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For much of the run of "Mad Men," Sterling Cooper has been shorthand for an ever-evolving kind of independence. In the early days, before the sixties as we know them were in full swing, the agency was hedonistic strongpoint against late Eisenhower-era cultural conservatism. Later, while not quite a creative Mecca, it was a shelter against the transactional tide that would hit the industry -- "our business is about buying time and space," as Duck Phillips put it to the bigs at the acquiring Puttnam, Powell & Lowe right before Draper walked out of the room. Still later, Sterling Cooper became the foil to McCann-Erickson's leviathan, even as it took McCann's money.
The agency was never quite a participant in the creative revolution led by Bernbach & Co., but neither did it become a global platform for fast-growing American multinationals. It would house a computer, but never really embrace technology. The perpetual identity crisis was never sharper than in last week's episode, when the agency's partners struggled mightily to chart a path ahead that was anything bigger than the obvious: more, bigger accounts. Vision failed all the partners, especially Don.
It's always been easier to say what Sterling Cooper is not than what it is. And now it is nothing.
Last night's episode, titled "Time & Life," heralds, finally, the end of the Sterling Cooper brand. It's a logical finishing place for a show that has been in no small part about the preservation of that brand and whatever it might represent. In a classic bait-and-switch, McCann has gone back on its word that, post-acquisition, Sterling Cooper & Partners could remain an independently operated shop with its own offices. This comes to light only when it's accidentally revealed that McCann has given notice on the SC&P's lease at the Time-Life Building.
The news, however much it should have been expected, is jarring to the five partners. The looming possibility of of being "swallowed up" by McCann -- i.e. finally getting bosses -- sets into motion one last episode of boardroom derring-do. Executing on Don's vision of packing all clients that would jump ship because of conflict into SC&P's embryonic Los Angeles office, the gang springs into action.
"You think we can secure three accounts in 24 hours?" Pete asks.
"We've done it before," Don tells him.
Yeah you have! And you will again! Only Ken Cosgrove, newly installed as the Dow Chemical client, is resistant to their charms. It's a screwing that's been telegraphed since McCann forced Ken out earlier this season, but it also doesn't matter because McCann's leadership has exactly zero interest in funding the rise of Sterling Cooper & Partners West. McCann's Jim Hobart pre-empts a Draper presentation and soothes the team, stating that he's willing to let some business go -- "casualties" -- to get SC&P properly into the fold. Those big accounts they want? McCann's got 'em. Buick for Roger. Ortho Pharmaceutical for Ted. Nabisco for Pete. For Don? "Co-ca Co-la," Hobart coos. He's also got international travel. Glamor! Adventure!
"You are dying and going to advertising heaven," Hobart tells them. "Stop struggling. You won."
Instead of popping some champagne, as Hobart suggests, the SC&P folks repair to a dark, sweaty bar for mugs of beer. There, acceptance takes over. Ted to Don: "I'm relieved. It's time to let someone else drive for a while." Pete to Joan: "For the first time, I feel like whatever happens is what's supposed to happen"
For Roger, it's dramatically more complicated. His name, after all, has been on the door -- for decades. Alone at the bar with Don, we get one more exceptional exchange that feels, sadly, like a goodbye.
Roger: No more Sterling Cooper -- and no more Sterlings. Margaret is the only daughter of an only son of an only son. All that's left is a mausoleum in Greenwood.
Don: What's in a name?
Roger: Every copywriter thinks they're Shakespeare.
Don: Something to aspire to.
Roger: I always envied that. The way you're always reaching.
Don: You didn't have to. In another lifetime, I'd have been your chauffeur.
Roger: And you would have been screwing my grandmother.
At the risk of getting all English Lit 101, the point of "What's in a name?" -- a line from "Romeo and Juliet" -- is that a name doesn't matter, that there's something intrinsic that makes labels inconsequential. It's the object, not what we call it, that matters. It's a loaded reference coming from any ad man, let alone one who's fabricated his identity. He knows very well that names do matter.
Roger goes on to tell Don that he's gotten serious with Megan's mother, Marie Calvet, and Don states the obvious. "She's crazy, you know." Roger immediately notes Don's lack of credibility when it comes to relationships:
Roger: When I married my secretary, you were hard on me. Then you went and did the same thing.
Don: For the second time today, I surrender. I'm happy for you.
Roger then grips Don's face with two hands and kisses Don on the cheek, telling him. "You are OK."
The smooch is a very French gesture from a very American man and it surely is a reference to the influence the Quebcois Marie is having on him. Yet that's undercut by the use of "OK," which has a self-help feel that's tonally very far from the more mordant Marie. The contradictions sum up the strange odyssey of Roger so well. It's almost like Roger is urging some sort of self-acceptance upon Don -- which is promptly rejected. Don frowns and scuttles off to the rundown lodging of Diana Bauer, this half-season's mysterious paramour. There, a gay couple occupying her old room informs Don that Diana has left, abandoning her furniture.
Don, to quote Marsellus Wallace, is pretty far from OK.
The episode ends with Roger and Don's announcement of the McCann move. Their rather standard corporate communication is met with the intense murmuring of dozens of people suddenly unsure of where their paycheck is coming from, despite the partners' half-assed attempts to sell them on a vision of some sort. Almost immediately, the leaders have lost their grip on their flock.
Not among those murmuring classes is Peggy. She's too central, both to the agency and as, along with Joan, a main vessel for the telling the ascendant story of women in the workplace in the 1960s. Joan, we know, is a bit more of a work in progress. She doesn't have the resume Peggy does; her partnership was attained during the unscrupulous days of the Jaguar account and is more about loyalty than achievement. Peggy, on the other hand, is an in-demand creative. The headhunter she meets when the McCann news makes it way to her says as much, but still tells her to soldier through three years there.
While this is going on, Peggy is forced to confront her brief past as a mother. Her decision to giving up the kid (sired by Pete Campbell) hides deep in the background of the Peggy Olsen story, rarely mentioned throughout earlier seasons. It pops up here only after she snaps at a mother for leaving her daughter at the agency. This moment forces a rather touching admission about her son to Stan."He's with a family... somewhere... I don't know. But it's not because I don't care. I don't know because you're not supposed to know -- or you can't go on with your life."
I'm not sure whether this is the last we've heard on this, but, if it is the end, the lack of resolution is weirdly satisfying. No reunions, no breakdowns -- just getting through a difficult situation.
A Few Historical Notes:
-- Ken is obsessed with a particular bordeaux, the Chateau Margaux 1953, "considered by some the best there is." Point of interest: Coca-Cola once made an unsuccessful run at buying the Chateau Margaux estate..
-- Ken mentions that Dow would love to get all of its accounts at MacManus John & Adams. In reality Dow was still taking a look at boutique shops in the summer of 1970, eyeing "creative cell" John Paul Itta Inc. for an automobile engine coolant assigment
-- Lou Avery is moving to Tokyo because Tatsunoko Productions, which already had a hit on its hands with "Speed Racer," is going to make Lou's truly-horrendous-sounding cartoon "Scout's Honor." Besides being a funny nod to creative side projects, it also feels like a foreshadowing of the soon-to-be-realized cultural and industrial sway of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.
-- Pete and Trudy are having trouble leveraging the Campbell family legacy as a way to get their daughter into Greenwich Country Day. The problem, it becomes clear, is that a centuries old feud between the Campbell and MacDonald clans is still fresh in the mind of a decision-maker at the school, a MacDonald. Absurd as it seems, that feud actually did exist. It resulted from the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe, when 38 MacDonalds were killed by men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. That punch that Pete threw sure had some serious baggage behind it.