The partners and longtime employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners began the mourning process for the dearly departed agency in the eleventh episode of Mad Men’s seventh and final season, but in the excellent episode 12, “Lost Horizon,” they truly faced the fallout. Some are adjusting to life at McCann Erickson well; Pete and Ted are both playing ball, though we saw a glimmer of recognition from Ted that he’s traded in his independence and creativity for security. That leaves Don, Roger, Peggy, and Joan, all facing their decisions and relevance in different ways. It’s graduation time; school is out for summer, and they’ve got to pack up their things and leave for good. It’s time to start over.
Roger is the Wooderson of the gang, not wanting to leave his playground and move to an office where he’s just one of the old guys not doing anything. He procrastinates packing his office, returning when he assumes everyone is gone only to find Peggy haunting the halls. She’s standing her ground, refusing to go to the McCann offices until her office is ready. She’s a copy supervisor, not a secretary, and you can tell she’ll give the copy writers sniffing at her accounts hell if they think they can take them. She still needs a bit of a push, though, and Roger’s there to give her one.
Here are two characters we’ve rarely seen share scenes with just the two of them - Peggy even calls it out, saying, “This is more attention than I’ve ever gotten from you.” Matthew Weiner is doing a great job of pairing characters together for one last hurrah, with expected duos such as Don wishing Betty luck (“Knock ‘em dead, Birdie”) at school to unexpected ones. Roger and Peggy never much crossed paths during the past decade of her tenure at the agency, but their shared history unites them, as different as they are. He has to remind her of the nature of the game — it feels personal because of the experiences you have within the office’s walls and who you have them with. But “this business doesn’t have feelings,” he says. “You get bought, you get sold, you get fired. If the account moves, you move. Even if your name’s on the damn door, you should know better to get attached to some walls.” “Well hopefully I’ll have that problem some day,” Peggy replies. “OK, hot stuff,” he says.
More importantly, he gives her Bert’s print of Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.” The gift is an off-hand one to get her to stay and play hooky with him, but it’s his line to her after she balks at the idea of hanging it in her new office that matters. “They won’t take me seriously, ” she says. … “You know I need to make men feel at ease.” “Who told you that?” he replies incredulously. The answer? Joan, for the most part.
Joan was incredibly influential in Peggy’s early days at the agency, getting her set up on birth control, advising her that the role of a secretary is to be somewhere between a man’s girlfriend and his mother, and saying the ultimate goal is to land a husband and not have to work. Joan as a character has changed greatly throughout the series, becoming more empowered and demanding of respect. But she has used her feminine wiles to get ahead because that is what she was raised thinking she needed to do; that was the example set out for her. And it’s a hard one to break. Even in “Lost Horizon,” we saw her trying to play it sweet, saying things like “I hope I didn’t cause any trouble” and “I hope I didn’t ruffle any feathers.” It’s the game she knows to play, and for years, it worked. But as she changes, and society changes, and men change as they watch society and the role of women changing, the game isn’t working the same anymore.
Her argument with Jim Hobart, however, was a long time coming and believable for her character. The second wave is coming, and she’s been belittled one too many times. She mentions Betty Friedan and the Women’s Strike for Equality march on August 26, 1970, to Jim as she threatens to get lawyers involved after he dismisses her claims about money she is owed from her partnership. (Love the ACLU’s tweet about Joan last night.) He drops his act; he doesn’t care and never cared about SC&P. Don was his real prize (although he’s losing patience with Don and his disappearing act); Joan is dispensable. Joan going toe-to-toe with Hobart was powerful, and it took courage. What also took courage was her walking away, at Roger’s encouragement, with Hobart’s deal of giving her half of what she was owed. It probably is the best she would get, and Joan probably wasn’t up for the full fight. So many aren’t, even today. Because it is so easy to lose, even if you technically win. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’re not there yet.
“Lost Horizon,” and the series itself, is in many ways a tale of two women: Peggy and Joan, both searching for fulfillment and acceptance, both taking different paths to get there. Sometimes, they look at each other with respect; other times, they bristle at what the other is wearing or saying or doing to get ahead. They are the feminist movement, women in search of the same goal but at times losing sight of the fact they’re on the same side. They’ve both been belittled and faced discrimination and sexist behavior. Mad Men has done an admirable job of presenting both stories without judgment, but perhaps it tipped its hand a tad here as we saw Peggy victorious at the end and Joan leaving the agency. Joan is following her own path now, but it has taken her many compromises to get here. Her advertising days appear to be over, and that’s not a failure. But she’d do well to take Roger’s advice to Peggy: You can settle on monetary terms and titles and offices, etc. But don’t compromise who you are.
That message applies to Don, even if his current existence is built on a lie. Hobart is enjoying blowing smoke up his ass, but Don quickly sees that now he’s just one part in a machine, one of many creative directors and no longer the single visionary. As another ad man waxed poetic about Budweiser, reminiscent of but less charismatic than a younger Draper, Don turned to look out the window, watching a plane soaring through the sky. Later, traveling back from the Francis household having missed taking Sally back to school, he keeps on driving, first to Wisconsin to find Diana. Her ex-husband, Cliff, smells him out immediately, and tells him he should get in line. “You think you’re the first one to come looking for her?,” he asks. “She’s a tornado, just leaving a trail of broken bodies behind her.”
Don: “I was worried about her. She seemed so lost.”
Cliff: “Well I lost my daughter to God and my wife to the devil. I lost everything. Is that what you wanted to know?”
Cliff: “You can’t save her. Only Jesus can. He’ll help you, too. Ask him.”
Weiner has often circled back to the idea of redemption, or at least absolution, and whether they can be achieved by everyone. Much of this talk comes in the form of religion, but don’t expect Mad Men to end with Don being born again in Christ or anything. But it is a helpful framework for examining Don’s desire to always start anew. One of his biggest flaws is that he’s only interested in the beginnings of things, as Faye Miller pointed out to him at the end of Season Four; he’s terrible at seeing things through. One disappointing experience at McCann and he was on the road, but this seems more like an advancement than a setback. Don is still searching for something, and he still hasn’t learned that the search — the journey — is the story. His recalling Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which he mentions as he envisions Bert Cooper joining him for his ride, says it all, it being to many “a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to — the famous search for ‘IT,’ a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found.”
After leaving with no sign of Diana, Don picks up a hitchhiker and agrees to take him to St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s heading away from New York, and conventional wisdom will have him returning to California, the place he’s always been drawn to, the place he felt at home when he could be Dick Whitman again alongside Anna Draper. The place where Anna read his Tarot cards, and where he was disturbed by the presence of the Judgment card. He saw it as representing “the end of the world,” but Anna’s view was different: “It’s the resurrection.” There is no magical Shangri-La; there is no utopia where problems don’t exist. But there’s the dream of Shangri-La, and the chance to get closer to it. Is it true, that we never find a truth larger than ourselves? And if so, well, isn’t that OK? Sometimes, the horizon changes; sometimes, we can’t even see it. But we still have to head toward it.
Don’s headed west. Let’s see what he finds.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.