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McCann Erickson is to Mad Men's final season as the neo-Nazis were to Breaking Bad's

Peggy Olson is here to save the day.
Peggy Olson is here to save the day.
AMC

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Spoilers for Breaking Bad's final season follow.

Todd VanDerWerff: On the one hand, Joan's storyline in "Lost Horizon" does something I hate: it turns everybody from McCann Erickson into a braying jackass, devoid of nuance or subtlety. They're all pretty much evil, because the final arc of episodes needs one final Big Bad for the good folks of Sterling Cooper & Partners to face off against. (Leave aside for a moment that this has not traditionally been a show about the characters battling evil. Just go with me here.)

I've been thinking a lot about other TV show's final seasons in connection to this episode, obviously, and a big realization struck me just now as I sat down to write about this: McCann Erickson fulfills roughly the same function in this final arc of episodes as the evil neo-Nazis did in the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad. They're there to be so much worse than our regular characters that we root for our regulars to succeed one last time.

While I think the final stretch of episodes of Breaking Bad is, on the whole, really, really good, I have some significant problems with it, and many of those problems boil down to the Nazis. To me, it almost felt as if the show blinked when it came time to finally make Walter White the villain of the show, because it needed viewers to stay invested in him somehow, when both Hank and Jesse were right there, ready to take up the mantle of protagonist (perhaps together) and bring Walter down.

Now, to a degree, that's not what Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and company were up to. They were looking into Walter's soul to see if any glimmer of decency remained, then eventually found it. But by contrasting Walter against literal Nazis, they stacked the deck so far in Walter's favor that they almost had to find what they were looking for.

This is sort of what Mad Men is doing with McCann as well, but it doesn't bother me nearly as much. It's a little narratively convenient, sure, but endings of stories almost always are. For one thing, McCann has always been presented as opposition to the various iterations of Sterling Cooper through the years (all the way back to season one).

And for another, one of the show's major themes has always been the ways that women navigate around a power structure invented by men to get what they want. McCann's open, bald-faced sexism lacks anything approaching nuance, but it also sort of makes sense within the story Mad Men has always been trying to tell (and it's not as if open, bald-faced sexism has never existed).

But where you, Libby, and other women I know are terrified for Peggy as she walks into that office, I think she's going to be just the person to tear apart the old boys' club that runs McCann. Matthew Weiner has always used Joan and Peggy as examples of how being born even a few years apart can make a huge difference when it comes to opportunities, and I think he's carefully contrasting the way Joan doesn't get what she wants with how Peggy gets the office she demands.

Remember how the episode seemed to be setting things up for Peggy to get shunted down to the secretarial pool, a horrible regression to her earliest days on the show? Well, she hangs out with Roger, she holds out for an office, and she finally gets it. She might have to work on a drafting table while her furniture is located, but she's at least on the right track.

The tragedy of Joan — which can be a little overwhelming at times — is that she was born just late enough to see some of the benefits of feminism but just early enough to see too few of them. She's forever watching doors shut just ahead of her, while women younger than her climb on board the train toward wherever they're going. Mad Men has always positioned Peggy as a trailblazer, someone who might kick that door open, but it's also never lost sight of the women who spotted the trail in the first place — women like Joan.

That's likely cold comfort to her as she heads out into a world where she has no job, much less the fulfilling job she had invented for herself at SC&P, but seeing Joan leave hell while Peggy enters it, guns blazing, struck me as perhaps the most forthright example yet of the show playing with this theme.

I'll let Dylan deal with your other questions, Libby, except to say that if Don's cross-country voyage doesn't somehow bring him to California, I will eat my hat.

Read the recap, and check back tomorrow for thoughts from Dylan.

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Next: Dylan on how McCann recalls the show's past

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