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Mad Men, episode 711: “On Endings, Beginnings, and Trading Up” by Charles Bramesco

Game of Thrones, episode 503: “You Gotta Have Faith” by Bryce Rudow

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On Endings, Beginnings, and Trading Up

By Charles Bramesco

I suppose we were due. Right on schedule, Mad Men dropped a plot-driven episode that radically altered the show’s status quo on viewers after lulling us into a false sense of security with the character-driven adventures like that of hippie Gene, disconsolate Diana, and ascendant Kenneth. To be more specific, “Time and Life” is clearly cut from the game-changing cloth of season four’s finale “Shut the Door. Take A Seat.” In that episode, a firm from across the pond threatens to swallow up the entity then called Sterling Cooper, but in the agency’s hour of desperation, Don prepares another classic Draper-brand reinvention and the higher-ups engineer a corporate restructuring with the daring of a bank heist. “Time and Life” deals the scrappy SC&P another curveball when its allegedly benevolent parent company threatens to absorb and dissolve them. Mere minutes after the meeting Don’s already formulating a plan. But the end is nigh. As the ceaseless countdown on AMC’s commercials loves to remind us, the remaining episodes are numbered. It’s not season four anymore. Nobody can elude death forever.

At the episode’s outset, Roger receives the less-than-welcome news that parent company McCann Erickson has no intention of paying rent on their own offices and SC&P’s, and has summoned the agency to move across town and integrate staffs. Roger rightly recognizes this as the first step to the complete disassembly of the SC&P #brand, and goes into DEFCON one. Don, under the impression that he’s about to become the well-coiffed creative errand boy to a gang of piggish Britons, hastily cobbles together an escape route. He knows that when McCann annexes SC&P, they’ll have no choice but to give up a handful of accounts that would conflict with one another. (A single ad agency can’t handle two orange juice accounts.) Don’s confident that he can sell the McCann executives on allowing SC&P to relocate to the West Coast offices and work exclusively on the accounts that would’ve been lost in the merger. It’s not a bad plan, either. It works for McCann’s bottom line, Don retains his creative freedom, and Sterling Cooper and Partners won’t have to surrender its precious name. #

When Don takes charge in a climactic sit-down with the McCann executives, the stage is set for a walk-off home run. It’s the last pitch of a lifetime, Don’s silver tongue the only weapon SC&P has in the fight for survival. But the McCann honchos cut him off before he can even get going. Whatever Don’s trying to sell them, they ain’t buying. SC&P is coming home, they insist, and that’s not even bad news. Merging will provide them with unprecedented resources, riches beyond their loftiest imagining, really everything a person could ever want from a job in advertising. One executive dangles big name clients in front of SC&P’s assembled partners like ribeye steaks, enticing Pete and Don with promises of Coca-Cola and Nabisco. “We shouldn’t have to sell you on this,” they explain. Don retorts, desperate to make Sterling Cooper West happen: “This isn’t an ending, it’s a beginning.”

Of course, the folks at home know this isn’t true. The good times are over, for the Sterling Cooper gang and the couch potatoes who’ve spent years watching them strive and struggle. The sense of finality that colored the first few episodes thickens to the point of palpability in “Time and Life,” culminating in the closest thing to a happily ever after that showrunner Matthew Weiner would allow. But because this is Mad Men, it’s not a horseback ride into the sunset. In America in 1970, trading up means compromise. It means working for someone again, relinquishing the self-sufficiency that Don and his cohorts have fought for tooth and nail over the years. It means literally surrendering their identity. If this be a victory, it’s a bittersweet one. No wonder the partners wash out their mouths with frothy mugs of beer after the meeting.

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On the sidelines, Pete and Peggy grapple with figures from their past and seize a resolution of their own, if only a little. Pete’s livid that his daughter Tammy has been refused admission from a prestigious prep school and agrees to pose as a picture-perfect family with ex-wife Trudy during a visit to the school to straighten everything out. Little Tammy apparently scored rather poorly on some cock-and-bull diagnostic test in which the student draws a stick figure, and her intelligence is measured by the amount of detail added to the bare outline. When MacDonald, the school’s representative, points this out to Pete, he works in a subtle jab at Pete’s manhood. After all, if Tammy had a better father figure, she’d know how to draw a man. To make matters worse, a centuries-old blood feud between the Campbell clan and the MacDonald clan has all but black-balled Tammy from the halls of the school. #

Peggy’s working a casting session for child actors, an emotionally fraught situation for her. Children have a funny way of reminding her of her child, the one she unknowingly sired with Pete, then gave up for adoption. Peggy’s extremely uncomfortable around children, speaking to them with a tone usually reserved for toll-booth attendants. When a stage mother with a hectic schedule arrives late to retrieve her spawn, Peggy has to play surrogate mother and keep the kid entertained. Under Peggy’s less-than-watchful eye, the young girl accidentally staples her own finger while fooling around with office supplies. The mother reads Peggy the riot act for being so careless around her precious child, Peggy snaps back, and everyone walks away feeling bitter.

But Peggy and Pete both process their troubling interactions and work through them to attain some minor semblance of self-knowledge. (A skill that Don has spent seven seasons trying to get the hang of.) Peggy, in particular, makes a huge step. When Stan talks what he believes to be innocuous smack about the overbearing stage-mother that stepped to Peggy, it triggers a defensive instinct in her. She leaps to justify the clearly overworked woman, and by proxy, argue for her own worth as a mother that never was. In a shocking jump, she makes the parallel explicit and confesses her secret pregnancy to Stan. He’s shellshocked, but that doesn’t stop him from acknowledging his respect for what Peggy’s been through and sharing a moment of intimacy with her. #

Peggy confides her inner anguish honestly and directly in someone she trusts and cares about, and feels better for it. In the world of Mad Men, that’s nothing short of revolutionary. Sterling Cooper West would’ve been more of the same. Peggy’s reckoning with her checkered past is the one true new beginning.

 


 

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You Gotta Have Faith

By Bryce Rudow

Depending on how old you were when you started hating your parents, you’ll remember George Michael/Fred Durst famously singing/screaming an indelible truth about the human condition. While it may take a strong sense of willpower, baby, you gotta have faith.

For a show that is usually too busy cramming seven different stories into one episode to really focus on specific themes, this week’s Game of Thrones was not only surprisingly cohesive, it was pretty up-front about it. It makes sense, though. In a ‘game’ where everyone seems very aware of the part they play, it’s important to emphasize their own individual motivations, otherwise we’d all expect them to be somewhat nihilistic about the whole thing (instead of just Tyrion). The belief systems these characters subscribe to and the things they put their faith in are not only what drive their stories forward, but what make their actions more understandable and empathetic (a tactic this show uses brilliantly). By now we’ve weeded out the obvious ‘bad guys’ of the series, so to keep these protagonists feeling protagonisty, it’s almost responsible storytelling to reexamine why these characters are doing what they’re doing. As Brienne of Tarth put it, what they feel in their hearts.

Is it trust that a face-changing man has the answer to a question you’re not even sure how to ask? Our Future Queen Arya# seems pretty content to get bitched around The House of Black and White, but between having to play that ‘faces’ game, giving sponge baths to possibly-dead guys, and having to say goodbye to Needle, she’s really having her faith tested. However, it’s a continued testament to Arya’s doggedness, and by showing her continuing to gut it out sponge baths and all, the show is really just strengthening the cause of Arya, the Character in the story.

It seems a lot easier to just believe in yourself, though, like our Current Queen Margaery seems to be happily doing. What a victory lap of an episode for her. After finally locking down King Tommen the Drywall, she’s strutting around like the Game of Thrones is a sprint, not a marathon. “I wish we had some wine for you; it’s a bit early in the day for us” may be an immediate first balloter for the GoT Quotes Hall of Fame, but there’s a reason they say pride cometh before the fall. No one person, no matter how adorable their smile, can do it alone, and this kind of hubris rarely goes unpunished.

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Which leads us up north to Castle Black. Jon Snow has spent the majority of this series having his false idols struck down, but it seems like he’s finally found something worth his devotion: honor. While his vows to the Night’s Watch may have a bit of a Wildling asterisk attached to it, he seems very content to live in a world where a man’s honor is how he is judged. No more politics, Stannis’ or Slynt’s, just the very (crow) black and (walker) white world of the Night’s Watch. An adherence to honor may have been what got his father killed, and it may have been why he still had to swing the blade that beheaded a crying man begging for mercy, but it also makes it a lot easier for him to sleep at night.

Though Stannis’ homeboy for life Davos does bring up a good point for his own belief in Lord Stannis, the man he calls a “true king.” Not only does Stannis have “a good right to that throne,” Davos tells Jon Snow that he believes Stannis’ rule would mean an end to the current suffering going on (especially in the North). He may be backing the most boring of the contenders, but this explanation helps justify his unwavering loyalty to Stannis. Makes a lot more sense than believing in Red Priests who think you can pray away grayscale, am I right?

Speaking of praying, how about our new resident messiah High Sparrow? I don’t think any of us think Cersei’s religious faith is actually guiding her actions, but there is that famous saying about atheists and foxholes. King Duckling seems humble in all the right places – that “I tell them no one is special and they think I’m special for telling them so” line feels like its straight out of the Book of Matthew – and he’s obvious improvement from the former High Scepter, but he himself wonders if she was sent by the gods to tempt him. The faith and the crown are ‘the two pillars that hold up this world’ because they’re supposed to keep one another in check, but if you were to team a desperate lionness with a sparrow keen on lancing hypocracy boils you’ve got a disturbingly powerful alliance. Faith may be important to all the characters in this show, but organized religion is a whole other beast to let out of the cage.

You know what I believe in, though?

Iain Glen

Cliffhangers!