On Mad Men, Hell is Other Ad Agencies

By  · Published on May 4th, 2015


Once, David Bowie got really high and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey (“out of [his] gourd,” in the man’s own words). Then he did it again. And again. Most people think “Space Oddity” had something to do with the Apollo missions ‐ “circuit’s dead,” “something wrong,” “floating round my tin can” all evoking the image of a manned spaceflight ending in tragedy. Nope. Just Bowie, super stoned and going whoah in a movie theater.

Another “Space Oddity” misconception, producers at the time didn’t much care for it. Beatles producing legend George Martin said no, and producer Tony Visconti liked everything Bowie had except “Space Oddity,” which he considered a gimmick and a cheap shot at the current space program. Visconti handed off “Space Oddity” to an alternate, producer Gus Dudgeon, and together they made a piece of Space Age rock so enduring that most of humanity could probably quote it (at least the “ground control to Major Tom” part).

Fun “Space Oddity” Fact!: the orchestration features extensive use of the Stylophone, a synthesizer the size of a stapler that was marketed as a kid’s toy.

“Space Oddity” drifts out of Don Draper’s car stereo in the closing moments of “Lost Horizon,” and it’s because Don is Major Tom. It’s eerily perfect. Major Tom’s an astronaut (is there anything more proudly American?), he’s beloved by all, and he’s a great way to sell merchandise (the papers do want to know whose shirts he wears, after all). But Tom’s mission doesn’t go as planned and he just kinda floats away.

Back on Earth, Don’s the golden boy at McCann. “I’m Don Draper, from McCann Erickson,” he beams early on in our third-to-last Mad Men ever, as classically American as any astronaut. And then he floats off into the Midwest to become a very stylish drifter I’ts a pretty obvious “Space Oddity” connection. But before delving into that any further, let’s switch to Peggy and Joan, because “Lost Horizon,” above “Space Oddity” and all else, was about McCann Erickson being an impenetrable fortress of institutional sexism.

Is this hell? Joan’s portion of “Lost Horizon” is a weird kind of “Dante’s Sexism Inferno,” as she progresses from circle to circle with increasingly stifling amounts of gender disparity, all of which she’s has faced at some point or another. Did the catty office secretaries (you can hang with them, but it’s a women’s lib-free zone) remind you at all of Joan’s situation in Mad Men’s first season? What about Ferg’s advances vs Herb from Jaguar?

There’s a running theme here. At every level, whatever McCann slug Joan’s up against will assure her, it’s OK, you can speak freely with me. And when Joan brushes up against what she’s actually thinking (through obvious unease and gritted teeth), the guy reassuring her does a 180 and sprays a waterfall of old-timey sexism in every direction (old-timey even in 1970, considering the amount of women who were in upper management at SC&P).

In “Lost Horizon,” McCann is a monolith of sexism. Every employee at every level, even the ones who coo that they understand and you can trust them, are all 100% gross. Even with actual old boys on her side (Roger, Richard), it’s an old boys’ club Joan can’t compete with, and she has to write off half her buyout earnings just to get the hell out.

So I’m not quite sure why “Lost Horizon” also ends with Peggy as a super-cool warrior of gender righteousness (rad shades, wicked hangover, wall-mounted tentacle porn).

Peggy’s hit with her fair share of crap in “Lost Horizon” ‐ no office, no desk, a gift of flowers under the assumption that a women working in advertising is a secretary by default. She will, no doubt, be hit with wave after wave of noxious Ferg come-ons as soon as she starts actually submitting ideas (you know, working). Is there some crucial difference between Peggy and Joan that makes Joan the loser and Peggy the winner here?

I have no idea. I’m not even sure we’ll see any more of Peggy’s move to McCann, as there are only two Mad Mens to go and rarely (if ever) does this show follow a straight storyline from point A to B, episode to episode. I welcome the idea of Ferg shriveling up at the sight of a woman penetrated by an octopus. But if we’re meant to end this particular note with “Peggy, pickled in vermouth, vows to fight back,” I’d be OK with that too.

Doubly so for our goodbye to the SC&P building, because I’m assuming “Lost Horizon” is our final glimpse at that set. Even when completely wrecked to shit it’s such a wonderful space (as opposed to McCann- cramped offices with the monotone texture of a crappy cubicle). When Peggy skulked along in search of mysterious organ music, I actually wondered if “Lost Horizon” would be the Mad Men hour to break character and become a horror movie, with Pegg attacked by office-looting invaders. And that final shot- Roger quietly plunking organ keys while Peggy skates- which was a sweet tribute to both SC&P’s neato glass interiors and Mad Men’s tendency to get freaky whenever its characters hit the sauce. Not every Mad Men player will get a happy goodbye (I’m guessing), but at least the SC&P building got to spend its last moments as a vermouth-drunk roller rink.

OK, let’s circle back to Don and his Earthbound “Space Oddity.” McCann Erickson, once again, is a hive of unrelenting cartoon character evil, because it turns out the only reason they bought out SC&P in the first place was so Hogart could land Don Draper (his “white whale”) as a trophy. And presumably because Don’s air of all-American manliness is the perfect way to sell low calorie beer to men from Ohio who think “calorie” is a woman’s word.

Don has no interest in this, obviously, because if the words “Coca-Cola” did nothing for him last week, then “Light Beer” is swill. And also, because I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that Don might be dead inside.

It’s been what, months in Mad Men time since the second episode? Because since then, Don hasn’t had a space to live with anything in it (as we learn from Meredith, his current living situation is still a bed and nothing else). He has nothing at home. He hasn’t done a spec of ad work, either- last week’s rally to save SC&P was probably the first (and only) time he’s shown interest in anything at the office all season. We may be looking at some kind of furniture = happiness metaphor here, because Don very much much resembles a stylish pad with nothing at all inside.

Which might explain why Don Draper isn’t Don Draper throughout most of “Lost Horizon.” He’s Bill Phillips of Connolly Research. I don’t think for a second that he’ll keep calling himself Bill now that his search for Diana went bust, but I also don’t think he’s going to do anything Don Draper-like for a while.

And when (or if) he gets back to New York, will there even be a job waiting for him? Somehow Hogart was hunting his “white whale” for years but never heard a peep about Don’s constant absences. Or that time he fled to California. Or when he was semi-fired for suggesting Hershey sell chocolate bars using the image of a destitute boy who turns to delicious chocolate as an escape when beaten and abused by prostitutes. Either way, there’s probably a “Don Disappears for Months on End” clause in that contract somewhere.

if this weren’t Mad Men’s final season (and if “Lost Horizon” didn’t exist under constant threat of there are only two episodes left), I’d expect the show to set up McCann Erickson as a kind of Big Bad, in the vague Mad Men sense that gave us Jim Cutler and Lou Avery last year. But with only two hours left, though, you’d think Mad Men has said all it can about McCann. It sucks. It’s a horrible place where the lowliest peon is just as scummy a human being as the evil overlord up top (I wonder how the real McCann Erickson feels about being portrayed as the Nazi Germany of the ad world).

“Lost Horizon” was an especially solid Mad Men (the closer we get to the finale, the more urgent these episodes get, and I’m not sure whether that’s from the show itself or just an impending sense of finale doom), but now that McCann’s served its purpose- destroying SC&P and scattering its members- I hope we’re moving in a different direction. Hopefully, something more contemplative and less focused on the evil scary ad firm that ruins everyone’s lives. Villains are great and all (especially when their evil master plans involve cartoon monkeys and Japanese animation studios), but with two hours to go, I’d like to spend those two hours with people named Peggy and Don and Joan. Definitely not anyone named Ferg.