Mad Men: Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon: “No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.”

James B. South

At this point, Mad Men has become so complicated and self-referential that it’s amazing Matthew Weiner can still craft a good episode that advances the story. Luckily, though, so many of the show’s references are also to things outside the Mad Men universe that I still find myself captivated and intrigued. So, let me first acknowledge the complications, the “knotting into” that is going on. Thomas Pynchon’s sentence from Gravity’s Rainbow, which I use above in my title, is about the complications of plot and points to our attempt to make sense of it all and how difficult that might be. It also highlights the theme of this post: how much are Dick Whitman and Don Draper knotted into one another? This post will concentrate on Don, but I am painfully aware that I need to talk about Peggy and Joan. I will probably do a separate post on their stories as the season finishes up.

I begin with the title of the episode. In the first episode of season 7, entitled “Time Zones,” we viewers see Don and Megan—now divorced, but then married—watching the movie version of Lost Horizon. The plot of “Lost Horizon” is simple enough. A group of passengers on a plane are hijacked off course and their plane crashes near a special place, Shangri-La, where time stands still and life is peaceful. There the passengers find a High Lama, who, it turns out, is hundreds of years old, but now dying. He has chosen a writer and diplomat to take his place, someone who can deal with what awaits outside in the barbaric world of modern society.

Here’s how the movie opens:

In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? / Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth—Sometimes merely “that little chicken farm.” One man had such a dream and saw it come true. He was Robert Conway—England’s “Man of the East”—soldier, diplomat, public hero.

In the parallel Mad Men episode, we see Don starting work at McCann Erickson. He is brought in to meet with a group of businessmen from Milwaukee, who want to market a new low-calorie beer that men will drink. The notion of a low calorie beer echoes so many products that we’ve heard about this season—L’Eggs, Topaz, plastics, etc.—and promises the same thing. That promise, the world of tomorrow, is a world in which experience of what is real is slowly being leached out by giant corporations and the large advertising firm that will sell those products, an advertising firm that has as its motto “Truth Well Told.” Can there be any “lasting delight” in these products advertisers sell? Don stays at the meeting only briefly, gets up, and walks out. Is he trying to find his own Shangra-La? Near the end of the movie, the High Lama tells Conway:

What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. Against that time, is why I avoided death, and am here. And why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be Kind! When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world. Yes, my son; when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled and the meek shall inherit the earth.

“The meek shall inherit the Earth.” No one has ever called Don Draper meek or even kind. But this episode’s re-referencing of Lost Horizon provoked me into thinking about the director of that movie, Frank Capra, perhaps best known for having directed It’s a Wonderful Life. And, sure enough, we get references to It’s a Wonderful Life in this episode—indeed, several. And in thinking about that latter movie, meekness does come to mind in the character of George Bailey. Recall that George had strong ambitions for his life. Early in the movie, he states them clearly:

I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…

But as we know, George never gets out of Bedford Falls, There’s always something that holds him back, whether it’s his father’s death, his brother’s need to go to college, keeping the family business afloat, and, of course, his marriage to Mary, who had had a crush on him since she was a young teenager. In short, George is the mirror image of the successful Robert Conway in Lost Horizon.

So, the contrast that I’m interested in exploring is drawn between these two movies and is at the heart of this Mad Men episode. It is the issue of saving civilization from barbarism or saving oneself from barbarism. In Lost Horizon, Shangra-La is pictured as a place of refuge from a “scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality.” In It’s a Wonderful Life, George comes to the following realization: “”Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The true question, though, as viewers of Mad Men know, is that Don has done precisely what happened to George—he made Dick Whitman never live and created a new life for the real, but dead, Don Draper. Now he must come to grips with the consequences of that decision.

The first reference to It’s a Wonderful Life that caught my attention is Harry Crane’s farewell to Roger Sterling in the old Sterling Cooper & Partners building: “See you in the funny papers.” It’s a rather odd way of saying goodbye, but it is also used by George Bailey’s friend Sam Wainwright. In many ways, Sam got to live the life that George always dreamed of, but never achieved. Sam went to college, travelled the world, and made his fortune. In fact, he made his fortune in plastics and had offered to let George in on the ground floor, but George had turned him down. Sam is driving through Bedford Falls, heading off to Florida with his wife, Jane, in a fancy car and he uses that same way of saying goodbye to George—“See you in the funny papers.” The saying is an odd one to parse, but to my ears it sounds as though it’s pointing out that life has a lightness and unseriousness to it while also reminding us of our childhood when possibilities were open to us. What kid didn’t turn to the “funny papers” to see and read the comics present there?

The second reference is Bert Cooper’s sudden appearance in Don’s car as he’s driving to Wisconsin to try to find Diana. This occurs after Don’s walked out of the low calorie beer meeting. In this meeting, a researcher is talking about a generic man whose likes and dislikes he knows from his market research. “There are millions of him,” the researcher states. What a depressing thought: someone can know so much about us as simply a statistic, a part of a group. It speaks to the power of advertising that it has helped to create such people, as well as the way that schools and media foster certain attitudes. It truly is the age of the “scurrying mass.” Don looks out the window and sees a plane flying over Manhattan. Meanwhile the researcher drones on about the brand and why someone chooses it: “The one he drank in college? The one his dad drank? The one that comes in the best bottle, can, cap? It doesn’t matter because that’s it and it’s not open for discussion. Now you all know that that’s not true, but how do you get him to open his mind?” Don picks up his things and leaves as the other advertising men (and they’re all men) continue to listen to the researcher. There’s a knowing look from Ted, who, as we’ve noted before, knows the future of advertising.

After Don leaves the meeting, he goes to Betty’s house where he’s just missed an opportunity to take his daughter back to boarding school. They have a warm exchange. Betty’s taking psychology classes as she’s always wanted to and Don finds out that his two sons have a busy and rich life. As he leaves, he looks fondly at Betty and says, “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.” It’s an idyllic moment in which Don seems genuinely to want what’s best for Betty and in which all past rancor between the two is gone. As he drives back, he sees two exits on the freeway. One goes to Manhattan, the other to I-95 and Pennsylvania. We see Don head away from Manhattan. Later on, as he’s driving through the night, he’s listening to the radio. The song playing is “Sealed with a Kiss,” about the parting of high school sweethearts who won’t be seeing each other until September. The song tells us that the parting means “a cold lonely summer.” That’s a fine trope. Most students look forward to summer when there’s no school and things are warm and fun; but not these two students and not Don, who is separated from the mysterious Diana and driving in a determined attempt to find her.

The radio announcer cuts in and describes the weather in downtown Cleveland. The voice changes to that of Bert Cooper, who states he is not ready to say goodbye to the summer. Bert’s sudden appearance in the front seat—Don’s hallucination, presumably, is an analogue of the visitation of the angel Clarence to George in It’s a Wonderful Life. Bert says that Don is driving in the wrong direction and that he’s not going to find what he wants in Racine, Wisconsin. Don admits that might be the case, but also tells Bert his advice is not going to stop him. Bert responds: “You like to play the stranger.” I can’t help but hear a reference to Camus’s famous novel here. Don likes to play the alienated person, the one who is going to fight for his individuality against the mass of humanity. Don responds, “Remember On the Road?” I’ve never read that book,” Bert says dismissively, “You know that.” Don keeps going: “I’m riding the rails.” This statement evokes, of course, the notion of the hobo and reminds the viewer of the first season episode, “The Hobo Code.”

And here things really get knotted. I’ve noted how throughout these last episodes of Mad Men, we’re getting continual references to first season episodes. Here it happens again. In that episode, we saw Don, high on marijuana, flashback to a scene from his childhood when a hobo visited his house. His mother made the hobo a meal, and afterwards the hobo and a young Dick Whitman talk. It turns out the hobo, who calls himself a “gentleman of the rails,” has some wisdom to impart to the young Dick Whitman: “What’s at home? I had a family once: a wife, a job, a mortgage. I couldn’t sleep at night tied to all those things. … Now I sleep like a stone: sometimes under the stars, the rain, the roof of a barn. But I sleep like a stone.” Is that the peace Don is looking for? It can’t quite be, because he’s looking for Diana, but perhaps he knows he’s not going to find her.

After Don’s line about “riding the rails,” Bert responds with a quote from the book he claimed not to have read: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Bert then disappears and the radio goes back to the song about the “cold lonely summer.” The timing here, of course, dates Don badly. On the Road came out in 1957 and would have been popular in the 1960 bohemian world portrayed in “The Hobo Code.” “Sealed with a Kiss” came out in 1962, predating the sixties rock that led to the summer of love and beyond. By 1970, the song and the Kerouac reference seems a little tired and clichéd. Don’s psychologically back in a period of his youth when there was possibility, when there might be true love, where Diana Bower represents for him a sanctuary or home from all that’s wrong with his Don Draperized life, or, indeed, his prior Dick Whitman life. He’s riding the rails, but he seems intent not on what the hobo told him, but on trying to find a home. A little later in On the Road, Kerouac writes: “The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death.” Is the “Lost Horizon” of the title a reference to never ending life (represented by the very slow aging that goes on in Shangra-La) or is it a reference to the fact that the best we can do is what Don is doing–riding the rails until death?

Things do not go well for Don in Racine. Diana is nowhere to be found and her former husband makes it clear that she’s unreliable. Seeing Diana’s former life, Don could be forgiven for thinking about the hobo. Diana’s husband is the very model of someone with “a wife, a job, a mortgage.” Unable to find the object of his quest, Don does not return to New York, though; he keeps driving. At the end of the episode, he picks up a hitchhiker (a 70s hobo?) who is going to St. Paul. It’s not that Don was planning to go that way, but as he says, “I can go that way.” The emphasis here, I’d want to say, is on the freedom implied by the “can,” the freedom implicit in Camus’s stranger and the freedom of being on the road. Don is really heading away from New York, reminding us of his yearning for California that was so clearly evoked in “Time and Life.” In writing about that episode, I quoted Joan Didion: “…but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it [New York] ended.” Has Don left New York for good? As he drives away with the hitchhiker towards St. Paul, the episode ends and the closing credits roll.

In my series of posts, I have made a lot of the significance of the closing songs this season. Here we have one that evokes the futuristic “riding the rails.” We hear David Bowie singing his 1969 song “Space Oddity.” These are the lyrics chosen for the credits from the song:

This is Ground Control

to Major Tom

You’ve really made the grade

And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

Now it’s time to leave the capsule

if you dare

This is Major Tom to Ground Control

I’m stepping through the door

And I’m floating

in a most peculiar way

And the stars look very different today

For here

Am I sitting in a tin can


Here, I think, we get a third, oblique, reference to It’s a Wonderful Life. The timing of the song is very clearly about the moon landing (the event that was the last thing Bert Cooper saw). The first verse is all Don’s New York World. Imagine the advertising possibilities of knowing the shirt being work by Major Tom (and how close does “Tom” sound to “Don”?). It’s a disenchanting view of the moon landing, the kind of view of a person committed to a brand who can be parsed by researchers and made to think differently. But the second verse is from Tom’s (and Don’s) perspective. For Don his car is his tin can, and he is far from something. What? The Shangra-La of Diana Bower? New York? Dick Whitman? Don Draper? Being an individual? Finding the lost bliss of Death? And what reference is there in all of this to It’s a Wonderful Life?

In a pivotal scene in that movie, as Mary and George are falling in love, George asks:

What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You-you want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon…Well, then you could swallow it. And it’ll all dissolve, see. And the moon beams that shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair…Am I talking too much?

This fantasy of lassoing the moon and having it transform Mary after she swallows echoes the motif of McCann Erickson swallowing up Sterling Cooper & Company. That resulted in their destruction and it’s something Don can’t tolerate. But George’s image is almost hallucinatory and conjures in my mind a moment of transformation. The title I’m using for this post is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I used that to talk about the scatological references in “Time and Life,” but here I want to use it to talk about destruction in addition to the complicating plot lines of Mad Men. The epigraph of the novel is from Wernher von Braun, the architect of the American space program that resulted in the moon landing: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”

There’s death and there’s death. For Don to be reborn, he must die, but the death can be a personal one, not a literal one. Don needs to be transformed. Can transformation occur in a tin can on its way to St. Paul? And is the destination—St. Paul—a reference to one of the most famous death and rebirth scenes in all of western history—St. Paul’s vision of a risen Jesus Christ on his road to Damascus? The philosopher Stanley Cavell has written, in his book The Claim of Reason: When my reasons come to an end and I am thrown back upon myself, upon my nature as it has so far shown itself, I can…use the occasion to go over the ground I had hitherto thought foregone. … Then I may feel that my forgone conclusions were never conclusions I had arrived at, but were merely imbibed by me, merely conventional. I may blunt that realization through hypocrisy or cynicism or bullying. But I may take the occasion to throw myself back upon my culture and ask why we do what we do, judge as we judge, how we have arrived at these crossroads.”

It is this occasion that I hear in the quoting of Kerouac, ““Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” They may be old words in 1970, but Don is having a moment where the conventions of his life and his work have left him on unstable ground. The conventions of 1970s America are a mystery to him. How will he find his footing here on the road, questioning America’s conventions? One of the most startling moments in the episode is when one of the McCann Erikson employees does an “impression” of Don and it sounds like Richard Nixon—at least to my ears. This impression provokes in me a questioning of 1970s conventions. It’s also shown in an exchange between Peggy and her employee Ed. Peggy, who still doesn’t have an office at McCann Erickson is in the old Sterling Cooper & Partners offices. She asks Ed to do some work for the Dow account. When she comes in the next day, he hands her the work for Dow Oven Cleaner with the caption: “Cleans up Quagmire”—as clear a reference to Vietnam and Nixon in 1970 as one could hope for.

Cavell goes on to write, “The anxiety in teaching, in serious communication, is that I myself require education. And for grownups this is not natural growth, but change. Conversion is a turning of our natural reactions; so it is symbolized as rebirth.” Is this the death Don is rushing towards? A Rebirth?

Pynchon, in a later novel, Vineland, has a character talk about a dream she has on a recurring basis. What the character calls the “Dream of the Gentle Flood.” I take it this is in contrast to Noah’s flood that erased almost all living things. In the description of this gentle flood, which might be a kind of baptism—the quintessential symbol for rebirth—the character, Frenesi who has lived through the 1960s says:

Though everyone in town was safe, the beaches were gone, and the lifeguard towers and volleyball nets, and all the expensive beachfront houses and lots, and the Piers, all covered by the cool green Flood, which almost paralyzed her with its beauty, its clarity . . . for “days” she could watch nothing else, while around her the town adjusted to its new shoreline and life went on. Late at “night” she went out on her deck and stood just above the surf, looking toward a horizon she couldn’t see, as if into a wind that might really be her own passage, destination unknown, and heard a voice, singing across the Flood, this wonderful song, the kind you heard stoned over at some stranger’s place one night and never found again, telling of the divers, who would come, not now but soon, and descend into the Flood and bring back up for us “whatever has been taken,” the voice promised, “whatever has been lost. …”

This dream encapsulates for me the tonal elements of Don’s story in this episode. He is looking at the horizon as he drives towards St. Paul and his questioning of what has been for him foregone, the conventions of America, are being questioned. And his hope, his Diana, is that the lost promise of his life will be brought back to him. That would be a wonderful life to be born into.

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