Monday, May 04, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 90: "Lost Horizon"



In which it may not have sunk in, but your status has changed.

“When I want something, I get it.  And I wanted you for ten years. You’re my white whale, Don.”  -Jim Hobart

And so, all that glitters…well, you know how it goes.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Valhalla of McCann-Erickson that Jim Hobart promises the five SC&P partners at the conclusion of “Time and Date” turns out to be as soulless as they expected (well, at least for some of them.)  Indeed, “Lost Horizon”, with its psychological landscape of white whales, Shangri-La’s and open roads, posits that the existential longing for that mythical goal in any life might always be consumed by futility.  It’s Don and Rachel’s conversation about utopia from Season 1 all over again: the good place and the place that cannot be.  And yet, this episode also suggests that sometimes that inherent futility is the whole point, and a source of fulfillment in and of itself.

The title of this episode refers, of course, to the famed book and films of the same name, in which one prosperous man, on the verge of even further greatness, finds himself detoured into that mythical valley of eternal youth that is Shangri-La.  The question that much of the plot poses is where is the Shangri-La for each of these characters?  And how do they deal with the very real possibility that their dreams are forever disappeared over that horizon?  The result is one of the truly great episodes of the show’s run, an elegy for all that they (and we) have known for these past six plus seasons.

Mad Men has always been a master class in production design, the meticulous detail of its sets, props, the whole invented world of the past a character unto itself.  Such attention to minutiae has always given the locations a completely immersive feel.  So it should come as no surprise that the harsh reality of the McCann-Erickson transition lies in the contrasting sets that open this episode.  The old SC&P digs may be a shambles of leftover boxes and empty spaces, but its bright color palette and the glow of natural light from its copious bay windows still make it a warm and welcoming environment.  In stark contrast, the definitely ‘70s décor of the McCann offices, all brown and grey enclosed hallways and box offices, is like a casket…or a mausoleum.  It’s the death of ‘60s pop optimism at the hands of a grimmer new decade.

And it’s exactly the sausage factory that Don though it would be so long ago, back when Jim Hobart’s siren call first reached his ears.  There’s a hint of optimism in one of his first meetings with Jim and Ferg Donnelly, as he’s once again presented the world at his feet and lauded as the great catch of McCann’s dreams.  The camera even plays along with this seemingly fresh start, dollying in on Don when he finally utters those magic words “I’m Don Draper, from McCann-Erickson.” 

“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”

But it only takes his first big meeting with the Miller diet beer account for reality to slap him upside the head.  In the leadup to the SC&P dissolution, Don was able to play sage realist to Pete and Joan’s disappointment, coolly suggesting the inherent rough changes of the business.  Once he’s in the Miller meeting, that manufactured sand froid finally collapses, as he sees how this new setup is just as crushing as he thought it would be.

Following the trend of these final episodes, the Miller meeting is once again a callback to the show’s past and the characters’ past glories.  In this case, we’re all the way back to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, the pilot episode.  Instead of being the focus of attention, Don is just one of many creative directors at the meeting, all attentively absorbing the words of Bill Phillips from Conley Research.  Phillips’s analysis, a pitch focused on the average Midwest husband demographic, makes explicit reference to convincing said man to abandon loyalty to “his brand of beer.”  It’s a direct line back to the first scene of Mad Men, in which Sam the bartender tells Don that he smokes Old Gold cigarettes out of loyalty and habit.  Don was the one researching those motivations then, and he was able to laugh off Greta Guttman’s intimations of the Freudian death wish’s role in smoking’s appeal.  But that was ten years ago, when creativity drove the business.  In the end, the Duck Phillipses and Jim Cutlers of the world were right: advertising has become a data-driven game.  And now it’s Don in a subservient role to the alpha male status of numbers king Bill Phillips (the POV shot of Don’s befuddled gaze at the uniform note-taking of the other meeting attendees really hammers things home.)

The only person hit harder by this transition to the McCann afterlife has been Joan.  The old Sterling Cooper days might’ve featured rampant sexism and misogyny, but there was always a sense of frat house frivolity about the proceedings.  And she was the queen bee of manipulating those male hijinks to her advantage.  The way that McCann execs of all stripes treat Joan is much more crass and darkly manipulative.  Ferg Donnelly seems to provide her a respite from Dennis’s dismissive sexism, but even he only wants to sleep with her in the end. 

Christina Hendricks’s run as Joan has always been one laced with intrigue and sadness.  Already in her early 30’s at the show’s genesis point, she’s never been young enough to take full advantage of the freedoms that the encroaching women’s rights movement begins to provide.  The limited power that she originally possesses over the secretary’s pool turns out to be a self-perpetuating trap when she strives to transcend mere eye candy status.  Her partner status at SC&P, the grand achievement of her professional life, only comes when she agrees to sleep with Jaguar’s Herb Rennet.  Now, at the dawn of a new decade, stripped of her partner status, she’s back to just being the house sex bomb.  When she confronts Jim Hobart about the rampant sexual harassment she’s faced, invoking Betty Freidan and the ACLU, it seems like the moment of sweet retaliation against male oppression for which she’s always been yearning.  But she ultimately heeds Roger’s advice to take the fifty cents on the dollar that Hobart offers her as severance, while also ignoring beau Richard’s offer to send “a guy” to talk to the McCann boys.  Whether this is Joan abandoning any hope of reaching her own personal Shangri-La, or merely choosing the relative comfort of Richard’s benevolence over never-ending career conflict is still a matter of conjecture.

“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

And speaking of Roger Sterling, the clown prince of the SC&P empire, the man who saved it all by selling its soul, the guy who, in Peggy’s words, was supposed to protect them all.  One of the saddest parts of the Mad Men’s demise is the impending absence of John Slattery’s brilliant portrayal of this magnificently flawed, epically hilarious, totally charming character.  Crass and opportunistic as he may be, there’s always been a passionate (albeit damaged) heart beating within Roger.  Look back to his pained, almost helpless love for Joan in Season 1 high mark “Babylon”.  Or to the sudden call to maturity that saves Don’s existence and prolongs the company’s life in the first half of this season.  Roger may be an accounts man out of time, lost in the generational shuffle, but his artist’s soul has always made him more human than a Jim Cutler or a Jim Hobart.

Which makes his extended scenes with Peggy in “Lost Horizon” so touching, and funny, and beautiful.  They’re two characters who’ve never shared that much screen time together, and it’s easy to remember her as the timid secretary of Don’s whom Roger condescended to back in 1960.  But now they’re both the last survivors of the SC&P crew, manning a ghost ship of an office while she waits for her new McCann spot and he clears out the final detritus of his vanquished existence.  Their semi-drunken conversation (fuelled by Vermouth, the last resort for the election night party in Season 1’s “Nixon vs. Kennedy”!) is a pure bit of Mad Men character development.  She correctly accuses him of selling out the company, yet doesn’t entirely resent him for being who he is.  He acknowledges the real loss he’s finally feeling, now that the house his father built with Bert Cooper is no more, and yet his pragmatism about the cold realities of the business won’t allow him to despair.  Many shows, especially this late in the run, might try to turn this into a grand emotional climax.  But that’s nothing that Matt Weiner has ever been interested in pursuing, and it’s that commitment to the fuzziness of human behavior that makes a scene like this so satisfying.  (Although there is one obvious result of it: Peggy’s entrance into the McCann offices the next day, sunglasses on, smoking a cigarette, lugging Bert Cooper’s old painting of a woman being violated by an octopus, heeding Roger’s subtle advice that she need not just be non-threatening to men to succeed.)

The final scene of Roger and Peggy’s time in the SC&P office is brief, but it’s a gorgeous, haunting moment, easily one of my all-time favorites in the show’s history.  Playing the organ that was left over from “Time and Date’s” child actor auditions, Roger tickles the ivories to the tune of “Hi Lilli Hi Lo” (the elegiac standard about lost love) while Peggy rollerskates in a circle around him.  There are so many beautiful things contained in this image.  The soft, evening-bound lighting that renders it as almost a faded memory.  The goofy, yet touching incongruity of the whole thing.  The way it encapsulates the shaggy playfulness that could happen at Sterling Cooper, a sense of camaraderie completely absent from the frigid McCann machine.  There’s even a hint of “The Phantom of the Opera” about the whole thing, with Roger as the slightly mournful spirit haunting the room (Peggy first realizes he’s still there when she hears the distant, ghostly organ tones.)    

“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”

This timeless dream moment crossfades into Don in his Cadillac, chasing after another one of his many white whales in an endlessly repeating pursuit of Shangri-La.  Once it was called Betty, then Rachel, then Suzanne, then Megan…and now Diana.  But they’ve all been in service to his ceaseless sense of wanderlust, which is once again stoked during the Miller meeting when he looks off to see a plane ascending in the distance.  Which is not to completely discount the genuine nature of his feelings.  There’s a nice moment he shares with Betty in this episode, where she gently rebuffs his well-practiced shoulder massage/stab at connection (while studying Freud!), and it reminds the viewer that the long-gone Draper marriage was based on more than just opportunism and money.  Don’s line as he leaves the house (“Knock ‘em dead Birdie”) is genuinely moving, as he reaches a moment where he can come to terms with what they once had, and what they can still be to each other. 

The quantifiable reality of some of Don’s journey is still up for debate; after all, his vision of Bert Cooper in his car (and in the final scene of “Waterloo”) shows that Don isn’t above projecting his inner turmoil.  Classic narrative structure would dictate that his realization of the true emptiness of the McCann experience should lead him finally dropping the straightjacket of his corporate life and pursuing his dream.  But we’ve seen this before in his nomadic visits to California, and the resulting minor changes in his life.  And at every turn, Diana has proven to be more elusive and unreachable than before; her ex-husband refers to her as “a tornado”, someone that only Jesus can save, and she herself is last seen pushing Don out of her life.

Maybe this is why Don’s pursuit has taken on such a deeper meaning for him.  Maybe he’s finally broken his pattern and is chasing a woman who seems to be just as a damaged as him, and who has left a similar wake of destruction.  Or maybe Don Draper is just someone for whom the goal will never truly be known, for whom the quest is all that’s there.  It’s notable that, in conversation with his vision of Bert, he compares his travels to On the Road, that totemic icon of the rewards and perils of the flight toward meaning.  The myth of Jack Kerouac’s vision is that it was only a call to life, while in reality, he was never afraid to offer up pointed critique when appropriate.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his portrayal of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy in real world parlance) who is both the ideal of masculinity and deeply flawed drifter.  There’s a whole lot of Dean in Don, his nagging desire to just go a perfect complement to the suave charisma he can’t help but generate.  In the end of On the Road, Dean is last seen as a somewhat battered shell of his former self, still chasing his indefinable dream toward who knows what.  As he picks up a hitchhiker at the conclusion of “Lost Horizon” (David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, that classic ballad of exploration both interior and exterior playing on his car radio), Don is still adrift on the road, far away from the life he’s built for himself, in pursuit of a person, a ghost, an ideal, a………………………       

“What difference does it make after all?--anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven, for what’s heaven? what’s earth? All in the mind.”

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