Mad Men: A Toast to Light Beer and Octopus Porn

'Lost Horizon' was a tremendously weird and mostly entertaining episode.


Every week for the seventh and final season of AMC's hit period-drama Mad Men, Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Lenika Cruz will discuss the possible fates facing Don Draper and those in his orbit.

Sims: At the end of a rather spellbindingly strange episode of Mad Men, Don Draper drove off into the American unknown (well, St. Paul), having picked up a hitchhiker, in search of … it’s hard to know what, exactly. It was a powerful image, but wherever Don is going, it might be one of the show’s least interesting story threads as it approaches its conclusion. Don’s listlessness has been pointing toward this hobo journey for months now, but “Lost Horizon” wrung far more fascinating material from Joan and Peggy’s transitions to McCann Erickson. Perhaps we won’t even see Don in next week’s penultimate episode. Would that be so bad?

"Lost Horizon" saw the SC&P folk begin to move over to the vast offices of McCann, each somehow installed on a different floor. There was no sign of Stan, lost somewhere in creative, and Roger compared his consignment to the 26th floor to being sent to a “nursing home.” McCann’s resources were supposed to impress, but the building’s claustrophobic corridors gave an immediate sense of what's happening to SC&P: It’s being swallowed up, with little consideration given to its existing accounts or staffers. Joan was treated horrifyingly (more on that in a second), an offhand line suggested Peggy won’t retain the authority she's worked long and hard to earn, and Harry Crane seemed happy about things. Anytime Harry Crane is happy, something has to be deeply wrong.

For Don, McCann’s oppressiveness played out in a creative meeting for Miller Beer, where an assembled group of copywriters gathered to listen to a researcher prattle rapturously about Miller’s target audience. Don was clearly a prize for McCann head Jim Hobart, who referred to him as a “white whale” and clearly can’t wait to unleash him on his biggest clients. But it’s immediately obvious there’s nothing in this creative process that would hold any appeal for Don, who’s already prone to looking out at the sky wistfully. At one point, he fiddled with his office window ominously; at another, he gazed at a plane in the sky. The symbolism is on the nose, to be sure, but at least he finally did something about it, driving off into the Midwest in search of Diana’s past.

It's hard to believe that Don is still this hung up on Diana, but he went right to her old home; literally haunted by the child she left behind, who appeared lurking on the stairs behind her stepmother like a dark-haired vision right out of The Ring. It’s hard to parse what Diana represents to Don, aside from being another lost soul, but this encounter was enough to push him further away from New York, driving toward parts unknown, leaving only poor Meredith to make excuses for him in the office.

It’s a wonder Joan didn’t go on her own vision quest after the nightmare she was confronted with at McCann: Much as she predicted in last week’s episode, she wasn’t welcomed warmly as an equal partner but seen as a nuisance for (justly) complaining about how her accounts are being mishandled. She took things up the ladder, only for Ferg Donnelly to assume she was game to begin an affair; when she talked to Hobart, he offered her 50 cents on the dollar for her shares, and though she was thoroughly amazing in the meeting (basically threatening to drown McCann in lawsuits) she ended up taking the deal, a depressing reminder of the relative powerlessness against systematic harassment in that era.

Or is she powerless? The most exciting thing about “Lost Horizon” was the hint that Joan and Peggy might be bound for more exciting territory—Joan, free of her non-compete clause and with money in the bank, and Peggy, who finally moved into her office with Bert’s antique Japanese squid picture in tow, smoking a cigarette and wearing shades in what was bound to be the most enduring Mad Men shot of the season. As the show closes in on an endgame, it’s hard to imagine that endgame involves Peggy lost in the bowels of McCann. But how quickly can she get the hell out of there, Sophie?

Gilbert: Who among us didn’t channel Peggy Olson walking into work this morning? I absolutely loved this episode, even for all the egregious behavior aimed at Joan, mostly because it finally went full Mad Men Weird, careening back and forth between horror (the crumbling facade of SC&P, Peggy hearing the sounds of the electric organ, Diana’s Samara-esque daughter) and outright farce. This is why we love the show: for the in-office lawnmower incidents and the amphetamine-fuelled brainstorms and the love affairs between a mother and the creepy eight-year-old who lives down the block. (And the roller skating, and the octopus porn, and the Cinzano-fuelled drunkfests. “Would you drink vermouth?” “Yes, I’m afraid I would.”)

That said, I don’t think Joan is done with Jim Hobart just yet. She might have taken half the money she’s owed rather than get tied up in lawsuits and lose all of it, but my instinct is that she’s going to end up taking a whole lot more from McCann—hopefully Peggy, Stan, and her stable of clients (and maybe Meredith, who’s proven herself to be a deft organizer as well as an exceptional interior decorator). Joan isn’t the kind to take a slight gracefully and move on, so the flashback at the beginning of the episode to her saying she wanted to burn McCann down felt especially prophetic. Mentioning Betty Friedan, the ACLU, and the Equal Opportunity Commission might not have worked on Hobart, but it proved that Joan at least knows what’s coming, and that the sidelining of women at McCann Erickson will hopefully soon go the same way as Pete’s combover.

The least interesting part of the episode was Don’s trip to Racine, and the fact that this Diana storyline is still ongoing long after she should have been consigned to the graveyard of Don’s former lovers. “Some waitress who doesn’t care about you” is how Bert Cooper's ghost described Diana, quite aptly. Is there anything in Don’s history to suggest he could be happier with a screwed-up mother who’s abandoned her kids than with any other woman? So either Don and Diana end up together, two fatally flawed humans with a propensity for post-coital bed  head, or we’ve wasted a good portion of the last seven episodes of Mad Men on a character who’s basically an updated version of the amnesiac patient Elizabeth Reaser played in Grey’s Anatomy. Neither are good options.

As you mentioned, David, Don is also basically the least interesting character on Mad Men at this point. He has his new apartment, his suite at the Plaza, his roast-beef sandwiches, and his fancy new office on the 18th floor, but he’s realized it’s all meaningless, which made the scene of him gazing out of the window at the street several hundred feet below  and hearing the wind whistle past the window rather chilling (hello, credit sequence nod). Was that a cross he saw while gazing out the window at the plane and the Empire State Building? Is he going to find Jesus, now, like Diana’s husband advised him to? Or is he just a spoilt human with everything he’s ever wanted driving round Minneapolis with a hitchhiker who looks uncomfortably like him?

David, you and I scoured the Internet last night trying to find things that happened in St. Paul in 1970, in the hopes it would give us some sense of where Don might be going. There wasn’t much: Just a mention of a terrorist attack in a Dayton’s department store. It’s worth noting that the ad on the radio Bert Cooper was reading was for Higbee’s department store, where “all the back-to-school fashions” were in stock. I hope, at least, that this is all nonsense, and that Don drives home in time to give Jim Hobart the finger at least once, for Joan, if not for his own sake. But the way in which he seemed to be making nice with everyone—his cordial encounters with Betty (reading Freud), and with Joan (in the elevator), and with Meredith—makes me wonder whether he’ll come back, since each one of those scenes had a farewell-ish quality. He’s due at least one good scene with Sally though before the show wraps up, though, so let’s hope his road trip doesn’t take him all the way west, forever.

Which leaves me with Peggy. For seven seasons now, Peggy has seemed to try to emulate Don at work, but this episode suggested that perhaps she’s better taking Roger as her model—walking brazenly into work hungover with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and a 150-year-old painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman under her arm. Peggy has talent, and her authoritative wardrobe in this episode (who dresses up in an immaculate red and black suit to work in an empty office?) suggests that she knows it. Maybe having a degree of Roger’s joie de vivre and healthy disrespect for authority could be the making of her.

Lenika, what did you make of Don’s road trip/Bert’s visit from beyond the grave/Joan’s unfair dismissal/Peggy’s roller-skating dance sequence? Why did David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” play at the end? Did Roger’s story about being afraid to jump off the two-story cruiser while fighting in the Pacific bode poorly for Don, whose fall has been coming for eight years? Would you get drunk on sweet vermouth with no gin to mix it with?

Cruz: In answer to your first question, I’ll quote the newly departed Ed when the lights went off in SC&P and say, “That’s not very subtle.” Which, I guess, applies to a lot this season, and this episode. But for a show whose greatness comes from its consistent restraint and subtlety, Mad Men also knows how to nail its own brand of weirdness. And to quote Joan’s paramour, these more imaginative, unhinged moments “loosen the earth” a bit, forcing viewers to cast their sights beyond the horizon and realize that the show could end in an infinite number of ways. No need for a stodgy goodbye.

Speaking of goodbyes, I want to talk about a brief, but important moment from early in the episode: Shirley's departure. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge the incredible classiness of her farewell in an episode filled with insane (and entertaining) unprofessionalism from everyone else who's going over to McCann? "Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone," she admitted to Roger, after multiple attempts to avoid stating the obvious. To his credit, he didn’t argue with her. Since her fantastic scene with Dawn during the Valentine’s day episode, Mad Men has done little by way of delving into the lives of its African-American characters (of whom there are virtually none). So Shirley’s adieu to Roger felt like a mea culpa of sorts: the sense of their being equals, with the promise of a better job waiting for Shirley—maybe somewhere where people don’t mix her up with the only other black woman in the office.

The ease and self-assuredness of Shirley’s exit became even more obvious next to Joan’s situation this episode. Her lesson essentially boiled down to discovering that the higher up on the food chain you go at McCann, the worse it gets. Her first interaction in her new office involved two female copywriters, admirably aggressive and candid about their ambition, but (at least ostensibly) eager to bring Joan into the fold. So far, so good. Then came the bullish account executive, Dennis, who seemed offended that Joan could express anger at him for not doing his job. Then came Ferg, who was far more insidious in his attempts to control Joan (Have a warm smile, a handshake, and a box of chocolates ever felt so repulsive?) And then Jim Hobart himself, who offered to buy her out for 50 cents on the dollar, essentially saying he doesn't care how women in his firm are treated.

Joan’s fearlessness in her meeting, evoking the Equal Opportunity Commission and the ALCU, felt suitably well-earned and righteous. In the end, she walked away with a quarter of a million dollars, but a mixed bag of concessions. She has the genuine respect of her colleagues, like Pete, Don, and Roger, but the disdain of Dennis, Ferg, and Jim. She had a partnership, but that status was essentially rendered null at McCann. In sum, her wins, both literal and figurative, were all cut in half. A foot forward, six inches back—the price, apparently, of being a smart, competent, and attractive woman in this particular industry. To keep everything, it seems, she’d have to want to keep giving everything—and that’s something she simply won't do anymore.

At least for one episode, it seemed like Mad Men was re-centering itself on what struggle it chose to prioritize. For so many wonderful seasons, that struggle belonged to Don. But the series has been coming down especially hard on him lately, going so far at times as to mock him. (Ferg’s impression of Don “I’m working, um, very diligently on the, um, matter at hand” was awful but hilarious). But as you both noted, David and Sophie, Don’s no longer the most interesting guy in the room. To McCann, despite the “white whale” praises, he’s just another guy they want to “bring things up a notch.” No one cares if he leaves a meeting early, unannounced. So I found it fascinating that this episode focused so squarely on the respective plights of Peggy, Joan, and (indirectly) Shirley. Beneath the surface of a batty episode, the show had a sobering message. Feeling compelled to chase down a random old flame isn’t a problem, it turns out. It’s a luxury.