Mad Men’s Lost Horizon: “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo”

Matthew Weiner pulls out major iconic pop music for the endings of his most significant episodes, and Sunday’s “Lost Horizon” is no exception. Matched in intensity and meaning, “Lost Horizon,” which features Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” is second only to “Lady Lazarus,” which left us with The Beatles’, LSD-fueled “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Both signal major changes in protagonist Don Draper’s life. In “Lady Lazarus,” (Season 5: Episode 8), Don stares into the abyss of an elevator shaft. In “Lost Horizon,” he looks skyward and is sent into a fugue state by the vision of a plane crossing the airspace of the Empire State Building, the chrome and deco symbol of New York City, if not America. He takes off in a silver Cadillac, in the middle of the night, and into the middle regions of America. A place he is called to imagine by the overlords of his new agency, right before he picks up his box lunch and leaves his chips on the table.

Perhaps saying “Don Draper of McCann Erickson” leaves a bad taste, or more likely the drab environment, lies, and herd mentality of that ad company has. Don Draper has been searching for himself in an era of identity politics and unrest since Mad Men hit the airwaves. We learn that he assumed an identity as false as Dean Moriarty, and in “Lost Horizon,” this discontent calls him to the Road. In search of a female doppelganger whose Bible-thumping, ex-husband claims has left a number of broken bodies behind her, much like a tornado, and much like Don. With a “Bye Birdie” after a brush off from Betty who is more engaged with Freud’s Dora than a backrub from her ex-husband, our hero drifts out into the night, where the ghost of Bert Cooper imbues him with a vision of Kerouac’s America. But that is an America in flux, lost and searching for identity, and kicks. It is not strange that Don should take Kerouac as a guide, for much like the writer, he is a man of the 1950s and has always been at a bit of a loss to possess the 1960s. Think of Don backstage at a Stones concert, or telling his daughter Sallie not to be so blasé at the moon landing, for that is the stuff of legends.

And while Don heads out in a silver and red Cadillac to follow the gleam of that airplane over the skyscraper, Roger, as usual, a man of the 1940s, provides the key to humor surrounding the loss of their advertising empire. “What a great ship this was” he tells Peggy in the shards of Sterling Cooper, in the shambles of the very site where their vast IBM computer dislodged the offices of “Creative.” In a Phantom of the Opera homage, the lone inhabitant in the temple of his familiar, Roger plays “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” on an organ left in the office suite. Sung by Leslie Caron in the 1953 movie, Lili, the lyrics go, “A song of love is a song of woe / Don’t ask me how I know / A song of love is a sad song / For I have loved and it’s so.” With only Peggy left to drink with, the two stage a wake that involves Vermouth and roller-skating. Roger has been pushed from his ship and now he pushes Peggy out of the nest with a pornographic painting that belonged to Cooper and a badass attitude. As Don has surely discovered “A song of love is a song of woe” Roger radiates a similar melancholy, knowing his domain is lost.mad-men-lost-horizon-peggy_home_top_story

“Lost Horizon” is mostly about the women of Mad Men; make no mistake. The painful misogyny and sexism directed toward Joan is infuriating, and this is one of her finest moments when she invokes Betty Friedan and Second Wave Feminism. Joan is also a character who once stood outside a hotel after a tryst with Roger, holding a bird in a cage that he gave her, perhaps the most symbolic gift in all of Mad Men. And yet, not but a few episodes ago she looked at Peggy disdainfully and told her that she will never be taken seriously if she doesn’t change her style of dress. This is, however, one of the primary reasons Joan will never be taken seriously by the sexist pigs of McCann Erickson. She is a partner because she had sex with a key player—and she is talented; while Peggy, strutting her pornographic painting and making a drunken entrance into the new agency, got there by sheer determination and talent. Not to degrade Joan’s abilities, but we see Roger advise them to two different paths: take command, and cut and run. The 1970s do not start off in a better place for women than the 1960s—and Weiner is making sure we get this message.

“Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” begins, “On every tree there sits a bird / And every one I ever heard / Could break my heart without a word / Singing a song of love.” “Lost Horizon” is a heart-wrenching episode for Mad Men fans who have adored these characters from the very beginning. Joan is crowed out of her job for the worst reasons and takes a giant step back in time. Don is no longer needed by any of the women in his life, including Betty and Sallie. And here we are, two episodes from the very end.

We long for a longer plot arc, a happy ending, a sense of closure and hope for these familiar and surprising characters who have led us back in time. And yet it is obvious that none of that is possible given the very nature of this narrative. So here is one thing we should learn from “Lost Horizon,” a very clear message: The transition from Sterling Cooper to McCann Erickson takes us from the most beautiful workplace mise-en-scene ever created for television, to the most drab. The giants of McCann are not Bert Cooper, with Japanese pornography in the closet and a Rothko on the wall, and Roger Sterling with his penchant for daring, loyalty, and LSD. It is not a mad house full of creativity, kooks, booze, and formidable personalities. It is not a place where women can come into the full bloom of their talent and agency, or where great minds create art, enticement, and sentimentality from psychology and the components of capitalism. No, McCann is the opposite of what the 1960s created, and Weiner has dropped us there. Don has checked out and Peggy has checked in. She is the female version of Don Draper with all his potent pride and talent. With the drive to see her name on the door, the ambition that Don has all but abandoned. And they are both sides now, two opposite sides of the same coin. You could flip it right now and find the ending.