Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Mad Men" Review: "Lost Horizon" (Season 7 Episode 12) - "This was a hell of a boat..."

A couple of commenters and Twitter followers have been asking me, for the last few weeks, where my Mad Men reviews went following my analysis of the premiere, and the short answer is that life got in the way. Intense as my love for Mad Men is – and really, there is very, very little in the realms of film, television, or art in general I hold dearer than Mad Men – educational and professional obligations do, unfortunately, come first, and loathe as I was to tap out on Mad Men these last few weeks, there was no way around it. I want these reviews to be done right or not at all, and for the last few weeks, there was no time in my life to get them done right.

And if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t really have a ton of time tonight, either. But the show’s latest – and antepenultimate (dammit!) – episode, “Lost Horizon,” was so fantastic, so bursting at the seams with all of the things I love about this legendary show, that I cannot help itself. I have to follow my heart – and tonight, my heart says I have to write about Mad Men.

So spoilers for the latest episode of Mad Men, “Lost Horizon,” are coming up after the jump. It’s good to be back…

First, a quick recap of my thoughts on the season to date, because I think it differs a bit from the critical mass I’ve been sensing. After feeling good-but-not-great about the highly expository season premiere, I thought things snapped into place virtually immediately with Episode 2, “New Business,” and even moreso with episode 3, “The Forecast.” Neither were ‘big’ episodes of Mad Men, but then, Mad Men generally isn’t about the ‘big’ episodes. “New Business” was funny and snappy and bursting with great dialogue and even better performances, and I think it contained one of the most compelling Megan stories the show has done since her early days in Season 4. “The Forecast” had great stuff for Betty and Sally – including one final, triumphantly awkward appearance by Glen (that was entirely thematically relevant) – and for Joan and Peggy and Don, including one absolute dynamite scene between the latter two. Both are solid episodes of Mad Men. Many fans and critics inexplicably, to my mind, decided Mad Men owed them something ‘more’ this close to the end, even though Mad Men seasons always start slow, and Mad Men has always prioritized character work over intricate plot mechanics. With that in mind, I never felt I needed the series to become something it wasn’t this close to the end; I liked that Matthew Weiner and company were giving us some more slow, methodical character building hours, and that being near the finish line didn’t make them decide to imitate the Hare when they have always been the Tortoise.

And a ‘big’ episode of Mad Men did indeed come (as many of us knew it would), with the season’s fourth hour, “Time & Life.” Much as I loved those first few episodes of the season, this was Mad Men kicking itself into a higher gear, with a practically perfect hour that more or less immediately inserted itself into the arena of best Mad Men episodes ever. Any hour that has the comedic genius of Pete shouting “The King ordered it!” (and the entirety of the scene surrounding it) goes straight to the shortlist, as far as I am concerned. One that also inverts the show’s tried-and-true ‘heist movie’ formula to deliver a crushing, game-changing blow, and also includes some of the most emotionally wrenching Peggy scenes ever, is something special indeed. And while some fans and critics acted like “Time & Life” came out of nowhere, I would strongly contend the episode could never have attained the power it wielded without those first few episodes of the season, which laid the emotional groundwork for an episode that is all about loss and tectonic personal shifts.

Tonight’s installment, “Lost Horizon,” probably isn’t the equal of “Time & Life,” if only because, for a few characters (especially Don), it is an intensely transitory episode, setting up directions for the final two hours (dammit!) rather than paying things off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but taking individual episodes on their own terms, I would probably conclude “Time & Life” packed more of a punch.

Still, “Lost Horizon” is a pretty historically great episode of Mad Men, a glorious ode to the show’s unparalleled ability to blend tones and weave characters together, creating a tapestry that is so much richer than a mere summation of parts. Phil Abraham, one of the most important directors in the show’s history (and the last person who isn’t Matthew Weiner to helm an episode, as Weiner himself is taking the reins of the final two installments), directed the hell out of this one, and between all the funny and bittersweet shots of the carved-out SCDP offices, the elegiac imagery of Don’s liminal wandering, or the intensity of Joan’s righteous indignation, “Lost Horizon” felt like a Mad Men that very much knows the end is year, and is throwing a rousing artistic celebration to clear house before the end.

All discussion of this episode must start with Joan, of course, as her story brought back to the forefront a theme that has been ingrained in this series from day one. I’ve been re-watching my way through Mad Men’s ‘greatest hits’ recently to get ready for various post-finale lists/retrospectives I plan on writing, and one thing that stuck out to me immediately, looking at early episodes, was just how foregrounded the sexism of the era was in the first few seasons. It’s not that sexism ever stopped being a theme on Mad Men, but that as time went by, and the characters and their agency became increasingly insular, it ceased being at the forefront of everything Joan, Peggy, and others experienced. When you have Don and Roger and company starting their own business, and getting to choose more particularly who they work with and who they trust, it’s natural for the top-level women at the agency to encounter less ‘overt’ sexism in the workplace, because the people they work with know them for their talents and personality above all else. That’s not to say displays of overt sexism dissipated entirely – look at Peggy’s early interactions with Stan in Season 4, or the abject horror that is Joan’s rise to Partner in “The Other Woman” – but that the ugly sheen of chauvinism that necessarily characterized the show’s early days was mildly quelled, subsumed into the quieter (and in many ways, more insidious) forms of institutional sexism that is just as much a problem for women today as it was in the 1960s.

But in “Lost Horizon,” that overt chauvinistic horror returns in full force, as SCDP is dismantled and its principles are thrown into the deep end of a much larger – and much less insular – pool, one in which the sharks are everywhere. Joan runs into a few of them right off the bat, and as she deals first with a man who refuses, point blank, to take anything she says or does seriously, and second with a man who makes it clear he expects sexual favors, “Lost Horizon” starts feeling like the Mad Men equivalent of a horror movie. Certainly, for Joan, this is a nightmare – an immediate and unstoppable regression to a decade-plus prior, when she had no status and commanded little respect (for Joan, in fact, this would extend before the start of the series, as the Joan of the Pilot already navigated her workplace with extreme confidence). I felt a sickening pit in my stomach throughout the early scenes of the episode, not just for Joan, but also for Peggy – forced to keep working at the hollowed out SCDP offices because McCann assumed she was a secretary – and even for Don and Pete and everyone else, forced to become cogs in an inhuman machine. But for a man, being a cog just means the subtle indignity of professional anonymity; for a woman, it means something a whole lot worse, and whatever nausea I felt watching this unfold must have been nothing to the fury rising in Joan.

And by the time Joan steps into Jim Hobart’s office, the sexism that has simmered at the heart of Mad Men’s world since the very beginning feels like the contents of a pressure cooker finally ready to go off. And go off they do, as Joan, unable to accept the greatest indignity yet – that she be expected to simply roll with her male subordinates’ wildly inappropriate behavior – says to Jim Hobart everything she must have wanted to say to any number of idiot men, for any number of years. It is a terrific scene, beautifully written and ultimately uncompromising, and one which Christina Hendricks hits out of the park. This is a culmination moment for Joan, no doubt about it, and while the final scene of her story – in which, confronted with the truth that not even Roger believes in her, resignedly decides to take Jim’s terrible deal – suggests she might not have any fight left in her, I love the idea that Joan’s final destination on this series might be a transformation into a women’s rights activist. Mad Men has largely ignored the major social movements of the 1960s, because its characters felt insulated from them for so long, but I very much like the idea that, here at the end, enough is enough, and one of these characters is going to pick up the beacon of change they have left by the wayside for so long. If any person on Mad Men is strong and capable enough to do it, it’s Joan Holloway. And I hope we get to see many more me scenes, between now and the next two weeks (dammit!) of Christina Hendricks kicking ass and taking names. Because that confrontation tonight was glorious, built to and earned over eight years of watching this great, great character evolve. In the words of Bertram Cooper, “Bravo.”

While Joan brings the wrath of logical humanitarian fury down on the monster that is Jim Hobart, Peggy takes more of a “Shake it Off” approach to gross institutional sexism, continuing her work in the rundown ruins of SCDP, spilling coffee without bothering to clean it up, and ultimately, getting drunk and roller blading while Roger Sterling plays the organ.

Have I mentioned how much I love Mad Men?

If Joan was an absolute badass tonight – and she very much was – Peggy certainly gave her sometimes-mentor a run for her money, with a string of scenes that play, in a sense, like an ode to the inherent awesomeness that is Elizabeth Moss in this role. John Slattery was certainly a major part of those scenes too, as Roger and Peggy – who have really only shared a few words together over the lifetime of the series – find a strange fraternal bond together in this moment of transition. Roger is everything Peggy wants to be – not for the multiple divorces and constant drinking and sad self-pitying routine, but for the large-scale success in the world of advertising – and Peggy has the courage Roger wishes, loathe as he would ever be to admit it, he could muster in scenarios like these. One person is on her way up the staircase of the success, the other kicking off his sad, lonely march on the way down, and at this midway point, the two meet. The sparks that fly between them are funny and acerbic and entertaining in about a million different ways, but that clash of personalities is also intensely poignant, and if anything in tonight’s episode felt like a real passing of an era and changing of the guard, it was almost certainly Peggy and Roger sharing one last day together at this home each of them have lost.

That section of the episode also includes an image that deserves to go down not just in Mad Men history, but in the history of the medium that is television. As Roger plays the organ, Peggy dons roller skates and soars around the perimeter of the office, the camera tracking around Roger to follow Peggy’s path. It is simply one of the greatest single shots Mad Men has ever given us, an image that is, on one level, side-splittingly funny – Peggy in roller skates, for the win! – but also magnificently elegiac, as perfect and affecting a send-off to this tremendous TV set – and to these two great characters we see exploring it one last time – as could possibly exist. If I ever had to describe the many varied tones of Mad Men in one phrase, it would probably be ‘laughing through the tears,’ and if I could point towards one image from the lifespan of the series to personify that idea, it would almost certainly be this one.

Don, meanwhile, continues his long dark teatime of the soul, starting out the episode by reflecting on the abject emptiness of this ‘successful’ life he has built for himself, and then literalizing the journey he has been on all season with a road trip to nowhere. Those early images, of Don staring out windows and thinking about the emptiness of his life, are simply beautiful, a wonderful exteriorization of Don’s misplaced sense of self (in addition to being a nice bit of trolling to all the fans who still fail to understand the theme song is a metaphor, and that the series will not end with Don jumping out a window).

Even better is his encounter with Betty. Another thing that has struck me, working my way through great Mad Men classics, is what wonderful chemistry Jon Hamm and January Jones shared back in the day, and while Weiner and company certainly broke the two characters up at the right moment in the story, I have always missed the connection those two actors shared. As in their scene at the start of “New Business,” Don and Betty have largely moved past all the anger and bitterness that poisoned their interactions after the divorce, and their brief encounters now serve to show – to Don as much as to the audience – how well Betty has, in general, been able to move on, and how much Don envies her for it. In those scenes (and especially tonight’s), I sense Don would like nothing more in the world than to revisit every awful thing he did when he and Betty were married, and to right all those wrongs so he could reclaim the life he so carelessly threw away. Being near Betty still makes him happy, on some level, but it also hurts him deeply, because whether or not the two of them ever shared genuine happiness (Don spun too many lies for that to ever really be the case), Betty represents something Don thinks he might never find again. When Don leaves Betty with that final, perfectly delivered sentiment – “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie” – I found myself a little choked up. What an incredible little moment. I suspect this is the last we will ever see of those two characters together, and if so? Again, I must say Bravo.

The man who said that line returns for another fantasy, of course, as Don’s consciousness drifts during his long and lonely car ride, and while I think I would have preferred if Robert Morse’s spectacular rendition of “The Best Things in Life Are Free” was the final appearance of Bert Cooper – what could be a more perfect final contribution to the show? – this also felt right, and still packed a punch. That Don has now twice turned to a mental projection of a dead man – one he knew professionally but who was never a huge part of his personal life – in instances of emotional crisis is telling, and speaks to just how lost Don feels in this moment. He has been through so many personal ups and downs at this point, tried so hard so many times to be the best version of himself, and yet all he keeps finding is emptiness and pain. Is Don Draper broken, fundamentally and irreparably? It must be the thought racing through the man’s mind as he drives through the night, and it seems to be the underlying question of this final season of Mad Men.

It is hard to judge the scenes that follow, as Don accosts the Bauer family at their home and then continues his road trip to nowhere, as they are all clearly preamble to whatever is coming next. For now, I will say this: I think there will inevitably be critics who take the abject creepiness of Don’s actions tonight – and make no mistake, what he does with the Bauer’s is wildly off-putting – as a tonal or textual miscalculation on the part of the show. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Don is being creepy, and we should feel out of balance in those scenes – because Don is out of balance, and when Don feels he lacks identity, he does bad things. That he expels so much energy looking for a woman he knows is also, like him, fundamentally broken seems entirely appropriate at this stage in Don’s story. That, when unable to find her, he chooses to continue drifting aimlessly also seems entirely appropriate. All Don wants is some tangible connection to the humanity he feels he has lost; and when he has no direction in which to orient that search, of course he keeps on moving. It is simply in his nature.

An all-around exquisite episode tonight, then. Given how strong the end of Mad Men seasons have always been, and what a tremendous one-two punch these last two hours have delivered, I have absolutely no doubts that whatever comes next will be brilliant. My only regret is that it will all be over so soon. After an hour like “Lost Horizon,” I’m simply not ready to say goodbye to this beautiful, wonderful show.


  • I don’t care too much about making predictions for the final episodes, but I will say this: If I had to choose how I would like the series to end, I think a final scene consisting of some kind of absolution between Don and Sally would feel most appropriate, and after tonight’s episode, that desire has grown ever stronger. Don is, as I said, looking for the humanity he thinks he has lost – and I wonder if the answer will be it was always right there, staring him in the face, in the eyes of the daughter for whom it is not too late to mend fences with.
  • Meredith probably isn’t Don Draper’s best secretary (even with those interior decorating skills, Dawn likely still takes that particular crown), but dammit if she isn’t the most consistently entertaining.
  • Now that we have a Mad Men episode that ends with a David Bowie song, and given that multiple episodes have closed before with Bob Dylan, the show only needs to throw a Bruce Springsteen song in there before the end to hit my personal musical trifecta. It would be a little anachronistic, sure, given that Bruce’s first record hit in January 1973, but all I’m saying is that if you give me a little bit of Peggy Olson roller skating to “Blinded by the Light,” I could die a happy man.
  • Christina Hendricks coincidentally turns 40 today. Pretty spectacular episode to mark her birthday, isn’t it?
  • Oh silly, ludicrously vague Mad Men promos. I think I’ll miss you the most.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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