You started something that could leave you with nothing. It’s plenty. I made sure he’s good for it. – Roger Sterling
This week’s Mad Men episode, which now leaves just two remaining, was one of the more thought-provoking hours of drama in the series’ rich history. Halfway through, I had this vision of an article based on the concept that “Lost Horizon” could have easily been renamed “Rebuilt Ceiling.” But, by the end of the show, my brain moved in a completely different direction; one that I feel compelled to share with you today.
While as Americans, we’re protected by certain inalienable rights, that’s really just the beginning of the story. Some believe those privileges derive from Jesus Christ or some other supreme creator. Others believe it’s man’s responsibility to provide for the masses through governmental decision-making and federal mechanisms. I really don’t care where you fall on that spectrum, because I believe what I believe and because we’re lucky enough to be in this country, I adore the fact that you and I can debate and argue and still respect each other in the end. Why are we talking about all of this in the early stages of a Mad Men television review? It’s a fair question, and I appreciate your courage in asking it. I’m thinking broadly, so bear with me on this one.
“Lost Horizon” was about two things, but the larger focus encompasses the smaller in such a special and immeasurable fashion. The hour focused on women in all facets of life. Joan saw the glass ceiling rebuilt around her as she realized McCann-Erickson only cared about her tits, not her wits. The company mistakenly thought Peggy was a secretary and most likely has no plans to keep her as copy chief any longer than absolutely necessary. Maybe they’ll dig her gams and she’ll get to keep her office. It seemed so simple to view the episode as a commentary on women’s equality, but with greater reflection, that’s such a narrow-minded way to look at it.
As women, minority classes, or anyone deemed outside the mainstream continue to fight for one cause or another, so often the point is completely lost, even by the most vocal of activists. The only way equality can be achieved is for one person to look at another and in no way see anything other than another human being. Facetious or surface equality might be fun to look at, just like the best airbrushed Maxim cover, but what’s underneath dwarfs it in importance. I’ve never understood the predilection of those who believe they’ve been wronged in some way to place an exclamation point over their heads to remind the rest of the world who they are. Is Bruce Jenner just a woman trapped inside a man’s body? Is he (gasp) just a Republican? No, he’s a human being who has dealt with something very difficult and somehow has found peace in the person he is inside. How we know that is the fact that he isn’t asking for anything because of that piece of himself. He told his story to remove the blindfold.
The homosexual that does nothing but ensure everyone knows he’s gay every second of every day isn’t free, contrary to what he might think. He’s laminating the reality that everyone knows he’s different. The black woman that cries race every single time something doesn’t go her way is not free. She’s imprisoned by an implied, often inaccurate shortcoming. The white racist with the “SS” sticker on his car and a Swastika tattooed on his forearm isn’t free. He’s just an idiot. All of these people ensure their kind is never going to be free because they place themselves under a spotlight that says, “I’m nothing but this.” Pride in the nuance or special parts of oneself is to be lauded, but privacy is as well, because then I can get to know you and not what you write on your public nametag. It’s such a shame that a cause or one label of many can make someone so singular in their approach. Jenner and some of the spirit behind the larger comparisons, however, illuminate the real lesson of “Lost Horizon,” even if it was an unintentional result.
Sunday’s episode was a vivid illustration of freedom. It was a framed octopus pleasuring a woman hanging on a wall.
Within the first 30 minutes, it was amazingly clear who the two happiest, most well-adjusted people were in Mad Men’s fictional world at that point in 1970: the two featured secretaries. Meredith (Stephanie Drake), who I’ve loved all season long, was showing multiple skills as a decorator, a basic secretary and assistant, and someone that could seemingly handle anything that came her way. Shirley (Sola Bamis) decided not to move with Roger to the new digs, instead taking another job. It wasn’t about Sterling, but about the advertising business as a whole. She left with a smile on her face and the white boss, who once did a blackface routine, begging her to stay. Meredith had a smile on her face consistently outside of the moments she was hard at work. Shouldn’t these two be the most miserable, because they’re not wealthy and have no status?
The answer is no, and the plight of Joan and Peggy explains it beautifully. These two higher class women, at least in terms of their role on the show, are finding out that all the advances they worked hard for or gave something of themselves to achieve might actually mean nothing in a large agency full of powerful men used to getting what they want. If Joan felt like opening her legs, she’d have been just fine in that office provided she kept her mouth shut. To her credit, she recognized what freedom actually looks like in the episode’s final minutes. Roger wasn’t telling her the case was hopeless against the firm, just that the fight might not be worth it in the end. She could lose everything and live in hell or she could take a guaranteed 50 cents on every dollar and reclaim her life. “Tell him I’ll take the deal,” and out the door she went.
Moments before, Peggy Olson strutted in with sunglasses on and a heater hanging from her lips, still hung over from the vermouth bender she had with Roger the night before at the SC&P office building. She looked positively, well, first-season Joanish in that moment. She was swinging those hips and turning men’s heads as she walked down that hallway for the first time. Carrying the painting was a nice touch. She had refused to step foot in the door until she had an office, which is to be respected. She owned her situation.
As for Don Draper, he showed up to take his daughter back to school; only to find out Sally does what she wants. She’s in that rebellious stage of course, and Betty has a sore back from carrying books around at college the day before. She’s another one who has found what she wants and is going for it, even telling Don just before he leaves that it’s always something she’s hoped to do. Her children aren’t around, her husband isn’t around, and Don simply looks at her and grins, knowing she’s content with her existence.
However, he isn’t. His draw to Diana Baur has never made complete sense, except that it was one of the first and only relationships with a woman that wasn’t about sex. The physical side was a part of it, but the connection was something far different. Don takes a late night drive to Ohio and finally to Racine, Wisconsin, and hallucinates his old friend and colleague Bert Cooper as the two discuss Jack Kerouac. He’s “On the Road” in a shiny car, hoping to find the dark haired woman that has captured his imagination. He poses as a man he met the day before at the Miller Brewing Company meeting, attempting to gain information as to her whereabouts from Diana’s ex-husband or his new wife. Not coincidentally, Laura Baur lets him into her home, believing him to be some kind of marketing and contest consultant, but the husband has seen this kind of thing before. The key moment in this one scene is when he flippantly tells Don that his wife “doesn’t know any better.” She’s just a dumb broad right? You know what I’m saying, don’t you stranger in my home? Cliff Baur has nothing good to say about his ex-wife, telling Draper that he can’t save her, that no one can save her, and that she nearly destroyed his life.
So, is “Lost Horizon” about women or is about freedom? It’s about freedom for all, which if you haven’t figured it out yet, includes males AND females of all types. It was the women of the show that were the crux of the episode, but they were all discovering ways to break free of any identity shackles. They say money can buy anything, but what those same people don’t tell you is that money owns you, not the other way around. True freedom comes from being CARE free, not debt free. When a person reaches the “I’m going to be happy, everything else be damned” stage, that’s when freedom begins to emerge. Actually, that’s not quite right. Carefree is a horrible way to live. True freedom is actually the equal and fair choice to decide for yourself who and what is important to you. It’s not about having enough in the bank that finances aren’t a concern. That’s what we call a “false narrative” in this society. True, honest to God happiness is pure contentment without care for money or status, regardless of presence or absence. Past that, it’s contentment or exhilaration with what one has or pride in achievement or in the chase for something better. No one is guaranteed happiness in his or her life. All of us are guaranteed a chance to pursue happiness for ourselves, which can be defined in infinite ways. It can be a beautiful woman we spend our life with (or a man ladies, or…this list could go on and on), it can be a Ferrari or some kind of material worship (hopefully not, but that’s up to the individual), it can be altruism or charity work, it can be your children, your job, or a combination of all of the above and then some. The excitement of life is the chance to write every page in your own book.
What makes Joan happy? Presumably her son first, her dignity, and now Richard all matter greatly to her. That second one has been robbed from her numerous times in the past. She hasn’t always been the one to root for and her character has often been irritating, but this episode drove home a final sympathy for her. Christina Hendricks has been such a big part of the show and her character needed one last “victory” as we take this last three-week journey with her. For Peggy, her work and being taken seriously makes her happy, but a little partying with Roger Sterling and just the feeling that he saw her as a friend, not a subordinate, counted for something. She’s starting to sow the seeds of her own freedom, planting them with the choice to stay in a vacated office until her expectations were met. For Betty, it’s school and finding out that many of her mental issues could be cured. Rather than selfishly take those answers and run, she thinks she could help others. For Meredith and Shirley, they’re just awesome. Both are grateful for what they have and aren’t letting a spot on a ladder define them. What about Diana? Perhaps we’ll find out.
Finally, there’s Don Draper, who daydreams, leaves a major business meeting, and takes a Hunter S. Thompson sojourn across the Midwest. He’s on a quest, literally and figuratively, but he’s managed to take a bit of a leap towards his own freedom. He picks up a hitchhiker, who needs a ride to St. Paul, and doesn’t care that it’s out of his way. What’s he going back for in the first place? What’s “out of his way?” Does he even have a “way” in the first place? This trip he’s on right now is the last one we’re ever going to see him take on television. It’s his “Fear and Loathing” moment, but without all the drugs and excess. It’s his legitimate Jack Kerouac experiment. He has no clue where he’s headed, which echoes the audience. He’s still searching for that thing that’s going to provide him lasting joy. He’s looking for peace. He may have an agenda to the trip, but there’s no way to know whether Diana is the destination or simply the thing that drove him to his unexpected oasis.
Two weeks left in this series, and the questions are still out there. Watching Roger and Peggy in the abandoned SC&P offices, I began thinking again of the possibility of a Sterling-Olson advertising agency revelation. Perhaps it could be Sterling-Olson-Holloway? What I feel comfortable in saying is “Draper” won’t be a name on any door, ever again.
McCann-Erickson is a building of power, of hierarchy, of prejudice, of inequality, of harassment, and of bottomless coffers. Jim Hobart didn’t really want SC&P; he wanted Don Draper. That’s not to say he doesn’t see value in Peter and he respects Roger, but other than hopefully seeing Joan’s panties when she bends over, he and no one else in the firm wants anything much to do with her. She’s worthless in their eyes past her measurements. They don’t even know who Peggy Olson is or what she’s capable of doing for them. Based on the way she rolled into the building, that might be great fun to watch in these final two weeks. No one inside that place is free, from top to bottom. They’re all miserable, petty, fearful people who know their value is finite. Don figured it out pretty quickly, and he just sauntered right on out.
Maybe Mad Men, when its circle completes in two weeks, is going to have been a depiction of one generation’s desire to discover the meaning of life. Pigeonholing such a vast show isn’t easy, but if you look at everything that’s taken place in seven seasons, it’s all been about a group of people looking for their OWN answers. The reason the “what’s the meaning of life” question can’t be answered is because of our unique nature. We’re all going for different things in this world. Certain things have an effect on me that would make you yawn and vice versa. The characters of Matthew Weiner’s show are providing the evidence for that case every week.
There’s more to life than…we all have to finish that thought for ourselves. For Don though, it seems that coming up with “Lite” for diet beer ain’t it. That’s a start.
Come follow me on Twitter @GuyNamedJason. Where you headed? I can go that way.