Mad Men: Lost Horizon, or On the Road Again With the White Whale

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It’s moving day for the good folks at the entity formerly known as Sterling Cooper & Partners, and it’s not going well. Between the bureaucratic snafus, the misogyny, the bad jokes and overall culture clash, many of our favorite characters are not adapting easily to their forced relocation to the Evil Empire (aka McCann Erickson).

As someone who’s participated in a few corporate relocations and witnessed many others close at hand, my stomach hurt throughout the entire episode of “Lost Horizon,” which is the next-to-the-next-to-last episode of Mad Men. It is deeply unnerving to be yanked out of your comfort zone and thrust into new offices, with new colleagues and new assignments. It’s like going from elementary school to middle school: a transition that almost everyone has to make at one time or another, but which is usually miserable for the first few weeks.

What makes this particular transition so fraught is that McCann is a totally different beast than SC&P. They might technically be in the same business but their organizations are nothing alike. It’s now apparent that SC&P really was a boutique agency run by a handful of idiosyncratic partners by the seat of their pants. Like a family, it was sometimes dysfunctional, but at least it operated on a human scale. By contrast, McCann is a massive operation, with bureaucratic layers, redundancies on top of redundancies, and warrens of narrow halls and windowless offices. It’s not for nothing that the women who come to Joan hoping to get onto her accounts joke about letting the “Soviets” (e.g., the bureaucrats) figure out how to make the assignments work.

As in real life, the way the SC&P alumni react to their new reality is driven by a combination of circumstance, personality, history and opportunity. Here, in descending order of happiness are how our heroes are handling it:

Getting alone fine. Pete and Ted seem to be fitting right in. Last week Pete denounced Ted as a sheep but he’s not much better. Both are willing to play the corporate game. To them, this is just a job and they are making the best of the situation and are maybe even set to thrive because they’re willing to try not too hard. There’s also Harry Crane, who’s thrilled to be going to McCann. He never got the respect he thought he deserved at SC&P and believes the move to McCann will be his “moment.” McCann is “Mission Control” (i.e., the operation room from which NASA runs the space missions). I’m still betting that he doesn’t survive at McCann given his relative doltishness, but for now he’s fine.

Not going but resigned to it. Roger’s back-up secretary Shirley resigns rather than go to McCann. “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone,” she explains. Especially for women and African Americans, she doesn’t say because she doesn’t need to. Roger is sorry to see her go because he’s losing another familiar face, but in his typical all-about-me fashion, he never bothered to inquire before now whether she was going to be taken care of at the new place. Then there’s Ed, one of Peggy’s minions, who was not asked to go to McCann, but is hanging around the empty SC&P offices to make long distant phone calls. Passive and cynical, he prepares a satirical ad about Dow Chemical, saying it can clean up a quagmire (a reference to Down’s role in Vietnam, widely recognized at this point as being a quagmire.)

Needing to be pushed. Peggy and Roger, who haven’t interacted as far as we know since he paid her several hundred dollars to work with him on a Memorial Weekend a few season back, are the last evacuees from the S.S. SC&P. Peggy refuses to go to McCann until she has an office – apparently the McCann office manager saw her name on a list, assumed she was a secretary and sent her and the other secretaries a nice basket of flowers instead of an office. Rather than sit in the McCann office pool or work from home, she heads to the empty SC&P offices, where she first encounters Ed (see above) and then Roger, who’s supposedly packing but is really just doing an impersonation of the Phantom of the Opera by playing the organ in a deserted, half-deconstructed floor.

Roger’s feeling sorry for himself because he inadvertently caused the destruction of the SC&P business by selling it to McCann, not realizing they would eventually swallow it up and dispense with the Sterling name. Reluctant to move to his new office (located on a floor that resembles “a nursing home”) he’s procrastinating as long as possible.   When Peggy wanders into his organ recital, he first tries to get her to run an errand and buy some booze (an offer she rejects out of hand) before finally drinking the day away with her bottle of Cinzano (how they didn’t throw up after consuming so much Vermouth, I’ll never understand. )

The blunt way that Peggy deals with Roger is hilarious. She’s never really been scared of him – back in Season Two she asked for and got Freddy Rumson’s vacant office when her male colleagues were afraid to. Now after listening to him yak she tells him that he doesn’t need help, he needs “an audience;” that he’s the one responsible for the mess they’re in; that he was “supposed to look out for us;” and that SC&P “looks good now but was miserable when you ran it,” an assertion she quickly disavows.

Finally they buck each other up, through a experience when Roger was in the Navy and needed to be pushed from the deck of his ship to swim in the water below. In the end, they agree that they each need a push for this next stage of life, that it’s not the end of the road for either of them, and that Peggy might get her own name on the door one day. This leads to two of the greatest wordless scenes in Mad Men history: Peggy roller skating while Roger plays the organ and then Peggy strutting into McCann oozing confidence – with sunglasses, a cigarette on her lip and Bert Cooper’s erotic Japanese drawing.   It looks like she won’t get a happy romantic ending when the series ends, but she’ll do fine at McCann.

Peggy Olson skating

I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore: Joan’s situation is the opposite of Peggy’s: she’s got the romantic ending but not the job. McCann Erickson, we quickly learn, is a cesspool of what we used to call make chauvinism. We get a taste of that in an early scene when two women copy writers come sniffing around looking to work on Avon, Butler Shoe and her other female-oriented accounts. They too seem to be in a female ghetto, working only on feminine brands. They invite her to an after-hours women’s group at the Oyster Bar, but are quick to assure her it’s not a women’s lib thing and strictly for “consciousness lowering.”

But it doesn’t get downright ugly until she and Dennis, the cretin who told her several episodes ago that she should work on a brassiere account, try to transition the Avon account via speaker phone. Dennis, who is both arrogant and lazy, interrupts Joan’s introduction and tries to impress the client with Big Agency perks, including a golf outing at Augusta National. Oops. The guy’s in a wheelchair, which Dennis would have known if he’d read Joan’s written briefing or remembered her oral briefing.  He gets all indignant when she calls him out, saying “I’m sorry, who told you you get to get pissed off,” adding, as he storms out of the office, “I thought you were going to be fun.”

Joan takes it up with Ferg Donnelly, Jim Hobart’s hatchet man, who says he’ll replace Dennis on the account himself and proposes a trip to Atlanta where all he really wants is a good time. There was a time when a younger Joan might have put up with this kind of thing and maybe even turned it to her advantage through flirtation and humor, but her tolerance for sexual harassment burned out a long time ago. Plus, as her boyfriend advises, she doesn’t have to put up with any job she doesn’t want.

She marches into Jim Hobart’s office and tries to get Ferg taken off the account. She quickly confirms what she already suspected. The boys at McCann don’t value or her clients. Let’s face it – even Avon is small potatoes next to Miller Beer, Coca Cola and Nabisco. As far as Hobart is concerned, she’s just an adornment to his real objective, which was to bring Don Draper into the firm. He quickly tires of her demands, especially when she backs them up with a threat to sue on unspecified equality issues. She wants the remaining $500,000 due to her and he counters with an offer of 50 cents on the dollar. Initially she refuses but finally accepts when Roger talks her into it. It’s not about the money, she says; “It’s only about the money,” he says. In addition to what she’s already been paid, she walks away with a quarter of a million dollars, her Rolodex, her photo of Kevin and her dignity.

Not handling it well at all. Finally we come to the story of Don Draper. The whole McCann acquisition was done for one reason: to bring Don Draper into the McCann fold. Jim Hobart admits as much, calling Don his “white whale,” apparently forgetting that at the end of “Moby Dick” the great beast takes Captain Ahab and his crew to their doom. Hobart rolls out the red carpet and lavishes Don with praise but fails the most basic function of management, which is knowing how to motivate talent. By imperiously deciding to integrate SC&P into McCann without consulting the SC&P partners, he essentially destroys the value of his investment. He loses Joan’s clients, loses the clients that are conflicted (Burger Chef, Peter Pan, Sunkist, etc.) and ultimately loses Don too.

Hobart’s philosophy of life is that “when I see something that I want, I buy it.” What Hobart never understood is that Don is not motivated by money. Coming from nothing, Don is proud of having reinvented himself and building his own company. He has zero interest in working at a place like McCann, where idiots like Ferg Donnelly run the show. (It’s a bad sign when Freg tries to do a Don Draper imitation – “I’m working very diligently on the matter at hand” – that sounds much more like Dick Nixon than Dick Whitman and Hobart laughs like it’s funny. Who wants to work with people like that?)

Don’s first big meeting is with the team trying to decide how to sell Miller’s diet beer. Sitting in a room with more than a dozen other McCann creative directors, all drinking identical Coke’s, taking the same notes, eating the same boxed lunches, Don listens to a research consultant describe the target Miller customer. The consultant uses data to draw a word picture that Don might have done through intuition ten years ago. Having sat through the the PR agency equivalent of this meeting, I got the willies watching it unfold.  Will this be Don’s fate too, to sit in a conference room with boring while guys, playing corporate mind games?

Gazing out the window at a jet plane passing behind the Empire State Building, Don is lost in a reverie of day dreams until he carries himself and his roast beef box lunch out of the room. In typical fashion, he has forgotten that he’s supposed to take Sally back to Miss Porter’s School for the new term. He shows up late at the Francis home only to discover Sally already caught a ride with another girl. And then we have a scene of great tenderness and reconciliation. Betty is mildly complaining about being fatigued from carrying her textbooks (when she’s probably really overwhelmed by Freud). Don massages the back of her neck, flirtatiously suggests that she find a freshman to carry them for her, affirms her attractiveness, and then exits with the killer line: “Knock ‘em dead Birdie,” using his old endearment.

With this part of his life healed, Don doesn’t return to the city – instead he drives west, to find Diana Bauer, the depressing waitress who has inexplicably transfixed him this year. Driving through the night he hallucinates a conversation with Bert Cooper, who tells him, “You like to play the stranger.” Don evokes Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece “On the Road,” that’s Fifties paean to rootlessness, motion and expanded consciousness. A perfect Don Draper book.

Diana is not at Chez Bauer in Racine, Wisconsin and neither her ex-husband, nor the new Mrs. Bauer know where she is. Who is there, however, is Diana’s daughter, a sad reminder of Diana’s abandonment. When her ex-husband sees through both of Don’s cover stories, he says, “I’m worried about her. She seems so lost.” But the husband replies that she’s a “tornado” leaving broken people in her wake. Don must have known that he wouldn’t find any trace of her in Racine, so off he goes again aimlessly. He picks up a hitch hiker headed to St. Paul, and Don agrees to take him there as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” swells in the background.

Don is now literally on the road again. He was always threatening to take off when feeling endangered – he even wildly suggested to Rachel Menken that they run off to California when he feared that his background would be uncovered in Season One. Now he’s finally done it. At this point only a fool would predict what will happen in the final two episodes.

Some other thoughts:

— This episode, like the previous two, is hard to date in time, but I’m guessing it’s the week after Labor Day in 1970. Last week was apparently early August and the thirty remaining days on the SC&P lease must have ended on Sept, 1.

— The title of the episode, “Lost Horizon,” refers to a famous Frank Capra movie from the 1930s about a traveler who stumbles upon Shangri-La and has to decide whether to stay or return to the real world. This was discussed in my recap of last year’s episode called “Time Zones,” because Don was watching that movie during a visit to Megan’s. At the time I thought California itself represented Shangri-La but now I think anything that’s not the old Don Draper world would be a paradise to Don. Here’s a scene:

— I love that the episode closed with “Space Oddity,” a truly weird and out-there song, even today. The original video from 1969 makes it clear that Bowie was influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey,” something I never realized but which seems blindingly obvious now. This movie, was obviously alluded to many times in last year’s episode “The Monolith.”

— The philosophical difference between the way Joan and Peggy advance at work has been a running conflict since the very start of the season. A product of the Fifties, Joan says women should get ahead through feminine guile since her beauty is her strongest asset, but Peggy believes in talent, hard work and asking directly for what she wants. We now see how that plays out and it doesn’t look good for Joan.  As much as I sympathize with her predicament (and she was briefly trending on Twitter last night so she has a lot of support in 2015, at least), she can hardly become a feminist hero by just dropping Betty Friedan’s name and threatening to bring in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead of fighting for herself and the other women in the office (previously not a concern of hers), she takes the money and runs after less than a week on the job. And she’s not smart about the way she plays it. Instead of telling Ferg that Dennis insulted the wheelchair-bound client by inviting him to play golf, she just mentions vague client discomfort. Instead of telling Hobart that Ferg is sexually harassing she falls back on her previous status at SC&P. She immediately threatens a lawsuit rather than trying to work things out and to make matters worse, throws away the one piece of incriminating evidence she has at her disposal – Freg’s note offering to take her away for the weekend. How would Ferg’s wife like to see that? The men are pigs but she has nothing to prove in a court of law. She quits because she can. Peggy, on the other hand, decides to challenge the McCann culture on her own terms, proudly brandishing Cooper’s Octopus/geisha drawing. She originally told Roger that she knew she couldn’t afford to make the men feel uncomfortable but now seems very intent on making them very uncomfortable.

— Joan says she’s going to call a lawyer, but after this show I bet it’s the real-life McCann who calls the lawyers. Last week there was considerable discussion in the real world about McCann being a place that was more welcoming to women in 1970 than the other agencies and the must hate the way they are being held up as examples of 1970’s Neanderthal behavior.  I also can’t imagine that The New York Times is very happy either by the assertion that McCann could kill any negative story in the Times because of the amount of advertising space they bought.  And here’s a Tweet about the Ladies HomeJournal strike, which occurred on March 19, 1970.  I guess the NYT wasn’t particularly afraid of the Ladies Home Journal since they covered that incident.

— There’s been a lot of discussion this year about how out-of-step Don is by refusing to adopt the funky Seventies look, but the guys at McCann Erickson are even more caught in a time warp than he is.  Ferg says it’s a shirt-sleeve culture, which means the guys don’t wear their jackets all the time, but they do all look alike in their short hair and white shirts.  With his mustache and hip clothes, Ted is completely out of sync with the rest of the McCann men.

— The guys at McCann may seem like drones but transforming “diet beer” into “Miller Lite” (“Tastes good! Less Filling!”) was one of their most brilliant successes.  As this commercial below makes clear, no one who drank Miller Lite had to feel feminized.

— Don has a view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral so McCann must be on Madison Ave near 50th Street. When he arrives at his office and lingers at the whistling window, a shiver of excitement ran through all of Mad Men Nation. There’s been a huge debate over whether he will jump out a window to end the series and, well maybe this was the moment!!! Nope, I think this was just Matt Weiner yanking our chain.

— Poor Meredith.  Betty calls her a moron, which she most certainly isn’t.  Jim Hobart comes looking for Don at his office and she covers for him perfectly.  But in her final shot she looks worried for him.  Now she’ll never get to decorate his apartment.

— I love how Joan and Don say they’ll have lunch sometime, and Peggy promises Ed she’ll call him when she gets to McCann. That’ll never happen, as I’ve discovered through years of trying to follow-up on those vague lunch invitations.

— I doubt it’s the psychology textbooks but Betty finally does seem to have grown up. “She comes and goes as she pleases, “she says of Sally. “And we can’t get mad at her for being independent. It’s normal.” This from a woman who needed her own psychiatrist in Season One.

— I just Googled the driving distance from New York City to Racine. 13 and a half hours. So I guess it’s doable in the time frame in whuich Don did it.

— I hope we’re all adults, because here’s the Bert Cooper painting (Dreams of a Fisherman’s Wife, from 1814). It’s even more provocative than I imagined from seeing it on TV.

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1 comment
  1. Roonie said:

    great recap!

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