Commentary

Episode 712 -- Ground Control To Major Don: Once More Into The Abyss

madblog“Lost Horizons” is the first killer ep in this last half season. Written by Matt Weiner and Semi Chellas, and directed by Phil Abraham (my favorite), it offers perhaps the best MM visual meme ever, of a newly badass Peggy.  

In a metaphor for the shutting down of the “Mad Men” set itself, she remains in the echoing, open shell of the Sterling Cooper office, and spends a night of drinking and skating as Roger plays a funereal-sounding organ.

By morning, like magic, Peggy's converted by Sterling into a form of Don, able to strut into her new job hung over but charismatic and cool as hell. Feeling newly entitled, she’s like a female Jean-Paul Belmondo (Don Paul Belmondo?), complete with Wayfarers, dangling cigarette, and openly carrying Octopus porn: the painting called “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.”  

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The whole episode is filled with ocean references. Roger calls the old agency a great ship, talks about needing a push to jump from a Navy vessel -- and of course, Don is Jim Hobart's “white whale.”

We also get plenty of red herrings.  Early on, Don stands at the window in his new office and actually pushes on it, hearing and feeling the wind rattle through it -- a Helen Keller moment for the falling man? madblogLater, he zones out at a meeting for a new “lady beer” where he is one of many creative director clones, penned in, all given the same notebook, Coke can, and boxed sandwich.

He stares up at a plane circling the Empire State Building -- a possible fake-out to all DB Cooper theorists (Cooper famously hijacked a plane and jumped out over Oregon, never to be seen or heard from again.).

“We all know this man,” says Bill Phillips at the beer meeting. “There are a million of them. And he wants freedom."

Freedom, and its limitations, is the theme of the episode. Most disturbing to me is that Don escapes the hell of McCann (sold to the SC&P group by that snake Hobart as “advertising heaven”) only to hit the open road in search of Diana -- “that waitress who doesn’t want you," as Bert Cooper's ghost puts it -- and all the pain and chaos she personifies.

madblogWe do see that Di didn’t lie about one thing. She did lose a child, and also left a nice house, a sad daughter, and a husband full of hell, fire and brimstone, (and creepy sideburns) who tries to bring Don back to Jesus. Just like the Depression-era drifter in "The Hobo Code," Don is now going door to door, testing out his identities and reception.

Meanwhile, it’s the summer of 1970, and the women’s movement is gaining traction. The sisterhood of Mad Women is not yet powerful, but kicking ass and taking names -- or trying to, at least.

madblogA female copywriting team at McCann (and by the way, what did that agency ever do to Weiner to get this treatment?)  cracks a joke with Joan about their weekly meeting to lower consciousness.

Sadly, just as she feared, Joan gets harassed and diminished (literally, for 50 cents on the dollar) by her new overlords. Before she gets kicked out (with Christina Hendricks, tears and fury in her eyes, doing the bravura acting of her life), she threatens the Devil Hobart with a mention of Betty Friedan, the feminist sit-in at Ladies’ Home Journal, and the lawsuit at Newsweek that resulted in women becoming writers and editors there for the first time.

But speaking of Betty, it’s interesting that the rap against Friedan and her history-changing book “The Feminine Mystique” was always that it drew exclusively from the ranks of educated, upper-middle-class suburban women who were despairing over a life limited to kinder and kuchen. (Lower-class women didn’t have the luxury of suffering from what Friedan called “the problem that has no name.” ) But our Betty is the very embodiment of it.

madblogSo it’s a clever set-up that self-centered Betty seems much more mature, now that she’s taking graduate courses in psychology. She seems determined and happy in her kitchen reading Freud, talking for the first time about Sally’s need for independence. (Actually, Friedan, a real psychologist, hated Freud for seeing women as hysterics or children.) The formerly childish Betty has grown enough not to fall back into the trap of having sex with her ex.

Feeling unneeded, Mopey Don, who can’t seem to get out of his own self-destructive way, madly searches for Diana, his Freudian white whale. Whether he wants to trap her or set her free -- or whether she will end up killing him -- is the question.  

Last week, I saw Matt Weiner speak twice in appearances in New York. The question of Diana, and why Don is so obsessed with her, came up both times. And he was touchy  about the negative feedback. 

"It's a meaningful story: sex with a stranger. Those people have ESP about grief,” Weiner explained. The Diana story line, he said, is like “a gift” that he and his team of professional writers wrapped and put a bow on -- while viewers reacted by saying, "This is the wrong size." Okay, then.

Certainly, Don and Di share feelings of isolation and enormous guilt. And each is a sexual and emotional “tornado -- leaving hundreds of bodies in its wake,” as Diana’s husband says. Don has yet to get at the root of his anxiety about being abandoned and motherless, and that’s why he heads for Racine (the root, in French.) Diana represents that terrible pang of nostalgia Don described in “The Wheel”: the search for home, a time when you were loved.  

Bmadblogut currently, stripped of his apartment, and his job, Don has no home. He’s “floating,” as David Bowie puts it in the closing music, “in a tin can.”  At the stultifying McCann he kept getting lost, and his once-ditsy secretary Meredith, who has turned into a fantastic character, takes care of everything like a super-competent 1950s wife, saying “I’m your map.” And he’s not going the way of Megan again.

Rather, he searches for the bitch/goddess Diana, who is his mirror image in guilt and despair. There have been theories on the Web that she feels so familiar to him perhaps because she is his secret sister. Or even that she’s his daughter (from when the Pennsylvania prostitute took his virginity at 12.)  

madblog

In any case, his obsession allows the writers to fill the journey with all kinds of existential and religious imagery. After he picks up that hitchhiker (could the guy look any more like serial killer?) he heads to St. Paul. (Which conveys all the imagery of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.) If you remember, Anna Draper, a mother figure and his own true love, lived in San Pedro. That’s where he tried to kill himself in the ocean, and was instead reborn.

On a less lofty note, many advertising peeps want to think that Don ends up starting an agency with Peggy and Joan, or returns to McCann, or continues to be an industry legend. I think that Don is done with advertising.

As for the dead-on musical choice in the ending: David Bowie embodies the change that is in the air in the 1970s. His song, “Space Oddity,” is about technology and isolation.

Don’s been dead inside for a while, going through the motions, as phony as the impression of him that Ferg does, or having to say, “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson” like a performing seal for Hobart.

Finding out who Don really is has taken seven years and a pain tornado. Can this circle be unbroken? Can he “Clean the Quagmire,” as that ad for Dow noted -- or “leave the capsule if you dare,” as Bowie sings?

Only two episodes remain. I’m on tenterhooks.

36 comments about "Episode 712 -- Ground Control To Major Don: Once More Into The Abyss".
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  1. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, May 6, 2015 at 12:31 p.m.

    Def thought the hitchhiker looked like Charlie Manson, but I'm guessig we never see him again. The scene with dead Bert Cooper's "ghost" was the only one that didn't work, IMHO. Great sequence in the meeting room with the creative drones and Don looking out to the plane. My guess is that he's done and gone for good, but we'll see. And I'm betting that Peggy's victory strut into McCann is temporary...this episode also hinted that she would be marginalized as well; we might see a new agency formed, but I'm betting it'll be by the women, no Don. 

    But it's all guesswork at this point. Truly a great episode, and I hope it's a harbinger of the series' spirited kick to the finish line. 

    tws

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 6, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    Joan may call on Peggy to start an agency with their clients. She may not like her or relate to her, but she knows what can do at an agency and both know how to set up and run an office. It may be part of an hanging ending. We need about another 5 years of shows to follow these intricate lives. The ending that one of your collieges (spelling?) wrote regarding Don's obit was very satisfying. 

  3. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, May 6, 2015 at 12:44 p.m.

    Barbara - Agreed, this was the best episode in a while, and left a lot of room for interesting discussion.  I loved your 'ocean references' transition from 'great ship' to 'white whale' to 'red herring' - that is terrific writing.  One thing, though: Don's beautiful silver Cadillac is not a convertible, it's a Coupe Deville.
    And I think it's advertising that's done with Don.  If he's not willing to fall into step with the ranks of nearly-identical corporate white male creative directors at McCann, he's done.  We'll see if Peggy can carve out a career there by flaunting her new creative persona.  She's going to stand out anyway, as a woman in a male dominated organization, so why not let it all hang out?

  4. Terry Wall from First Impressions VIdeo, May 6, 2015 at 12:46 p.m.

    This episode left wife and I with all kinds of questions and speculations about how the series will wrap. One thing I know for sure is that as much as I will miss MM, I will miss your (Barbara's) analyses of each episode. You've done a tremendous job over these years and only hope that there will be another show compelling enough for you to do something like this again. 

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 6, 2015 at 12:58 p.m.

    Dean-- whoops! will get that corrected. thanks so much for pointing that out. How old is that Caddy by 1970, btw? 

  6. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, May 6, 2015 at 1:16 p.m.

    Barbara - It's no more than a couple of years old, could be a new 1970 model.  My mother had a new one like it in 1968 - stolen three months later!

  7. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., May 6, 2015 at 1:20 p.m.

    As always, a beautiful summary and analysis, Barbara. Question–– was Roger's organ (the musical one) always in the office? That scene seemed forced, especially with Peggy skating as Roger plays. 

    I really enjoyed the scenes with the dastardly McCann managers. Hobart could be a spin-off. All he wants is Don's soul, unfortunately, it's M.I.A. somewhere in America.

    Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

  8. Don Perman from self, May 6, 2015 at 1:24 p.m.

    A superb critique.  You've shown how new complex lines emerge even as old ones fade awau. What a show!

  9. Stephen Ward from Me, May 6, 2015 at 1:41 p.m.

    Great analysis, beautifully written.  I'm on eleventerhooks!

  10. Randall Hoffner from ABC, Inc., May 6, 2015 at 1:45 p.m.

    The Caddy was calle a "hartop convertible" in fact.  No centerpost between front and back windows.  Later outlawed for obvious safety reasons.  I too am going to miss these critiques.  They make all other attempts to summarize MM episodes look silly.  Interesting about St Paul, didn't occur to me before.  And yeah, pretty sure Don is finished with advertising.

  11. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, May 6, 2015 at 1:48 p.m.

    May the fictionalized McCann-Erickson fry in hell!

    This episode was all about the women for me, likely because I'm old enough to have personal memories of blatant, institutionally sanctioned sexual discrimination in the workplace. I actually woke up Monday morning dreaming about Joan telling newspaper, magazine and TV editors about some brilliant new corporate-sponsored initiative for women. She'd figured out a way to do the work she liked and to avoid any lawsuits from McCann. I loved Joan's strength in the confrontation with Hobart and was surprised (and thrilled) when she threw the EEOC, ACLU and Betty Friedan at him -- Joan pays attention and is perhaps through showing deference to people who don't deserve it. I also loved the fact that even when Hobart said brutally cruel things to her, she didn't cry -- I'm sure he expected tears. Joan's smart, tough and resilient. And she took her Rolodex with her. She'll be fine.

    As for Peggy, while I've never been a big fan, I loved her in this episode -- she's more Roger than she ever let on and it suits her. The skating scene reminded me of the bicyling scenes a few seasons back when she was helping SC fool a competing agency into thinking they were filming an ad for a pitch after the Japanese client had expressly told them not to. When she's playful, frank and naughty, she's much more interesting than when she's earnest.

    Finally, Shirley's goodbye to Roger was perfect. Her words -- advertising is not "comfortable" for "everyone" -- made a statement about racial discrimination that was far more powerful than had she used hotter language. And Meredith is indeed fantastic -- sharp as a whip and loyal, too. I'd like to have known her longer.

  12. Phil Maves from IRI, May 6, 2015 at 2:14 p.m.

    Barbara, I'm surprised that not a lot of reviewers have picked up on the sideways references to Don's real name placed throughout the episode ("you're my white whale," aka Moby Dick; Ferg's impression of Don looking/sounding like "Tricky Dick" Nixon). Maybe Matt Weiner and co. are just having fun with us, hoping we look for clues/threads where there are none, but I definitely paid attention to those moments.

    Also, was that a Rothko hanging on the wall, in the early scene of Don walking through the halls at McCann? Perhaps a foreshadowing of Cooper's ghostly reappearance?

    Either way, great episode (and the setup/payoff where Peggy finds Roger playing the spooky organ was hilarious).

  13. david marks from self, May 6, 2015 at 2:26 p.m.

    Brilliant take on an otherwise lackluster episode, Barbara, reminding me that I often do fail to see the nuances, regrettably; thank God for you. Of mention, for me, anyway, was the stunning feminism of both Joan and Peggy.

  14. Michael Hill from CRS, May 6, 2015 at 2:43 p.m.

    I read about a dozen recaps/analyses of this episode and this was the best, in part for recognizing it was such a gem, standing above the others so far in this final half season. One critical line drawn for me was between Joan and Peggy, perhaps generational. Both had pursued a line of feminism, that is of achieving power in a man's world, that suited them and their time. Remember when we first met Joan, she was sleeping with boss -- Roger. Later she slept with a client, the car dealer, to get a big contract. In return she got 5 percent stake in the agency and full partner status. Power! Peggy had done it another way with many more twists and turns and confusion about the conflation of her sexual and professional status. At the end of this episode, we see that it is the end of the line for Joan's approach. She had been able to abandon it at Sterling Cooper saw that continuing it at McCann would get her nowhere (though it worked -- it was sleeping with that client that got her money that allows her to walk away) and the beginning of a clearer path for Peggy, walking into that office as a clearly liberated woman. Maybe she's about to get the Virginia Slims account: "You've come a long way, baby!"

  15. LeeAnn Donnelly from The Biltmore Company, May 6, 2015 at 3:02 p.m.

    Who will I miss most? Don or Barbara? It's a tough call. Thank you, Ms. Lippert, for writing the most insightful MM recap of them all.

  16. Yale Hollander from Writer/Blogger, May 6, 2015 at 3:04 p.m.

    What is it with Bert Cooper and space travel? He eulogizes Ida Blankenship by likening her to an astronaut. His last known utterance was "bravo" as Neil Armstrong set foot upon the lunar surface. And now we have him showing up in an episode that closes with Bowie's "Space Oddity." Not exactly Hemingway's use of bird imagery while his characters are having sex (something George Plimpton once pointed out, to which Papa replied gruffly, "and I suppose you could do better?) but still an interesting, ahem, orbit. There was also a mention of Don reuniting with surrogate daddy Connie Hilton, the guy who severed their first relationship after Don laughed off his suggestion that the ad campaign for his hotels mention the possibilities of lunar vacation lodgings.

  17. Sally Edelstein from Sally Edelstein Design, May 6, 2015 at 3:21 p.m.

    One wonders what Joan or Peggy would have tweeted about #HowToSpotAFeminist? In the season opener, Joan and Peggy were not only minimized but subjected to lewd comments in a business meeting; at the same time period  this humiliating meeting was taking place, a landmark lawsuit was filed by 46 brave female employees against Newsweek magazine  for sexual discrimination charging it was a segregated system of journalism that divided the work based solely on gender. Have we really come all that far.  The leering eyes, suggestive remarks and creepiness of male workers made sexual harassment a near daily ordeal faced by women in the workplace.In fact it was the stuff of great humor.The world of  businessmen men objectifying and infantilizing women, lascivious philandering and wild office parties was fodder for comics and cartoonists alike.

    Check out some vintage sexist office cartoons - not a one of these cartoons would pass HR today http://wp.me/p2qifI-2NX

  18. Steve Rotterdam from Bonfire Agency, May 6, 2015 at 4:35 p.m.

    Profound linkage of the scripred reference to "On the Road" to Saul/Paul's journey on the road to Damascus. What manner of conversion does Weiner have in store down that road?

    Roger and Peggy amidst the detritus of SC&P? Sublime.

    And didn't we all shout "you go" as Joan crossed swords with that wretched ogre and stood up for all of us?  And didn't we all murmur "oh...yeah" when we were reminded that it was, after all, still 1970?

  19. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 6, 2015 at 8:48 p.m.

    The Hobby Lobby decision can make all of this come back to haunt us. Based on your religious beliefs, men will be able to declassify woman again. There is a bill trying to get steam stating that businesses can fire women who use birth control. Precipice people, precipice. 

  20. Amy Lynne from Propaganda marketing , May 6, 2015 at 9:27 p.m.

    brilliant brilliant brilliant! Barbara Lippert you are so insightful and brilliant! 

  21. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, May 6, 2015 at 9:37 p.m.

    Awesome write up. And I don't use the common definition. Your inslight is as thorough and deep as this episode and the whole series. Just, please, tell the mediapost techies not to make us wait until Wednesday again. 

  22. marnie delaney from doodlebug, May 7, 2015 at 12:24 a.m.

    This is what God intended when she invented "obsession".  I enjoy your commentary as much as I enjoy the show (sometimes more) and can only wish I had your ridiculously broad knowledge, terrific insight and, geez, what a memory.  You are a crazy good writer as well.  In short, I, too, shall miss the fun of your reviews and hope someone comes up with an equally parsable show.   

  23. Tony Stanol from Global Recruiters of Sarasota, May 7, 2015 at 9:14 a.m.

    With all this analysis, why hasn't anyone seen the uncanny resemblance between McCann's Ferg Donnelly and John Dooner?

  24. Susan Patton from Susan Patton, May 7, 2015 at 9:19 a.m.

    Agree with Terry Wall.  Don't know what I'll miss more, MM or Barbara Lippert's wonderful, witty and wise morning after analyses.  Afterglow.

  25. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC, May 7, 2015 at 12:24 p.m.

    Barbara, you asked about why Matt is using McCann?  I think it's easy. H.K. McCann was founded in 1912 and merged into McCann Erickson in 1930. Both agencies use a creative philosopy of "Truth Well Told."  Weiner is using core beliefs, whether in branding, personalities or story building.

    Want a little more? McCann-Erickson, a major agency at the time, talked about "authentic" products and services, powerful creative ideas which were embraced by consumers in their everyday lives. Basic Marketing consumer research. 

    McCann told potential clients that they help develop new ways to "add value to people's lives," through advertising, research, creative, media. McCann helped launch the 4A's (American Association of Advertising Agencies) and ABC (Audit Bureay of Circulationss). 

    I have seen every episode, from the beginning. A loyal fan of MM. I've seen Matt talk too. I have talked about MM to clients and students for seven years. Question: Where is the MM story going; Is Weiner "adding value," "Truth" to everyday people's lives? I have liked only parts and epsisode three of the past four.

     Just a thought or two. 



  26. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 7, 2015 at 12:53 p.m.

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone. Yes, I did get that double entendre about Roger's Organ. Better than Sterling's Gold! Actually, the organ was at the agency for the children's casting session. Odd that it was still there after everything else was stripped away, but mighty convenient, story-wise. Actually, the visual of Roger playing reminded me of a piano player in  a whore house in the Old West. 
    Nothing but whore houses with that Weiner! 
    About Joan-- so upsetting. But sadly, legally, she has not a leg to stand on, given how she got her partnership. And the term "sexual harassment" would not be coined until 1975 or so. This one turned a lot of female viewers' stomachs because it felt familiar. It's the way it was, up in to the 1980s and beyond. And to this day,the gender thing on the creative side is still a struggle. And forget about diversity that includes people of color -- they are still few and far between.  
    Third thing: about that upsetting ghost, Diana. One of Weiner's favorite movies is "Chinatown," aka, "she's my mother/she's my sister." 

  27. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 7, 2015 at 6:41 p.m.

    Between Barbara and all the contributors and the episode itself, I probably have learned all that's left to learn about the ad business. I found Roger in the office on its last day the most interesting vignette in the whole series. Very accurate kind of refleciion by an agency owner whose name was on the "door." 

  28. Scotty Reiss from SheBuysCars.com, May 8, 2015 at 9:07 a.m.

    I shuddered when Hobart told Joan that he spends so much money with the NY Times he could have Mein Kampf printed on the front page. Weiner's characterization of the arrogance of corporations at the time and how they quashed the people who built their businesses is a valuable prizm for how the world has changed. I hope that Joan finds victory somewhere in the end--in changing the culture a la Newsweek and Ladies' Home Journal or in starting her own agency, and not in marrying her boyfriend and settling for her settlement (would that be surprising or do audiences want a happy ending?). Also, it was an intersting setup at the start of the episode to see what was in the envelope that Meredith handed Don--all that he had in the world since he had no apartment or furniture: Meagan's engagement ring, Don Draper's social security card, what else was in there? Will its contents come back to play in the last episodes as the real content of Don's life--one void of love, companionship and identity?

  29. David Krulewich from Connexity, May 8, 2015 at 12:04 p.m.

    great show

  30. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 9, 2015 at 9:26 a.m.

    There were ads you could do on the front page of the NYTimes. At the bottom of the page, no more than two lines. Mouse type. Barneys used to do them occasionally. Front page ads were big in England but they didn't allow TV ads then. As for Mein Kampf, the Times was pro-German in WWI, but had a different viewpoint in the latter times. I once asked Eugene Kummell, an agency founder (Norman Craig Kummell)  and a guy who then moved to a big agency (the only prototype for that aspect of Mad Men characters I can think of) if the networks engineered and bared the quiz show scandals to wrest control of programming from agencies and advertisers. He said that was a bonkers theory because he was glad to just have to buy time and create commercials; being responsible for creating the content was one more reason to get fired.

  31. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 9, 2015 at 9:58 a.m.

    http://adage.com/article/people-players/eugene-gene-kummel-mccann-ceo-dead-88/228449/

  32. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 9, 2015 at 10:15 a.m.

    @Tom, the networks probably had little initial knowledge of the quiz rigging which was mainly orchestrated by the shows' producers in league with certain "contestants". I recall  one case where the producer's fee rose or fell on a weekly basis, depending on the show's ratings. In those days, the Nielsens came out about a month after the telecasts so Trendex telephone surveys, which produced overnight findings, were often employed and closely studied by the producer, the agency and the sponsor.

    As regards the networks wresting control of programming from sponsors, this took place over the course of about five years and the primary driver was the networks' turn to the Hollywood movie studios for filmed dramatic/adventure shows like "Wagon Train", "The Untouchables", "77 Sunset Strip" etc. The studios demanded firm upfront full season pacts for these shows, which cost a lot more than the live varieties, dramatic anthologies and game shows which they replaced; very few advertisers were willing to foot such large investments and risk being stuck with a flop for an entire season----there were no audience quarantees in those days.

  33. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 9, 2015 at 6:19 p.m.

    THANKS, Ed. Your refutation clearly authoritative. But not as much fun as Kummel's answer. When did you first get into the business?

  34. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 10, 2015 at 6:16 a.m.

    @Tom, I was the first----and only----two-year-old trainee that BBDO ever hired. And I was there, just in time for the quiz scandals.

  35. Geoffrey Precourt from warc.com, May 10, 2015 at 3:42 p.m.

    Any chance the hitchhiker is Don and we're watching another dream sequence?

  36. Maddy Mud from McMarketing, May 12, 2015 at 3:26 p.m.

    must have recap of #713.  must.  

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