Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Lost Horizon" (season 7, episode 12)

Mad Men - "Lost Horizon" (season 7, episode 12)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 3, 2015/written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): How many ways can you read an airplane crossing the Empire State Building? A mythic escape certainly, coded in particularly American terms, but indicative of a fall as well as a liberation. Such a sight instantly conjures historical trauma familiar to the story's audience but not its characters. And the passenger jet's trail makes the sign of the cross with the skyscraper's needle, anticipating a line delivered to Don near the end of "Lost Horizon". We will ponder the origin of the episode's title, I promise... But first, there is another thirties Hollywood movie evoked by those two elements (the airplane, the Empire State Building) in this particular context (a defiant giant surrounded by mere men who nonetheless overwhelm him). King Don is knocked off his perch for following a dream; beauty slays the beast every time.

We see this iconography through Don's eyes while our ears are bombarded with the words of a slick corporate guru (Eric Nenninger). Don happens to glimpse that stirring vision because he'd rather look out the window of the McCann Erickson conference room - packed as it is with shirtsleeved creative directors leafing through research portfolios - than listen to Bill Phillips, Connelly Research (whose name and occupation he'll promptly steal in a time-honored Whitman tradition). Or is Don listening to Bill after all? The pompous consultant's monologue describes an Everyman in the Midwest ("Maybe Wisconsin") who lives his simple, sturdy life and drinks the same beer his father drank. Don himself could never be this man but within a day he'll show up at one such man's door...even if Cliff Baur (Mackenzie Astin) is not actually the person Don is looking for. Presenting himself as a representative of Miller Beer to Cliff's wife Laura (Sarah Jane Morris), claiming that "Mrs. Baur" won a prize for a write-in contest, Don is coming full circle to the primeval state of his current millionaire status: a humble salesman at an ordinary door, with little onhand to offer other than a card, a smile, and a promise that his customer is winner. (There is also a Twin Peaks parallel, as in this moment Don is a suited man pursuing a runaway waitress to what he believes to be her home, only to be greeted by a stranger who says she lives there and bears a familiar last name - and hell, now that I think about it, a familiar first name.) When Cliff does return, he sees through Don immediately, tearing off his mask as a salesman and then dismissing his more plausible claim to be collections agent. "You think you're the first man to come looking for her?" Cliff asks. Not knowing any more about Diana's whereabouts than Don does, the husband tells the lover, "You can't save her. Only Jesus can. You know, he'll help you too. Ask him." With that, Don is kicked out of Racine.

And we're off...

But let's back up for a moment. Don's odyssey ultimately leads him away from home rather than towards it (despite his poignant last stop in Westchester to find Betty alone but content without him, reading Freud in the kitchen). Yet this is is only one among several of the most memorable situations Mad Men has ever placed its characters in, crafting some of the most striking imagery of the entire series in the process. Of these stories, Joan's is presented the most simply - no tricky shots or bold flourishes, just a series of escalating confrontations with close-ups and medium shots presenting her predators in subdued yet menacing fashion. First she's greeted by the welcome wagon of Libby Blum (Jama Williamson) and Karen Schmidt (Jennifer Hasty), eager to let her know that their barroom bitching sessions aren't women's lib; "we are strictly consciousness-lowering," one of them jokes while downing a mock shot. If this cheerful spin on McCann's misogyny doesn't convince Joan that she's been demoted, her eyes are certainly opened by subsequent encounters: first with Dennis, who is supposed to "help" with her accounts (instead, he disrespectfully blunders his way through an Avon conference call), then with Ferg, who's supposed to rescue her from Dennis (instead, he none too subtly makes it clear she'll have to sleep with him to keep her accounts), and finally with Hobart, who's supposed to rescue her from Ferg (instead, he ends up offering half of what she's owed just so he'll never have to see her face again). Initially threatening a feminist lawsuit, Joan is convinced by Roger to take the payout and exit almost as soon as she walked in. This is an incredibly grim, ruthlessly executed depiction of how unusual and fragile her success at Sterling Cooper truly was, while also recalling the dark underbelly of even that accomplishment.

As is often the case when they are contrasted, Peggy too struggles with sexist condescension, but has personal and professional alternatives to Joan's confinement. McCann initially assumes Peggy is part of the secretarial pool and she refuses to make the move until her assistant Marcia (Jill Alexander) finally secures her an office. This forces her to spend several days in what's left of the mostly-dismantled SC&P office, first with a bemused work-limbo'd Ed, then all alone with the electricity off (spilling coffee on the floor, she shrugs and walks away), and finally with an unforgettable companion who is gazing down his long career from the opposite side of the age spectrum. Peggy is drawn to Roger by the sound of the organ he's playing; coaxed into tipping back tumblers of old Vermouth and listening to his war stories, the two bond in a way they've never had the opportunity to before. ("This is more attention than I've ever gotten from you," she observes, when he gifts her one of Bert's prized canvases, depicting an octopus fucking a Japanese woman.) Peggy has already heard from Marcia; the new office is ready, so what does she have to gain by hanging around for one last night? The Peggy/Roger pairing reminds us of many past moments when she received just the sort of frank but shrewd advice she needed from an older, outside party (be it Freddy, Don, or Bobbie), after which she'd summon the confidence to assert herself just a little more boldly. This combination of inner struggle and outer influence is how she's always taken one more step up that ladder from timid secretary to businesswoman with her name on the front door.

This particular nudge pays off in two sublime flourishes. The second of these was hinted in the previous review: Peggy marches down the hallway of her new headquarters in slow motion, dark glasses over her eyes, cigarette hanging from her lips, and horny octopus under her arm. The first may be even more delightful; as Roger bellows, "Come on, once more, from the top!" and begins playing "Hi Lili, Hi Lo," who enters from stage left but Peggy Olson, ebullient on roller skates? A wonderful YouTube comment left by Jackson Bridges describes this as "a jolly captain enjoying his final moments on a sinking ship." It's also a young passenger leaping confidently from the capsizing craft, not to fall but to fly.

My Response: There are few things Mad Men does better than placing its familiar characters in new situations and watching them react. Moving the Sterling Cooper/SCDP/SC&P gang to McCann Erickson is a brilliant conceit that feels like it could fuel an entire season of its own. The production certainly didn't skimp on sets, giving the new office an entirely distinct aesthetic to suggest its conventionality, bureaucracy, and arrogance. When our heroes, however ambivalently they can be described as such, enter these vast, gray, bustling quarters it's like watching the rebels of the Millennium Falcon sneak aboard the Death Star (granted, I once described Don's return to the more humble SC&P in similar terms - but then this show is also good at creating a sliding scale). In this case, however, solidarity dissipates and no greater goal emerges to guide the merry band through. Rather than every member of the group reacting the same way, the chips fall differently for each. Above all, the new situation reveals how free the former agency truly was. Initially Sterling Cooper may have presented a vision of fifties Madison Avenue conformity, but that impression has long since dissipitated through various fashion changes, births, rebirths, and above all the cascade of experiences flowing through its open floor plan over the years. If the iconic image of McCann Erickson is a boardroom full of creative directors opening their plastic binders in front of three gray walls and a picture window overlooking the Empire State Building, the iconic image of SC&P must be Roger playing the organ as Peggy rollerskates through a mass of torn-out light fixtures and standalone barrier walls - the sixties ad agency equivalent of vine-covered Roman ruins.

And to think this mini-season started so quietly! There was obviously one final move to make, and now it has been made. The series has to end alongside the lineage of Sterling Cooper and there is absolutely no resurrecting what was left of it at this point: Burt dead, Roger a mere symbolic monument, Joan squeezed out with whatever she could take, Pete the company man he maybe always wanted to be, Peggy launching sideways into a new career path, and Don, well...we'll see about Don. We need one more episode to wrap things up for most of the others, settling them into the grooves that will carry them into the seventies, for most the eighties, for many the nineties, and for a few the zeroes, maybe even up to the date when Mad Men itself debuted in 2007. I don't think Roger will be at McCann Erickson - or, honestly, in advertising - for much longer. Give the man his golden parachute already. Pete, Ted, Harry, and others will be happily absorbed into the texture of the new workplace. Stan...I'll have more to say about later. Peggy will probably either triumph in her new role as the fish confidentially walking across the sand on the tips of her fins...or find a way to hop into a new, more accommodating pond. Either way, she'll thrive somewhere.

Joan, however, I'm least certain of. This is one of her most crucial episodes in the entire series, notably co-written by Semi Chellas in her sixth episode and directed by Phil Abraham in his thirteenth (in both cases, their last appearance on the series). Those two handled one of her other key moments, one intimately related to this - the Jaguar one night stand in "The Other Woman". The only good new thing in her life appears to be her relationship with Richard (although there's an edginess to him that suggests he could be concealing a bombshell). She may end up being the sad reflection of Peggy, a woman who struggled, couldn't find her place despite many successes, and accepted a more conventional role in the end, joining her finances to a husband's and raising her child with him. However, I sense the show may have something more interesting - if not necessarily more fulfilling - for her. And what of Betty, Sally, Megan, and others in Don's circle but not the agency's? This third-to-last episode offers little to go on there except that Betty finally seems to have discovered a route to contentment outside of the domestic. I doubt that's the last we'll hear of it, or of her. And then there's Don. I was wrong to assume that Diana existed as a short story sketch - clearly she's of far more importance to both him and Mad Men.

"Lost Horizon" is a nod to the 1937 Frank Capra movie, about a utopian city in the Himalayas reached by an airplane crash. Its wistful title cards were shown earlier in the season, as Don and Megan watched it on TV, and Roger told his daughter it was "time to leave Shangri-la" when he tried to retrieve her from the commune. This title also evokes the dreamy vista that Don fears he has lost in this new move, represented by the view out the window that triggers his escape, with its skyscraper stretching up and its airplane soaring out. Where will he crash-land? In the remaining episodes - if not necessarily the finale - we'll see Diana again, or find out something conclusive about her, or, hell, even just get one last dangling clue suggesting her significance before she evaporates completely. But how? Where? How will it relate to other threads, mostly Californian, like the newly maternal Stephanie, or the strange, quasi-incestuous cultish family in season two, or Megan who I still believe has one more moment to flicker in Don's night sky? (Though I've been wrong about that sort of thing before; R.I.P. the thoroughly wasted Dow Chemical/Ray Wise.) Or is Don going to end up in New York again before setting off one more time, likely fired by the exasperated Jim Hobart? I don't think so; I think this route - laced with milk and honey as the next episode title suggests - runs all the way to the finale.

Next (active on February 28, 8am): "The Milk and Honey Route"Previous: "Time & Life"

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