Mad Men: Horizons Lost and Not Yet Found

05/05/2015 11:50 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

The third-to-last episode of Mad Men ever, "Lost Horizon," was another fine episode in a fine final run of episodes, but perhaps unnecessary. Neither we nor the characters learn anything we don't already know.

With just two episodes left after this one in the life of the series, most of the characters seem set in their trajectories, save for one. You can guess who that is.

Spoilers, and all that.

In the first episode this year, we glimpsed Don Draper watching Lost Horizon, the sorta classic 1937 Frank Capra film based on the much better 1933 novel by British writer James Hilton. The novel was a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was inaugurated the month before it was published at the height of the Great Depression. FDR quoted from Lost Horizon in speeches and named the new mountain presidential retreat in Maryland after the book's hidden mountain paradise, Shangri-La. (Eisenhower later renamed it the prosaic Camp David, after his grandson. Its official name is Naval Support Facility Thurmont. Why "naval" in the mountains? Because FDR was a Navy guy.)

Given the foreshadowing in this year's first episode and the title of this episode, one would expect Don to be headed for his version of lost paradise. And maybe he is. Except for one thing. He just seems to be lost.

Don and the others -- especially Joan Harris, Roger Sterling, and Peggy Olsen -- discover that their new work lives after being subsumed by McCann Erickson, the autonomous subsidiary days of Sterling Cooper having abruptly ended in the previous episode -- place them in the middle of a giant corporate sausage factory. Which, excuse me, they already knew, which is why they struggled against it last week.

Don, in fact, has known since Season 1, when McCann honcho Jim Hobart ever so elaborately tried to recruit him, an effort which included reviving Betty Draper's modeling career. Contingent, of course, on Don coming over.

Hobart exults now that he has finally landed the white whale in Don. But he swiftly shows he doesn't know what to do with it.

For Hobart, it not surprisingly turns out, is really an arrogant corporate hack whose intelligence is just enough above that of the average bear that he can recognize Don's talents. But only just.

After telling Don and the other Sterling Coo partners to stop struggling because they've ascended to corporate heaven, he proves instead to be the gatekeeper to a sort of hell for these folks who've prized their independence.

After learning he has a special client, of a sort, Don is tossed into a meeting with a few dozen other creative directors. Small wonder he is distracted by a jet flying over Manhattan. Soon enough, he is on the road.

Joan is again sexually harassed and ignored as a professional. After her complaint is met with a notable lack of concern by Hobart, she threatens him with a feminist protest and exposure in the press. To which he replies dismissively, claiming the New York Times would publish or block anything McCann wants because of their massive ad budget. (Thus confusing his role as a servant of his clients with the power of a client itself.)

When Joan calls his bluff, he offers her 50 percent of what her share of Sterling Coo is worth to go away.

Roger advises her to take it, once her anger cools, since it's still a fortune. Forget politics, he says, the money will last.

Roger himself has lost his stage, as he ruefully acknowledges to Peggy, who doesn't seem to have an office at McCann. Roger knows that at McCann, rather than being the charming raconteur older boss with his name on everything, he'll just be another older guy. They reminisce in great style about the days of yore in the old office, which is already in disarray around them.

Peggy resolves not to start work again till she gets her McCann office, which she does. She will buckle down and do the work. It's in her nature.

Don, unfortunately, on the loose, ricochets quickly into a search for the much discussed here waitress Diana, driving across part of the country to find her.

Why? Don't know. I suppose because he was drawn back at the beginning of the season to Rachel Menken, who had just died, encountered Diana who has some of echoes of his own hardscrabble past and is also a challenging brunette, and has had some intriguing encounters with her.

But he again learns that he's barking up the wrong tree, finding neither Diana nor a warm family past but her very bitter ex-husband.

Don hits the road again, in the Midwest heading west, and picks up a hitchhiker.

This is not exactly like Lost Horizon, movie or novel. In the novel, a brilliant academic and sports star of Oxford days, disillusioned by his heroic and harrowing experiences in World War I, is a middling British consul of no ambition in the Indian part of the Empire. After supervising an evacuation from a fictional town under siege, probably in what's now Pakistan, his plane is hijacked into an unknown mountain vastness beyond the Himalayas. He and his associates are brought to a remote unknown paradise called Shangri-La. Without entirely spoiling the novel, a wonderfully stylish work which I recommend -- in part because it foresees a horrifically devastating world war few saw coming when it was written -- the protagonist Conway has a crisis of doubt and leaves, only to second-guess himself again and try to get back. Assuming he was right in his perceptions, that is.

The movie is much more Capra-corn, with Conway now a big Brit politician about to return to London to take over the foreign ministry, who then proceeds to to behave in ways that only make Hollywood sense.

Er, so where is Shangri-La for our Mad Men crew, and Don in particular? Was it Sterling Cooper? Probably for Roger. But not for Don, who's been showing sign of serious dissatisfaction with his renewed success there all season.

Maybe the idea is that Don believed his new role at McCann would be paradise, only to find that to be truly a lost horizon. Or, more specifically, a mirage.

But we already know that not only has he long known better, he's struggled mightily to avoid it.

So is Don's Shangri-La some idealized version of his past and unseized present revolving around the lost Diana?

That seems pretty flimsy.

Or is it still out there, an inchoate vision he can't quite grasp?

In any event, folks have had their preordained experiences in their new work lives at McCann.

And Don Draper is on the road, driving in a westerly direction. And a little north. Which would be, I don't know, north by northwest?

Two to go.

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