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McCann Erickson is an incredibly effective Ghost of Mad Men Past

"Join us!" beckon Ferg and Jim creepily from the shadows. "All your troubles will be forgotten!"
"Join us!" beckon Ferg and Jim creepily from the shadows. "All your troubles will be forgotten!"
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.

Dylan Matthews: Last week, I complained that the McCann takeover didn't feel like a dramatic enough change to justify the horrified reaction it generated in the Sterling Cooper & Partners staff. Could it possibly be that different? "Lost Horizon" feels like a direct answer to that question. To whit: "Yes, it can be 1960 again."

The takeover was always going to be harder on Joan than anyone else. Her situation in SC&P was sui generis, the kind of thing that's only possible in a small, tight-knit firm wherein she commands an unusual degree of respect (well, not enough respect for her colleagues to not prostitute her out, but enough to compensate her well for it). Her power came from knowing and being trusted by the other partners, and once they became mere employees themselves, that power evaporated. Even if the executives she worked with and for weren't sexual harassers, she was in an impossible situation.

That those executive acted like ... well, like Pete or Roger or Don would have acted in season one is only further reason to leave. That's hardly the only echo of the show's beginnings. As Todd noted in his recap, Don's office at McCann appears to be a deliberate echo of his office at Sterling Cooper in the series' beginning. The pitch Don's hearing when he absent-mindedly watches an airplane pass over the New York skyline is of the same nostalgic, heartstring-tugging tone that Don nailed for his Kodak pitch in "The Wheel." Conrad Hilton even gets a quick mention. (Remember when he bolted for McCann in season three?)

It's kind of a brilliant storytelling device. There's no necessary reason McCann should be as stuck in the past as it apparently is. But making it into the reanimated corpse of the original Sterling Cooper allows Matthew Weiner to plop season-seven characters into a season-one world and show how much they've grown. Season-one Joan endures sexual harassment as an occupational hazard; season-seven Joan won't put up with it for a second. Season-one Peggy was terrified and wracked with self-doubt; season-seven Peggy demands an office and then struts into it like a boss, wielding tentacle porn for good measure. Season-one Don pitches "the wheel"; season-seven Don is bored by a similar pitch and flees.

I'm so used to seeing Don get away with anything that I was barely fazed when he bolted. The man ditched Pete for days in California in season two with no consequences. Even his teary remembrances of a brothel childhood during the Hershey's meeting at the close of season six merely set him back temporarily. Less than a season later, he's back to being the Don Draper, the guy Jim Hobart has been trying to nab for a decade. Hobart spent 10 years trying to woo Don; are a few days — weeks, months — of AWOL Don really going to trump that?

So I was surprised to see people I follow on Twitter raising the possibility that this is where Don lands, that he ends up back in California, never to see McCann or his children or any of his paramours ever again. I assumed this was another one of his periodic existential tantrums, one that would resolve itself in time, just like all the rest. But I suppose that's not required anymore. The show could never have Don just up and leave on a permanent or even extended basis before; it'd effectively plop him in a totally separate plot line, disconnected from the rest of the show. It'd be like when Hannah Horvath went to Iowa.

But we're closing in on the finale, and with his fake niece Stephanie presumably still hanging out with her pot-dealing boyfriend and their baby in Oakland, Don does have family of a sort waiting for him out West. He has plenty to pull him out and not a whole lot of reason to stay (or, more accurately, Matthew Weiner no longer has much reason to make him stay). In a way, a Graduate-style ending in which he finally rebels for good and starts over in California — only to become just as ambivalent and fearful of his prospects there as he was in home — would get at the ultimate futility of Don's decade-long quest to fill the emptiness in his life. The problem isn't his surroundings; it's him.

Oh, and one more thing — am I right in thinking Roger was playing a Hammond organ, the preferred instrument of Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, and Billy Preston?

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

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