'Mad Men' Activates Rage, Nostalgia And A Classic Draper Move

05/04/2015 04:40 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “Lost Horizon,” the twelfth episode of the final season of “Mad Men.”

Well, that was entirely too much fun. I don’t want to give all my money to lawyers in order to find out for sure, but tonight’s “Mad Men” episode might have supplied an illegal quantity of enjoyment.

That’s not to say there weren’t serious moments in the episode -- there certainly were. But there were so many valedictory scenes and so much gif-able goodness in “Lost Horizon” that, as was the case last week, the whole thing felt like a really good box of fancy chocolates. (Maybe that’s not a good analogy, given Ferg’s gift to Joan. Ugh Ferg.)

It’s only fitting that “Mad Men” is spending so much time saying goodbye and letting us spend so much quality time with these people before they go (and quality time = Glen-free time). The whole show is, after all, an exercise nostalgia, maybe for something that never existed. And yet, what we saw transpire for seven seasons was real, in a way -- the bonds between these characters, the love, the animosities, the crisis-driven drinking, the camaraderie. At its best, all of that was so heartbreakingly, hilariously real. So palpable that for all these years, we have been engaged on a level beyond flash.

Think back to the great Season 1 finale, “The Wheel.” Talk about full circle: Now think about Drunk Peggy, traveling around and around the office on roller skates as Drunk Roger played the organ (no jests about Roger and organs, I’m trying to share a Serious Thought here).

Peggy traveled in circles in the place she was known and recognized, inside the shell of the the ad hoc family that had always found a place for her. “Around and around, and back home again,” Don said in that classic Carousel pitch,” … to a place where we know we are loved.”

Peggy was known and loved and resented and everything in between at SC&P. Whatever happened, wherever she roamed, there was always a place for her there. That’s why she could walk into McCann Erickson with so much bad-ass attitude the next morning. Hung over, holding her tentacle porn (Bert Cooper, you old goat!), carrying her box of office supplies, she made quite a different picture from the nervous young woman from Bay Ridge who first walked into the Sterling Cooper offices a decade ago. Peggy always knew she could do the work, but the evening of bonding and getting smashed with Roger helped shore up her self-confidence, which had been brought down a few pegs by the McCann debacle (they thought she was a secretary? Honestly!).

Roger is something of a dinosaur, but he accepts that Peggy is opinionated, smart and stubborn -- he wouldn’t try to change who and what she is (“You know I need to make men feel at ease.” “Who told you that?”). For all his dinosaur ways, and even though the night was partly about his ego (isn’t it always?), Roger respected Peggy and made her feel wanted. Don had done the same, in his way. As bad as it got from time to time, she felt at home there as well.

So the office bureaucrats at McCann didn’t have a place set aside for her -- fine. Peggy would make her own place there. She’ll figure it out. Our ballerina will be fine, on the work front, anyway. (Note to Peggy: Get Stan’s phone number a.s.a.p. so you can hang out on the phone with him all the time. And also please have sex with him. Do not have sex with an octopus.)

The home of Don’s Carousel pitch, the place where you know you are loved… does that even exist anymore for Don Draper? Anywhere? Not to put too fine a point on it, but…nope.

Sally? She took off for school without him. Betty? She's going back to college and doesn’t care about his attempts to flirt with her. Diana? Clearly better at hobo-ing than him -- she is totally gone. Even Meredith administered the final insult to Don: She told him not to nap.

The beer meeting was the final straw. Nobody puts Don Draper in the corner, or in a meeting with a bunch of robotic men in shirtsleeves who all act in unison. Don’t they know Don Draper is a special, magical unicorn, one who can’t be contained by your walls and sated with your crappy roast beef? It’s ironic that so many early pieces about the show referenced “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and talked about how representative Don was of a certain kind of late ‘50s conformity. There was some merit to that, of course: When the show first began, the guys all dressed a certain way, and though Don’s wardrobe has evolved, he has found it difficult to take off his jacket and become just another McCann pod person.

But underneath the traditional suit and the slicked-back hair, Don was always one of a kind. When the show began, Don Draper was Batman, he was the Picasso of pitches, he was a special snowflake made of frozen unicorn tears. God damn it, Meredith, nobody at McCann got that memo!

So Don reminded himself that there’s a big sky outside those windows, and he decided to hobo it. You do you, Don. You do you.

It could have seemed dark -- Don’s impromptu road trip, which is his usual method of setting fire to whatever he doesn’t want to deal with -- but it wasn’t dark or dreary, partly because other elements of the episode were celebratory, and partly because, come on, who didn’t expect this classic, O.G. Draper move?

We have known for years that Jim Hobart of McCann was a predatory shark and that his shop was an unfeeling colossus not known for doing things the SC&P way, let alone the Don Draper Magical Unicorn way. Jim Hobart is the snake that finally unhinged its jaw and swallowed these people whole -- until they weren’t having it, which was almost immediately.

“Mad Men” likes to hit us over the head with certain things to make sure we get the idea or the symbolism or whatever, and this episode was no exception. References to the falling man from the opening credits have been thick on the ground this season; in this episode alone, we had Meredith trying to turn the bare walls of Don’s new apartment into an actual home, we witnessed Don touching the immovable McCann windows, we saw him staring outside in the conference room, and then there was Roger’s relevant quote (“Even if your name’s on the door, you should know better than to get attached to some walls.”). Everything falls away or gets taken away and is impermanent, as long as you have a place where you are known -- and that place is home.

So where’s Don’s home? Nowhere. At the moment, that is.

I’m so glad that Diana’s ex-husband put an extra-harsh smackdown on Don’s dopey fantasies about saving yet another Sad Death Brunette. This season has been about -- and of course, in general, the show has been devoted to -- disabusing Don of his romantic, self-destructive ideas about himself, love, life and death. Beyond interrogating and attempting to destroy Don's personal fixations, all of which are rooted in his past as an abandoned, orphaned child, “Mad Men” has also depicted the long process of the displacement of men who thought they were special unicorns. Giant firms like McCann don’t need drama queens or arbitrary, unpredictable geniuses (or men who think they're geniuses). They want drones who follow orders and get with the program.

Don doesn’t need that job, thanks very much. But who needs him? That’s unclear. McCann orders creative directors in bulk, his former wives and his children are fine without him and even Peggy will almost certainly thrive whether or not he’s in her life. “Lost Horizon,” by the way, refers to a classic movie in which the main characters find a hidden utopia tucked far away from the rest of the world. Don has been looking for that place for a decade now -- maybe it’s time to give up the hunt? If a man who has been dead for months tells you to give up and stop pursuing a Death Brunette who doesn’t care about you, maybe it’s time to let go of the increasingly pathetic fantasy about saving the lost lady (who is really just the female version of Dick Whitman).

So now what? Don picks up a hitchhiker on the road and is murdered outside St. Paul, Minnesota? (Maybe AMC plans to commission a retro “Fargo” murder mystery?)

I honestly don't know. All I do know is that episodes like this are making me miss the show already. For all its devotion to tearing away Don’s various cocoons and illusions, for all its relentlessness in showing how the reinvented Dick Whitman has become less relevant every year, the tearing down of walls has also meant the opening up of possibilities. It may have been gross to see Don reinvent himself on the fly in order to sell a lie to Mrs. Bauer, but that facility is also Don’s gift. He can remake himself into whatever he needs to be, more or less. He knows how to turn himself into someone else. He’ll never be able to turn himself into a drone -- call that pride or call it bravery -- but in the words of another disaffected veteran, they can’t take the sky away from him.

If you’re Joan? They can take things from you. They can take about $1.5 million dollars, in today’s money. And she just has to put up with it.

Joan’s storyline was the hard, unyielding kernel in an episode that otherwise went down as smoothly as aged Scotch. Part of the reason the episode was so good was because everyone was adjusting to a radically different reality -- every single SC&P character was responding in his or her own way to the massive changes wrought by the McCann merger. From the start, the imagery reinforced the strictures and limits that had been placed on our freewheeling friends. At McCann, conference rooms, many offices and even the hallways felt airless, cramped and dark. The people we know and love were literally being squeezed, and it made for high drama and some awesome comedy.

All the reactions were true to form. Roger got drunk and goofed off, because Roger. Ted kept his head down and tried to fit in (while secretly cheering the moment in which Don chose to bail). Peggy tenaciously continued to work, even though no one at McCann knew what to do with her or much cared about her as an employee. Don took off, even as Meredith proved that she has finally become a really great secretary (she’s good at covering for Don, which is Job 1 for his secretaries, but lately she has been navigating every single situation with amazing efficiency. This may be the most shocking development in “Mad Men” history.)

True to her image as the woman who does not let the world get her down -- at least not for long -- Joan tried hard to stick it out at McCann. They wouldn’t let her.

It’s pretty clear that Joan would probably not call herself a feminist, and yet it’s also obvious that she’s been closely following the work of feminist activists of the era and also keeping track of the high-profile lawsuits at Newsweek and Ladies’ Home Journal. Joan has been putting up with various forms of harassment for her entire career, and she’s seeing other women saying, “Enough.”

Part of her that would love to drag the Neanderthals of McCann through court -- they more than deserve it -- but that would end up draining her of time, mental energy and money, and they know that. So she has to live with a fresh round of injustices -- the come-ons from Ferg, the patronizing behavior of Dennis, the furious dismissal from Jim. How dare she stand up for herself? How dare she threaten him? For her boldness, she has to leave $250,000 on the table, which is infuriating, but she really didn’t have a choice. (Though I love that, as Tara Ariano said, Joan stayed true to form -- she was her own "guy.")

That scene in Joan's office was beautifully played by Christina Hendricks and John Slattery: There is so much history between those two characters, and he was trying to atone for some of his own past missteps in that moment. I loved that he never questioned why she was so enraged. He promoted the pragmatic solution, but he understood.

[Sidebar: I have to inject here that H. Richard Greene has been unvaryingly great as Jim Hobart. It’s terrific that in this last run of episodes, the SC&P gang has had a substantial antagonist in the form of a man who tells you everything is going to be fine so smoothly that you instantly reach for your wallet and your soul to make sure both are still in your possession. Those hard, dead eyes are always there, waiting to be unsheathed like weapons. Under his slick, fake-genial surface, Jim is clearly a very smart and resourceful predator. To mix it up with this crew, an actor and a character need to have a lot of skill and presence, and Greene has brought both.]

Back to Joan: There are so many sad, rage-inducing things about her situation (and if you don’t think situations exactly like this still happen, here’s some fun reading for you). One of the saddest aspects of this debacle is that Joan thought she might make some friends at McCann -- her face glowed with hopefulness after the copy writers left her office. They also don’t identify as feminists per se, but she could have found common cause with them and surely would have enjoyed a healthy bitch session about the horrifyingly sexist men of the firm. But the friendships were not meant to be. The men of McCann’s couldn’t abide the status and prestige she had built up at SC&P, so they had to destroy it.

Nostalgia, as Don famously told us, is Greek for “the pain from an old wound.” Joan has very little nostalgia for the old place because they never treated her all that well there -- she had to fight for every scrap of autonomy and responsibility she ever got. Peggy was also wounded many times by those who thought she wasn’t up to the job -- even Don would occasionally question her work when he was in a particularly snippy mood. She had fun with Roger that last night, but she never had the luxury of thinking she could just coast like he did most of his life.

Men like Roger and Don have the time and the status that allows them to wallow in nostalgia, to reminisce about what was and what could have been. It might have been a hell of a boat, but maybe it was less fun for the workers who had to bail the damn thing out when it started taking on water.

That said, it’s pretty clear that for all the characters -- aside from maybe Harry Crane, who is indestructible and still kind of an ass -- will never find a place like SC&P again. Stop doing this, “Mad Men.” Stop giving me a twinge in my heart more powerful than memory alone. I’m not ready to let go.

And now for a hail of bullets:

  • Though it was a very good episode, there was a surprising lack of Pete Campbell Punching A Guy. I suppose the king didn’t order it. Sadface.
  • My guess for the final image of “Mad Men”: Don Draper heads all the way to California and looks up Lou Avery, who is on his way to the Los Angeles airport to board his flight to Japan. Don punches him in the face, because even off-screen, Lou continues to be the worst.
  • I think we’re done with Betty Draper Francis? And no farewell to Betty would be complete without creator Matthew Weiner trolling us in some way. Of course the woman who was massively immature back in Season 1 and who consulted a psychiatrist when her hands were showing strange symptoms (of what might have been called hysteria back in the day) is reading Freud’s “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” It’s still hilarious that Betty thinks she has the kind of insight into human nature that would allow her to become an effective therapist. Whatever. Later, Betty. It’s been real.
  • Goodbye also to Shirley, who was always far too cool for Roger. It’s more than a little wince-inducing that in the third-to-last episode, “Mad Men” explains why it never gave African-Americans significant screen time: The industry is “not a comfortable place for everyone.” Really? At this late date, this is the show’s excuse? Weak sauce. Well, if nothing else, Shirley got a great exit line: “You’re very amusing.”
  • Let me state again that Roger bribed Peggy to hang out with him by giving her a picture of an antique drawing of an octopus pleasuring a lady. I don’t get to write that sentence much, so I’m taking full advantage.
  • The moment when “Mad Men” turned into a horror movie, thanks to the spooky music Roger was playing, was pretty great.
  • This week in Is Roger Alive? Yes, Roger is still alive. I don’t know how or why that is the case. But I’ll take it!
  • “All I found was lighter fluid. I’m not there yet.”
  • Don should have hobo’ed before that beer meeting, just based on Ferg’s horrifyingly bad impression of him, which was more Nixon than Don. I truly loved Don’s plastered-on grin in that moment. It barely hid how much he hated Ferg right then. Ugh Ferg.
  • “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson.” And that’s when the clock started officially ticking on the Don Draper Heads Out West Just Because countdown.
  • “Who told you you got to get pissed off?” If Joan had begun shooting lasers out of her eyes and burned Dennis to a crisp in that scene, I would have loved that. A lot.
  • “He’s not going to work for a girl.” RAGE LASERS, ACTIVATE.
  • So in the middle of this episode, “Mad Men” more or less stopped to hang out with Roger and Peggy; it felt like a fan-fiction premise come to life. There was no reason for any of it, but that’s often when the show is at its best -- when it’s just appreciating the characters, recollecting their pasts and re-affirming their bonds. Also Peggy drunkenly rollerskating as Roger played the organ is one of the greatest “Mad Men” images ever.
  • So if you were waiting for a classic Don Draper pitch, he gave it to the Midwestern man that was described in the beer meeting -- a man who had a family and probably some college, a man who probably had power tools and a lawnmower in the garage. And of course Don’s pitch to that man (and his wife) was a complete lie, which the guy saw through immediately. Nobody is buying what Don Draper is selling these days.
  • How fun is it that Diana the Sad Brunette has a gloomy, intense daughter who makes Wednesday Addams look frivolous? So fun.
  • “She’s a tornado, just leaving a trail of broken bodies behind her.” You could say that about Don, too, although his mentorship of Peggy means that he’s created something of lasting value, in addition to all the destruction he’s wrought.
  • To hear David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which came out in 1969, was truly jarring, in a good way. It’s one more marker indicating that the era of “Mad Men” has passed -- it sounds so alien and strange, compared to what was on the radio in 1960 when Don and his crew were on the way up. Contrast that bright pop with Bowie's eerie song about a dislocated man lost in space -- a song that is, of course, entirely appropriate to Don’s rootless situation.

Ryan McGee and I talked about the "Mad Men" season through "Time & Life" in last week's Talking TV Podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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