Monday, May 4, 2015

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 12, “Lost Horizon”

Last week’s episode was the best of this half season thus far, but this week’s episode far surpassed it, easily ranking among my personal pantheon of Mad Men's greatest episodes. Where to begin with such an embarrassment of riches? Perhaps with some of the indelible, beautiful, and at times haunting imagery: the empty, torn down offices of SC&P; Peggy roller-skating to Roger’s drunken organ music; Peggy’s grand entrance into McCann, turning heads as the absolute essence of cool, with Bert Cooper’s Japanese erotic octopus painting tucked under her arm; Don being the odd man out and wearing his suit coat to the Miller meeting while all the other McCann creative execs go with only a shirt and tie; or even Don leaving Diana’s former Midwestern home to step into his Cadillac. This was a marvelously directed episode from start to finish, one that made great use of the all of the irreversible changes afoot in the world of these characters.

As for those changes, this week finds each of the principal characters adjusting – sometimes easily, sometimes roughly – to their new employers at McCann Erickson. Ted and Pete seem to have the easiest time fitting in, and accordingly, they’re given the least amount of screen time (Harry too, presumably, but all he gets this episode is a scene where he gloats to Roger about finally having made it). Ted is getting precisely what he wants: a chance to just focus on the work and let others do the steering. He’s just happy to be there. Nowhere is this clearer than in the costuming. He appears in the meeting with Miller, dressed identically to all of the other creative executives in the room: white dress shirt and tie, no suit coat. He blends in so seamlessly that he seems to emerge from out of nowhere to hand Don his box lunch, and he’d have been hard to pick out of the shot where he knowingly looks at Don in the middle of the meeting if not for that shot’s shallow depth of field, leaving only Ted in sharp focus.

Pete seems relieved to finally be part of a stable enterprise that appreciates his skills and talents, and gives him a title to match (he’s now a Vice President). He looks perfectly at ease in his lone scene with Ferg and Joan. Indeed, he’s feeling so good that he’s even magnanimous toward Joan, asking for her to be brought in on the Sears account. This is a far cry from the jealous and competitive Pete of past seasons, who actively measured his self-worth by how many accounts he oversaw and the how much they billed, who railed at even the smallest slight from the other partners, and who chafed at being tied to Don and Roger’s instability. Now, with enough accounts for everyone, and with accounts so large they need more than one accounts executive, he finally seems somewhat at peace. Let’s see if it lasts through the remaining two episodes.

Despite Pete and Ted fitting in rather well, the merger goes much less smoothly for other characters. Ironically, of all the SC&P partners, Jim Hobart is most eager to please Don, yet Don is the one who has the least use for empty placations about how important he is to the agency, especially when his red carpet treatment does not match the actual degree of importance he seems to be accorded. He begins the episode being shepherded to his office by Meredith because he got lost the first time he tried to find it (although he claims to have simply been late). Being lost is an appropriate metaphor for how Don fits into McCann: he’s lost amongst the shuffle, just one more creative executive among McCann’s army of creatives. He’s flattered by Jim, who treats Don like a special little toy (and even makes Don perform for him his introduction as a McCann representative), but when Don attends an important meeting with Miller, he discovers a room containing only one Miller executive, and dozens of McCann creatives. It’s a powerful scene, not only because it drives home just how vast the McCann enterprise is compared to SC&P, but also because it makes abundantly clear that McCann does not need Don. Don is used to being an indispensible prima donna – it’s how he gets away with the vast quantities of bullshit he pulls – but now, Don just happens to be the newest concubine in Jim Hobart’s harem.

Moreover, Don doesn’t fit in at all. If the costuming in this scene emphasized Ted’s perfect assimilation into the McCann machine, then it does the opposite for Don, who sticks out like a sore thumb. Earlier, Ferg tells Don that McCann is a shirt sleeves operation, but this is anathema to Don, at least in unfamiliar places. Don Draper wears his suits like a coat of armor, as it’s a costume crucial to keeping up the pretense of his persona. Thus in the Miller meeting, he’s one of the only men in the room aside from the Miller executive to wear a suit coat. He’s literally the man in the gray flannel suit, when figuratively there are no more gray flannel suits. No shot better conveys how out of place Don feels than the point of view shot of the other McCann creatives picking up their pens and leafing through the Miller brochure. Don sees this, and could not be less interested in following suit. I felt Don’s exhaustion in this shot. It’s as if he’s thinking, “I worked so hard, and scaled so high on my professional ladder, only to end up here? Obediently taking notes on a product that twenty other people are chomping at the bit to get to work on?”* As saw in season 5 when he squelched Michael’s pitch for Snoball, and as we saw again at the start of this season when Don is in SC&P’s doghouse and Peggy treats him like just another copywriter, Don does not handle well such professional competition. Don is, after all, a prima donna.

* Don even looked older in this scene. I’m not sure if it’s a new touch of makeup or if I simply hadn’t noticed it before, but I spotted a hint of gray in Don’s temples in some of the close-ups. 

Additionally, the professional behavior of the other McCann execs in this meeting is simply not how he works. He doesn’t let others tell him what their products are, as the Miller exec, Bill Philips, seems to be doing; he tells the clients what their product is (e.g., “They’re toasted,” or, “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine…. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel.”). Don doesn’t diligently take notes and review research; he has a drink and takes a nap. He stays late – well past when everyone else has gone home – and mulls over ideas, waiting for the right one to reveal itself. Thus it’s no wonder his attention starts to wander when Bill starts to talk about “diet” beer; Don looks out the window and sees a plane, and likely thinks to himself that he'd rather be on that plane than in that meeting room. It’s also no wonder that he gets up and leaves in the middle of the meeting, and that the only one to notice is Ted, who smiles knowingly at Don being Don.*

*Another reason for Don to lose interest in what Bill the Miller exec is saying: Bill is basically giving what sounds very much like a Don Draper pitch. Just like McCann, he doesn’t need Don. 

Or perhaps in leaving that meeting, Don is actually being Dick, as he spends the rest of the episode slithering out of the Don Draper persona. As others like Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out, this half-season has been hinting at and building toward Don’s abandonment of his persona in nearly every episode. Don is slowly being stripped of all of his talismans: he’s lost his wife, his furniture, his apartment, and his agency, all things that provide strong connections to his being Don Draper.* In this episode, he is finally stripped of his relevance as well; he’s no longer needed as anything than other than the cherry on top of Jim Hobart’s SC&P sundae.

* Early in the episode, Meredith hands Don an envelope of things she wanted to keep away from Don’s movers. Inside is some cash, a wedding ring, and the real Don Draper’s social security card. It’s a fitting image, because at this point, this is nearly all Don has left of what it means to be Don Draper – the persona can literally fit into a tiny envelope. 

In his search for relevance, he reaches out to Sally and tries to inhabit his role as her father (note that he goes directly from the Miller meeting to Betty’s house, so desperate is he to be needed), but he fails here as well – she ended up driving back to school with a friend rather than relying on Don to drive her. As a last resort, he asks after the boys he doesn’t really care about, but they won’t be home until much later. Feeling completely useless and unneeded, he does here what he’s done in the past: he flees his former life and “goes hobo,” in the show’s parlance, deciding to start over again like he once did when he stole the real Don Draper’s name, this time to pursue his foolish romance with Diana the waitress. Not even the return of Bert Cooper’s ghost can talk him out of it.

Don (or Dick, now) winds up in Racine Wisconsin, searching for Diana, but instead finds the people she’s damaged in the wake of her self-destruction: her husband and her surviving daughter. Without batting an eye, Dick works up a new persona, Bill Philips (an identity stolen from the Miller executive – he even uses the card Bill gave him earlier), in order to insinuate himself into Diana’s former home, but Dick seems to have lost his fabrication mojo, because the husband, Cliff, sniffs out his lies repeatedly: Diana wouldn’t have entered the contest Dick claims she’s won, and Dick is certainly not a collections agent, not dressed in Don’s expensive suit, wearing Don’s expensive shoes, and driving Don’s expensive car. Dick still doesn’t seem to get that going hobo and abandoning his family will only cause him harm in the long run, even when he’s faced directly with the consequences of such actions, in the form of Diana’s scarred and resentful husband and her wounded daughter. Dick is literally talking to a representation of his own potential mistakes when he’s confronted by Cliff, but still doesn’t realize it, or learn any lessons about the impossibility of breaking free from himself.

Nowhere is this clearer than at the episode’s end; rather than turning around and going back to New York, he picks up a hitchhiker and agrees to drive him to St. Paul, which is in the opposite direction. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Dick seems once again determined to fill the emptiness inside him by casting off a former life. He may very well spend the next episode, and even the finale trying to escape Don Draper. I only hope that he has a breakthrough soon, acquires some self-awareness, and finally confronts and masters his own cowardice before it’s too late. That seems like it would be a satisfying finale.

While Don/Dick’s problems with McCann stem from his own personal demons, Joan’s problems are entirely the product of McCann being just as awful as she had feared, although it doesn’t seem like it at first. Joan is met by a welcoming committee of female copywriters who seem to have a support network designed specifically to deal with the assholes in the company. It’s nearly the last glimmer of hope she sees, however. She’s paired with Dennis, one of the obnoxious pigs from “Severance,” for assistance with transferring her accounts to McCann, and he reveals himself to be not only sexist, but also lousy at his job, as he accidentally insults one of Joan’s clients. When Joan yells at him about it, his sexism rears its ugly head again, and rather than chop off his head (as I sorely wanted her to do), Joan makes the smarter move and plays politics, turning to Ferg to get Dennis off her accounts, once again phrasing her dilemma in the most tactful (and tactical) way possible. Sadly, as she later tells Richard, she turned to the wrong person for help, as Ferg reveals himself to be sympathetic to her only because – surprise, surprise – he wants to hit on her.

It’s an impossible situation; Joan no longer has the power or the tools to get an unruly man to fall in line. Back at Sterling Cooper and SCDP, she was the office manager, and had lots of ways to make the life of an unwanted suitor miserable enough that he would get the hint and leave her alone. Later at SC&P, she was a partner, and thus had enough power and respect that she could deal harshly with bozos like Ferg and Dennis (recall the withering putdowns she had for Herb from Jaguar). At McCann, she has neither the tools nor the respect, as Jim Hobart makes eminently clear when she meets with him to get Ferg to leave her alone. What follows is one of the most satisfying and righteous moments for Joan in the entire series: Joan finally takes a stand, demands to be treated with respect, threatens to make her sexual harassment public, and to thoroughly embarrass the agency in the process. Jim behaves like one more asshole in a long line of assholes, and threatens her right back, but Joan never blanches or backs down, matching Jim threat for ominous threat, and throwing back in his face his insulting offer to buy her out for half of her contract’s actual worth. It’s a wonderful scene; Joan finally grabs the power that had been hers to take all along. It had me shouting “Finally!” at my television.

Sadly, it doesn’t last. As much as I would like for Joan to be a trailblazing feminist and to bring an enormous sexual harassment lawsuit against McCann (and win), that would take at least an additional season or two of plot to resolve.* Moreover, it would be somewhat anachronistic: “sexual harassment” wasn’t even coined as a term until a few years later in the 1970s, and large, class-action sexual harassment lawsuits (which Joan seems to be threatening) didn’t start appearing in courts until the 1990s. So instead, Roger quietly talks Joan into taking the path of least resistance and accepting Jim’s buyout offer. Roger thinks he’s convincing Joan to do what’s in her best interest and is acting out of his concern for Joan’s welfare, but he can’t see (or doesn't care about) how demoralizing it is, and how he's enabling monsters to continue being monsters.

*Wouldn’t it have made for a fine spin-off? I’d watch the hell out of a legal drama with Joan as the main character. 

It’s incredibly disappointing when Joan agrees to Roger’s plea, but it’s not exactly out of character either. Joan has often preferred to deal with her problems and her pain in private rather than challenge those that would cause them. Even though she would likely embarrass and eviscerate her harassers, she’s often chosen the higher road, partly because it lets her think she’s better than them, but also because she’s worried she might not fare well, or become embarrassed in the process, were she to do otherwise. So in the end, she chooses the easier way out, opting for the jet setting lifestyle offered by Richard and her own assets. This is a happy ending of sorts for Joan – she’s found someone who appreciates how great she is, and she’s leaving with a small fortune. I just hope that years later, when corporate culture changes and women start winning millions of dollars in sexual harassment lawsuits, that she doesn’t kick herself for not fighting here and now. At least by then she’ll be able to spit on Jim Hobart’s long-cold grave.

As bad as Joan’s brief experience at McCann is, at least she had an experience; apparently, Peggy doesn’t even merit having her office sorted out ahead of time, and thus she spends the episode stuck milling about the now abandoned SC&P offices. At first, I was worried that Peggy’s lack of an office space was part of a plan on McCann’s part to ice out Peggy and make her want to quit, and with Don going hobo, there would be no one at McCann to recognize Peggy’s value. I realized how vulnerable Peggy seemed when her secretary pays a visit to Peggy’s apartment and tells her that McCann thought she was a secretary. Peggy doesn’t want to go running to Don, and Joan can’t help because she’s no longer the office manager. When Peggy walks into SC&P the next day and calls out to a seemingly empty office, I briefly despaired for her future, and then despaired further when Ferg told Joan he doubted Peggy would continue at McCann.

Thankfully, my concern was unwarranted; her office is sorted out by the episode’s end, and ultimately it’s to our advantage that it takes that long, because it leads to a series of truly excellent scenes between her and Roger. Peggy and Roger are probably one of the show’s least common pairings (although prior to season 5, they might have been tied with Joan and Don). Back in season 4, Roger paid Peggy for some clandestine creative work (or, more accurately, Peggy extorted Roger for all the money he was carrying), but that was really the only prominent plot they had together, and it was at most a B or C story. Peggy even points out to Roger that their interaction in this week’s episode is the most attention he’s ever paid to her. Nevertheless, it’s fitting that we get to see these two interact at length one more time in the old offices before the series concludes, not only because they make just as good a combination now as they did before (it’s always a delight to watch Peggy’s blunt pragmatism bounce off of Roger’s wry cynicism), but also because compared with the other characters on the show, they each likely have the biggest attachment to their former agency.

Peggy became the person she is now through her years there. They weren’t all rosy, but if she had begun as a secretary at any other company in 1960, she’d likely still be one in 1970. Roger, meanwhile, led the agency (in name if not in practice) for much of his adult life. Thus while it appears that opposing dilemmas thrust them together here – Peggy wants to go to McCann to get to work, but can’t because her office isn’t ready, while Roger wants to stay at SC&P because he’s uncomfortable at McCann and feels nostalgic for his former agency – they each have the most reason to mourn the loss of SC&P. And this is precisely what happens in their scenes together, which are essentially snippets from a wake or a shiva: Roger plays organ music, they have a drink (or a bottle) in honor of SC&P, and they each wax nostalgic for their time there. However, for all their crackling banter and fiery repartee, Roger also has important advice for Peggy. When she initially balks at displaying in her new office Bert's painting of an octopus pleasuring woman, she says she can’t hang it up because she needs to “make men feel at ease.” Roger replies by asking, “Who told you that?” This is a lesson Peggy will take to heart in her final appearance of the episode.

It all culminates in a marvelous scene, where Roger has moved the organ to where the conference room used to be, and belts out songs as Peggy roller skates around him through the now-cavernous halls, striking choreographed poses as the camera arcs around Roger. This kind of behavior is nothing new for Roger, who cuts loose all the time. In fact, looseness might be his default state. We only rarely get a glimpse of him wound up, like he was in the first half of the season, when he tried (and failed) to get Margaret to return with him from the hippie commune to her family. Peggy, however, is the opposite: she’s often wound up like a tight coil, and only rarely cuts loose like this. So it’s a thrill to see her skate circles around Roger. It's also a fitting sendoff to the old offices at SC&P, which is a place where professionalism was always more of a suggestion than a requirement.

Relaxing like this seems to do Peggy a world of good. Rather than march into McCann in a huff over being kept out of her new office for so long, instead, we get the thrill of seeing her stroll into her new office as the epitome of slow-motion cool: a sunglasses-shaded, cigarette dangling, smirk-wearing, kinky art-toting badass who’s turning heads and not looking back. Peggy’s made it as her own woman, a full-fledged creative ad executive, brimming with confidence and determination. I’d be just fine with this image serving as the last we ever saw of Peggy on this series, if not for the fact that I would miss her presence in the two remaining episodes. I’m excited to see her crack some skulls next week.

Other thoughts:

- Aside from its sexist corporate culture and "sausage factory" approach to creative, as Don or Roger once put it, McCann is also just a dreary, oppressive place. It’s like the Death Star, full of windowless gray corridors. Even the offices lucky enough to have windows feature much smaller ones than those at SC&P. The only one at McCann with comparable windows is Jim Hobart. It's a corporate culture which seems to scream, “You’ll get less and be grateful for it.”

- Here is a short list of what I think are the series’ best episodes thus far, including “Lost Horizon”:
“The Suitcase” (Don and Peggy fight and bond over an all-nigther)
“Far Away Places” (each of the three stories that week are told in succession)
“Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” (two words: lawnmower foot)
“At the Codfish Ball,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Dark Shadows,” (a trio of back-to-back-to-back episodes in season 5 that is among the strongest set of consecutive episodes the series has ever produced)
"All the Beautiful Girls" (Sally runs from Betty to Don but finds no solace)
“Sit Down, Have a Seat” (the season 3 finale)
"The Phantom" (the season 5 finale)
“The Strategy,” and "Waterloo" (the two episodes that concluded the first half of season 7).
I'm sure there are more, but those are just off the top of my head.

- Even after all these years, I’m still surprised by how efficiently awful Harry can be. Even in appearances as brief as that of this episode, he always manages to do something that makes me want to slap him in the face. This time, it’s his casually putting out his cigarette on SC&P’s hallway floor, as if the company has wronged him in some unforgiveable way, rather than allowed him to continually fail upward, making him successful well beyond any merit he might actually have. Peggy once thought Megan was an ingrate for wanting to quit her promising career in advertising to become an actress, but Harry is the true ingrate of SC&P. There has rarely been less warrant for someone to carry a chip on their shoulder. Actually, in a somewhat ironic way, Harry does have cause to be bitter about his time at SC&P, but not for the reasons he thinks. By allowing him to fail upward, the place enabled him to blossom into the cad he’s become. Had it not been for SC&P, Harry might never have turned into such a turd.

- Harry deliberately stamps out a cigarette on the hallway floor of SC&P as a gesture of disrespect. This is paralleled when Peggy accidentally spills her coffee on the floor of the break room. Neither bother to clean up their messes, but at least Peggy feels bad about it for a moment before deciding there’s no point to cleaning it up.

- That Miller meeting gives some new perspective on those clients that actually took their business to SC&P: they must have been deliberately seeking out a smaller agency that could cater to their specific needs. SC&P pitch sessions never had more than ten or so people in the conference room at once, but a fairly typical meeting at McCann (like the Miller meeting) apparently has twice that number. The only time we saw this many agency personnel in a room for a pitch was back in season 2, when Don and company made a lame duck pitch to American Airlines.

- Joan’s experiences with the terrible McCann personnel makes Don no longer seems so bad to her. Don has his faults, certainly, but at least he never saw her merely as a sexual fantasy. If Don never returns to being Don, their scene in the elevator was a nice coda for their now-repaired relationship.

- I also liked Don and Betty’s scene in this episode. Like his scene with Joan, it likely serves as a coda to their relationship, a final Don-Betty kitchen scene before the curtain falls. It hearkens back to the first three seasons, where their most memorable scenes together were either in the bedroom or the kitchen (like when Don finally comes clean about Dick Whitman). It’s also nice to see them be civil to one another. They have reached a détente in their relationship, which is as much as we could ever hope for them, given how their marriage ended, and the shenanigans Betty pulled after their divorce.

- Another nice note in this scene: Betty frankly tells Don, “Your secretary is a moron.” At first, I liked this because even a highly fallible character like Betty instantly recognizes one of Meredith’s most readily apparent attributes. But I also liked it because it makes me question the way I view Meredith. Betty’s reaction to Meredith parallels my own; at first, Meredith was nothing but a device to create jokes, but over this half-season, she’s slowly been given more depth and complexity. After all, as she tells Don in this episode, she’s developed a knack for interior design because she was an army brat. I want to make a joke about her having hidden depths and layers upon layers, but given her concern for her future last week, and her genuine worry over what has become of Don this week, it doesn’t seem warranted anymore. Unlike Betty, I now know her better. I suppose all of the Ida Blankenships of the Mad Men world must move on eventually.

- I like how Jim Hobart becomes more and more convinced over the course of the episode that he’s been sold a “rotten apple,” as he puts it. I also liked that when Jim complains to Roger about Don’s disappearance, Roger unflinchingly tells him that Don disappears from time to time. When you work with Don, it’s something you learn to live with.

- Good for Shirley, getting out of the rat’s nest of McCann while she can. Considering McCann's problems with sexual harassment, it’s not much of a leap to imagine that they are also horribly racist. I wonder how Dawn will fare in the transition. Additionally, Shirley says goodbye to Roger as though she also watches Mad Men: “I have to say thank you. You’re very amusing.”

- It sure was nice to see Bert Cooper again, especially when he tells Don (or Dick) not to do what he’s doing.

- Another lovely shot: Peggy walking past the company logos that used to adorn the walls of the lobby: SCDP, SC&P. Two pieces of memorabilia I’d like to hang on my own wall.

- Some very nice staging: Dick has a protracted discussion with Laura Bower, Cliff's new wife, and when she invites him inside, she opens the door a crack wider, revealing Diana’s surviving daughter listening intently in the background. It’s a nice way of illustrating that real harm lies underneath Dick's play at being Bill Philips, no matter how impressive (and disappointing) Dick is as he smoothly slips into this new persona, and the way he escalates the lies in order to get what he wants.

- A nice feint: after Dick fails to get Cliff to tell him where Diana is, we see a short scene of him driving at night, followed by a shot of someone walking into Jim Hobart’s office. When Jim responds, “Where the hell have you been?” it's easy to hypothesize that Don has returned, but it’s actually Roger.

- I liked when Roger sarcastically asked Peggy if she thinks it's going to be as fun over at McCann as it has been at SC&P. It gives us a glimpse into how Roger seems to have seen the agency, as a helter-skelter place that went at its own speed and did things its own way (like with Bert not having an office before they expanded into a second floor, or Don's seemingly random disappearances, or fistfights that might break out at partner meetings). For Roger, SC&P was a place of fun and crazy antics that still managed to function as a business. McCann is just a business.

- Only two episodes left. Masterpieces like tonight's make it harder to let go.

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