Mad Men, a show that’s sort of obsessed with its own cyclical nature, has already had so many endings. It ended when Peggy left SCDP for CGC. It ended when Don got fired and took his kids to see the whorehouse where he grew up. It ended when Bert Cooper died. And last week, it ended in truly sudden and dramatic fashion when the partners learned that SC&P was getting beamed up to McCann Erickson HQ. As infuriating as the episode that followed was, “Lost Horizon” also felt like a bit of a coda to a show that was already over.
In fact, the fictional utopia of Shangri-La originated in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. For the purposes of Mad Men, this magical place is both, in a sort of sarcastic sense, McCann Erickson — Jim Hobart called it “advertising heaven” last week — and the place Don sets out trying to find when he starts driving (especially after he gives up on locating Diana).
We know this legendary enclave isn’t all it’s cracked up to be from the very beginning of the episode, as we follow Don out of an elevator full of strangers and through the McCann offices — where the walls are gray and the hallways are narrow and the only way to get rid of the smell is by layering an even more artificial odor over it. In a groan-worthy moment that I’ll concede probably had to happen, Don tries a window and realizes that it doesn’t open.
Though he receives by far the warmest welcome, with Hobart creepily telling Don he’s “my white whale” and meathead Ferg Donnelly performing a disturbingly generic impression of him, there’s truly no place for him among the throng of creative directors who swarm the conference table at a lunch meeting about Miller Beer. (In a great bit of unspoken dissonance, the meeting also hints at how Ted is dealing with the McCann takeover — by wearing jeans to the office.) Only a few minutes in, Don spots a plane out the window, gets up, and follows it right out of the building, all the way to Racine, Wisconsin.
His reaction to life at McCann might be the most immediately dramatic, culminating in a late-night chat with the ghost of Bert Cooper and a scene at Diana’s ex-husband’s house where he basically becomes a mildly inept, low-stakes Keyser Söze, pivoting from one false, meaning-laden identity to another. Finally, it becomes clear that Diana really is the female Don Draper; her ex describes her as a tornado, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. When we last see Don in “Lost Horizon,” he really is chasing the horizon. Like a 30-years-older version of a character in On the Road, a novel from his own youth that he name-checks to an unimpressed ghost-Bert, he picks up a hitchhiker and lets that guy determine his direction for him.
For me, this week’s Don storyline hit all the requisite marks but failed to resonate. I’ve been feeling this way about Don for most of the season — his struggles have become a bit too metaphorical, to the point where he barely seems to inhabit the physical world anymore. Now, it’s possible that this is on purpose, that he’s supposed to make us think more than feel at this point. Whatever the reason, and as sad as this is for the “Who is Don Draper?” refrain, I’m grateful that recent episodes have placed so much emphasis on the characters whose struggles still earn our empathy.
Chief among that group is Joan, whose downfall in “Lost Horizon” was harrowing to watch. It comes in phases: First, the conspicuously bland professional women of McCann Erickson come to bug her about Peggy’s accounts. Then, Dennis (who you’ll remember sexually harassed Joan in a terrible meeting scene from the midseason premiere) spectacularly bungles a phone call with her client, Avon. When she complains to Ferg, he becomes her knight in shining armor… for the price of “a good time” when they’re traveling together. (Also horrible: the moment when Ferg tells Joan that Dennis “has a wife and three kids. He’s not gonna work for a girl.”)
That forces Joan to take her grievances all the way up to Hobart, who immediately reveals himself to be an unrepentant misogynist. “Your status has changed,” he tells her. “I don’t care about your SC&P partnership.” Some pillow talk with Richard inspires her to threaten legal action; “I wonder how many women around here would like to speak to a lawyer,” she tells Hobart, invoking Betty Friedan and the ACLU and recent feminist interventions at Newsweek and Ladies Home Journal. It’s an exhilarating moment, one that clearly follows up on the wish she expressed in after the Topaz meeting to burn the whole place down.
But it doesn’t last. Hobart offers Joan half of the $500k her partnership will eventually entitle her to — “50 cents on the dollar,” he keeps repeating, in a way that echoes the language of gendered pay inequality — just to get out of his hair. She’s all fired up until Roger shows up to tell her it’s over, that even he can’t help her now. (It’s a realization that he must find nearly as crushing as she does.) “Tell him he has a deal,” she finally says. Though she’ll be more than fine financially, and has maybe even found a keeper in Richard, it’s devastating to see Joan claw her way to the job she always wanted, only to be dismissed as unnecessary.
Peggy’s fate is — at least so far — less depressing, if also temporarily humiliating. When it’s time for her to move over to McCann, she learns that her office isn’t ready yet. And then, when her secretary stops by with the flowers McCann bought for every “girl,” she realizes that they mistook her for a secretary herself. This puts Peggy right back where she was at the beginning of Season 1, marked for clerical work through anatomy alone. Her secretary even tells her, “In the meantime, you can work in the pool.”
Of course, Peggy refuses to do that. Instead, she haunts the increasingly ruined SC&P office even after the power is shut off, trying and failing to exert her power over a redundant art assistant and leaving her spilled cup of coffee on the floor of the kitchen. Not to get unnecessarily Lost on you (although, again, “Lost Horizon”), but the old space begins to feel like a sort of purgatory. Peggy’s extended stay there highlights her impossible-to-escape difference from her male colleagues, and underlines the particular risks she’s taking by letting herself be absorbed into McCann.
At least she isn’t the only one unable to part with SC&P. In a comically spooky scene, she hears organ music and finds Roger. (Hearing them talk, it struck me how rarely they interact on the show.) They get drunk on vermouth — yes, it comes to that — and he tries to give her a lurid picture from Cooper’s office, of “an octopus pleasuring a lady.” (How’s that for overwrought symbolism?) Eventually, she’s rollerskating around the office as he plays the ridiculous instrument, in perhaps the most Lynchian image Mad Men has given us yet.
Their mourning gives us perhaps the only triumphant image of the episode: Peggy walking into McCann in a great dress, with sunglasses on, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and that insane picture of Cooper’s in her hand. (This, incidentally, is the Peggy I like best, less diligent and nervous and prim than cocky, rebellious, and a little bit lewd.) Mad Men is cruel enough — or, maybe, knows McCann and the world in general are cruel enough — that it might well knock Peggy down several pegs next week. But it can’t take this moment of pure confidence away from her (or us).
The really important thing that comes out of her and Roger’s vigil, though, is a clear picture of what SC&P was. After he tells her the story of his reticence to jump off the boat in World War II, Peggy says that his memories “look good now, but it was miserable when you were in it.” It’s obvious that she’s talking about the company he founded and she helped define, too, and we’ve seen enough horrible scenes in that office to know she’s right.
But in watching Don leave and Joan get stifled and Peggy get forgotten and Roger underline his own uselessness, we remember that SC&P was at least a place full of individuals. Individualism is also, of course, what Bert Cooper represents and why he had to die before the McCann storyline could take place. No one on the Sterling Cooper and Partners staff is perfect, and plenty of them are downright awful, yet in watching them get sucked into the faceless, mega-corporate machine, we appreciate that the company allowed them to be the distinct and complicated people they are.
“Lost Horizon” was a painful episode to watch, one that used all seven seasons’ worth of character development to capture the impact of how little these individuals we’ve grown attached to matter to the business that has shaped and ruined their lives. I still think “Time & Life” was Mad Men‘s proper ending; these final episodes, it seems, are mostly going to twist the knife.