The sexism of the American workplace has been one of the major themes of Mad Men since its premiere. Although it has become less pronounced as the 1960s moved along, it has still been prominent. In modern America, there are still disadvantages and double standards for women in the workplace, still enshrined from an era that glorified the whims of the top suits of big companies. Joan has always tried to combat the advances men make toward her with grace and relative disinterest, but everyone has a breaking point.
Suitably, “Lost Horizon” marks one of Christina Hendricks’s finest hours on Mad Men. Watch her in the painful scene involving trusted McCann employee Ferg Donnelly (Paul Johansson), as she realizes his suggestions to help bring her more respect at the office are entwined with the needs of Ferg’s libido. (He offers they go to visit a client in Atlanta for the weekend.) There is no mistaking the subtext of this scene, so watching Joan figure out her limits of control is thrilling (from a performance standpoint) and sickening (from an ideological one). Director Phil Abraham also frames many of these conversations involving Joan and the McCann folk so that she is sitting as another McCann employee stands over her, and sometimes talks over her, condescendingly.
Joan’s declaration to want to burn the office down four episodes ago reaches its most heated point near the end of “Lost Horizon,” when she approaches Jim Hobart and demands he remove Ferg from her file. Instead of tending to her needs in this transition, Hobart only reminds her just how small she is. “Your little stake doesn’t mean anything here,” he tells her, glibly.
Some could bemoan that this plot only progresses Joan to a savorier plane when Roger comes to her rescue, as he talks Hobart into a deal to buy her out. It is a flat conclusion for a character that has worked hard and sacrificed much to reach this pinnacle of her career. She deserved roses but got a buyout offer that reeks of a company doing its best to cover its ass from the other Joans of the world – those who bond at dinner after office hours and bitch about the lack of opportunity for women. (That battle still goes on today.) Meanwhile, others could see the same moment as an unlikely triumph from a character that has withstood humiliation and submission for many years. She gets her things, cashes out and leaves her office. She may not get what she wants, but Joan keeps her dignity intact.
Beyond Joan, “Lost Horizon” spends little time making a smooth transition, and jumps right past the dismantling of the SC&P offices – shown here in disarray and, mostly, vast emptiness – to the hustle and bustle of the McCann-Erickson base, a place where the elevators are always crowded and someone’s always looming in a hallway. The two people most conflicted about leaving are Roger and Peggy, characters that have curiously shared very little screen time over the course of the series. Roger makes an excuse that he has to stay to hand over the keys, but he is anxious to leave a place that bears his name.
Peggy is also uncertain of what lies ahead. When she finds out that her office isn’t ready because nobody realized she wasn’t a secretary, she groans in disapproval. (This episode could really have used a scene where both Peggy and Joan vented to each other.) In some lighter moments to balance the episode out, Peggy and Roger schmooze over vermouth, talk about a vulgar painting of Bert Cooper – who also makes a brief cameo in a dream sequence this week – and toast the end of an era, in a scene involving an organ and roller skates that is disarmingly charming.
“This business doesn’t have feelings,” Roger tells her. ‘You get bought, you get sold, you get fired. If the account moves, you do.” That’s the way the business works, and that’s the way scribes Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner pull a fast one on this week’s Mad Men. They disorient the viewer with new beginnings, just as we’re anticipating a bitter end. They invite nostalgia, although more in the literal meaning of “the pain from an old wound,” as a classic episode explained. Things go one way and people have to adjust. That’s the way endings go more in life than in drama.