I once had vertigo for twenty days straight. The dizziness was worst when I had to look up–to reach for something on a high shelf, for instance. That was the only time I actually felt like I might fall over. This–looking up and getting dizzy–is often referred to as “losing the horizon.” And it’s what our beloved gang is up to this week on Mad Men. Starting at McCann Erickson, everyone is thrown off balance, to say the least. Roger can’t bring himself to leave Time & Life. Don’s nothing special. Peggy doesn’t even have an office. Joan is starting from scratch. Once they step inside that new building, they can’t help each other anymore. “And the stars look very different today.”
DON “I’m riding the rails.”
We’re lulled into a false sense of complacency as Don starts off seemingly well: he has an apartment, an office, a Meredith, and McCann claims to be rolling out the red carpet for him. I love how Don has no poker face when it comes to being unimpressed. He clearly dislikes Jim Hobart and Ferg Donnelly, and has no use for Ferg Donnelly’s bogus Don Draper impression. Who wants to bet that Ferg Donnelly does the same impression for every Creative Director, since they’re all the same?
Perhaps the cruelest tease for Don in these early scenes is the mention of Conrad Hilton. Connie, that mysterious and exclusive client who called Don in the middle of the night and demanded the moon from him and only him. However he feels about working with Hilton again, the name certainly evokes the type of magic and independence Don prefers in his work. As it turns out, that couldn’t be further from his new reality. “He bought you a gift.” Pardon me for feeling skeptical about whatever that means. Even if they’re saying all the right things, these guys are fucking ghouls. And Don, even though he knows it, even though he presses against the window in his new office as though testing the bars of a cell, is giving this the old college try. “I’m Don Draper, from McCann Erickson.”
It doesn’t take Don long, after he arrives at the Miller Beer luncheon and sees a room full of nondescript Creative Directors, to catch on: he’s one of many. A man in a grey flannel suit with a boxed roast-beef sandwich. As “Bill Phillips from Connolly Research” launches into a pale imitation of vintage Don Draper (this is actually the same question Don was trying to answer in the very first scene of the pilot: how do we get smokers to switch from their chosen brands?), time slows down for Don. After all this season’s “is that all there is?” brooding, we may just be witnessing Don being through with advertising here. That’s how significant the moment feels. He watches the identical motions of identical hands opening identical research packets, marking them with identical pens. He looks out the window and watches a plane cross the sky. It’s another neat callback to the Don Draper of the pilot, watching the fly caught in the fluorescent light. This time, there’s no Lucky Strike pitch waiting. No account to save. No Dick Whitman to hide. Just a room full of people failing to surprise him.
So Don gets up and leaves in the middle of the meeting. Which we’ve seen before, of course. Roger calls it “swinging your privates around in the boardroom.” But this time feels different. Don moves quietly, instinctively. He takes his boxed lunch with him. He’s not making a point: he just has to get out of there. And no one even cares! No one, that is, except Ted Chaough, the tired sheep, who watches him go looking exactly like Ben Affleck at the end of Good Will Hunting when he realizes Will’s gone for good.
The next time we see Don, he’s interrupting Betty’s afternoon studies over in the Francis kitchen. Betty’s reading Freud, y’all; dreams do come true.
The treatment of post-divorce Betty and Don always resonates in a bittersweet way. Somehow, this show manages to put us in the position of feeling nostalgic about them being together, even though we know damn well how unhappy their marriage was. It’s like we’ll always continue to mourn the life they both wanted to have when they started out. There are parts of each of them that only activate when they’re together, and it’s always a painful pleasure to see them connect.
There’s an awkwardness here, too: Betty may be destined to forever be gently reminding Don that he doesn’t belong in her home anymore. It’s sad but, in a nice echo of the “Time & Life” SC&P love fest, neither of them seems to mind too much. They seem to truly wish each other well. They are, fantastically enough, on each other’s teams.
“I’ve always wanted to do this.”
“Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”
What a punch to the gut.
The rest of Don’s adventure in “Lost Horizon” is rather eclipsed by the fireworks of the Joan, Peggy, and Roger storylines. Diana–and Don’s investment in her–is less interesting to me than the idea that Don is, once again, unmoored. As Roger says, “He does that.” He processes things by leaving. He’s searching for something right now. We don’t know what it is, and neither does he. Bert Cooper, with the sublime logic of dreams, reminds Don that he’s never read Kerouac, then recites: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
By episode’s end, Don, in his Cadillac, letting a hitchhiker determine his path, might actually be in the most enviable position of anyone.
“How do you get him to open his mind? You better have something more. Or in this case, less.”
JOAN “I’m here and I’m doing my job.”
Well: Joan sure saw this one coming, didn’t she?
In “Time & Life,” Joan told Pete, “We both know they’re never gonna take me seriously over there.” As it turns out, that wasn’t going far enough. Lou Avery is someone people don’t take seriously–that’s a luxury compared to the treatment Joan gets. For Joan Harris, the men at McCann Erickson reserve a special kind of disregard. They actively hate her. Indeed, this is “hatred” defined. It’s not new, nor is it limited to McCann. Over the years, Joan has been continually undervalued, undermined, belittled, humiliated, and violated by the men in her life. This is just the most blatant version of it. Now it’s right out in the open, in an episode so full of disgusting lines I’m not quoting any of them, because where would I even begin? Joan having predicted it doesn’t make it any less enraging to watch.
A common response to a situation like this is to ask questions. Questions like: Do they maybe know about Jaguar? Is that why they’re treating her like this? Should she have given Hobart specifics about Donnelly’s treatment of her? Would that have helped? It sometimes feels better to try to rationalize unfair treatment; we might not even realize we’re doing it.
But here’s the thing: all those questions do is shift the responsibility onto Joan. In any case, none of the answers matter. Hobart doesn’t seem to know about Jaguar. But guess what? He has no trouble hating Joan even without that tasty nugget to fuel his contempt.
This is not only about sex, what we see these men do. This is about territory and power.
How dare you? How dare you have a job? How dare you be good at it? How dare you have a roommate and an apartment of your own—and how dare you prefer it that way? How dare you be good at sex, because how dare you have fucked anyone before me? How dare you be 30 years old? How dare you aspire to more? How dare you command respect? How dare you make an executive decision? How dare you look and dress the way you do? How dare you expect me to respect you? How dare you come here to do work? How dare you expect to do your job the way we do ours? How dare you not be fun?
My heart is pounding right now. Because people have been telling me to smile since I was in elementary school. Because I worked at a restaurant for five years and took money from men who felt free to comment on my hair, my body, my boyfriend, my education, my life decisions. Because I’ve been heckled on the street. Because I’ve been evaluated based on my personality rather than my job performance. Because I’ve been told, during a hiring conversation, that I should think twice before asking about salary range. Because my sister’s been told not to get her panties in a twist. This shit happens all the time, still. And what happens when a woman calls it out? There are plenty of words applied to that kind of woman: difficult, emotional, hysterical, etc. “The kind of gal who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
This is all about putting men at ease. Joan is usually a master at that. Her skill in that arena, combined with her intelligence and competence, makes her excellent at all of the jobs we’ve seen her do. But it may also have worked against her, because, as Don and Pete have each made clear to her this season, people assume she can handle anything. She exudes control. It’s easy for those around her—especially those who have any status of their own—to mistake that for her having real power. No one sticks their neck out for Joan, because they believe, with her dark feminine magic, she can take care of herself. She has cultivated that image deliberately, and manages to maintain it in the face of even the worst behavior from the men in her life–often at the cost of sticking up for herself. She has a lot of pride and rarely asks for help, but look how utterly alone she looks when Don leaves her in that elevator. I hesitate to say I wish a man would speak up for Joan (and of course Roger thinks that’s what he’s doing here). I just want someone to say something about all this bullshit, and I know that, fair or not, it can be more powerful coming from someone other than the one it’s happening to.
In the end, it’s Joan herself who finally says something. She brings her usual armor; she tries honey with all three of the McCann men, but she gets it flung back in her face. So finally, she shows Hobart what she’s made of. She knows what she’s talking about, and she isn’t going to work this way anymore. My dad always told me not to ask for a raise unless I was ready to quit if I didn’t get it. That’s what Joan does here. She’s ready for battle. And, amidst the horror of it all, it’s a perverse thrill to see Jim Hobart drop the Kind Poppa act and show his true, ugly “binders full of women” colors. Joan loses the war here, but she also triumphs: she gets all this out in the open, finally. She stops pretending it’s okay.
We’ve been waiting seven seasons for this.
PEGGY “I am a copy supervisor. I am not setting foot in there until I have an office.”
Joan and Peggy have always had one thing in common: they don’t quite fit the soft, accommodating ideal of the 1960s woman. They both want more. A major distinction between them is that Peggy is mostly incapable of faking it. Joan knows what the world wants from her, and it’s taken her until now to refuse to give it. Peggy has never been able to hide her discomfort with the role she’s expected to play.
When Roger tries to give Peggy Cooper’s old painting of the “octopus pleasuring a lady,” Peggy is clearly drawn to it, but balks at the idea of putting it in her office, rattling off, “You know I need to put men at ease!”
“Who told you that?!” Roger replies.
Of course, we all know the answer: Joan taught Peggy that. Peggy has never been good at it. Everything about her rubs most men the wrong way: her devotion to her work, her unreliable sense of humor, her refusal to be left out, her tendency towards negativity. Joan knows how to appear soft; for Peggy, that’s more of a struggle. The upside of that? Peggy has found other ways of succeeding. She’s like the 5’5” basketball player who gets really good at ball handling and defense. Peggy has learned to thrive even if she has to be a pain in the ass to do it. For Joan, that isn’t an option.
Did that music playing over Peggy’s badass entrance into McCann sound familiar? It’s from Season 1’s “Babylon,” in the scene where the men of Sterling Cooper watch through the two-way mirror as the secretaries try on Belle Jolie lipstick. Joan, the only woman aware of an audience, walks deliberately over to the mirror, turns around, and bends over the desk. Ken Cosgrove stands in a salute, and Roger looks like he might keel over.
Then, as the theme kicks in, Paul Kinsey says, “What’s with Mouse Ears over there?” And we see Peggy, sitting quietly at her place, not touching any lipstick. She’s watching the other girls, and we see what she sees: women trying on lipstick, tossing the tissues into the wastebasket. A basket of kisses.
It’s Peggy’s defining moment, the confirmation that she’s different. It comes directly on the heels of Joan’s display of 1960s feminine power, expertly playing a game she knows well. Joan is the best woman of all the women; the trouble is, that still leaves her a woman.
Over the years, Peggy’s progress is often shown in direct contrast to the degradation of Joan. In “The Mountain King,” Peggy gets her own office moments before Joan is raped by her fiancée, Greg. In “My Old Kentucky Home,” Peggy smokes pot for the first time, creatively bests her fellow copywriters, and tells her concerned secretary, “Don’t worry about me. I am going to get to do everything you want for me.” Meanwhile, Joan is coerced into playing the accordion for Greg’s boss to save him from the embarrassment of his own professional inadequacy. During a moment alone, the boss’s wife confides to her, “The fact that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel good about his future.”
Six seasons later, we’re still comparing Joan and Peggy, gauging their successes and failures, their polar-opposite navigations towards power. As Joan heaves a world-weary sigh and takes fifty cents on the dollar to disappear from McCann, Peggy’s the one in slow motion, strutting in with shades on her face, a cigarette in her mouth, and a strange pornographic heirloom under her arm, facing out. She’s evidently through with trying to put men at ease, and so far it’s working for her. She’ll need all the momentum she can get, walking into this meat grinder where the female copywriters claim to be “happy to share the crumbs” and the company has already mistaken her for a secretary. I know better than to worry about Peggy–but I don’t envy her road ahead.
ROGER “I just needed a push.”
Our sad clown seems physically incapable of transitioning to McCann Erickson. John Slattery is an exquisite actor, and here we get to see Roger in one of his lowest moments, connecting with an unlikely cohort, and allowing all of his humor, pain, and even love exist peacefully in the open. He is not innocent where this business is concerned, and especially not where Joan is concerned (he so clearly loves her that it’s easy to dismiss just how profoundly he’s undermined her over the course of the series). But his depth of sadness, genuine remorse about losing SC&P, and his series-long search for meaning keeps him richly human. The monsters at McCann certainly put things in perspective.
Roger effectively, if not knowingly, chooses a horse to back here. With Peggy, he spends a surreal afternoon drinking, philosophizing, and, apparently, choreographing. He treats her with bemused affection and respect, as though she’s a Martian he has a good feeling about. They cut through each other’s sarcasm and acknowledge the nostalgia of the moment. With Joan, he plays the role of “The Other Woman”-era Lane Pryce, delicately nudging her towards the move that’s most prudent for her finances but most crushing for her soul.
Call me naive or thin on my knowledge of the historical situation, but it really seems that one person standing beside Joan could have made the difference, even if she ended up folding anyway. Roger obviously thinks he’s helping her, but there’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that he’s once again hanging her out to dry. I wonder how much of that he understands. When he delivers the final blow, he speaks more urgently than is his wont, telling her it’s all his fault and that he’s trying to fix it. When he pleads, “Take the money and be done with them,” he makes it sound pretty appealing. He isn’t wrong about that part. I can’t help but think he wishes he could do the same. Shirley is right, after all: “advertising is not very comfortable for everyone.”
Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.