by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren
The promise in episode 11 from McCann-Erickson was Paradise, Heaven. But the Sterling Cooper employees don’t find Shangri-La at their new offices—in fact, half of them can’t even find their offices, and Don ends up heading towards Minnesota. And all of the women get screwed at McCann-Erickson.
Early on in the episode, as everyone is packing up to move, Shirley says goodbye to Roger, explaining that she has taken a job at an insurance company because “advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.” Roger has assured her that she can’t be fired in the move, but Shirley’s rejoinder both underscores the overwhelming whiteness of the advertising world in this era, and gives rare voice to an African-American character’s nuanced point of view on racism in the workplace. While Roger assumes she would only leave if forced to, Shirley’s decision reminds viewers that she has agency, an inhospitable climate would be enough to make an employee “choose” to leave, and that she’s not just talking about McCann-Erickson. The climate at SC&P has often been an uncomfortable one for African Americans as well (remember the scene in the break room between secretaries Dawn and Shirley, where they mock the way everyone else in the agency confuses them with one another and calls them by the wrong name). Shirley’s assertion that “advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone” also serves as an ominous foreshadowing of the discomfort to come, as Don gets lost trying to find his office, Peggy doesn’t even have one, and Joan is forced out of hers.
In many ways, Lost Horizon is almost as painful in its focus on Joan’s insurmountable problems at McCann as was The Other Woman. In The Other Woman, Joan made a choice and made a demand that would enhance her future. In Lost Horizon, Joan is stymied at every turn by gender expectations, patriarchal privilege, and the “old boys” club. She can’t supervise the McCann underling because “he has a wife and three children – he’s not going to work for a girl.” When she turns to Ferg for help managing the problem of insubordination on her accounts, he smoothly takes over, promising her the respect she wants. But she soon realizes her mistake, as he propositions her to “pick a weekend” to go away on a business trip with him to simply “have a good time.” Joan goes all the way to the top, confronting Jim Hobart with the problematic working relationship. He’s affable, urging her to speak freely, but closes ranks quickly with his men. He sneers at Joan’s SC&P partnership (“I don’t know if someone left it to you in their will, but your little stake doesn’t mean anything here”) and tells her that her status has changed. When she threatens legal action, invoking Betty Friedan and women’s successful protests at Ladies Home Journal and Newsweek, he coldly tells her that “Women love it here. You want to threaten us? You’ll be on your own.” Given that two female copywriters have already tried to steal Peggy’s work for Joan, while inviting Joan to join them at their consciousness-lowering, non-women’s lib “ladies’ club,” Hobart is probably chillingly correct in his assessment that solidarity may be hard to find. The final blow for Joan comes when Roger, who has been her ally at so many points in the past, shows up at her new office to tell her to take Hobart’s offer of $.50 on the dollar to buy her out. When she protests that it’s only half what she’s owed, he tells her it’s plenty, and that he can’t help her. With tears in her eyes, Joan takes her Rolodex, her framed picture of her son, and walks out of the office for good.
Peggy is like a displaced person after the war, she is without a desk for the entire episode—and when they finally locate her an office at McCann-Erickson, she must make due with a drafting table, not a desk. Apparently Peggy didn’t quite make it on to the organizational chart, she gets secretary flowers because everyone thought she was a secretary and ordered a bouquet for her, and the first place that she is told to go at McCann is the “pool” until they find her space. Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own has been transformed in the 20th century to Peggy’s eternal quest for a desk and an office…as she was constantly shifted around as she moved into being a junior copywriter in the earlier seasons of Mad Men. Watching Joan and Peggy disappear from their positions is very real, and still problematic for many women in the 21st century workplace. That basket of flowers, which was ordered for Peggy, happens regularly for women who are partners in law firms, who are corner-office executives, and who are still mistaken for secretaries in 2015.
The new environment at McCann-Erickson is darker, smaller and more crowded than SC&P. The ceilings are lower, the hallways are narrow, and there aren’t many windows (the female copywriters remark enviously on Joan’s small window—nothing like the expanse of glass at SC&P). Not only is there no room for Joan or Peggy, but the décor in Don’s office is darker, and more masculine—as we learn in this episode, McCann-Erickson is a man’s world. The view is different. And the windows don’t open. Don can’t get out. This was part of the conversation he and Peggy had during their long evening together in Season Four’s The Suitcase. He and Peggy saw a mouse and they talk about the fact that there must be another way out of the office. Ultimately, Don finds the way out of McCann, in a way, when he arrives to take Sally to school, but she has already gone with a friend. So he drives west through the night, to Wisconsin, to try to find Diana. He abandons the office, and his absence is noticed by Jim Hobart, who gets flustered that maybe Don isn’t all that they had imagined he might be. For Hobart, Don was his Shangri-La, but like the reaction of the denizens of Sterling Cooper, the dream of this paradise, this promise, this elusive icon, is ethereal at best, and maybe a major con job. By the second half of the episode, Hobart is starting to question why he spent all this money to bring Don on board, and Don has most decidedly done a “Dick Whitman” and gone walkabout. He never wanted to work for McCann, and after about half a week there, he walks out of the Miller Beer meeting and doesn’t really seem to look back. This is the Don who ditched Pete in California and went off with a bunch of wandering aristocrats. This is the Don who asks Rachel Menken to run away with him when Pete finds out his secret. This is the Don who is robbed and beaten up in a sleazy motel in an earlier walkabout. This is the Don who goes to get Sally’s cake for her birthday party and arrives home after all the guests have left. When Don can’t solve a problem, he flees.
The title of the episode, Lost Horizon, refers to a popular novel by James Hilton and the Frank Capra film of the 1930s in which a plane is hijacked and then crashes in Tibet, where the survivors find refuge in the magical monastery of Shangri-La. The novel involves a mystery identity, as well as the powers of Shangri-La to give peace and longevity to all who dwell there. As Don Draper continues to wrestle with his own identity in this episode – trying on “I’m Don Draper from McCann-Erickson” with a rictus grin on his face, then disappearing into this road trip west in which the ghost of Bert Cooper tells him, “You like to play the stranger” – we also see the characters continue to grapple with the forces of aging, change, decay and despair. One allusion to the novel comes as Don sits in the Miller Beer meeting. Surrounded by a dozen other creative directors, all in the same white shirts, eating the same box lunch and drinking identical cans of Coca-Cola (no hand-mixed cocktails in sight), the dawning horror at this conformity and fungibility registers on Don’s face. As everyone else opens the research report simultaneously, Don looks out the window. Floating in the sky, slowly passing the top of the Empire State Building, is a small airplane. The reference to Lost Horizon and Don’s desire to escape to his own Shangri-La is unmistakable. But as a 21st century viewer, it is hard to see the image of a wide blue sky, with one plane hovering so near a New York skyscraper, and not remember the images of September 11th as well. Shangri-La’s eternal life – or images of death happening before our very eyes?
The horror of that scene is echoed in various ways throughout this episode, as spooky organ music turns out to be Roger Sterling actually playing the organ in the dark, deserted, and trashed offices of SC&P (while a drunk Peggy roller skates through the hallways, in a fantastically funny and macabre scene). A ghoulish girl with dark hair and eyes lurking on the stairs behind the doorway of the Bauer house in Racine turns out to be the missing Diana’s deserted daughter. The ghostly presence of Bert Cooper turning up to ride across America in Don Draper’s Cadillac, insisting he’s never read On the Road but then intoning: “Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
The research for Miller for a lite beer (that doesn’t mention calories) encapsulates the characterization of these men, the millions of them, who are resentful of the changes that have transpired, their lack of capacity to “get ahead”, to do man’s work, the tools that sit unused in the garage, the jobs where they can’t get promotions because others have taken those promotions from them. This is the resentment that follows the civil rights and women’s rights movements, perhaps very much still with us today. As Don gets up and walks out of the meeting, inspired by his vision of the plane, the presenter droning on about this male consumer’s established beer preferences asks, “How do you get him to open his mind? Better have something more, or in this case, less. That gets tricky” because anything low-calorie becomes feminine. The crisis in masculinity is real, but Don Draper sees nothing in the corporate capitalism of that boardroom that offers a compelling answer. He heads for the open road.
Towards the very end of the episode, we finally have the scene of Peggy, carrying a box of her stuff, the erotic drawing of an octopus pleasuring a woman from Bert Cooper’s office under her arm, cigarette hanging off her mouth, with sun glasses on. She struts into the office, and people take notice. The music in the background is the same instrumental music that played at the beginning of the pilot episode (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) as the credits rolled defining the term “Mad Men.” Peggy, the Catholic ponytailed secretary of seasons gone by, is the embodiment of cool here. Once again she is the “new girl,” but this time around she has appropriated Don Draper’s swagger and made it all her own. When Roger first offers her the artwork, she demurs, saying, “You know I need to make men feel at ease.” “Who told you that??” Roger exclaims. Her entrance to McCann-Erickson can only make us wonder at how uneasy she is about to make them, and if, unlike Joan, she will succeed.
The final scene is of Don, picking up a hitchhiker heading to Minnesota, as David Bowie sings “Space Oddity.” Unlike the previous final shots of the last four episodes, Don is moving forward, not being pushed out so much as moving on. If, as Harry Crane says, McCann-Erickson is Mission Control (with their technology, corporate bureaucracy, and executive dining room), then Don Draper is Major Tom, the one who’s “really made the grade” and gotten Jim Hobart to buy SC&P just to land him. But Don is once again heading west; as the Cadillac speeds toward the (lost?) horizon of cornfields, “now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.”
Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.