Each week, Alissa Wilkinson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.

No season, or half-season, of Mad Men—at least for a long while now—is complete without at least one cross-country trip. In “Lost Horizon,” that happens in a totally unconventional way.

Let’s review: Lost Horizon was originally a novel, turned into a film by Frank Capra. In case you’ve forgotten (probably because you have a life beyond Mad Men, how dare you), Don Draper actually flipped on the TV in the season 7 premiere, over a year ago, and watched Lost Horizon briefly. In that story, we find the origin of Shangri-La.

Shangri-La is basically heaven, a mythical Himalayan utopia. In the Mad Men universe, Shangri-La is what everyone has always been looking for. It is paradise. The grapes grow big, everyone is happy: you get the idea.

(Note to all: episode 13, due to air Sunday, is titled “The Milk and Honey Route.” I wouldn’t be surprised if episode 13 opens with Don in California.)

I think what we’ve gotten is one of the truest depictions of what it is like to long for a Shangri-La, get close enough to sniff it, and then have to decide if paradise, whatever it looks like, is worth whatever sacrifice it requires.“Lost Horizon” also features the shot from which this season’s advertising has been drawn: Don, sitting in his car, driving toward—something? We’re not sure what, at first, but it turns out it’s Racine, Wisconsin. Or it’s not Racine, really, despite that Don looks around actual Racine as a place he might like to hide for a while, even as he’s being kicked out.

The Shangri-La of the moment is Diana the waitress. Don seemingly randomly decides to chase her down, after two apparently unconnected events—but of course nothing is unconnected in Matt Weiner’s New York. First, Don is seriously unhappy at McCann, to nobody’s surprise. He’s one of a dozen creative directors (“this is only half of us,” Ted says, unconcerned) in a meeting with the beer account he thought was his, and he sees a plane fly past the skyline before he walks out of that meeting. Planes always mean California to Don, and California is Don’s Shangri-La, even now that Megan is off the table—but Diana and Megan have a few things in common.

The second thing is Don’s incredibly cordial, even affectionate interchange with Betty, who is finally pursuing her bliss in the form of a college degree in psychology—she’s reading Freud. He calls her Birdie; she smiles at him. The past isn’t in the way anymore, the past always acting as either a looming specter or a non-event for Don, and lately it’s all non-events.

So what’s to keep him from turning off the parkway and heading for Racine? Nothing. Remember, Diana was the goddess of the hunt, and Don Draper is completely unhappy unless he’s hunting for something, even though Diana is more a symbol than the actual thing.

When he shows up in Wisconsin, he invents a bunch of lies—Dick Whitman’s specialties—to explain why he’s there, until he realizes that Diana’s ex-husband knows exactly why he’s there, and what’s more, he’s clearly not the first (or seemingly even the third) to show up. “I lost my daughter to God and my wife to the devil,” he tells Don. A brief call to Jesus ensues, with a trailing order to get lost. And then we see Don headed across the plains. Who knows where he’s going? Will he make it back to Manhattan before the show’s over? Does it even matter?

Let’s also note that the Shangri-La of women being entitled to not being treated horribly in the workplace has emphatically not arrived for Joan (the partner) and Peggy (the copy chief). For the former, this is a blood-boiling tragedy, no matter who you are. Joan has been through a lot. She needs a break, and she is not getting it, walking away with half the money she’s owed because—as she correctly predicted—she’s taken for granted entirely at McCann; she is merely a “fun,” attractive woman who’s just there to reel in the big fish which then go to the big boys. The meta-moral of her arc, so far, is that no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much legislation gets passed, attitudes change very slowly. The minor arc is just a tragedy.

Then there is Peggy, who sort of triumphs in the instantly-GIFed scene heard round the world. But Peggy has always been running along a Don-parallel arc (she shares no scenes with Don in this episode, and rarely does anymore, but instantly asks if Don heard that she’d been pegged as a secretary). At this point she’s somewhere in Don’s pre-Betty narrative, sans Betty. She is lonely, ambitious, and tired. She is everything she’s learned to want. Note to the universe: if she won’t be a creative director two episodes from now, then please give us a Peggy spin-off.

Finally, there is Roger Sterling, the unsung journeyman of the whole show. Roger is sad, folks. Roger has always been a total tragedy. He has rolled downhill from the pilot. His first wife loved him, and still kind of likes him. His second wife thinks he’s the worst, even after the LSD episode. He has a terrible mustache and apparently he plays the organ, freaking the heck out of Peggy in an empty office (and evoking a lot of Twilight Zone).

What are we to do with Roger? Or Don, or Peggy, or Joan?

The clue is in the ghosts—the seen ghost of Burt Cooper. The many unseen ghosts of SC&P—most notable among them Lane Pryce, but also the whole crew dispersed all over the agency, now, and some—like Joan—ejected already.

Look, business isn’t easy. Life isn’t easy. You latch onto people and then you lose them. If you’re lucky, you get a few you can hold onto.

But usually those people are family, of some kind, and SC&P is family. I don’t know where this show is going, though I’m totally ready to go there. I think what we’ve gotten is one of the truest depictions of what it is like to long for a Shangri-La, get close enough to sniff it, and then have to decide if paradise, whatever it looks like, is worth whatever sacrifice it requires. What if everything you wished for comes true?

There is a tiny sense throughout the show that the real Shangri-La lies in the people you call sort-of family, whoever it is you could get on the horn if you were in a bad place. Don picks up a hitchhiker. Roger and Peggy hang out and rollerskate around the old offices. Joan still has Roger, after all this time. Even Don will always have Betty.

Maybe paradise is in the families we don’t even create for ourselves—we just have them, because they are the people that stick around.


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