LIVE AND LET DIE
‘Mad Men’: Don Draper’s Suicidal Tendencies and Joan’s ‘F-You’ Moment
The third to last episode of Mad Men included several moments that foreshadow Don’s potential fate, and also saw Joan reach her BS limit. [Warning: Spoilers]
Mad Men’s biggest swingin’ dick, Don Draper, wearing the shit out of a bespoke suit—as is his wont—glides through the halls of McCann Erickson and into his new, spacious corner office. By his side is his Helium-voiced secretary, Meredith, who hands her boss an envelope containing personal effects that movers found at his apartment. Among its contents were his Social Security card and his ex-wife Megan’s wedding ring.Once she leaves, Don, in full-on Master of the Universe mode, ambles over to the window to check out his new view of Manhattan. He looks down. It’s so cripplingly silent you can hear the wind whipping about. He presses his hands to the window, and then recoils, raising an eyebrow. The camera locks on him as he stares out the window into the abyss.
It’s a chilling sequence that opens “Lost Horizon,” the antepenultimate episode of AMC’s celebrated TV series—one that recalls the show’s opening credits, featuring a silhouetted figure in a suit (presumably Don) falling from a skyscraper to his death.Don has been spiraling downward throughout the series, but never more so than during its seventh and final season. His wife, Megan, left him heartbroken and furniture-less; Sally wants nothing to do with him, calling him out on his overplayed vanity; he’s lost one of his mentors in Bert Cooper; and his first wife, Betty, not only is settled down in the ‘burbs with a politician, but also so over Don that his mere touch, in the form of a non-threatening neck rub, makes her feel ill at ease. He is completely adrift, stuck between the Fields of Punishment and the Vale of Mourning with no chance in hell of gaining admission to Elysium.
“He’s had his wings clipped in every way, shape, or form, and one of his big professional touchstones dies, and that signifies not only a shift in the power dynamic, but also a shift in Don’s life,” Hamm told me. “This person, this titan whose name is on the building, is gone forever. It hits Don particularly hard, and Bert’s swan song is very emotional for Don. That’s where he is.”He added, “He’s just said goodbye to this person and is very, very curious what the next step is going to be. We’ve seen it happen before, and they’ve once again wiggled their way out of a financial conundrum, but everyone is older now, and everyone is more or less comfortable. This is a very different beast.”
Everyone else has someone. In last week’s episode, when the SC&P gang was done toasting the McCann Erickson deal, they all had somewhere to go afterwards to continue the celebration—except Don, who was left at the bar all by his lonesome. Before, at least he could hang late at the office with Peggy, but the company he helped build is no more. Now this paragon of machismo has been reduced to chasing a mysterious “tornado” of a waitress whom he barely knows halfway across the country, posing as a collections agent to milk information out of her ex-husband.
The moment that inspires this fool’s errand harkens back to that opening window sequence, too. Don is attending McCann Erickson’s meeting with Miller Beer, sitting in a packed boardroom of creative directors. He looks out of place; a well-coiffed cog in a very large machine. During it, he drifts off, staring out the window once again—only this time, it’s at a plane flying past the Empire State Building, its trail forming a cross with the skyscraper’s point. This bit of religious imagery reminds Don of his mortality, and so startles him that he irish exits and heads to Racine, Wisconsin, to try and find the latest person to abandon him.
On his drive to Racine, Wisconsin, he’s haunted by the ghost of Bert, who appears in the passenger’s seat. He attempts to talk Don into bailing on the trip, but Don, despite his decidedly un-Kerouacian exterior, thinks it’s romantic. “Remember On the Road? I’m riding the rails,” he tells Bert. “You like to play ‘the stranger,’” Bert replies, before quoting the book, “Wither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” In On the Road, the question is posed to Sal and Dean by Carlo, who first laments their “sordid business” before wondering whether their struggles are indicative of the country’s—just as Don’s are. He is, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, “God’s Lonely Man”; a tragic hero who wears the shame of a covetous nation on his face.
The title of the episode, “Lost Horizon,” holds significance, too. It’s the name of the 1937 Frank Capra classic about a politician, Robert Conway, whose plane crashes in the Himalayan Mountains. He’s rescued and taken to Shangri-La, a dreamscape where people don’t age. Upon discovering this troubling fact, the protagonist’s younger brother, George, goes crazy and leaps to his death, while Robert jumps off a ship and returns to the idyllic Shangri-La to live out his ageless days. Like Robert, Don’s proverbial plane has crash-landed in the wilderness, and he’s been left scouring the scorched earth for his own Shangri-La—a place he may only find in death.
Whereas Don is spiraling downward, Peggy has finally gotten her mojo back—in the form of Bert’s Hokusai painting, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” depicting, in the words of Roger, “an octopus pleasuring a lady.”
In a rare moment, Peggy and Roger get to share a juicy scene together, and it’s been worth the wait. They’re in the empty offices of SC&P getting drunk on vermouth (Peggy’s choice), when the feisty creative decides to give good ol’ Rog a piece of her mind. “You were supposed to watch out for us!” she says.
“This business doesn’t have feelings,” he replies. “You get bought, you get sold, you get fired… even if your name’s on the damn door, you should know better than to get attached to some walls.”
Later, he shares a war story with her of his time in the Pacific, and we’re blessed with two indelible, delicately crafted images: the first sees drunk Peggy roller skating circles around an even drunker, organ-playing Roger, and the second is Peggy the next morning, strutting down the McCann Erickson halls in shades, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and clutching the octopussy painting—mirroring Don’s first stroll through McCann.
But let’s talk about Joan. Poor, poor Joan. If being forced to sleep with a Jaguar executive and being raped by her prick of an ex-husband weren’t bad enough, she now has to deal with the sexist men of McCann—a predicament hinted at during her Topaz meeting with those misogynistic copywriters from the mega-firm. When Dennis, her underling at McCann, screws up a call with Joan’s prized client, Avon, she’s understandably pissed, and lashes out at him.
“I’m sorry, who told you you got to get pissed off?” Dennis says, glaring at her. “I thought you were going to be fun.”
The run-in with Dennis is only the tip of the iceberg, though. When she reports the incident to McCann exec Ferguson Donnelly, played by noted One Tree Hill terrorist Paul Johansson, he does a bait-and-switch, first saying he’ll “take care of it personally," then revealing his real motive: to get in her pants.
“Look, I know a good job when I see one,” he tells her. “Hey, I’m easy, I’m not expecting anything other than a good time. I mean, I want to get to know you, of course.”
She reports the incident to Jim Hobart, the head of McCann, and asks him to buy her out for her equity stake of $500,000, which snowballs into a very heated exchange.
“Joan, it may not have sunk in, but your status has changed,” Hobart patronizingly says. “I’ve tried to be patient, but I don’t care about your SC&P partnership. I don’t know if somebody left it to you in their will, but your little stake doesn’t mean anything here. Other people always say you’re the kind of gal who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but no. You’re not telling me how to run my business. Now, find a way to get along, or you can expect a letter from our lawyer.”
Cue Joan, who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. “I wonder how many women around here would like to speak to a lawyer. I think the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has one,” she says. “I think the second I file a complaint I’ll have the ACLU in my office, and Betty Friedan in the lobby with half the women who marched down Fifth Avenue. I guess you didn’t see the headlines about what happened at Ladies Home Journal or Newsweek,” the latter referring to the landmark sex discrimination lawsuit. “Then you should get out of my office, immediately,” he says, coldly. “Go ahead. I’d rather give it to a lawyer.”
After getting some guidance from Roger, she ultimately caves, accepting Hobart’s $250,000 buyout. “Tell him he has a deal,” she says.
Now, with her nest egg largely intact, Joan will, presumably, gallivant around the world with her real estate magnate-lover. Her Madison Avenue nightmare is over. Hey, at least now she’ll get to gaze at the pyramids instead of a revolving door of smirking, woman-hating jerks. They’re a lot prettier.