Recap Digest: Mad Men 7.12, "Lost Horizon"

May 04, 2015 by Alex Castle

After learning last week that Sterling Cooper & Partners was to be dissolved and the key employees absorbed into the massive, fully corporatized culture at McCann Erickson, this week was about the actual transition into that new world, and the different ways Our Heroes adjusted—some smoothly, some less so, some not at all.

Don is greeted the most warmly, and McCann honcho Jim Hobart’s remark that he’s been chasing Don for ten years, and the shabby way the rest of the SC&P team is being greeted, suggests that the whole acquisition was just an elaborate way of acquiring Don. If that’s the case, they’re in for a rude awakening, as it looks like Don may have attended his last market research meeting.

Pete and Ted are like fish in water; the truth is they’ve always been best as cogs in a machine and they both seem happy to disappear into McCann’s corporate culture.

Joan’s story is the saddest, as she jumps from the sexist (the not taken seriously kind) frying pan into the sexist (the treated like a sex object kind) fire, ending up trading threats of a harassment lawsuit with Hobart and eventually agreeing to a buyout of half what she was promised. If this is the last we see of Joan it will be a shame, but it feels like she’s doing the right thing—not subjecting herself to any further abuse and walking away with enough to get by forever if she invests it wisely. It’s both heartbreaking and affirming, as Joan has had to make so many compromises to get where she is, it feels right not to make any more.

Peggy is greeted with a different kind of sexism, as McCann assigns her to the secretarial pool, forgets to give her an office, doesn’t come to move her furniture, and just generally forgets her. But with the help of her hyper-competent assistant she stands firm and refuses to go over until her office is ready.

Which leads to the episode’s most amusing thread, as Roger doesn’t want to leave the office he built at all—he’s playing an organ left behind (was that in his office all along?) amid the ruins of the dismantled office, and he prevails on Peggy to get the last bottle on the floor (sweet vermouth, ugh) for one last-day bender on the SC&P dime.

For his part, listening to a long market research pitch that (we know) will eventually lead to the creation of Miller Lite—less filling, tastes great—Don zones out to strong echoes of the very first episode, when Don spoke to the busboy about his cigarettes. His brand was his brand. What Don learned just by talking to regular people, McCann needs an army of researchers for, and it read (to me at least) that Don decides he’s seen this movie before, he’s got enough money, and he’s bailing on this new job. His mission to go find Sad Diana seems misguided, but I would be very surprised at this point if he returns to the McCann Erickson offices.

The A.V. Club’s John Teti unpacks Don’s moment of dawning horror:

McCann could not have constructed a more terrifying house of horrors for Don if it had tried. Here is a man who has worked so hard to create a name for himself—who has built his identity from scratch—and everything about McCann promises to make him merely one among many. It’s Don’s greatest fear, to live a life of banality that ascends to no greater significance. And that fear comes to a head as Bill Phillips of Conley Research makes his presentation for Miller’s diet beer.

“I’m going to describe a man to you with very specific qualities,” Phillips says, and his next sentence immediately breaks that promise: “He lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio.” The imaginary fellow has other nondescript qualities. He works hard, for instance. He has a lawn mower. “He wants a hammock.” The scene cuts to Don’s point of view as he looks at a row of white-sleeved hands grasping pens. None of them write anything because what is there to write? Phillips’ beige sketch of Mr. America leaves no point of purchase for the imagination. It’s Don’s nightmare: A specific man is subsumed by the generic.

The presentation is repulsive to Don on another level. Superficially, Phillips’ technique resembles Don’s own—he loves to tell an evocative story about the customer—yet Phillips strips the approach of any emotional resonance. The concluding point of the Miller presentation is that the customer in question likes a particular brand of beer, and Miller must convince him to try their brand. All this nonsense about a “very specific” man is an empty rhetorical trick to restate an obvious business question.

This is Don’s method reduced to its most functional and heartless. This is “advertising,” and Don had always aspired to more than that. The end of that fantasy, for Don and his colleagues, is the “Lost Horizon” of the episode’s title. Where is the horizon for the great minds of Sterling Cooper now? What do they look forward to?

Alan Sepinwall at HitFix follows on, noting how the fact that we know the series is ending is informing how we view all of these plot developments:

Escape is the only sensible option when dealing with these people, and though Don and Joan 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.

Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz takes stock of the partners' predicament:

There seems to be no exit now. Hobart and his primordial douche-bro army at McCann seem to have outflanked Roger, Don, and the SC&P gang in a Machiavellian long-wait maneuver, purchasing and dismantling and absorbing them, winning the loyalty of some SC&P employees with money and perks (Pete Campbell and Harry Crane seem happy) while attempting to bring others (Joan, Peggy, Roger, Don) to heel by peeling away even the illusion that they have autonomy, or a real purpose. The episode is haunted by ghosts and ghostly figures; there are times when a character thinks of him- or herself as the living but is actually behaving as an apparition might (Ed, Peggy, and Roger all hang around the old SC&P office, and Don hallucinates a conversation with Bert Cooper). Don does “die,” professionally speaking, in the middle of a pitch — not by Don but by Bill Phillips of Continental Research, a Don Draper–esque adman/storyteller type whom Don will impersonate while chasing after Diana in Racine. Don zones out and peers through the window, spying the aforementioned jet and its vapor trail behind the Empire State Building; throughout the show’s run, jets have been emblems of the newly easy freedom to relocate: the well-off citizen’s equivalent of doing a Jack Kerouac and hopping a boxcar to wherever. The plane seems to trigger his wanderlust, or his desire to escape entanglement/commitment (same difference: It’s Don). He walks out in the middle of the meeting, hits the road in a big American car, seeks out Diana but doesn’t find her (will she turn out to be this show’s equivalent of the Russian in The Sopranos’ “Pine Barrens”?), then keeps driving, eventually picking up a hippie (remember when Don hated beatniks?) and cruising toward the horizon while David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” blasts off on the soundtrack. (This is not just a callback to the moon landing of season seven, part one’s “Waterloo” — it’s one chameleon providing another chameleon with a soundtrack: Bowie has reinvented himself, by one critic’s estimation, 12 times.) So while he doesn’t swan-dive from the McCann headquarters, he does off himself, in sense, committing career suicide. “Tell him that he missed Nabisco and National Cash Register, so he might as well take the rest of the day off,” Hobart tells Don’s secretary Meredith, unaware that Don has taken the rest of his life off. Prisoners commit suicide in captivity all the time, and McCann is a lushly appointed gulag (two of Joan’s erstwhile co-workers call the bureaucracy “the Soviets”), a place where whatever workplace fate you fear most is what’s going to happen to you. If you fight your captors, you face a slog that’ll sap your money and spirit and leave you with a pyrrhic victory at best. If you don’t fight, you end up having to suffer with a smile. Oh, well: At least the partners are still rich.

Slate’s John Swansburg agrees that Don is not going back to McCann:

On one level, I think the writers wanted to suggest to us that Don is now Don, whether he likes it or not—it even says so on his social security card. Having seen a McCann box lunch brainstorming session, it’s pretty clear that he’d rather reign in hell than serve in advertising heaven. But whatever new road he strikes out on, he’ll be doing it as the man we’ve watched him become over the course of this series—there’s no going back to the dusty, Kerouacian wanderings that must have preceded his arrival in New York. Don saw in Di a vision of his former self, and someone he might be able to save. In this episode, he realized the futility of that effort, and was forced to bear witness to the wreckage left behind by a person who flees her troubles. I think he’s realized that he can’t just run away again and hope to find himself.

But the Racine excursion wasn’t just about dramatizing Don’s diminished powers as a liar. I think the trip was also about the arrogance of the advertising business. Don’s opening gambit is to pass himself off as the director of research who was leading the Miller meeting, and he falls prey to that fellow’s glib notion of the thick-waisted, thick-skulled Midwestern Man, who hates small talk and loves his suds. That’s not the man he meets in Racine—Di’s ex seems to have faith in Jesus and a healthy suspicion of his fellow man, at least ones that show up unannounced in shiny shoes. He’s no beer-swilling rube. I can’t help but think that on his long ride back to New York, by way of St. Paul, Don will be pondering his chosen profession, and the failures of the lies it tells, both to consumers and about them. (Counterpoint: The product McCann was preparing to market was Miller Lite, the first mainstream light beer and one of the most successful products of the second half of the 20th century. Don walked out on his chance to contribute to McCann Erickson’s legendary “Tastes great, less filling!” campaign, ranked eighth best campaign of the 20th century by Ad Age. It’s not like advertising doesn’t work!) We saw the stirrings of Don’s discontent with the ad game in the Gettysburg address episode, and after this one, I strongly suspect Don’s pitched his last pitch.

Todd VanDerWerff of Vox takes issue with Roger and Peggy’s romanticizing the past at SC&P:

But you know what? Sterling Cooper & Partners, where Roger and Peggy spend most of the episode, was a false utopia, too. The founding partners started it to get away from McCann, but the only way it could survive as the kind of enterprise they wanted it to be was to … become exactly like McCann. McCann is both successful and soulless, sure, but maybe there’s something just a little soulless about success.

It’s interesting to watch the show reimagine SC&P as a place where good things happened, a place too good to survive for long. For a moment, Peggy undercuts Roger’s sentimentality with the insistence that everything at SC&P was miserable, but her heart’s not really in it.

Of course, this is what we do. If we’re thrust into a new situation that we don’t like, we rewrite the old one as perfect. We might erase all of the happiness present in a marriage that ended in divorce, say, or remember a troubled relationship we nonetheless miss as better than it actually was.

There’s a bit of that with Roger and Peggy, who sit in the shambles of their old lives and wonder about what could have been. The shot of Roger playing the organ while Peggy roller skates around the wreck that was their office is at once gleefully surreal and incredibly sad. This was somebody’s dream, once, but now it’s all being taken down and scattered to the wind.

But it’s also notable, I think, that with proper time to mourn, the two of them show up at McCann and seem like they have their s— together. Roger goes to offer Joan a way out (even if it’s not the way out she would have taken), while Peggy … well, Peggy is just amazing in every way.

Let’s hope she stays amazing and shows McCann she’s not to be trifled with.

And Tom and Lorenzo marvel at the elegant end the series has been building to:

It seems we’ve all spent so much time obsessing over how Matthew Weiner was going to end Mad Men that we didn’t notice he was already doing it, right in front of our eyes. With only two more episodes to go, could the show possibly give us imagery more final and heart-wrenching than lingering over the corpse of the bombed-out SC&P offices? Could it possibly give us a moment more sublime than Peggy roller-skating through the wreckage while Roger plays a drunken “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” on the organ? Could it give us a moment more triumphant than badass, hungover, tentacle-porn-and-sunglass-toting Peggy sauntering down the cramped, sunless halls of McCann Erickson on her first day, ready to kick ass, take names, put in her three years and quadruple her salary? Could it give us a more final image of Dick Whitman than the man heading west (eternally heading west) with a hitchhiker in tow and nowhere else he’d rather be? Of course we want to suck up every last remaining second we possibly can have with any of these characters and don’t want any of it to end, but we keep getting moments that feel like final good-byes. Or put more accurately, we keep getting moments that feel like the culminations of these characters’ arcs; a series of “of course this is where they would wind up” grace notes before the song is finished.

As an aside, we don’t think we’ve ever encountered a show winding down to its finale in quite this manner. We’re all on tenterhooks, wondering “Is this the last Megan scene?” The last Harry scene? The last Don & Betty scene? We said goodbye to Ed and Shirley – and even Lou Avery – but will we see Dawn or Caroline again? In a way, it’s excruciating, but it’s so of a piece with the show’s style. In life, we rarely give Grand Goodbyes to people that we know we’re never going to see again. If the final episodes were a series of on-the-nose capstones for each character, it would feel a little off-model to us. If anything, with this episode, we’re a bit surprised with how final it all feels. We assumed the show would end in a vague and unfinished manner, Sopranos-style. Again, though: we have to remind ourselves there’s two more episodes left. But we can’t help remembering how often Weiner made the finale of each season feel like it happened several episodes before the season ended.

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