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Mad Men, perfectly explained in a single shot

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Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"They taught us at Barnard about that word, 'utopia'. The Greeks had two meaning for it: 'eu-topos', meaning the good place, and 'u-topos' meaning the place that cannot be." — Rachel Menken, season one, episode 6, "Babylon."

Here's the one shot that explains Mad Men.

Don sits in a meeting, listening to the description of a Miller beer drinker, described as a man from Wisconsin. It's the meeting he's wanted his whole career, a chance to really impress a big client.

But his heart isn't in it. It's obvious from Jon Hamm's face. And then he looks out the window.

A plane flies over Manhattan in the latest Mad Men.

Don spies a plane flying over Manhattan.


After director Phil Abraham holds on this shot for a long moment, he cuts back to Don, surrounded by cans of Coca-Cola, the symbol of everything he could gain from working at McCann. Abraham slowly pushes in on Don's face, as he comes to some sort of realization.

Don abandons a meeting on Mad Men.

Don is thinking about how he'd rather not be here right now.


We know Don well enough by now to know what that realization is. He's going to leave. He's going to leave, and he might not ever come back. When this episode ends with Don driving a young hitchhiker to St. Paul, rather than heading back to New York, it's as close as I've ever come to thinking he'll never be back. Heck, I wouldn't mind if that was the last we saw of him, if the show transitioned to filling out the lives of the other characters. It's that good an endpoint for the character.

If every episode of Mad Men can be summarized in one scene contained within it, as I suggested in the season premiere, then the shot of the plane above is the whole show in a single frame. No matter where the Mad Men characters are, they think there might be something better just around the corner, and it's that illusion that keeps trapping them. Utopia, as Rachel told us way back in season one, is a lie. It can never be.

Shangri-La awaits on Mad Men.

Don watches the movie Lost Horizon back in the season seven premiere.


Thinking about utopia led me to this episode's title, "Lost Horizon," which is the name of a film Don watched all the way back in the season seven premiere. Lost Horizon, in both novel and film form, is about the land of Shangri-La, a hidden world where things are perfect and people don't age. (Indeed, the hero of the story is brought to Shangri-La by a plane crash, adding extra resonance to the shot of the plane.)

And yet, many of the residents of Shangri-La wish to escape. A perfect world is no world worth living in, it would seem.

Thus it's fitting that "Lost Horizon" is about false utopias and attempts to escape them. Here are the three brands of fake perfection that ensnare our characters throughout the episode.

1) McCann Erickson

Don gets lost on Mad Men.

The strange labyrinth of McCann Erickson's hallways stymies Don. He, quite literally, is lost.


There's perhaps no scene in this episode that so resonates with the idea of the false utopia than when Don goes in for a meeting with Jim Hobart. Jim promises him the world, but he then wants Don to introduce himself, to say he's Don Draper with McCann Erickson. Jim has worked 10 years for this moment, and damned if he's not going to enjoy it.

But Don's not the type to want to feel owned. Indeed, feeling like he belongs to a company is the sort of thing that might cause him to bolt. One of the reasons he stuck with Sterling Cooper & Partners is that the agency was, at least partially, his idea. Yet now here he is, in a place where his office looks more than a little like the one he had in the first three seasons of the show.

Shangri-La is a place where people get frozen. It's how they're able to stay young for ages upon ages, but it's also why things never change. This is a constant theme of utopian fiction. Things might be great, but they're also pretty boring. A lack of evolution will do that to a person.

Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas's script for "Lost Horizon" is filled with moments where McCann Erickson seems ready to erase the characters' current iterations, to force them back into their season-one roles, no matter how much they protest.

Jim Hobart doesn't mince words with Joan on Mad Men.

Jim Hobart is no longer so much the devil in disguise. Now he's just the devil.


When Joan is told, in no uncertain terms, that her partnership doesn't matter and the best she can do is get half of the money McCann owes her, it's with the voice of a man who hasn't had to face the evolutions of the '60s, not really. Hell, for a time it seems like McCann is going to try to force Peggy back into the role of a secretary, even though we all know she'd never put up with that. The only person who seems really at ease at McCann is Pete, which is completely unsurprising.

That's why it makes sense that Don's new office seems so much like the old one. But that whistling window also seems like a dull warning of what's about to happen to him and all of his friends. They're just cogs in machines, now. The beautiful image of what could be is ruined by a tiny, single flaw.

2) Sterling Cooper & Partners

Roger and Peggy have a drink on Mad Men.

Roger and Peggy have a drink while Sterling Cooper & Partners literally disintegrates around them.


But you know what? Sterling Cooper & Partners, where Roger and Peggy spend most of the episode, was a false utopia, too. The founding partners started it to get away from McCann, but the only way it could survive as the kind of enterprise they wanted it to be was to ... become exactly like McCann. McCann is both successful and soulless, sure, but maybe there's something just a little soulless about success.

It's interesting to watch the show reimagine SC&P as a place where good things happened, a place too good to survive for long. For a moment, Peggy undercuts Roger's sentimentality with the insistence that everything at SC&P was miserable, but her heart's not really in it.

Of course, this is what we do. If we're thrust into a new situation that we don't like, we rewrite the old one as perfect. We might erase all of the happiness present in a marriage that ended in divorce, say, or remember a troubled relationship we nonetheless miss as better than it actually was.

There's a bit of that with Roger and Peggy, who sit in the shambles of their old lives and wonder about what could have been. The shot of Roger playing the organ while Peggy roller skates around the wreck that was their office is at once gleefully surreal and incredibly sad. This was somebody's dream, once, but now it's all being taken down and scattered to the wind.

But it's also notable, I think, that with proper time to mourn, the two of them show up at McCann and seem like they have their shit together. Roger goes to offer Joan a way out (even if it's not the way out she would have taken), while Peggy ... well, Peggy is just amazing in every way.

Peggy arrives for work at McCann on Mad Men.

Peggy Olson is the champion of our hearts.


Let's hope she stays amazing and shows McCann she's not to be trifled with.

3) America

Don waits outside a house he might have put in an ad on Mad Men.

Don waits outside a house he might have put in an ad. In fact, this almost looks like an ad.


This might seem like an overreach, but think about this episode's throughline, which involves Don leaving that meeting, saying a kind of farewell to his ex-wife, and finally driving off into Middle America in search of the former family of a woman he thought he loved. His journey to Racine, Wisconsin, is the journey he's been threatening to take all along, and when it ends, he heads even farther west, off toward the Twin Cities.

He's accompanied, for a time, by the ghost of one Bert Cooper, who quotes On the Road to him (after pointing out how he never would have read that book). Bert means to be Don's conscience again, to drag him back to New York, where he can at least help manage the fallout from Roger's attempt to save Don's job. But Don won't listen to it. He likes too much to play the stranger, as Bert puts it. The night is dark and endless, and the country rolls on in front of him. He's got money to burn.

Don goes off to look for America on Mad Men.

Don walks off to look for America, just like the song said.


But this has always been the temptation on Mad Men. Viewing America as a great big void in which to get lost, defined primarily by images of Shangri-Las that never were, invented by men like Don, is ultimately self-defeating. That's not how things really are. From Don's point of view, Diana is an impossibly mysterious woman who left it all behind, the way he always wishes he could have. From the point of view of her ex-husband and daughter, she just left.

And the fact that Don is able to go on a walkabout because he feels like it contrasts him almost perfectly with the other character who finally leaves McCann: Joan. Joan doesn't leave because she wants to. She leaves because she has to, and she leaves taking only half of what she's owed, a picture of her son, and her Rolodex. She can stay and be sexually harassed (with the tacit approval of the firm's president), or she can take the money and run. She threatens what would amount to a sexual harassment lawsuit, but she, ultimately, just doesn't have the funds to do anything. And so she goes.

In season six, Peggy spit at Ted that it must be nice to have "decisions," as she put it, and that's the corner so many of the show's women are in, perpetually. They control their own destinies, except for all of the ways in which they don't. Don can pick up a hitchhiker, a remnant of a rapidly fading counterculture, and drive off toward St. Paul. He might even go back to McCann and find acceptance all over again (though this seems unlikely). And that's because he's the kind of person who can find those things in this world. But Joan can't. Even Peggy, though she ultimately gets what she deserves, can't forever.

Since the show began many fans have wondered whether Don Draper will ultimately become the falling man from the opening credits. It's a thought that the whistling window in Don's office brings back to mind. Don Draper needs his escape routes, but Don Draper also has the luxury of looking for them. If nothing else, "Lost Horizon" proves that if he does become that falling man, it'll be because he chose to leap. If Joan falls, it will be because she was pushed.

Don and the hitchhiker head for St. Paul on Mad Men.

Don drives off, possibly forever.


Here's Peggy Olson to bring it all on home

Roger plays the organ while Peggy roller skates on Mad Men.

Roger plays the organ. Peggy roller skates. Good night, everybody!


Don't forget to ask me questions about the episode and other cultural topics in comments!

I'll be by at noon Eastern to talk with you guys about Mad Men and other things for an hour and a half.

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