to each other at the bar, they are not only saying goodbye to the name of of their agency, but to the company itself that has kept them together through the years, despite their personal feelings toward each other at the time. It’s an agency that has continued to find ways to survive, often against all odds (“We’ve done this before, you know we can,” says Don). It averted the sale by Putnam Powell and Lowe to McCann in 1963. It stuck it out through the loss of Lucky Strike in 1965. It mucked through a messy merger in 1968 in time to make itself attractive enough to be bought by McCann as an independent subsidiary in 1969. “Boldness is always rewarded,” Roger tells Ken, and for SC, it often has been. But Don and his colleagues long ago sold their souls to the company store, and this week they find themselves absorbed by the agency they for so long were determined to stay away from.

“Time & Life” is a “Mad Men” fanatic’s dream, with plenty of nods to classic episodes of the series’ past. We have Roger and Pete attempting to lure Ken’s account to their new agency, just as Roger and Don sought Pete and his accounts when they last broke off. We see Peggy and Pete having a confidential chat on a couch for the first time since they similarly sat when she told them that she had given birth to his child. And we close at a bar where we have seen Don and Roger so many times before, like when Don inadvertently encouraged Roger to leave Mona for Jane, or when Roger inadvertently informed Don that Betty was leaving him for Henry. Here, Roger leaves Don to go see Marie, but not before he turns and says three words to Don in a manner they were once said by Don himself: “You are okay.”

Roger’s words and tone provide perhaps the episode’s most thematic hat tip to the series’ past, as he echoes the same words in the same way as they are delivered by Don during a Lucky Strike pitch in the first episode of the series, suggesting the words have stuck with Roger through all these years:

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

When Don says those words in 1960, he is attempting to convince himself as much as he is trying to convince the tobacco executives. But a decade has passed, and our main character does not appear any closer to truly believing the words that Roger tells him. Each of the partners leave the bar to check on a child or meet a significant other for a date. Don finds himself seeking out a fling who is no longer there. Rather than listening to what Roger tells him, Don might be more hung up on his final words from Lou: “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life.”

I anticipated that these final seven episodes would be focused on the central characters’ respective searches for happiness outside of the workplace. I’m surprised that we had an episode this work-centric this late in the series, but it provides a definitive endpoint for all of the characters’ professional arcs. Jim Hobart emphasizes that point. “It’s done – you passed the test,” he says, before telling them they have died and gone to advertising heaven. “Stop struggling – you won.”

Even as they achieve the money and resources and accounts and receive five of the most coveted jobs in advertising, the partners reflect a feeling of defeat rather than victory. It is perhaps a suggestion that money can only buy so much – and that their late partner was on to something when he spoke to Don last year saying “the best things in life are free.”

Notes:

  • The song playing in the background while Peggy tells Stan she gave birth to a child is “Stranger On the Shore” by Acker Bilk. The song was also played during the Season 2 finale “Mediations In An Emergency,” which was the episode where Peggy informed Pete that she had given birth to their child.
  • The feud alluded to by the headmaster at the private school Pete and Trudy visit appears to be the Campbell-MacDonald feud of Scottish fame, specifically the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. The massacre took place in Glen Coe, in the Highlands of Scotland. Interestingly, “Coe” is the name by which Ken refers to Pete in this short story he wrote in Season 5.
  • Peggy instructs the children to “do what you would do if we weren’t watching.” It’s reminiscent of when she and the other secretaries were secretly monitored “playing” with lipstick during Season 1, when Peggy’s behavior lead to her being put on the Belle Joilie lipstick account and launched her copywriting career.
  • Jim Hobart looks at Don when he tells him they will now be servicing the account of Coca-Cola. During the Season 1 episode “Shoot,” Hobart uses Betty as a model in Coca-Cola ads in attempt to persuade Don to leave Sterling Cooper for McCann. It symbolizes that McCann has finally acquired Don after a 10-year pursuit.
  • As the partners drink at the bar, a Heinz ketchup bottle sits on the table – a symbol of much smaller battle they also fell short in pursuit of.
  • This episode confirmed two plot points that have been suspected this season. One, that Ted has divorced his wife; he makes reference to his ex-wife living in California. Two, that Jim Cutler was bought out when the firm was purchased by McCann at the end of last season. “Jim Cutler wins again,“ Roger says. “All of that cash and no McCann.”
  • It was Lane Pryce himself who punches out Pete during their conference room boxing match during Season 5’s “Signal 30”, so it was only right here to see an episode directed by the actor who played Lane include a scene where Pete settles a dispute with a punch to the face.
  • “Greenwich, Connecticut is built on divorce money!” – The latest in a litany of great one-liners from Peter Dyckman Campbell.
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Author: R. Byrnes

Ryan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Yi! News.

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