'Mad Men' Recap: Skate and Destroy

Restlessness, sexism and roller skates — tonight's episode was a doozy

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in 'Mad Men.' Credit: AMC

The title of tonight's Mad Men episode — "Lost Horizon" — comes from a 1937 Frank Capra movie (the one Don Draper watched at Megan's Los Angeles house in last year's season opener, "Time Zones") about a British diplomat who crash-lands in the Himalayan valley of Shangri-La. It's a magical place, where life passes in a peaceful idyll, the natives welcome you with wide smiles, and women roller skate while their silver-haired bosses play the organ in an empty office.

Okay, that last part only happens in the former office of Sterling Cooper & Partners, where the partitions have been struck, Harry Crane's beloved and expensive computer has been taken from its glassed-in sanctuary, and all that remains is the memory of what once was — that, and a picture of "an octopus pleasuring a woman," courtesy of the late Bert Cooper's Orientalist fixation. "It was a hell of a boat," Roger Sterling muses, but Peggy Olson sets him straight: "It looks good now, but it was miserable when you were in it." (Cue Roger tickling the keys and his vermouth-drinking companion whizzing by on skates — between that shot, Betty perusing a paperback of Freud and Peggy slo-mo waltzing into her new office in shades, let a thousand GIFs bloom from this episode.)

Where the walls at SC&P have come down, the ones at McCann-Erickson remain very much in place. "Lost Horizon" begins and ends with shots of characters striding down the firm's claustrophobic grey corridors, a maze that some rats are bound to navigate better than others. Don is the top man for a glorious few minutes — when he tries out "I'm Don Draper from McCann-Erickson" on his new boss, Jim Hobart, he looks like he's about to change into Superman. But at his first meeting, the former golden boy is just a face in the crowd. The product, "diet beer," isn't one Don can begin to understand; beer is for men, as far as he's concerned, and diets are for women. But it's the sight of a dozen creative directors, each with their not-quite-identical office pens poised to take notes, that sets him to daydreaming, staring at a jet plane leaving lonely contrails in the air by the Empire State Building. He's meant to be free, not tied down by a four-year contract — although the brief glimpse of his Social Security card, secreted away in an envelope with Megan's wedding ring, reminds us that while Don Draper signed that contract, Dick Whitman did not.

It won't be "Bill Phillips," the identity he briefly adopts to try and glean Diana Bauer's current address after he takes an impulse trip to Racine, Wisconsin, with the ghost of Bert Cooper riding shotgun. (Cooper, or at least Don's exhausted hallucination of him, cites Kerouac's On the Road: "Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?") Diana's ex-husband sees through Don twice: He knows he's not trying to deliver a refrigerator filled with Miller beer, and he's not a collection agent, either. He's just one more man sucked up by Diana's "tornado" — not even alone in his obsessions.

While Don goes walkabout, Joan is trying to get her footing at McCann, but she hits institutional sexism at every level, beginning with the female copywriters who try to steal Peggy's accounts and invite Joan out for a girls-only drinks session that they promise will be "strictly consciousness-lowering." (No women's movement here, no sir.) The same piggish McCann account man who leered that Joan "should be in the bra business" several episodes ago now undercuts her on a client call with disastrous results. And when she brings the problem to Ferg Donnelly, the cure is worse than the disease: The just-the-two-of-them trip he proposes is a transparent pretext. He's no better than his underlings, just more insidious in his harassment — a more evolved ape.

So Joan takes it up with Jim Hobart, and it's abundantly clear that McCann's misogyny stems from the top. Leaving her out while SC&P's other partners were assigned plum accounts was no oversight: The new boss was willing to tolerate her as long as she stayed in her place, but the moment she asserts herself, he flies into an incredulous rage. Hobart can't conceive that Joan might have earned her partnership (let alone the sacrifice she made to earn it): He assumes it was an inheritance, just as the McCann employee charged with sending flowers to all of SC&P's secretaries saw Peggy Olson's name on the personnel list and sent her some, too. Although Joan threatens the man with a lawsuit, invoking the holy trinity of the EEOC, the ACLU and Betty Friedan, there's no good way out, and she knows it. Roger warns her, "You started something that could leave you with nothing." The best she can do is take 50 percent of her half-million-dollar partnership stake; she can't burn the place down without going up in flames herself. As the departing Shirley, who's found a job in a more hospitable environment, tells Roger, "Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone."

It may not even be a comfortable place for Don Draper any more. He once seemed like he'd go down pitching, selling a client with his dying breath, but the fight seems to have gone out of him. The title of next week's episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," is hobo slang for a railroad line, suggesting that Don's peregrinations are not yet at an end; the hitchhiker he picks up as "Space Oddity" floods the soundtrack is headed to St. Paul, which means he's still headed west, although perhaps not all the way to California. Could the finale's title, "Person to Person," suggest that as Dick Whitman gave way to Don Draper, Don Draper might give way to someone else?

Previously: End Times