Can You Hear Me, Major Don? Horizons Lost and Found on Mad Men Season Seven, Episode Twelve

by sweatermanifesto

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Well, it looks like Don and Joan aren’t going to have that lunch the two of them promised each other when getting off the elevator at their new home in McCann Erickson heaven.   Joan is walking away from McCann with a quarter million dollars and permanent disdain for her one-time lover (and father of her child) Roger Sterling, who counsels her to take Jim Hobart’s offer of emancipation from the mega-ad firm despite the satisfying prospect of taking McCann to court on the basis of a flagrant (and very winnable) case of sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, Don leaves a meeting of a gaggle of the most uncreative looking creative directors ever assembled in one room, who have been summoned to a research meeting involving what will evidently become the new brand Miller Lite.  Accompanied by the ghost of Bert Cooper, who tries to counsel him otherwise, Don doesn’t stop running until he gets to Racine, Wisconsin, desperately seeking Diana, the one woman who he thinks he can save—and in the process be saved himself.   Cooper’s ghost essentially tells Don it’s a fool’s errand, but he leaves Don to find that out for himself.

When Joan leaves her office for good, we assume she’s heading back to her real estate magnate boyfriend and ultimately to a life on the West Coast, as far away from Ferg Connolly and Jim Hobart as she can get.  Meanwhile, his scam detected by Diana’s suspicious ex-husband, Don heads out of town and toward parts unknown, which becomes Minneapolis-St. Paul when he picks up a hitchhiker headed in that direction.   As Don’s latest Cadillac heads north down the highway with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” coming up in the background, we’re left to wonder whether this is it, and we are leaving Don to figure out the rest of his life.  Like Major Tom, perhaps Don is destined to wander high above the earth, hurtling aimlessly among the stars while losing contact with all of those he has loved and lost.

In viewing the infuriating riddle otherwise known as Mad Men “coming attractions”, it’s notable that there’s no sign of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to be found.  If this was Draper’s (and by extension, Hamm’s) swan song, we need to pause briefly to commemorate one of the most complex, nuanced and intriguing– and underappreciated– dramatic performances during this second golden age of television.

To say that Jon Hamm has inhabited this character and made it his own is to understate the obvious.   The Racine scenes are indicative of the remarkable range of this actor and the psychic territory he can traverse.   It is symbolic that once again, Don is impersonating someone else, this time the condescending researcher who was giving the Miller briefing the previous day.  Draper assumes that this midwestern family will fall for his line of BS about Diana Bauer winning a competition for a new refrigerator loaded with Miller beers– echoing the condescension that the researcher demonstrated toward the beer drinking rubes in “flyover country”.

While the new wife seems to fall for the bait, Don quickly shifts gears when Diana’s ex-husband sees through the ruse; he shifts gears to become an officious bill collector seeking his deadbeat prey.  By the time he reaches the door of his Cadillac, he has dropped his façade and looks defeated, without the heart to stand up to the abuse heaped on him by the ex-husband. It’s a virtuoso five minutes and performed so seamlessly that you barely detect the artifice behind the performance.

It would be highly unorthodox for the lead character not to be involved until the very end of a series, while going out in such a seemingly abrupt and perfunctory manner.   But for Mad Men, I don’t believe there’s not going to be any big reveal or major emotional catharsis.   Maybe just driving away, followed by a fade to black with David Bowie in the background, is an appropriate way to say goodbye to its compelling and iconic lead character.

The episode is called “Lost Horizon”, but it could have more likely been called “Narrowing Horizons”, as the partners spend most of their time figuring out how to deal with their servitude to their new corporate masters.   Ted Chaough seems perfectly comfortable being a cog on a creative assembly line. Joan is being marginalized and made to feel unwelcome at best and the object of sexual predation at worst.   Don sees his world narrowing, not widening, and the people in his life continuing to pull away, or even worse, becoming indifferent.  There was a time when a Draper shoulder massage would do more than just elicit a fraternal pat on the hand from his ex-wife, but that’s what Betty does when he tries to comfort her after a day of lugging textbooks around campus.   I’m sure Freud, who Betty was reading at the time, would have a name for that.   Sally is more than indifferent; she doesn’t even wait for her father to come around to pick her up and take her to school.

The biggest surprise of the episode comes from the unlikely pairing of Roger and Peggy, the last two people standing in the Time Life Building– Roger delaying the inevitable and Peggy waiting it out until McCann has a suitable office for her.   The scene between Roger and Peggy is a bit of shocker, first, because they’ve rarely shared screen time during the entire series, and second, because it’s Roger and not Don who shares this defining moment with Peggy. Matt Weiner has chosen to keep Don and Peggy apart for the entire half-season, as their separation throws into sharp relief g the “A Star is Born” trajectories that the two seem to be taking.  Don is heading downward– or northward, as the case may be– but Peggy continues her confident build toward agency stardom.  She sees McCann as an opportunity to take one more step up the ladder, and her banter with Roger as they both get half in the bag on vermouth (featuring a surreal vision of Peggy roller skating while Roger plays organ) seems to make her bolder and more sure of herself.

Peggy arrives at McCann at roughly the same time that Joan takes her leave, and she does it with a level of panache that demonstrates how far she has come.   There’s Peggy strutting down the hallway at McCann, wearing sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from her lips, demonstrating an attitude that oozes with sass and confidence. Armed with Bert Cooper’s obscene octopus painting—a parting gift from a nostalgic Roger—she heads toward her new agency home.  She has morphed into a female Draper, reminiscent of her mentor’s strut and too-cool-for-school style.

Ironically, she’s the one who took Don’s advice in Season Two to “move forward” after giving birth, while he’s stuck in the past and adrift in parts unknown.   Peggy’s metamorphosis is a hopeful end to what has been a sad, elegiac hour of farewells.   For now, my money is on Peggy emerging as the only clear-cut winner of the Mad Men crew.   While other horizons may be lost, hers may have been found.

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