The final image of “Last Horizon”, the twelfth episode of the seventh and final season of Mad Men, is of Don Draper’s car pulling away as he drives a hitchhiker towards St. Paul, a destination far from his new position at McCann Erikson. Much of Mad Men has been leading to a moment like this, but there is an element of optimism to it that would not be present if Don pulled a stunt like this after episodes such as “The Phantom” from Season Five or “For Immediate Release” from Season Six. Don is running away again, but not in the same manner that he has in the past. Don’s new position at McCann Erikson is suffocating, one that most people would probably find limiting, let alone a creative person like Don. Few could blame him for departing.
That he leaves to find Diana, the waitress who shares many of Don’s darker impulses, is not a great sign, but Don’s conversation with a hallucinated Bert Cooper shows he is becoming more aware of his tendency. He’s not fixing it yet, but he is acknowledging it in a way he didn’t back in season one when Rachel Menken had to shame him for running away from his family.
Most noteworthy is that “Lost Horizon” ends not just with Don driving away, but with Don giving a helping hand to a hitchhiker. This act of generosity shows us Don’s kindness is coming out more than usual. He’s been capable of many acts of cruelty over the course of Mad Men, but he has a very soft side, too. Don’s selfishness has shone brightly in the past when he enters “flight mode,” but here there is a difference. Don is leaving, but he’s leaving as a calmer and collected man. He is not abandoning his family, he checks in with Betty and Sally before departing, and he does not give the impression that he plans to never return to New York, although a return to working at McCann Erikson is unlikely. Don is not going to live the life of a corporate man anymore, a life that was never suited to him in the first place.
“Lost Horizon” has its best scene about midway through the episode. Don sits at a table with all the other creative agents in McCann Erikson, listening to a spiel he has no interest in. He turns to look out the window and sees a plane flying past the Empire State Building, going west. It leaves a trail of white behind it. This is what prompts Don to take off, but his expression right before he leaves is something Don does not often display: happiness. There’s a hint of relaxation to his smile, too, as if Don is more at ease than he’s been in years.
The early episodes of this half season were slow going. This was not always a problem, such as with the dreamlike episode “Severance,” but the episode “New Business” was a curious misstep for Mad Men. While it added to the theme of Don losing stability in his personal life, the episode was clunky and focused too much on underdeveloped characters, like Megan’s family. Megan’s anger and resentment towards Don were out of character, a side of her that was not at all apparent in the first half of Season Seven. Megan’s resentment of Don is not a bad story idea, but without any build up it came across as contrived in a manner that Mad Men usually avoids.
The slow going of the early episodes established an odd pace for the final seven episodes. Mad Men has taken its time setting up stories in the past, but with only a handful of episodes left, viewers and critics expected more of a sprint.
But creator Matthew Weiner had another plan in mind. The final episodes haven’t been so much a sprint as a series of dives. The episode “Time & Life”, fourth to air this year, and eleventh of this final season overall, featured a massive change for the characters of Mad Men within the first fifteen minutes. This increase in pace came as welcome, but Weiner did not allow it to proceed uninhibited. When Don comes up with a plan to save SC&P from being eaten up by McCann Erikson, the show slaps him in the face, saying it’s all been for naught. What’s noteworthy is almost half an hour of screen time is devoted to Don’s plan before Mad Men tells us it wasn’t really a viable solution. Nor does the show allow the audience to think that before the end the characters will somehow end up saving the day. No, for better or worse, SC&P is at its end.
Don’s departure from McCann Erikson is similarly sudden, even though it makes sense. “Lost Horizon” spends much of its first half establishing a new reality for Don and the rest of the cast. By the end of the episode, both Don and Joan leave this new reality. For a drama to blow up its normal environment and build a new one just three episodes before its end is unheralded. Many dramas have had explosive endings, but none have thrown out the setting and established a new one only to then discard that one, as well.
The characters of Mad Men are rejecting what initially appeared to be their endings. Don is not going to allow himself to be a cog at McCann Erikson, Joan is not going to be treated as second class, and Peggy is going to hang a picture of an octopus pleasuring a woman in her office.
The characters looked at what their endings could be, the ones that audience started to assume they’d be, and decided not to accept them. Now Mad Men is seeing where that will take them.
One of the most impressive elements in Mad Men’s run has been its unpredictability. Back in the first season, Weiner set up Don’s backstory and built up Pete as an antagonist who eventually tried to blackmail him with information about Don’s past. When Pete brings it to Cooper, the audience is ready for a showdown. Instead, Cooper asks, “Who cares?” It’s a genius moment of anti-climax. In the season finale of the first season, Betty begins to suspect Don is having an affair and calls a number she sees on her telephone bill. Instead of reaching Don’s mistress, she reaches her own psychiatrist, realizing that Don has been spying on her. In the third season, Don reveals to Betty his past while his mistress waits out in the car, forgotten, outside of their house. The audience is waiting for her to come to the door and for that to break the Draper’s marriage. She doesn’t. Instead, the next episode reveals that Betty was repulsed by Don’s revelation and she promptly leaves him. Some may have seen the marriage dissolution coming, but few would have predicted it would come about in the way it did. My own favorite trick comes in the sixth season finale when Don reveals his past to his peers in the middle of a pitch to Hershey. Fears of Don’s past being discovered had been on the backburner for some time, so for him to lay it out was a gasp inducing moment.
And yet, it wasn’t at all out of character. These reversals come as shocks, sure, but they never feel like they are cheap nor do they cheat character arcs. It’s a rare talent, one that Weiner likely picked up from David Chase, when the former worked for the latter on The Sopranos, a show that mastered anti-climaxes and revelations that the smallest of plots had the biggest of significance. Mad Men does not play by the rules of normal scripted dramas. Characters progress and regress at whim. Life becomes surreal and dreamlike depending on a character’s mood. People are impulsive and make decisions that ricochet throughout the company. Other times characters are paralyzed by indecision, ruining dramatic moments that the audience expected would come. Most of all, Mad Men acknowledges that life does not go as planned. Often dilemmas will come out of left field, such as when Lucky Strike informed Roger Sterling that they were parting paths, an action that would have doomed his fledgling firm. There was no build up to this twist. Roger was simply informed and the characters then had to pick up the pieces. Because these twists are not outlandish, the show can get away with them, since our own lives are filled with sudden changes. Someone we know suddenly dies. We find out we’re being laid off without warning. A lover decides to end a relationship. In hindsight there may have been signs, but in the moment it’s like a smack in the face.
So as the finale comes up, there’s no way to predict what will occur, which is how Mad Men has always liked it. There are no two characters that the audience is certain will face off. There are no relationships that have to be tied up in a neat bow. There’s no last minute saving the world action. The characters know that they are at a turning point, a meta-commentary on the ending of the show, but none of them know what that means for their future. Like the audience, they are diving into a void, not sure of where, or if, they’ll land.
Or perhaps they won’t land. Perhaps the image of Don driving away is a signal about the end, telling us that sometimes we just have to move on and let life take us where it will. After years of impulsivity, maybe Don’s departure from his life is a bold action. Maybe he’s leaving not to find himself, but because he finally understands the man he needs to be.
No matter the result, Mad Men has played the trick of giving the audience more than one ending. “Time and Life” wrapped up SC&P and most of its business. Now the characters get to find out what happens when, instead of a second start, they get a second ending.