Some unavoidable travel occupied the time I usually would have spent writing my Mad Men review last week, so I’m running a week behind. Mea culpa.
My original plan was to catch up by covering “Lost Horizon” along with this week’s episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” in one post—which wouldn’t normally be a problem. In fact, for most of my sporadic coverage of Mad Men over the years, that’s how I did it: two episodes at a time. My busy schedule was always a factor in this approach, but I actually felt like Mad Men benefited from a slightly wider lens. Matthew Weiner has genuinely structured this series as a long-form story, and sometimes the nearly imperceptible arcs have actually been easier to see when viewed across two (or more) episodes at a time. It required some judicious selection and compression on my part, but I felt justified in giving short-shrift to certain sub-plots in one review or another: I knew the same storylines and themes would run throughout the entire season, and I’d get a chance to circle back to them.
But things are different now, aren’t they? We are in the final days, and each hour of the show is bearing more narrative and emotional weight. Now, themes and sub-plots don’t carry over so smoothly from episode to episode, and each time a character we’ve followed for seven years gets a storyline, we’re painfully aware that it might be their last: the last hurrah, the last goodbye, the last verdict on the decisions that they’ve made and the people who they’ve become.
It’s almost alarming, actually. For example, I would have been tempted to just skip “Lost Horizon” altogether in order to get my schedule back on track, knowing I could circle back to its storylines later. But what if the show doesn’t circle back to them? “The Milk and Honey Route” doesn’t, and there’s no guarantee that the show’s final episode, “Person to Person,” won’t be an entire hour of Don driving around the Plains States searching for some depressive waitress. What if “Lost Horizon” is my last chance to write anything meaningful about Peggy? Or Joan? Or Roger?
Frankly, it’s feeling like a lot of pressure, like trying to think of something meaningful to say to someone on their deathbed. And, if I think about it too much, I’m going to keep procrastinating on this review indefinitely and never catch up. So, I’ve decided to write some (hastily formulated) thoughts about “Lost Horizon” today, and I’ll try to come back to “The Milk and Honey Route” sometime before the series finale airs on Sunday.
All that being said, I have to be honest: if Peggy’s story ends with that final shot of her walking into McCann-Erickson at the end of “Lost Horizon,” I’ll be okay with that.
Because Peggy is going to be fine. She will not, necessarily, be fine at McCann—in fact, given everything else we’ve seen of the agency, it seems increasingly unlikely that any of these people besides Harry and Ted will find happiness or fulfillment there.
But it doesn’t matter. No other character on Mad Men—including Don Draper—has had the transformative character arc that Peggy has had over these seven seasons. The meek, unassuming secretary who arrived at Sterling Cooper in 1960 began surprising us—and herself—at the end of the pilot episode, when she admitted a drunken and affianced Pete Campbell to her boudoir. It was not love, or even lust, so much as a desire for something new: new experiences, new adventures, new versions of herself. That longing for something always out of reach is arguably Mad Men‘s central theme, and—though we usually locate it in Don—Peggy has it in (somewhat subtler) spades.
At this point in the series, Peggy has grown tremendously: she has proven herself time and time again, and we know that Peggy has the skills, and Peggy has the smarts, and Peggy has the courage to do, basically, whatever the hell Peggy wants.
However, if Peggy was missing anything she needed to not just prosper but to also be happy, it was the attitude. Because, through all her changes over the years, and through her meteoric rise to the middle, Peggy never lost her desire to please, her need for approval, her habit of determining her own worth through the eyes of others. She has stood up for herself—many, many times—but somehow she always kept that air of eagerness and insecurity. As Freddy Rumsen once told her, she still tends to act like “some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dying to help out.” (When, in this season’s “Severance,” she tells a junior copywriter that, if he wants a raise, he should “stop acting like a secretary,” she may as well have been speaking to herself.)
Peggy has had many mentors who have taught her many important things over the years, from Don to Joan to Duck to Freddy to Ted. But there could be no more perfect final mentor for her than Roger Sterling: Roger the Irreverent, Roger the Mocker, Roger the Giver of No Fucks.
I hadn’t even noticed that these two have barely interacted in the past seven seasons. (“This is more attention than I’ve ever gotten from you,” Peggy says here.) But that just makes it all the more satisfying, because Roger’s influence is exactly what Peggy needs at this point in her life. The two meet in the ruins of the former Sterling Cooper & Partners, as Peggy has suffered the indignity of even more people who disrespect her—her office is not ready—and who mistake her for a secretary. (“All the SC&P girls got flowers,” her secretary tells her, handing her the pathetic floral arrangement the McCann-Erickson boys sent over for Peggy.) Peggy is once again forced to stand up for herself—”I’m not setting foot over there until I have an office”—but you can see it’s a blow not just to her ego but to her self-confidence. (She’s still the good Catholic girl, who thinks she gets what she deserves.)
And then there’s Roger, hanging out at SC&P not because he’s been disrespected, but just because he doesn’t feel like leaving. It’s a brief series of increasingly drunken conversations, but he tells her many things she needs to hear. “This business doesn’t have feelings,” he says, cheerfully—for this is a lesson Peggy has never quite learned. (As evidence by her classic blowup with Don in “The Suitcase,” when she complained that he never thanked her for doing good work. “That’s what the money is for!” Don bellowed.) And he reminds her that, with all the stress and resentment and struggle along the way, she’s actually had a pretty good time. (“It just looks good now, but it was miserable when you were in it,” she says. “Is that really how you’re going to remember this place?” Roger asks her, and she’s forced to admit that it isn’t.)
Most of all, he infects her with his spirit of irreverence, with a little help from the ghost of eccentric Bert Cooper. “It’s an octopus pleasuring a lady,” he says of Bert’s pornographic Japanese print, which he gives her to hang in her new office. “No!” she protests. “They won’t take me seriously.” (This has always been her biggest fear.) “You know I have to make men feel at ease,” she says, because she’s been doing that since Day One. But Roger dismisses this completely. “Who told you that?” he asks. “You’re going to show up drunk, at 4 o’clock, on your first day.”
And so she does: drunk on vermouth, with her sunglasses on, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and Bert’s orally talented octopus tucked under her arm.
It’s perfect. It’s glorious. And, for perhaps the first time in Mad Men‘s entire run, it is absolutely clear that Peggy Olson is going to be just fine.
(I’ve seen the song Roger plays on the organ while Peggy roller-skates around the office identified as “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” and I’ll have to defer to keener and more informed ears than my own. What I thought he was playing, however, is one of his theme songs, which he has quoted from before, and which precisely captures the spirit of the moment: “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.” It might be inaccurate, but what the hell: I prefer my version.)
You never go to night clubs, and you just don’t care to dance.
You don’t have time for silly things, like moonlight and romance.
You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack.
But when you kiss a dollar bill, it doesn’t kiss you back.Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink.
The years go by, as quickly as a wink.
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
I wish I felt as good about Joan’s prospects as I do about Peggy’s.
“Making men feel at ease” is what Joan spends most of “Lost Horizon” trying to do, as she very politely works her way up the chain of command trying to find someone who isn’t a misogynistic asshole. “I like Barry personally,” she lies to Ferg, after Barry has blown a call with a client and indicated just how little he takes Joan seriously. (“I thought you were going to be fun,” Barry pouts.) Unfortunately, Ferg is worse, making it clear he doesn’t care what Joan does as long as he gets to do Joan. (“I’m not expecting anything more than a good time,” he says.)
And so once again Joan seeks relief, this time from the top of the food chain: Jim Hobart. Jim doesn’t hit on her, but Jim is—in many ways—worse: starting at polite, moving quickly on to patronizing, and ending at vindictive, he seems offended at everything Joan represents. “Joan, it may not have sunk in, but your status has changed,” he says. “I’ve tried to be patient, but I don’t care about your SC&P partnership. I don’t know if somebody left it to you in their will, but your little stake doesn’t mean anything here.”
Joan is a force, refusing to be belittled and refusing to back down. She threatens him with the ACLU, the EEOC, and Betty Friedan, which gets her an offer of 50 cents on the dollar for what her stake is worth. “I guess I wasn’t clear,” she says, a pillar of strength. “I’m not negotiating.” Jim throws her out of his office, saying he’d “rather give it to a lawyer.”
So Joan eventually settles—on Roger’s advice—for half of what she’s worth, and Mad Men is going out of its way to make it clear in these final episodes that the sexism of the ’60s didn’t end when the calendar was turned to a new decade. Women like Peggy and Joan will still have to fight to be taken seriously, and to not be treated like objects, and to make what they are worth. (In fact, women like Peggy and Joan are still fighting for those things.)
But Joan’s story is more complicated than Peggy’s, isn’t it? Her rise has been more problematic, and she has less to fall back on. Peggy will be fine anywhere, but Joan—who began her career wanting nothing more than a wealthy husband—is entirely a creature of SC&P: she was essential, but she was essential there. She kept SC&P running like a well-oiled machine, which nobody else could do. But McCann-Erickson is already a well-oiled machine, and Joan’s skills—and her handful of accounts—don’t really mean very much there.
And, though Jim is insulting her by suggesting her partnership was left to her in somebody’s will, the truth is actually much worse than that: her partnership was her payment for letting SC&P pimp her out to a greasy pig from Jaguar. We can say it was a long overdue recognition of her importance to the agency—one that should have come much earlier, and in a different way—but the fact of the matter is that that’s how it happened.
The difference in ages between Peggy and Joan is probably fairly small, but nonetheless they seem to be of different generations, on either side of a cusp. Peggy is a ground-breaker, but Joan is of the generation just previous, the one in which women were expected to be objects of desire first and foremost. (Betty is of the same generation.) Coming up just before women like Peggy (and Megan, and others), she nevertheless had to watch them pass her, and following in their wake has proved much more difficult than she could have imagined. Joan has never quite been able to shake her objectified status, which began as her greatest weapon and became her greatest curse.
None of it is Joan’s fault, but nonetheless there is a certain tragic symmetry in the fact that Joan’s final fate may be to end up with nothing more or less than what she wanted from the very beginning: a rich husband.
I’m only going to touch very briefly on Don’s storyline in “Lost Horizon,” and even then I’m only going to mention one aspect of it. (I continue to care not one rat’s ass for Don’s mystifying pursuit of Diana.)
No, what interests me here is Don’s leaving McCann-Erickson, and how it touches on a theme that runs throughout this episode and—in retrospect—throughout Mad Men: the death of the “mom and pop” operation in America.
It’s an element of the American dream I hadn’t really thought about before in relation to this show, but now I realize it was there all along: the little guy who makes good, the plucky underdog who triumphs over adversary, the rugged individual who marches to the beat of his own drummer. Now, at the end of Mad Men’s run, this seems like another aspect of Americana whose passing Matthew Weiner is lamenting.
Sterling Cooper was always a little agency compared to Goliaths like McCann-Erickson: Jim Hobart tried to hire Don way back in Season One, but Don didn’t want to work there. (“It’s a sausage factory,” he said in Season Three’s “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” the first time it looked like McCann would acquire the agency.)
Now, we get a better idea of what Don meant: McCann is a sausage-factory (in addition to being a sausage-fest). Called to a meeting where he’s supposed to “bring them up a notch,” Don finds he’s one of only a dozen creative directors in the room, listening to some corporate shill use market research and easy clichés to do what Don used to do, only not as well.
The corporate shill describes a midwest Everyman, who likes beer and sports and dogs. “We all know this man,” the guy says of the hypothetical beer buyer. “Because there are millions of him.” If we compare it to Don’s most famous pitch, the “Carousel” speech from Season One, we see that it’s actually the exact opposite of how Don thinks about advertising: Don’s pitch was all about taking something generic and making it deeply personal, while this guy is taking personal things and making them terribly generic.
It’s corporate thinking, and—at this point in history—it’s the wave of the future that’s going to crush all the small operations, just like McCann has subsumed SC&P. (Just like, throughout Mad Men’s run, American Airlines crushed Mohawk, and L’Eggs crushed Topaz Pantyhose, and Madison Square Garden crushed the old Penn Station.) From our perspective now, in the 21st century, we can see that there is very little room left in the American business world for small, independent operations that care about quality and personal attention.
Don has earlier in the episode suffered the indignity of being forced to say “I’m Donald Draper from McCann-Erickson,” but sitting in that board room he realizes he never wants to say it again. The American dream, for Don, has never been about being a faceless cog in someone else’s machine. Advertising has never been about homogeneity and herd mentality. Creativity has never been about being fed market research as a substitute for imagination. Don stands and walks out, knowing his time has passed. “I used to be in advertising,” he says, in the next episode.
Where this crosses over with the rest of “Lost Horizon” is in Roger’s question to Peggy: “Is that really how you’re going to remember this place?” Because, though Peggy may not have realized it, SC&P was special, if only in being one of the last of a dying breed. It was a place where a secretary could still rise to be Copy Chief; it was a place where the office manager could become a partner in the firm and a millionaire; it was a place where the creative director could drink and take naps, and go to the movies in the afternoon, and take out a full-page “Fuck You” to Big Tobacco in the New York Times.
It was a place of individuals, not corporate clones. The fact that no one at McCann-Erickson can recognize the value of these individuals, and their complicated stories, just underlines the fact that the times are indeed a’ changin.’ And they’re not entirely changing for the better.