Before each episode of the seventh season of Mad Men, AMC shows a seconds-long shot of a still from the credits, the outline of Don Draper holding a cigarette, with the words “THE END OF AN ERA” displayed prominently. The drama in this shot is visceral and intentional. The network deploys these promos to remind the viewers that This Is The End. The end of the decade, the end of the show, and the end of our time with these characters.
It’s interesting to see this insistence on the drama of endings, because Mad Men has never been concerned with providing easy or satisfying endings. People leave, situations crumble, chances are missed, and neat or satisfying conclusions are rare, for the characters and for the viewers. In many ways, it’s the idea of beginnings, of possibility, that has given Mad Men its forward motion. In the seven season run, we have watched characters search for ways to reinvent themselves, take on new identities, and step out of the lives they’re living and into the lives they want. Don Draper has spent the last ten odd years believing that a new beginning is as easy as changing his strategy, changing his identity, meeting someone new, or moving to California.
In “Lost Horizon,” the employees of SC&P are lingering on the border between an ending and a beginning. Their old offices in the Time-Life building have become a nearly abandoned outpost, empty save for a few things (including an organ, a bottle of vermouth, roller skates, and a picture of a woman being ravished by an octopus). Throughout the hour we watch as Peggy, Don, Joan, and Roger make their separate entrances into their new office— the grey, machinel-ike corridors of McCann Erickson. One sign of an ending: their lease on Time & Life is literally up.
Don’s entrance is the first we see. In the elevator he has to be reminded that he’s going to the 19th floor. When he exits the elevator, his secretary Meredith is waiting to escort him to his desk, saying “I won’t have you lost again.” His protest: “I wasn’t lost, I was late” falls flat on both Meredith and the viewer. Don is adrift in this new environment, reliant on others to guide him into his new place in the agency, which Jim Hobart is more than happy to do.
Hobart seems to be advertising the figure of “Don Draper” to Don in their first meeting. “You’re my white whale, Don” he says triumphantly, before asking “Have you introduced yourself?”
There’s a pause, in which it seems that Don is wondering which of his many selves to introduce, before obligingly saying “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson.” But the question resonates. When will Don introduce himself, and which self will he introduce in the end, to the world?
Meanwhile, Joan and Peggy are receiving a much cooler reception from the new agency. This is what follows the “white whale” scene:
Scene 1: Joan is frustrated with her new colleague Dennis, after he fails to read the account briefs she wrote, and, during a conference call, proposes a meeting over golf to a client who uses a wheelchair. Dennis then gets angry at Joan, asking “Who told you you got to get pissed off?” then sulking, “I thought you were going to be fun” before slamming the door on his way out.
Scene 2: Peggy answers the door to her apartment to receive flowers sent by McCann Erickson. She assumes the flowers are an apology for failing to get her new office ready in time, which she judges a “classy move.” She then learns that McCann has made the mistake of assuming that she is a secretary, and the agency has sent flowers to all the SC&P secretaries.
The misogyny shown in these two scenes continues, as Joan seeks to get Dennis taken off her accounts by appealing to men higher up the McCann executive ladder. Instead of receiving the help and support she seeks, she encounters nothing but more and more toxic forms of sexism. Ultimately Jim Hobart threatens to sue her and snarls at her to get out of his office. As Shirley says to Roger in an earlier scene, “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.”
And despite Jim Hobart’s flattery, it doesn’t seem to be a comfortable place for Don, either. In a handshake lunch with Miller Beer, Don is surprised to enter the room and see at least 15 other Creative Directors, all dressed almost identically, all milling around the room with the same white boxed lunch. (“This is shirtsleeves operation” says a McCann executive to Don in an earlier scene, encouraging him to adopt a more casual workplace manner. The other, stranger effect of running a “shirtsleeves operation” is that it makes everyone look almost identical.) Never has advertising seemed more like a machine to Don, who is used to being the sole genius in the room, instead of being one Creative Director out of 20. A Research Director starts the meeting by saying “I’m going to describe a very specific man to you” and then goes on to list the generic qualities of the man they want to sell beer to, such as “He wants a hammock,” “He works long hours,” and “He likes dogs because they don’t talk.” He concludes by saying “We all know this man, because there are millions of them.” Millions of nondescript Midwestern men to drink Miller Beer. Dozens of identical Creative Directors in shirtsleeves. Don briefly stares out the window at one airplane flying behind the spire of the Empire State building, then stands up and walks out of the meeting, as the research director’s voice drones in the background: “You better have something more.”
Peggy is trying to make coffee on the stove in the old SC&P offices. She picks up the cup directly from the spiral element and scalds her hand. She yells and throws the mug on the floor. Coffee spreads across the floor. She looks at it, considers the dark and empty office, and just walks away.
Don’s leaving continues—he drives along the dark highway and his radio signals that he’s in Cleveland. He hallucinates Burt Cooper sitting in his passenger seat. Cooper says “You’ve been driving for seven hours in the wrong direction. Where are you going?” As Don drives away from the strictly controlled environment of McCann, where his life has been organized for him, he is trying to bend his narrative arc, to take control of his life again. To manufacture a new beginning. “Remember On the Road?” He asks Cooper, attempting to evoke the possibilities of the highway, of going after some lost horizon. Cooper says to him
“You like to play the stranger.”
And it’s true. In this episode, Don plays not one but four strangers—moving quickly through different iterations of himself. First, he’s Don Draper, the stranger who escaped out of Dick Whitman’s identity. Second, he’s Don Draper from McCann Erickson, a part of the advertising machine. His third and fourth identity switches happen rapidly. Upon arriving in Racine, Wisconson (home of the Miller Beer drinking man!) Don shows up at the old house of Diana Bauer, pretending to be Bill Phillips, from Connelly Research. He claims that Diana has won a new refrigerator full of Miller Beer, and is invited inside by Diana’s husband’s new wife. When her husband comes home he sees through Don’s act and angrily asks “Who the heck are you?” Don switches into stranger number four, pretending to be a collections agent. When the husband sees through him again, asking angrily “You think you’re the only one to come looking for her?” it becomes clear that, yes, Don believes that he is the only one. The only man to come for Diana, and the only creative genius in any given room. For the second time in this episode, he’s shown that he isn’t special, and he’s forced to leave again.
At the end of this episode, now more than ever, we see the way that Don and Peggy act as foils for each other. As Don drives away, plays the stranger, attempts to distance himself from the office and from the identity he has wrapped up in it, Peggy walks triumphantly into the new office, cigarette dangling from her mouth, sunglasses on, with Cooper’s old octopus painting tucked under her arm.
As Don moves away from himself, Peggy is more herself than she has ever been.
After spending one last evening saying goodbye to the old office with Roger, experiencing an ending, drinking vermouth and dancing in rollerblades while he plays the organ, Peggy’s powerful entrance into McCann Erickson is a sign that she is ready for the beginning.
Early in the episode, Harry Crane praises McCann Erickson’s computer analytics team, saying, “They’ve got mission control.” I am reminded of that in the last scene of the episode, as Don picks up a hitchhiker and drives farther and farther away from New York, with “Space Oddity” playing in the background. Don has left the capsule; it seems like he’s drifting out into Midwestern space. Despite the fate that the song implies, despite how much it rings true with the image of a man falling through space in the show’s opening credits, despite AMC’s proclamation that this is The End, I can’t help but hope with Don for a beginning.
Hanna Marie Gunderson lives and writes in Northampton, MA. She attends the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass Amherst, and is an editor for Slope Editions.