Mad Men: Ground Control To Major Don

Mad Men Episode 7.12
Photo Courtesy of AMC Network

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Apologies for the self-indulgent headline – a staple of this corner, granted – but Matthew Weiner was just asking for it by rolling some Bowie over the final scene of Don going AWOL (yet again!), giving a ride to a hippie hitchhiker in the middle of Flyover Country.  In terms of what led up to that, suffice to say that McCann’s investment in Sterling Cooper – which was subtly hinted to be going poorly in Episodes 7.8-7.10 and was flat-out revealed as such in 7.11 – isn’t working out well for any of the major players.  Granted, in his brief moment on-screen, Pete seemed to be getting by, spineless Ted has given up and Harry was glad to be going to a place that he thinks will indulge his pomposity, but the professional saga of these characters isn’t front-and-center at this stage.

In Episode 7.12, Lost Horizon, the stragglers to the new office are Roger and Peggy (not counting Ed, a redundancy in the move who spends his last week in the Sterling Cooper offices ringing up huge long-distance charges), with the Silver Stache hanging around SC a bit longer on the pretext of fully gathering his belongings and Peggy left without an office by the McCann crew – who seem to mistake her for a secretary.  And based on what was mentioned in a brief aside to Joan, Peggy’s not going to be the badass copy chief over in the big leagues, but don’t anyone try to tell her that.  After venting her frustrations to Roger and bonding with him over some vermouth and stories, she struts like a bad mofo into the new agency in shades, puffing on a cancer stick and clutching a saucy painting from Cooper for her office.  OK, then!

Roger’s musings, comparing Sterling Cooper to his World War II experience of going swimming off of his naval ship – “this was a helluva boat” – set the right wistful tone for the nightmares being experienced by everyone getting sucked into the McCann Erickson whirlwind.  The person who has it the worst by far is good old Joanie, who continues her pattern of being sexually harassed by everyone and their grandmother at McCann.  She makes the prison-like mistake of complaining to an executive who she will now owe “a favor” and wonders aloud to her new boyfriend Richard about how to handle the situation.  Richard, who didn’t get to be a millionaire developer based on his gentle good charm, implies that he invoked Cosa Nostra connections whenever intimidation was needed and plants the seed in her head about the white-collar equivalent thereof.  When she is summoned to meet with an unhappy Jim Hobart, she has her enforcers in mind: the EEOC, the ACLU and anybody else concerned about the plight of working women in the “times-are-a-changin’” year of 1970.  Extremely put off by what he sees as her insolence, Jim makes a bottom-line offer that he warns her will never improve: 50 cents on the dollar of what she is owed in the buyout so long as she never darkens the doorstep of McCann ever again.  She defiantly refuses, but later, she is convinced by Roger that she is fighting a war that she can never win.  Perhaps with the realization that she is a most imperfect warrior given the circumstances of how she first obtained her partnership stake at Sterling Cooper, she accepts the terms of her defeat.

But for Don, the most prized aspect of the takeover, Jim Hobart’s “white whale,” everything looks like it’s going to be fine – at least initially.  Against all odds, Meredith is showing greater competency, even the aptitude to decorate his new apartment.  And while Don is displaying some subtle discomfort with the big new surroundings – glancing out the windows distractedly – he is invigorated by the challenge presented by Hobart with a new potential Miller Beer account.  Hobart explains that McCann purchased the agency with the Miller account so that they could put Don on it, with the promise of working on a revolutionary new product that even the densest dummy watching the show could tell you is going to become Miller Lite.  But the intimate meeting that he imagined with Miller – in the  mold of his entire previous professional history – turns into a big cattle call that he and Ted are obliged to sit through while a research company honcho drones on endlessly about the challenges inherent in pitching a “sissy” product to a blue-collar audience.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, when the state of Wisconsin is invoked, Don’s latent dissatisfaction with his current state of affairs collides head-on into his quest for answers about Diana and he takes off driving to the Badger State, departing mid-meeting without any explanation.  Granted, he stops in on the kids (who’ve made other plans) and chats up Betty about pursuing the education that she’s always wanted, but that just seems like a time-filler until he hits the road.

As he’s driving through Cleveland and digesting what seems to be a radio ad for Higbee’s (a North Coast shoutout on Mad Men and it only took seven seasons!), it turns out instead to be the dulcet tones of Bert Cooper, having been conjured by Don’s overly-tired mind.  Bert’s sardonic advice about searching for Diana being a bad expenditure of his time and energy sounds like what the old coot would have actually said, but to paraphrase that era’s most celebrated diplomat Henry Kissenger, “It had the added benefit of being true!”

Don’s bright idea is to show up on the doorstep of Diana’s ex-husband and impersonate the research doofus who literally bored him out of the Miller confab.  He finds out that her ex-husband remarried and in short order, his cover story about being there to present a sweepstakes award is blown.  It seems as if he’s going to preserve a shred of dignity by changing his story to being a collection agent trying to track Diana down, but the ex-husband merely plays along with the charade to spare his new wife any further discomfort.  As Don’s about to drive away, he is confronted with the knowledge that the collection story is not believed and furthermore, he’s not the first jilted lover of Diana’s to come to town looking for answers.  Don is chagrined, but based on his decision to drive further out of the way to take the hitchhiker to St. Paul at the end of the episode, it wasn’t enough to jolt him back to his day-to-day life yet.

And that’s going to be a problem, as Hobart has punched his foot down harder and faster on the “Don Draper Zero To Disillusionment” scale than anyone ever has before.  He questions Meredith on whether her missing boss is on a bender and he vents about his prize acquisition to Roger.  For all the duplicity of the McCann buyout and the unfair treatment of many Sterling Cooper mainstays, Hobart wasn’t lying about the opportunities involved.  Miller Lite (and their iconic Seventies ad campaigns) are about to become a thing, along with the “Buy the World a Coke” slogan that owned 1971.  It’s too late now for Joan, but everyone else still has the opportunity to grasp the world by the nards and make it happen on the big stage.  But, to varying degrees, it doesn’t seem as though that is what any of these characters want and, with only two episodes remaining in the series, the time to change all of these minds is expiring.  Fitting all of the jigsaw pieces together on the board in a coherent fashion will be an incredible challenge for Matthew Weiner in his last 120 minutes with the show.

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