Mad Men

'Mad Men' Recap: Homesick

The Kind of Episode We'll Miss Most About 'Mad Men'

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in 'Lost Horizon.'
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in 'Lost Horizon.' Credit: AMC

What will I miss most about "Mad Men"?

The fact that each and every episode felt like it was taking a stab at perfection and every once in a while it succeeded.

One of those times is "Lost Horizon," the show's third-to-last episode and an exquisitely-crafted, devastating, hilarious, tear-jerking 47 minutes of TV up there with the best ever. "Lost Horizon" might be to "Mad Men" what "Ozymandias" was to "Breaking Bad," a late episode so good not even the finale could surpass it. But in a way Matt Weiner goes one better by doing what he does without any of the trappings of Great TV Moments -- deaths, births or weddings -- but through the continuing transformations of characters we've come to know and love over seven seasons.

At the center of "Lost Horizon," a reference to the Frank Capra film Don watched during the season opener, is the tragedy of Joan. For weeks now, we've known that her assimilation to McCann Erickson was going to be rocky at best. For all her canniness, she has the thinnest resume of all the Sterling Cooper partners and possesses no easily categorized agency skills. Couple that with her looks and she's a juicy target for the louts in power at McCann.

After a junior suit screws up a call with Avon, one of the clients Joan has developed, she takes her problem up the McCann ladder. Her first stop is Ferg Donnelly, who is eager to help if help means he gets some. "I'm not expecting anything more than a good time," he tells her. Next stop is the big boss, Jim Hobart, but before she gets there she leans on her new bf, Richard, for advice. He basically tells her to get help and make physical threats -- not particularly good advice, but it does end up being useful.

Instead of that kind of intimidation, she opts for legal and reputational threats, invoking the EEOC and warning of a PR scandal. We already know there's a little club of McCann women meeting at the Oyster Bar, so there may be something to her threat. Hobart offers her 50 cents on the dollar for a piece of the agency worth over half a million. Joan storms out.

The question is nothing less than the price of her integrity, because Joan's ownership stake came from a very brutal kind of sweat equity when she prostituted herself so the agency could win Jaguar.

We love Joan for standing up to this nasty old man, but any flicker of hope that she'll be saved by sexual harassment law is quickly doused. Roger Sterling arrives on the scene, but not even he can save her. All he can do is guarantee that the offer is good and tell her to take it. "It's all about the money. Don't hide behind politics. Take the money and be done with them."

She gives in and walks out. She does so with a ton of money, a young son and a rich, caring boyfriend. She will have a nice future -- and yet the moment is indescribably sad. That's due to to the acting of Christina Hendricks, who should seal up an Emmy for her work this season.

Meanwhile, Roger and Peggy are struggling to remove themselves from the old Sterling Cooper & Partners offices, now a disaster zone following the move. Even the computer is being put out to pasture. "It served its purpose," Harry Crane tells Sterling, pointing out that McCann has a real data operation. Crane, basically, is the only one happy to be there.

Over at McCann, there's been confusion over Peggy's new office -- they think she's a secretary -- a fairly clear telegraph that she won't be enjoying the same status there. Roger, on the other hand, is feeling sorry for himself and is lost in a haze of nostalgia as he goes through decades of detritus. Peggy isn't having it. She knows that all he wants is an audience, and that he's idealizing the place to boot, and says as much. And, yet, the night goes on, ending with the two drunk on vermouth -- it's all that's around -- and her roller skating around empty offices while he plays the organ. It feels like a reference the good ol' freewheeling days of SC&P, a moment of intense nostalgia shared by two characters who couldn't be more different. And it is a sublime moment.

The next morning when we see Peggy bouncing down the hallway of McCann, sunglasses perched and cigarette dangling from a coy smile, she is a coquette we haven't seen before. The boys' heads are turning and it's clear that she has changed, reinvented herself overnight.The night before she told Sterling, "You know I need to make men feel at ease." Not anymore. She's carrying a gift from Sterling, actually a leftover bit of Bert Cooper's Japanese obsession: a depiction of "an octopus pleasuring a lady," as Sterling matter-of-factly sumed it up. Yes, the image will add to the sexual edge Peggy seems to want to cultivate, but it's also about carrying a bit of Sterling Cooper forward.

While Peggy is taking a shot at fitting into McCann, Don oh-so-quickly is rejecting the place. In the opening moments of the episode, we learn he's been having trouble navigating the sprawling offices. He regards the whistling of the wind past his windows with terror. But then he learns that Hobart has set up some big meetings for him, chief among them Hilton and Miller Beer. He begins to warm to the place. Hobart even gets him to say it: "I'm Don Draper from McCann-Erickson." When Don's secretary lays out a few interior design options for him, he chooses the one that's red and white -- like a can of Coke, a giant McCann client.

Don's called into a meeting and, in it, you can see the changing nature of advertising. The three-martini lunch is now a now roast beef sandwich in a box accompanied by a Coke. The entertainment is a research presentation and the company is several other creative directors from McCann. It all looks like hard work. McCann isn't particularly glamorous and Don is no longer at the center of things, despite Hobart's fluffing. In fact, Hobart is hedging his bets, pitching woo to Ted Chaough and probably others.

Don does as Don does and walks out of the meeting. He drives upstate to take Sally to school, but she's already gone on her own. Left alone with Betty, he begins to make a move, but she fends him off. She can't be bothered. She's studying for school, reading Freud's Dora case, a text that would in the decades that followed become important to feminists.

Don keeps driving, deep into the night. Tired, he has a sort of vision of Bert Cooper, who comes to talk to him about "On the Road," which is sort of an obvious reference, being on the road and all. By 1970, Jack Kerouac, another dark-featured, alcoholic hedonist, had killed himself with the drink. His work had seeped into hippie culture, even though Kerouac the man had died a miserable, anti-Semitic wretch.

Don's destination is Racine, Wisc., the once-and-possibly-current home of Diana Baur, the waitress who burrowed her way into Don's soul before abandoning him. He's desperate to find her. Showing up at her ex-husband's house, he poses first as a market researcher, then as a collection agent, reinventing himself on the fly. There's no information to be had and the ex is on to him, chastising him with a bit of fire-and-brimston.

"She's a tornado just leaving a trail of broken bodies behind her," the ex tells him.

"I was worried about her," says Don, who might as well be talking about himself. "She seemed so lost."

Don continues to hurtle westward. The episode ends with him picking up a hitchhiker and a clear sense of Don's direction, which is that he has none. David Bowie's "Space Oddity," a song very explicitly about alienation, disconnection, directionlessness, plays us out.

It's a stunning end to a stunning episode and I have to agree with my wife's observation that it would have served very well as the final episode. Indeed it's hard to imagine anything better.

A note on Miller's "Diet Beer"
The fellow from Miller's research company was there to speak about diet beer, which by 1970 was a concept kicking around brewers. Gablinger's Diet Beer appeared in 1967, thanks to the work of Joseph Owades, who found a way to remove starch, carbs and thus calories from beer. He shared the recipe with a friend at Meister Brau, which followed thereafter. Miller bought Meister Brau in 1972 and launched Miller Lite in 1975, supported with "Tastes Great, Less Filling," the iconic campaign created by, you guessed it, McCann-Erickson.

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