“This business doesn’t have feelings. You get bought, you get sold, you get fired. Even if your name’s on the damn door, you should know better than to get attached to some walls.”
With just two more episodes to go after this one, this week’s Mad Men felt properly like the party was winding down. The surprise absorption of Sterling Cooper & Partners by McCann Erickson threw all our characters into a traumatic transition, and despite the feeling that things are nearly over for these guys, Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner’s script still managed to fit in that trademark mixture of portentous drama, black comedy and social commentary that’s been Mad Men’s stock-in-trade for so many years.
While we got to see quite a few of the characters, the ep was essentially subdivided between three plotlines. The previously irresistible force that is Joan Holloway bumped up against the immovable object that was McCann’s Jim Hobart; Peggy and Roger got royally drunk in the echoing cavern of the now empty former SC&P office; and Don, predictably enough, short circuited and went walkabout again in search of… well, whatever he’s always in search of.
Having been through a massive business reorganisation myself, I know how traumatic it can be when your formerly familiar workplace suddenly turns into something unfamiliar, new and foreboding. This ep caught that perfectly, the claustrophobic, dingy corridors of the McCann offices a stark contrast from the light, airy feel of those SC&P previously occupied. And it wasn’t just the sets. McCann (a real ad agency whose motto, with no detectable sense of irony, is “Truth Well Told”) are a much bigger operation than the near cottage industry of SC&P. They run a far tighter ship, with stricter rules but none of the personal touches that made SC&P distinctive in its client relationships.
Joan, initially welcomed by a pair of female copywriters who appeared to be on cocaine already, found out how impersonal McCann was when making a courtesy call to Barry from her cherished client Avon. Lunkheaded douchebag Dennis of McCann made un petit faux pas when suggesting that Barry join him for a round of golf; if he’d bothered to read Joan’s brief, he’d have known Barry was in a wheelchair.
To add insult to injury, not only did he not care that he’d made the mistake, he carried on flirting with the plainly furious Joan as if nothing had happened. Again, it’s useful here to reflect on all that Joan had to go through to get taken seriously at SC&P; including, but not limited to, literally prostituting herself to win a client. Despite a welcome from the office’s women, her dealings with the men of McCann showed her that after all that work and sacrifice, she was back to square one – a talented woman struggling vainly to make a mark in an industry dominated by sexist men.
The lesson was hammered home agonisingly throughout, as every step Joan took mired her deeper in a morass of condescending, lecherous men who didn’t care a damn how good she was at the job. Having complained to the not much better Ferg Donnelly about Dennis, she found herself saddled with him instead; he wasted no time in hinting about their forthcoming “relationship” while plying her with flowers and love notes. Taking it all the way to the top, she found (to nobody’s particular surprise) that McCann supremo Jim Hobart was no better. And when she tried to stand up to him with threats of lawyers, she found herself, in effect, fired. To add even more insult to injury, Hobart’s offered payoff of her former partnership was half what it was actually worth.
Semi Chellas has always written well for the show’s female characters, but excelled with Joan in particular; her shocking Joan-centric season five ep The Other Woman remains one of my favourites. Like that one, this ep managed to make you seethe with the injustice being suffered by a likeable, talented person in a world with the deck still stacked firmly against her. Christina Hendricks was magnificent throughout, her steely composure only finally crumbling when the death blow to her career was delivered by none other than former lover Roger Sterling advising her to take the deal. It was an amazing performance, the wobble in Joan’s voice making it clear that she was only just holding back tears. Semi Chellas writes Joan well, but boy, does she put her through the wringer.
It felt like a dash of cold water after Roger’s other plotline this week. He was as charming as ever when Peggy, whose office at McCann had yet to be set up, encountered him late at night in the now empty Time-Life office. It was a nice touch by director Phil Abraham to make the spooky organ music on the soundtrack seem a non-diegetic part of the score, only to reveal that Peggy could hear it perfectly well, because Roger was playing it. “You’re not scary,” she commented, “organ music is scary.”
As the night wore on, their scenes were interspersed throughout the ep in a broadly comedic plotline. We’ve never really seen Peggy teamed up with Roger before, and they actually worked brilliantly together; getting drunk, ruminating on the past and the future, and even roller skating around the deserted office. Yet even while it was humorous, their little plot had more than a touch of the gallows to it. Roger, having previously been one-upped by Harry Crane of all people, was resigned to the probability that his career was over, and it was all his fault. Peggy, meanwhile, was plagued by (probably justified) paranoia that the holdup with her McCann office was due to something more than an admin error.
In the end, it seemed Roger was right and Peggy was wrong. While he defeatedly advised Joan that she couldn’t win, Peggy was striding into the McCann offices having never looked so cool, sunglasses on, cigarette in her mouth and Bert’s old Japanese erotic painting under her arm. I don’t know if we’ll see much of her, Roger or Joan after this – all their plotlines seem to have come to a natural conclusion. If so, then a round of applause is surely merited for Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery and Christina Hendricks, who’ve made these characters so believable, likeable and even occasionally irritating over the years.
But of course, their plotlines had to be interspersed with more of the usual Don Draper angst, as everyone’s favourite existentially tormented ad man had another of his periodic breakdowns. Having basically been treated as the prize asset for which McCann bought out his company, he found himself stuck in the worst kind of meeting as a drone from a research company wittered boringly on about customer demographics for Miller beer. His attention drifting away to a jetstream in New York’s clear blue sky (a rather heavy-handed symbol of escape), he simply got up and walked out without a word.
As he has done in the past, he ended up journeying into the Great American Wilderness; well, Wisconsin anyway. First, he’d promised to take Sally to school; but as I expected, she was nowhere to be seen. Her character arc more or less done, she’d removed herself from the drama by going off to school herself. Instead, we got a subtly touching little scene between Don and Betty. Affirming that her studying meant she was “finally doing what I always wanted to do”, Betty seemed more at peace with herself than she ever has. And as we’ve seen before, Don still has plenty of affection for her. His departing words of encouragement even included his old endearment for her from their marriage: “knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”
It was a bittersweet scene perfectly played by January Jones and Jon Hamm, which made you realise that, however much of a cad he is, you can’t help but pity Don Draper. Everyone around him is reaching a point of equilibrium; he, as ever, is flailing around, not waving but drowning. His almost desperate search for the elusive Diana Bauer was obviously just as much of a search for himself. He even got a recommendation for that Jesus Christ feller to help him; though the unexpected (but welcome) vision of Bert Cooper was much more fun.
As a voice for Don’s subconscious, phantom Bert put his finger precisely on Don’s problem – he wants to be Jack Kerouac. The reference to On the Road reminded us of the Draper we first met, hanging out with beatniks and smoking weed with his mistress. Pausing only to pick up the most stereotypical hippie hitch hiker I’ve ever seen, it was entirely apposite that the ep ended with that beautiful wide shot of his car disappearing Into the Great Wide Open, with Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ blaring on the soundtrack. He was off to that Lost Horizon the ep was named for.
Joan’s plight served to remind us that, however bad the 60s were for women, the even worse sexism of the 70s is just on the horizon. However, by this point women were really starting to stand up for their rights, and Joan’s threats to Jim Hobart of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the ACLU probably would have carried real weight. She also mentioned legendary feminist activist Betty Friedan, who had recently organised the nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality protest on August 26 of that year. Despite all that, though, women in 1970 still only earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by men; and Hobart’s contemptible offer to buy out Joan wasn’t even that good.
In pop culture, Peggy, lazing around at home for want of an office, was to be found not quite watching an episode of crime series McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver as a fish-out-of-water cowboy cop in New York. Only just starting in 1970, the show would go on to run for seven years.
In product placement (an area where this show gets to have its cake and eat it), I would guess that the new low-calorie beer proposed by Miller was the now legendary (and unpleasant) Miller Lite. It was eventually introduced in 1973, and continues to be made today. Unfortunately.
In slightly higher culture, the contentious piece of Japanese art, formerly gracing the wall of Bert Cooper’s office, that Roger gave to Peggy, is actually a real shunga. Specifically, it’s an 1814 piece entitled The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, by Hokusai – which goes to show that tentacle sex in Japanese art predates manga by many years.
Don’s car got a lot of screen time this week, and once again I found myself envious. This magnificent beastie is a 1965 Cadillac Coupe De Ville; five years old in the show, but still upmarket enough to impress Diana’s Bible-bashing ex-husband.
If you want a classic that’s a little more downmarket though, we did get a glimpse of a lovely first generation Ford Bronco driving past the Caddy:
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Not many sartorial eyesores this week. The men were generally quite restrained; even their lapels were smaller than the wings of a DC3. It was left to the women to bring the style, with Joan as ever leading the way:
While ditzy Meredith wowed us with a couple of interesting dresses:
And Peggy got in on the act, first with one of her trademark suits, then with her “Brigitte Bardot” look in McCann’s:
Betty, meanwhile, is still the epitome of the modestly dressed suburban housewife, even if she is now a scholar:
This ep may not have had the non-linear narrative structure or tight focus on one plot of some of Semi Chellas’ previous offerings, but it still felt like a standout. It was genuinely heartbreaking to see Joan fierily standing up for her rights, only to end up losing everything she’s fought so hard for; heartbreaking, but sadly realistic, given the context. It felt like a goodbye of sorts for her, Peggy and Roger, not to mention Betty Draper – their character arcs at a reasonable endpoint, I doubt we’ll see much more of them before The End. With only two eps to go, I’m betting the focus from hereon in is going to be on Don, and his Search For Himself. Given that he’s been fruitlessly searching for it for ten years now, maybe this time he’ll actually find it.