It’s the first day of school and Don Draper seems to be the transfer student of McCann’s dreams. Beverly holds the door, Meredith walks him to class, a cellophaned gift basket waits on his desk–yet when the camera pushes in on Don’s face, looking out the window as if the landscape is as changed as the view, the glass becomes a mirror: it’s him who’s not himself. The singular Don Draper of SC&P, at turns lion and lion tamer, is just another ass in the stands as his square-jawed doppelgänger holds court over lunch. Faye Miller might like to know that Don doesn’t listen to this research either, even as Bill Phillips’ clichéd interrogation of the Midwestern everyman–What is his brand?–speaks directly to Don’s own malaise.
Only an episode ago, Don lit up when Jim Hobart dangled the prospect of representing Coca-Cola. By “Lost Horizon,” the red cans all over the Miller lunch are as easy for him to abandon as the rest of the room. Of the personal effects that Meredith dutifully produces, Anna’s/Megan’s engagement ring in particular is a loaded gun, poised to fire Don west toward an old, or yet undiscovered, iteration of his ‘brand.’
Whatever his alterations, the eternal Don chases after absence. Season 6 Betty–already pop-psychologizing–was right in telling Don that “…loving you is the worst way to get to you.” If Diana is any indication, the best way is to ghost, to replace oneself with a void into which Don can emotionally (and apparently geographically) project. He likes, as ghost-Bert remarks, to play the stranger, and it’s only in encountering absence that Don can feel authentically new.
While Don plays hooky, “Lost Horizon” traffics in graver departures, beginning with Shirley giving Roger her notice. She explains that advertising isn’t “a very comfortable place for everyone”–meaning, is a shitty situation for a specific some–and the motif of euphemism as women’s survival tactic persists throughout the episode, most crucially through Joan.
Joan approaches life at McCann much as she did her previous tenure: as a handler, expert in the micro evasions and adjustments necessary to lubricate working with and for men. She understands that every exchange is a negotiation, not only between colleagues, but within herself, as she perpetually quells reactions, measures alternative responses, and accommodates the paradoxical delicacy of men’s feelings at the expense of defending her own. Such handling requires Joan to be as supple and unflagging as the structures that seek her diminishment.
As we saw in “Severance,” the pressures of performance under patriarchy extend to interactions among women. The copywriters who visit Joan’s office and invite her to the oyster bar seem like they’re sucking up, enacting a show of solidarity for access to her accounts. They defuse their ladies’ happy hour by promising a bitch session: we are strictly consciousness lowering. The joke is meant to assure Joan that despite being women, they’re fun!–a loaded descriptor, given Dennis’ last word–and we know the employees of SC&P are all about consciousness lowering in the tranquilizing sense (see: Roger’s solemn concession to drink straight vermouth).
But the dig at consciousness raising–a 1960s radical feminist practice using informal rap sessions to build self/mutual understanding among and about women–is all the more sinister for its nonchalance. Historically, consciousness raising aims to promote group edification through non-competitive “data” accumulation; women take turns posing and answering questions about their lives. The alchemic idea is that conversation–especially when balanced between voices in the room–can lay the groundwork for social action. In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong quips that “Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed.” This, too, isn’t (only) a joke, as it partially echoes the proposition that discourse can build ethics, community, and receptivity. As a practice, consciousness raising prefers sheer listening to the valuation of one story, or one kind of woman, over another.
Arguably forever, but particularly in light of Peggy’s recent aversion to secretarial labor, Mad Men is compellingly, if frustratingly, ambivalent toward this ethos. We get it: Peggy is no longer a secretary, and she doesn’t want to be confused for another girl in the pool. She refuses to make calls on her own behalf, she even walks away from her own spilled coffee–a nice parallel to the episode’s opening, in which Don, wringing drips from his hand, asks Meredith to just leave the cup on his desk. As Peggy and Joan face discrete strains of sexism, the show positions them as if back on the elevator: facing the same direction, seeing very different things.
Disgusted by a gift intended for SC&P’s secretaries, Peggy immediately asks her girl Marsha if Don’s been apprised of the mistake; yet when Don offers to intervene on Joan’s behalf, she insists she’ll “figure it out.” Where Peggy hopes for Don to wield his privilege to legitimize her status at McCann, Joan’s impulse is to do-it-herself: it’s the move she made in scooping Avon from Pete, and in picking the Columbia business professor’s brain over Butler. She doesn’t want to “call a guy” in any capacity, but her attempts to work the system–to be sufficiently deferential to the chain of command–here prove painfully futile.
Twice in “Lost Horizon,” Joan’s “business” euphemistically doubles for sex. Nothing comes between me and your business, and, You’re lucky he’s taken an interest in your business. But lest we imagine that this is a collapse native to the McCann transition, we might remember that Joan has already been raped in the office. Despite the perils of absorption, this space is no more or less safe than that from which she came.
Much will be made of this episode’s ostentatiously cool images of Peggy Olson: roller skating in arabesque through the empty office, and especially drifting in sunglasses down the hall, cigarette perched, 19th century tentacle porn under her arm. Like smoking weed at work or doing the twist, these images are lyrical, and appealingly surreal: ammunition for Peggy as avatar of girl badassery.
I’m not sure whether Mad Men positions Peggy’s arrival to distract from Joan’s humiliating departure, or (worse) invites us to choose, or (better) reasserts its complexity in the very juxtaposition; regardless, it feels exceptionally cruel that such viral currency won’t adhere to the close-ups of Joan’s face. To her muscles contorting below the skin’s surface as Dennis stalks out of her office; to the haplessness of her opening and closing her hands as she searches for nonthreatening language; to the spasms of sick recognition when she reads Ferg Donnelly’s card. Joan’s rage and panic aren’t so easily aestheticized. But the close-ups that punctuate her systematic degradation show us a strength that defies precarity, through the language of her face.