'Mad Men': Tim Goodman on Don's Knee-Jerk Plan, Joan's Sexism War and Shangri-La in "Lost Horizon"

No way that Don Draper —who thrives on being the man with a plan, the man in charge, the creative core — could live out his days within the narrow, rat-maze hallways of McCann-Erickson.
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Sexist jerks, line one, Joan.

There’s a lot of material and thematic clarity to “Lost Horizon,” Sunday’s Mad Men episode that continued the show's depiction of the complications of change. You could go with the fact that creator Matt Weiner is a keen student of American history and, in particular, the cultural elements that had an effect on the times. Certainly the 1933 James Hilton book Lost Horizon and the Frank Capra film of the same name four years later could be considered influential to the themes of this episode.

After all, Hilton’s book introduced the notion of Shangri-La — a welcoming paradise of happiness, complete with restorative powers and anti-aging magic. Is it a miracle or ruse? A lot of that probably depends on the person you are when you get there. And certainly the arrival of Sterling Cooper & Partners employees to the narrow, rat-maze hallways of McCann-Erickson is a mixed bag — although in this episode, mostly negative (with only Ted and Pete truly integrating).

But maybe the book/film connection to “Lost Horizon” isn’t what Weiner was going for at all. Maybe it really is just a metaphor about losing sight of land either by choice or by design. Roger makes a reference to Sterling Cooper as being a boat, and now all the former occupants are finding their relationships to something they can see, that makes sense, that grounds them, are nebulous. Peggy is adrift, trying to get off the boat and over to the promised land of M-E, but in a very bad sign for her, they already think she’s a secretary, and there’s even talk that she’ll be neutered upon arrival no matter her job title.

Joan is the first to realize that M-E is no Shangri-La, particularly for women. She not only has to suffer more of Dennis' incompetence and caveman misogyny, but also the much more dangerous and soul-crushing version of that with Ferg Donnelly (and the flippant dismissal from Jim Hobart that she probably inherited her partnership when, in fact, it was much worse than that, and now clanks around her ankles like a terribly ironic reminder of the past).

But Don’s relationship to the lost horizon in question is much different. He’s not adrift. He hasn’t lost his bearings quite in the same way as the others. He’s actually fleeing from the horizon as fast as he can. We could see this coming. No way that Don Draper— who thrives on being the man with a plan, the man in charge, the creative core — could live out his days at M-E, no matter how much flattery there is in Hobart’s description of him as the white whale, the prize of the SC&P acquisition.

In the middle of a pack of monkeys masquerading as creative types, Don sees a plane through the window (always the window) as it ascends and banks, theoretically heading west but at the very least heading somewhere else.

That’s his cue to walk out. And later he will just keep driving, not toward Manhattan and home, but toward Racine, Wisconsin in search of the enigmatic Diana. Why? Why not? Don’s in a saving mood, and he thinks Diana needs that. “She seemed so lost,” he tells Diana’s ex-husband — a man who has very quickly sussed out Don’s knee-jerk plan to get information about Diana’s whereabouts. The husband has seen this before (which is not a good sign). “She’s a tornado, just leaving a trail of broken bodies behind her.” And he tells Don a simple truth: “You can’t save her.”

Perhaps that’s why Don just keeps driving the blue highways after that. The episode closes with a tremendous rush, as Don picks up a hippie hitchhiker and David Bowie’s Space Oddity kicks in (or up, as it was playing on low as he pulled up). If you’re wondering, Don is not afraid to leave the capsule. And that scene where he agrees, with little contemplation, to drive to St. Paul where the hippie is headed, surely heralds the end of his time at McCann-Erickson.

The question, however, is how Weiner will close out our connections to the remaining characters. You could make an argument that both last week’s episode “Time & Life” and “Lost Horizon” were episodes that could have closed the series entirely as finales. In fact, lower the camera from the crane shot that started Sunday’s Bowie-blaring final scene and shoot it through the back window so we can get one more rear-shot of Don’s iconic head ,and I would have been fine with that as the series finale wrap.

Why?

Because I’m not expecting tidy — though I’m not ruling out some variation on it, either. Don on the road is fine with me, and it appears that we’ll be getting lots more of that next week as well — hopefully he’s heading west toward California soon enough. Next week’s episode is called “The Milk and Honey Route,” which is a reference to Nels Anderson and his work The Hobo: The Sociology Of the Homeless Man, which of course has all kinds of ties to Mad Men (Don was taught “The Hobo Code” in season one) and he is, indeed, homeless. Plus, who hasn’t expected him to move to California? It’s where people start over. And always has been.

Besides, I could have accepted this as the end because we got maybe the best ever scene of Peggy walking like a boss into M-E (finally) with dark glasses, a cigarette in her mouth and Bert Cooper’s famous (and perhaps original) painting of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife where, as Roger so eloquently describes it, there’s an octopus pleasuring a woman.

Peggy, who suffers similar sexism to Joan (but not to the same degree), had told Roger that she’s always tried to make it so that men feel relaxed or at ease around her. Roger wonders why the hell she would think or do that. So it’s nice to see that Peggy picked up that little nugget of advice and carries the painting into Shangri-La where who knows what the hell will happen. I suspect that Peggy’s swagger (and maybe the painting, who knows) allows her to break through the inherent M-E gender bias and into the boys club, but that’s just a hopeful suggestion as much as a guess.

(Before we finish Peggy's story, I'd be fine with just watching her and Roger drink and roller skate around SC&P. That was lovely and, strangely, instantly nostalgia-inducing.)

In either case, we know clearly now that M-E is not for Don, not for Joan and maybe not for Peggy unless some of those guesses come true. Pete is happy there, but of course he is. Ted doesn’t want to be in charge anymore, he said in the last episode, so he seems content to get chewed up in the blades of big business that M-E represents.

I will say this for Ted — he’s always admired Don as an ad man and competitor.  And he knows Don well — certainly better than Jim Hobart does. So I loved the shots of Ted’s face when he sees that Don is getting up and walking out of that M-E meeting (after watching the plane sail across his window view). Ted looks proud of and happy for Don — and he looks like he knows all too well that Don’s not coming back.

And really, viewers need to prepare themselves for such a thing. Don might not be coming back to New York (which would mean that we could get a very touching and tear-inducing call to Sally in the “Person to Person” season finale episode). It’s certainly logical that Don would just keep driving west. Maybe he jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge like everyone else who tries to find happiness or meaning by moving west, and after they realize they haven’t, are perched at the furthermost part of their world with nowhere else to go — except a bridge railing. (If for nothing else, it would stop all this talk that Don’s really going to mimic the opening credits and jump from his window — which can’t be ruled out but which also would be a huge letdown).

If we get Don driving to California, we might start seeing Mad Men characters in quick-snippet form for next week’s episode, which could be a very creative and judicious way of telling a number of stories in the penultimate episode, thus getting that element off the table and letting the finale primarily deal with Don and his family. Or, who knows, maybe the last shot will just be him driving west.

Here are some other thoughts from the episode:

·      Betty reading Freud’s Dora: An Analysis Of A Case of Hysteria. Nope, not going down that rabbit hole. Well, fine, how about this: Of all the books Weiner could have put in Betty's hands, this one is laden with cringe and comedy potential. Freud considered this test case one of his big failures and if you read up on it and think of all the cross-connections that would fit Betty's life, from her father to Don (and others) but especially to Glen, well, yeah. Great pick. I guess we learned in recent episode that Glen never sought therapy. Sigh.

·      The M-E offices are not as modern, sleek or cool as SC&P. Focusing on the cramped hallway was particularly effective.

·      “I’m Don Draper from McCann-Erickson.” (Throws up in mouth.)

·      “They thought I was a secretary?” – Peggy.

·      Ferg explains to Joan why Dennis acted the way he did: “He’s got a wife and three kids. He’s not going to work for a girl...What’s he going to say? She’s my boss?” Take the money and never look back, Joan.

·      Bert Cooper, car ghost.

·      “You like to play the stranger.” Cooper the car ghost to Don.

·      When Don talks to Cooper about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (“I’ve never read the book – you know that”) he mentions “riding the rails.” Um, you did see that next week’s episode is a hobo episode, right?

·      “All I found was lighter fluid. I’m not there yet.” – Roger to Peggy on looking for booze in Don’s old office. “Would you drink vermouth?” she asks. “Sadly, I would.”

·      How many of you already have the scene where Peggy walks into M-E with the glasses, cigarette and octopus painting on a GIF?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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