‘Mad Men’ recap: “Lost Horizon”

Poor Joan. I knew that things would be shitty once McCann-Erickson gobbled up Sterling Cooper, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. As soon as news hit that the agency was being absorbed by McCann, Joan was rightly nervous about her new place in the company. Because she wasn’t an ad executive dynamo like Don, nor was she a brilliant copywriter like Peggy, Joan’s transition was destined to be doomed. She got her partnership because of her body. It’s a terrible thing to think about because she is so smart and competent, but if we’re honest, Joan’s position as partner was solely a bargaining chip when she was pimped out for a major account. I don’t judge Joan for doing it: after all, women today have a hard time getting ahead in business, just imagine how rough it must’ve been in the prehistoric times of the 1960s when people still thought that a woman was too dumb to have her own checking account.

So in “Lost Horizon” Joan finally has to confront the tenuous place she built for herself, professionally. She doesn’t fit into her new surroundings, and the Neanderthals she has working for her still see her has a Max Fleisher cartoon come to life. When Dennis spits out, “I thought you’d be fun,” after being (rightly) chastised for not doing his research when wooing a client, he pretty much summed up what Joan means to the dummies working at McCann. A woman like Joan – sexy, beautiful, flirty – cannot be intelligent, it’s impossible: instead she’s meant to perform her duty as a decorative piece of furniture to be gazed at. It’s all too much for Joan, and when she moves higher in the company’s hierarchy to get help, she hits not glass ceilings, but nasty, thick concrete ones. Ferguson takes over for Dennis, but quickly it turns out that he’s a pervert only interested in Joan’s body. When Joan appeals to Jim Hobart, it turns from bad to worse.

The centerpiece of the episode is the showdown between Hobart and Joan – and it’s a doozy. Beautifully played by Christina Hendricks, Joan summons up the fury and rage – a collective outrage that every single woman felt, feels, and will feel. What is interesting about the exchange is that Hobart, like Roger and Don, is a relic, but an older one, and is unused to having his authority questioned. So when he offers her half of her contracted pay to leave, Joan reminds him that’s not interested in negotiating. Joan threatens Hobart with the ACLU as well as bringing up Betty Friedan and the growing protests of the feminist movement. It’s an interesting choice for the writers to have Joan to this because Joan was never much of a feminist character. Sure, she believed in equality, but she wasn’t interested in a large-scale social or political movement. Feminism has a political/sociological/progressive weight to it, and implies the desire to change things not just for the personal but for the public as well. With Joan, it was never about women, plural, it was always about herself. Again, this is not a judgment. Sporadically, Joan lived out feminist values and she paved the way, so to speak, but she was never the placard-carrying Flora. So it’s fascinating to see just how affected she is by the feminist movement – and maybe belatedly, how much she appreciates it.

Unfortunately, none of the threats work, and Roger has to come in and clean up the mess that he was largely responsible for creating. Instead of smoothing things over, though, he returns to Joan’s office with some sad advice: take the quarter mill, and leave (a quarter million in those days is like $1.2 million, so we’re still talking serious money). Joan acquiesces, but not before snatching up her Rolodex. It’s a terribly sad and depressing scene because Joan loses a battle she fought for way too long. Sexism and sexual harassment sucks and its victims always shoulder an unfair burden. What’s also sad about the Joan plot is that it was very timely and appropriate for 1970, but it also applies today (yeah, the ERA hasn’t been ratified, yet, folks – and there’s still a wage gap…I’m just sayin’).

Like Joan, Peggy is also having her moments of fighting The Man. The move isn’t go so smoothly for her, either. Mistaken for a secretary at one point, Peggy is sans office, and finds herself working the charred, empty husk of the old Sterling Cooper office. Peggy’s feelings of angst come from not knowing what’s happening next. Her future is rocky and full of uncertainty. When the two female copywriters cozied up to Joan, the message was clear: Peggy has some competition. It’s a bit jarring to see female copywriters (plural) because at Sterling Cooper, the most we got was Peggy and Megan for a little bit. Otherwise, we just saw Peggy ruling the place. Given that Hobart’s a big old sexist and given that Roger is completely ineffectual, it stands to reason that poor Peggy’s in a murky place.

Which makes her reticence and discomfort so understandable. As she toils away alone in the Sterling offices, she’s drawn by creepy organ music to see a self-pitying Roger, banging away on the instrument. What transpires is one of the greatest duets in the history of Mad Men. What’s so great about the scenes is that we rarely got Roger and Peggy together (in fact, I was thrown for a second when she called him “Roger” instead of “Mr. Sterling”). The two have very different reasons to eye the move warily: Roger sees the crumbling of his empire – he sold his name, his birthright for a lot of money, and now is a vestigial part of the company; Peggy, on the other hand, is swept into a new environment with little-to-no autonomy. The difference is Peggy’s much younger and if we’re honest, much more talented and more ambitious. Even if this McCann thing doesn’t work out (which, judging from the way the Sterling folks are being treated, it probably won’t), Peggy’s still got time and room to grow.

Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery have an easy chemistry that seems woefully untapped. The two are probably the funniest performers on the show – both are often used for comic relief – and the sight of Roger tickling the ivories, while a drunk Peggy sails around the empty office on roller skates is wonderful. But there’s something more profound in the exchange, because Roger is able to give advice to Peggy that she can actually use; he failed Joan, but with Peggy, he nailed it. Peggy, to be taken seriously, thinks that she needs to set men at ease, make them comfortable. And Roger’s all, “fuck that shit.” He then gifts Peggy with a wood carving of an octopus pleasuring a woman. Though initially repulsed by the work of art, she accepts the gift. And the next day, with Roger’s advice still ringing in her head, she strides into her new digs, with a cigarette dangling in her mouth, and cool shades covering her eyes, holding the wood carving for all to see – and she gets appraising looks from the guys she’s passing. It may be too late for Joan (bless her, I’m still heartbroken), but Peggy still has a lot to accomplish.

When looking at Joan and Peggy, it’s easy to see that feminism is an important theme to last night’s episode. And that’s why a surprising appearance by January Jones as Betty makes all of this complete. Betty is going back to school to study psychology. When Don comes to Rye to pick up Sally for school, he’s disappointed to learn that she already left (I was disappointed too, because I was hoping for Kiernan Shipka). Instead Don shares a great moment with Betty, who’s studying hard, reading Freud. Don’s no longer bemused at his former missus’ interest in academics. He’s impressed. As he leaves, he calls her “Birdie” and my heart melted just a touch. Betty is the classic example of how curdling the feminine mystique can be: what it does to capable, intelligent women who cannot seem to process or intellectualize why the house, the kids, the husband isn’t enough. Betty Friedan wrote her seminal book in response to these women’s feelings of dissatisfaction. Like Joan and Peggy, Betty is not a feminist, but she lives a life charting women’s rights throughout the mid 20th century. Opportunities were beginning to open up, and it was no longer freaky to see a woman in a position of power (in some respects, I think we’ve regressed in the past few years in our progress towards gender equality, and it’s interesting to draw very real parallels to the kinds of crap women put up with today and the kinds of shit they were forced to eat back then).

All of this talk about the women of Mad Men almost made me miss out on Don. I was worried because it looked like this might be another Diane episode, and nothing sucked the air out of a Mad Men episode like a scene with our favorite sullen diner waitress. Don’s still obsessed with her and so when he plays hookey and cuts out of work to visit her home, he comes face-to-face with the past that she worked so hard to forget. Her ex-husband – who looks like a cast member of The Book of Mormon – is bitter about his breakup, and has become a religious zealot. When he chases Don away, he practically spits hatred at the memory of Diane – he turned to God to cope with the pain of losing a child and losing his wife, and has forged a new life with a beautiful new wife in the ‘burbs. Don’s attempt at finding Diane (and his ridiculously pathetic ruse – he’s slipping) show that all of these changes in Don’s life aren’t sitting well with him.

And oh, the changes – Don’s no longer the proverbial big fish in a big pond. Hobart makes a fish allusion too, comparing him to Captain Ahab’s white whale (I know, I know, whales are mammals, not fish). At a meeting about Miller’s new diet beer, he’s in a sea of men with papers and pens, all listening to what’s gotta be the world’s most boring pitch. It’s the bizarro version of a Don Draper speech – drained of any interest, passion, or art… I get why Don runs out, I would run out. But Hobart’s not happy – it seems like the new additions from Sterling Cooper are bratty kids who are kicking sand in his face.

As we’re nearing the end of the show, I think Matthew Weiner and company have really found a great way to set up some sort of conclusion, even if it’s open-ended. Characters are moving – not always forward, but they are moving, and it’s interesting that by the end of Mad Men Sterling Cooper is no more. It feels like a reboot or a spin-off, like when All in the Family became Archie Bunker’s Place or The Golden Girls became The Golden Palace – the characters are pretty much the same (with the exception of a few departures), but the settings all different. It’s clear that the transition will be a sticky one because the folks back at Sterling Cooper are pretty spoiled, running their own little world. As with other astute episodes, “Lost Horizon” not only shows us cultural shifts, but also commercial or economic ones – that McCann is buying up all these boutique firms so that it can become the dominant agency is a sign of the direction that advertising (as well as many other industries) is taking: becoming corporate, large, like a monopoly. McCann wants to eventually be the only agency in town, and is growing steadily, lapping up smaller agencies in its wake. For vets like Don and Roger, this is a shift toward a more nameless, blander kind of operation, and it’s unclear if they can adapt.

Random notes:

  • Not a whole lot. I loved the small tete-a-tete between Don and Joan. It’s sad that she graciously refused his help, given just how bad things got.

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