A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I get The New York Times to print “Mein Kampf” on the front page…
“This was a hell of a boat, you know?” -Roger
There's a moment late in “Lost Horizon” that, if you've been on social media tonight, you've likely seen in gif form a few dozen times (or, like me, just kept it on in a loop in the background while writing about the episode). Peggy finally enters the McCann offices, Bert Cooper's infamous octopus painting under her arm, sunglasses concealing her hungover eyes, a cigarette dangling smugly from her lips. She has come a long, long way, baby, from the shy mouse whom Joan had to lead around the old Sterling Cooper office, and she is here to grab everything she's ever wanted, all on her way to one day having her name on the door just like Roger Sterling used to.
It's a marvelous image in that way that “Mad Men” is at its absolute best, where the past informs the present and points towards the future, and where one of the show's great actors gets to convey as much in a look as some other series would need monologue after monologue to get across.
But it's also a terrible moment, not only because we know “Mad Men” has so few like it left, but because odds are that those bastards at McCann are going to wipe that smirk off Peggy's face before she even has a chance to hang that tentacle porn up on her wall.
The episode shares a title with the Frank Capra movie about a man who winds up in Shangri-La but is convinced to return to his real life. Don was watching it as Megan slept beside him back in “Time Zones,” the long-ago premiere of this split season. As I watched tonight's episode, I thought not only of the movie, but of something Lou Avery – back before we knew of his unofficial title as Lou Avery, Worst Person on “Mad Men” – told Peggy in “Time Zones” when she kept disagreeing with him about a pitch strategy:
“Why are you making it so hard? Open the door and walk in.”
Last week, Jim Hobart welcomed the SC&P partners to “advertising heaven,” but “Lost Horizon” revealed the place to be anything but. Pete and Ted fit in happily, because Pete's a survivor (and almost as much of a chameleon in his own way as Don) and Ted has given up, but it's a nightmare for everyone else. Don sits in a meeting filled with redundant creative directors (and where the Draper-esque speech is being delivered by the guy from research) and dreams of being on that airplane flying past the Empire State Building(*). He's so unnecessary in that meeting that the only person who notices him leave is Ted, who has been on the receiving end of an identical “bring things up a notch” pep talk from Jim Hobart. Neither of them is needed, but they're there because Hobart got the thing he had wanted for 10 years, little realizing what a hassle it would be to employ Don Draper and his merry band.
(*) Even earlier, when he hears air somehow entering his office, he checks the windows to see if they open, and there's a look on his face suggesting that he hopes they do – not because he wants to die (or become the falling man from the “Mad Men” credits), but simply because it'd be a quick way out of the place.
Joan jumps out of the misogynist frying pan of Dennis and into the sexual harassment fire of Ferg Donnelly, then has to accept Jim Hobart burning up half the money she has coming to her, just so she can get out of the awful shop. Peggy and Roger hide out at the ghost town of the old SC&P office, which keeps shedding pieces of itself throughout the episode – Harry's computer, the walls, the lights, and even the different company logos – drinking, playing the organ, roller-skating(**), as Roger recalls jumping off a boat into the Pacific.
(**) Peggy on the skates evokes a memory from the very earliest days in that office: her riding the Honda scooter around in circles as part of the hustle Don was running on Teddy.
Escape is the only sensible option when dealing with these people, and though Joan and Don are the only ones who actually leave McCann – her officially, him on another of his hobo odysseys – it's not hard to imagine, or simply hope for, all the other regulars to follow them out the door while they still can. McCann sure as hell isn't Shangri-La, and if SC&P was, it's too late for anyone to go back there now.
Because the show is so close to the end, and because McCann is such a miserable place, there's this incredible tension to the show at the moment. As each character exits a scene, it's with the possibility that this is the last we'll see of them. Sometimes, the curtain calls are obvious, like Shirley being smart enough to take a job elsewhere, or Ed finishing his final long-distance call and heading out to find work. But at other points, it's maddeningly unclear, which I imagine is just how Matt Weiner likes it. Will we actually follow Harry to the 24th floor (where he will be, of course, ecstatic), or will Roger be the last character who gets to insult him? Is Joan taking her Rolodex and photo of Kevin and leaving the series, or just her office? Is it possible that this was the last we'll see of all of the gang from SC&P, and the last two episodes will just be following Don on his ramble across the Midwest?
I don't expect that to happen, but we're at a point where it could, which is what makes an episode like “Lost Horizon” both so agonizing and so wonderful. Our time with these people, and this show, is running out, and that sense of ending is now palpable for all involved. We'd love to just be getting drunk in the empty office with Roger and Peggy – an underused but always entertaining “Mad Men” combo – for as long as possible, but life moves on, people change jobs, and TV shows end.
Joan's suffering was the most palpable this week, as we feared it would be. McCann didn't buy SC&P to acquire her services – Hobart dismisses her junior partnership as something someone must have bequeathed to her in a will – and we saw in the mid-season premiere how creeps like Dennis saw her. But that didn't make it any easier to see her situation get worse at every stage. Though Joan deserved that partnership long before the Jaguar affair (she arguably could have leveraged one as they were ransacking the Sterling Cooper offices), she technically got it by having sex with a man she loathes, which makes her losing out on its full fruits because she refused to have sex with Ferg Donnelly a bitter piece of irony. The Joan of 1960 would be horrified to learn that her future self would be threatening her boss with very public and angry feminist action, but the Joan of 1970 is a different person whose life didn't turn out the way she planned, and she's had to do a whole lot of things to survive that her younger self would have found unthinkable.
Don's exit is part of a more familiar pattern. As Roger tries explaining to Jim, Don does this sometimes, and it was hard not to think of him abandoning Pete in California in “The Jet Set” when he changed lanes on the highway rather than going back to Manhattan. But this ultimately feels different, and more in keeping with the show being in the midst of these end times. When Don slipped off to Palm Springs, he was running away from everything – a job he liked, a marriage he still wanted to save, kids who needed him – and there was the constant tug of home on him even as he left Willie and Joy to reconnect with Anna Draper (whose ring Meredith returned to him early in this episode). What's he leaving now? A new company that only wants him as a trophy? An ex-wife and kids who have learned to function just fine without him? A new apartment that Meredith hasn't even gotten a chance to decorate yet? He goes to Racine not so much because Diana is the true love of his life, but because seeing if he can help her seems about the most useful thing he can do at the moment, just as he decides to take the hitchhiker to St. Paul, because why not? No one needs him back home. (If Ferg really aims to rob Peggy of her authority and independence – as he suggests to Joan at one point – there's little Don could do to stop him.) And wherever Don ends up in his mid-American journey, it seems that destination has to be better than the place that Roger, Peggy and the others have gone to.
Bert Cooper's ghost hangs over the episode, not only in his appearance in Don's passenger seat as he passes through Cleveland, but in Roger's gift of the painting to Peggy, and even in the choice of David Bowie's “Space Oddity” as the closing music. The song's imagery of an astronaut stepping out into the void, unable to communicate with the people he left behind, certainly speaks to where Don is at the moment, but any talk of astronauts on this show will automatically evoke Bertram Cooper, whose best line of dialogue and manner of death both involved men much like Major Tom.
Cooper has already gone on to his reward. Jim Hobart promised that McCann-Erickson would be a similar place for the remaining members of SC&P, but he's a smug liar. With any luck, everyone we care about will get to blast off for horizons unknown before all is said and done for “Mad Men.”
Some other thoughts:
* In addition to “Space Oddity,” we could hear “Sealed With a Kiss” by Brian Hyland playing on Don's car stereo immediately before and after Bert's appearance, while Roger is playing “Hi Lili-Hi Lo” from “Lili” on the organ as Peggy skates around.
* What a great Don/Betty scene that was, even if I was as frustrated as Don to not see Sally. The chemistry and affection is still there – note how long it takes her to ask him to stop massaging her shoulders, or how happy both of them seem when he calls her “Birdie” – and the distance from their life together has put them at ease with each other, at least for the moment. Though it seems a shame Don didn't swing by to watch Bobby play baseball.
* It wasn't the same as an actual Chelcie Ross cameo, but I enjoyed the nod to Conrad Hilton as a McCann client. Given how difficult their relationship was the last time, the potential return of “Connie” to his life would be yet another good reason for Don to climb in that car and drive far, far away.
* Whether or not this was Joan's swan song, I fear we'll never get to see her and Don have that lunch they half-heartedly agreed to have in the elevator. Like Joan/Peggy friendship scenes, “Mad Men” was always stingy with scenes where Joan and Don really got along, but it never fails to make me smile whenever Joan's voice drops a register when she and Don are talking and she has no need to put on an act for him. In another life, those two could've had something. In this one? She gets Richard and his leisure suits, and he gets… TBD.
* When Marcia stops by with the flowers from McCann, Peggy is watching the opening credits to “McCloud” – famously part of NBC's “wheel” of mystery movie series, along with “Columbo” and “McMillan & Wife” – starring Dennis Weaver as a lawman from New Mexico now plying his trade in New York City.
* Miller Lite wouldn't become a national product until 1975, and my understanding is that Miller wasn't even looking into “diet beer” until they acquired a bunch of brands from Meister Brau (including a struggling “Lite” label) in 1972.
* The Ladies' Home Journal protest Joan alludes to happened in March of 1970, as 100 women staged a sit-in because they felt a magazine with “Ladies” in the title should actually be run by women. It took a few more years for the magazine to actually get its first female editor-in-chief, but the August 1970 issue did feature an eight-page special section written entirely by women.
* When Diana's ex-husband found Don in his living room, all I could think about was how furious Don got way back in season 1's “Indian Summer” to learn that Betty had let a door-to-door salesman in the house when he wasn't there.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org