For a time, Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris and Peggy Olson had it all at SC&P. Their Shangri-La, though they may not have fully realized it. The agency was their place of peace and prosperity, and even a love for each other that resembles that of family.
And in Episode 12, counting down to the end of this long-running series, none of our key characters is at home in the belly of the McCann-Erickson beast. They feel their loss of identity and freedom keenly, increasingly aware of what they’ve given away or, what was taken.
Peggy says to Roger, “You were supposed to watch out for us.” While Mr. Sterling’s response is predictably glib and points out the realities of business — “you’re bought, you’re sold, you get fired” — don’t we wish he had?
As described in the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, Shangri-La is an oasis that promises to preserve cherished values in a violent world. It is a fantasy, a fiction, but one in which most of us would like to believe — even if an imperfect version.
Is this what the less cynical of SC&P’s principals thought they were doing?
Hardly strangers to cut throat deals and profitable politics, they were nonetheless proud of what they built, the core group stuck together, and didn’t we see a handful of atypical examples for the time when it came to the show’s women?
Joan and Peggy are on the receiving end of the harshest dose of reality when thrust into McCann-Erickson’s claustrophobic, mechanized world of ad men – and it is indeed ad men. There is no office ready for Peggy. She receives secretarial welcome flowers though she was SC&P’s chief copywriter. It’s clear that Hobart has no regard for her (or any promises made). And gutsy though she is as she finally makes her entrance, how many more battles await her? Is she really so steely as to be able to get through three years at McCann, then move up elsewhere on Madison Avenue, per the counsel of her headhunter?
Joan… Early Retirement?
Joan’s struggle is front and center in this episode. How quickly she has been knocked down from “doing the job she always wanted” to being dismissed by male subordinates and management alike, and eventually, being squeezed out at fifty cents on the partner dollar.
But didn’t we love her ballsy bluff? Wouldn’t it have been sweet to see her carry it out by taking McCann to court? Isn’t it somehow sadder still that it is Roger who ultimately convinces her to take what they offer and depart?
It’s hard to imagine Joan “taking it lying down” any longer. She may have Richard in her corner now and money in the bank, but she’s had a taste of being her own woman. She exits the McCann-Erickson office with two objects: a photograph of her son and her Rolodex.
Don’t we think her Avon client might be open to a call?
Notes on Lost Horizon and Major Tom
Matt Weiner’s choice of title for this episode is a reminder of how out of step our key characters now find themselves, tossed from the heights of SC&P, and bound to age rapidly — like the characters in Lost Horizon — now that they’re back among mere mortals and subject to a future that has already all but put Roger out to pasture. Don, for his part, may be told by McCann’s Jim Hobart that he’s been wanted for 10 years, but is the reason he was wanted to disarm him, rather than capitalize on his skill?
When Don enters the meeting that he thinks he’s having (alone) with Miller Beer, stunned by the number of suits in the conference room and their box lunches — advertising, assembly-line style — isn’t there a younger version of the storyteller at the head of the table? Isn’t he the dream weaver spinning the tale, as Don once was?
Our hero glances out the window and upward; he sees how far he has fallen, and so quickly. Unconcerned with how it may look to others in the room (who seem not to care), he rises, walks out, and doesn’t look back.
Is Don our Conway who reveals his story and then evaporates? Is he also our Major Tom in the 1969 Bowie song, who succeeds in escaping the Earth for a time, an astronaut able to explore, but condemned to float off into space?
For some of us, we never realize what we have until we lose it. Joan realizes; Peggy is aware, though trying to remain upbeat and focused on the “challenge” of the work ahead.
What about the men?
Joan bumps into Don in the McCann elevator, and like the darker, narrower, more claustrophobic halls of their offices, the elevator seems more constraining as well as crowded. Joan expresses that she’s homesick; it looks and sounds like Don wouldn’t mind catching up with her and feeling that sense of belonging they’ve lost.
Don is doing his best to tow the line and make the most of whatever is coming next. He even manages a mildly convincing introduction for Hobart: “I’m Don Draper from McCann-Erickson.” But the whistling wind from the window slightly ajar doesn’t leave us feeling very comfortable. Thanks for toying with us (again), Matthew Weiner.
Roger can’t bring himself to leave the old offices, and Peggy, stubbornly insistent on working from the deserted space until she has an office at McCann, is also clinging to their Shangri-La.
The scenes that Elisabeth Moss shares with John Slattery are both poignant and funny. They speak candidly to each other, they get drunk (on Vermouth) together, and we seem to have Peggy Fleming (rather than Olson) as our Chief Copywriter cruises by on roller skates in an impressive arabesque!
And John Slattery on the organ? It was an organ, wasn’t it? Another echo of the harpsichord in Lost Horizon? An amusing addition of the ominous drama that those tones create as ambiance?
Sexism Rules the Day
I was surprised at the agita I felt watching scenes involving the systematic and systemic sexism directed at Joan. Our never-say-die single mother is trying to retain her position of partner “status” (her words), grappling with the blatant bias and humiliation at the hands of not one but three of McCann’s men (in this episode alone,) and the flashes of vulnerability in her expression remind me of all the times that women go through this, even decades later.
It’s also worth noting how white those crowded corridors of McCann appear. As we’re reminded: “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.”
Ironically, Betty may be the surprising winner in the tumultuous, transformative decade that has just come to a conclusion. While she’s no Betty Friedan, she’s happy to be embarking on her studies, and sitting at the Francis kitchen table engrossed in Freud, she expresses as much to a lonely, isolated Don.
The Di Is Cast (Away?)
Was anyone else surprised that our hero impulsively headed West? No more Megan, no more Betty, no chance at driving Sally to school… he takes off in the Caddy in search of his lost waitress. Hardly a love match, the probability that he will find her is slim but he takes a shot anyway. And in order to insinuate his way into her ex-husband’s household, he slips into another identity, and we see the old Don, smooth as ever when it suits his purpose.
But the ex-hubby is no fool, and sends the polished ad man packing with a very Bible Belt suggestion to find forgiveness in Jesus.
As for Don, he may miss the open road, the sense of possibility, his youth — in his fatigue while driving, he imagines a conversation with the dearly departed Bert Cooper to that effect — and cruising through the Midwest, he picks up a hitchhiker who’s headed to St. Paul.
“I don’t want to take you out of your way,” the stranger says.
“Not a problem,” Don replies.
At this point, he may never make it back. And isn’t this preferable to that window high above the street?
Ground control to Major Tom…
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