'Mad Men' Director Dissects Don's "Now or Never" Moment in "Lost Horizon"

Longtime series director Phil Abraham speaks about filming his final episode of the series, what it means for Don and how he instantly knew that scene with Peggy would play well with fans.
Justina Mintz/AMC
'Mad Men'

Sunday's pen-penultimate episode of Mad Men didn't just lay waste to the now-vacant offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners, it made it abundantly clear that some of the characters would not be making the professional transition ushered in by last week's compulsory merger.

Spoilers ahead for anybody who has yet to watch.

"Lost Horizons" really played up the differences between the freedoms of SC&P with the constraints (both physically and spirtually) of McCann Erickson. Joan (Christina Hendricks) quickly found out that she wasn't prepared to navigate the sexist waters of the massive agency, while Don (Jon Hamm) appeared to abandon ship for reasons of his own. And on the other side of the spectrum, Roger (John Slattery) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) stuck around the old digs to share the last lingering bottle of booze. (Sweet vermouth … delicious.)

It's not clear where the final stretch — only two episodes remain, both directed and written by creator Matthew Weiner — will take Don, now that he's AWOL and driving west, but it isn't likely back to McCann Erickson. Director Phil Abraham, helming the last of 15 episodes he tackled for the series, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about choreographing Don's sudden flight from the office and what he was thinking as he stared at that airplane cruising outside the conference room window.

Two of the seemingly more pivotal moments in the episode are just shots of Don's view out of the window. Can you speak about that?

I refer to that as one of these classic Mad Men scenes. Every moment of that was scripted, and it's all about Don and his internal thoughts. What can we do to manifest and bring those out? He's sitting in a room with all of those creative directors. He's just one of so many. And that notion of being a cog in the wheel instead of being a real creative person at a creative agency is what that was all about. The idea of them flipping their notebooks open and picking up their pens at precisely the same time, in front of their boxed lunches, Don notes all of that. It was about finding that moment where he realizes, "I can't do this. I'm not doing this." He looks out that window and sees that plane go by the Empire State Building. It gives him this notion of "now or never." It's freedom. Let's go.

And it's not the first time he's pulled something like that.

It's not all that crazy for Don. Roger even notes that he does that all of the time. But what I loved most about it is that Chaough [Kevin Rahm] is the only one in the room who notes [that Don] leaves. That reaction we got from Kevin as he turned around had that gobsmacked look of, "Son of a bitch, he made it." He broke for the fence in the yard, and he got over it. He knew exactly what was going on.

You mentioned the scene was scripted. Was anything in the episode not scripted?

Everything in Mad Men is scripted, but sometimes there are beats that you discover. Something happens and it's amazing. Because there is a precision to the way that the portfolios were open, the way pens were positioned in the hand — all of that was choreographed on the page. That's why it's classic Mad Men. You have all of these pages of words by someone we don't know giving a presentation, but it's not what the scene is about it at all. It becomes all about Don's perception of it.

The SC&P offices end up looking like a stage that's been half-stricken. Were there any challenges working with that vacant space?

The SC&P offices, just by design with those walls, panels and doors, are very modular. When we shoot in those spaces, we're breaking them down all of the time for cameras and dollies. We're used to tearing it down — we obviously just never shot it that way. For us, it was fun to be able to blow it apart at different intervals throughout the episode. There's a progression in its state of decay. When we first go in there, they're moving out the computer. Roger is much more nostalgic than Harry about leaving. Then Peggy gets turned away at McCann Erickson because she doesn't have an office yet and comes to work in the empty SC&P space. She returns the next day and it's gotten even worse. The walls are out and the lights go out. It was a fun progression to play with that we revealed very slowly, so to speak.

And it's even more extreme juxtaposed with the claustrophobic McCann Erickson offices.

It's totally different. Those windowless hallways were very much part of the design. People moving through this narrow, submarine-like space was all about showing that contrast.

And as depressing as the space is, the shot of Peggy sauntering into McCann Erickson is pretty joyous. And it really broke through online. Did you realize that would really register with viewers when you shot it?

Oh yeah, 100 percent. The attitude, the wardrobe, the slow-motion, the smoking, Cooper's print under her arm — it was all designed with that effect in mind.

How do you nail that kind of swagger?

Lizzy totally understood what it was and what the idea of her entry into that space was going to be, so we played with it. It's just one of those things that you have to do many, many times. You're modulating nuances of a look, a grimace, a smile, so you we ended up doing it a lot. I don't even know what take we ended up using, but they were all great.

Were you happy you got to direct Robert Morse's final final scene?

He's great. And Bobby was always around. I think the feeling was that Mad Men was something very special to him, and he just enjoyed being in its presence. It wasn't unusual to see him, even when we weren't working with him. He added so much to the show, having that character. It was just really special.