When Don Draper finally said it, finally tacked “McCann Erikson” on to the end of his name like a trained monkey performing for his higher ups, it seemed as if Hobart had done it: Ahab finally nabbed his “white whale.”
But does anyone remember how Moby Dick ends–with Ahab, drowned by his own harpoon line, the Pequod, sunk, and Ishmael, the sole survivor, left floating atop a coffin until drifting to safety? We’ll have to wait for the two remaining episodes of Mad Men to see whether death and destruction will rain down upon the frat-ish freighter that is McCann Erikson, but “Lost Horizons” leaves us to wonder whether the survivors of the SC&P crew have any fight left in them. While Peggy refused to leave the cavernous shell of SC&P for anything less than a private office, the ever-pleasant Joan drew a line between dignity and degradation, and Don could not be contained, the enchanting whale-tale allegory ends there. “Lost Horizons” was less concerned with depicting an underdog team’s triumph, than it was with impressing how their respective fights for equality, respect, and purpose, fights that began in the show’s first season, remain both complex and very much unfinished.
Thinking back to those early days of Mad Men, when Peggy was testing Belle Jolie lipstick and Joan was being lustfully described as “so much woman” (A Night to Remember), the sexism was shocking–infuriating, difficult to stomach. And yet, with the passage of time, so, too, came progress, and for Joan, in particular–with her lavish shopping trips, her supreme competence, and, most recently, a new love interest– things seemed to be looking up. As she firmly reminded Pete in weeks past, however, the other foot was primed to drop.
And, boy, did it stomp. This week, every corner of the McCann labyrinth seems to offer a separate minotaur of insulting incompetence, lechery, or blatant malice in the forms of Dennis, Ferg, and Hobart. Joan threatens Hobart with law-suits, the ACLU, and a crowd of feminists at his doorstep–her simmering frustration at a full boil. And for a glorious 15+ minutes, I believed it, only to have any hopes for an Angry Woman spin-off dashed, by Roger’s urging her to take the money–to not hide behind politics. Though she argues it has nothing to do with it, when competing with the well-oiled machine of corporate bureaucracy, maybe $.50 cents on the dollar and a promise to never see Hobart again is as good as it gets. Leaving could easily be read as giving up, but given that current age gap leaves women with an average of just $.27 more, I can’t blame her. With a framed photo of her son and Rolodex in tow serving as badges of a life waiting for her beyond the walls of McCann, once can only hope Joan’s career end will really be, as Don said in last week’s episode, a sort of beginning, even if it lies miles from the one we’d all been hoping for.
Peggy–skating through the gutted SC&P, refusing such quotidian tasks as cleaning spilled coffee– provided the necessary triumph the episode’s red tape and defeats needed. “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone” Shirley reminds Roger, but as Peggy told Pete in the last episode, it’s the only job she’s ever had, and try as she did to resist McCann, it was a necessary move she made with unparalleled panache. I will forever hang the image of her walking down the hall with a smoking cigarette hanging off her lips, a 100+ year old pornographic painting under her arm, and sunglasses (INDOORS), in my mental alter to badassery. Whether the glowing ember of her dramatic entrance will withstand the scattering ashes of SC&P remains to be seen, but if this episode gave us anything to hope for, it’s Peggy Olson, climbing the proverbial ladder, while Joan lands on a tragic chute.
So, what of Moby-Dick Whitman? Ferg’s painfully terrible impression of Don proved what we, and Hobart, already knew–that Don is a force of nature, unique to himself. Refusing a cushy life of box lunches, Meredith’s relentless baby-ing, and a distant promise to work “Co-ca Co-la,” he bucks his saddle, mid-meeting, and begins a long drive, away from the claustrophobic halls of McCann to somewhere he can, as Don’s hallucination of Cooper describes, “play the stranger.”
Don’s bleary-eyed flight is not so much an escape from McCann-Erikson, as it is from his own listlessness. Earlier this season, Don grappled with the question of what the future held and with Megan gone, SC&P defunct, and a daughter too independent to rely upon her father for a ride , it’s hard to extrapolate the answer. In a sweet scene between Don and Bettie, “Birdie” bids Don “bye-bye” with her nose in Freud and shoulders sore from textbooks, happy to finally do what she’s wanted to do. Will any such line ever be spelled next to Don’s name in a Mad Men script? It’s doubtful and the way it plays out is painful to watch.
When Don points to an image of a white and red apartment on a page earlier in the episode and tells his secretary-turned-home-dectorator he wants to “live there,” we’re forced to question whether it’s the apartment’s furnishing he wants, or whether wants to jump into the glossy pages, themselves– to deep dive past the machinery of advertisements and copy he once expertly manipulated and into a pristine world of fantasy. Speaking of dives, my heart stopped when Don raised his hand to test his new office window–not so much out of a genuine worry that he’d jump, but fear that the show runners had actually made good on fan predictions claiming he would. While Breaking Bad’s ending had been foretold from the series’ inception, a conclusion drawn from the opening credits feels unnaturally tidy. Thankfully for all involved, the window barely budged, but the subsequent episode had me wondering whether the open ended nature of the life ahead of him will do him much good.
The ropes tying Don to dock have been struck, one by one, securing him a freedom from restraints Peggy and Joan would kill for. Recent episodes, however, have witnessed him uncomfortable with the uncertainty. Though quick to reject the drudgery of corporate structure, in his personal life, Don has long let others provide him with his choices. He is led through his new office by Meredith (maybe that bell would be useful), he shirks at the opportunity of furnishing an empty apartment, and when faced with an open road, his compass needle gravitates towards something familiar, having him bee-lining towards Racine, Wyoming in search of Diane, the “tornado” he hopes can sweep him away from reality into Oz. When the consequences of her recklessness, namely a grown daughter and an embittered husband, force him to turn away, he takes directions from a hitch-hiker, mindless of the fact that they’re in the opposite direction of home. Don lost contact with Ground Control long ago.
But for an audience, sitting with two episodes remaining and the end times of what has been an incredible season fast approaching, there are no wrong directions. Just time to enjoy what’s left of the ride.