A forgotten film by a famous director.
The end is near. (Very near -- just two more episodes).
Life or possible death for a TV hero/anti-hero named Don Draper.
(It's a wonderful life, Don, but you can't take it with you.)
All of which is a lead-up to this question: What's Frank Capra doing in Matthew Weiner's fever dream which has suddenly become -- quite apparently -- MY fever dream?
Even more fevered if you consider the references Sunday to Freud, "On the Road" and "Space Oddity," which I'll try to get to in this post, too.
Here are the basics: Sunday's episode was titled "Lost Horizon," which is the name of the 1933 James Hilton novel but -- for the purposes of this episode -- almost certainly refers to the 1937 Capra film, seen by Don and Megan while lying in bed in her apartment perched high over a canyon with the coyotes howling below, in the the 7th season opener, "Time Travels."
Weiner never makes one such reference without endowing it with significance, but TWO -- and so close to the end? Asked another way, do two MacGuffins just mean a bigger MacGuffin? Or is "Lost Horizon" a clear and emphatic guidepost to the finale just a couple of weeks away?
But first, it's important to point out that our "Mad Men" journey is nearly over, and as all journey's must, it will indeed end. Every word, scene and pair of roller skates is leading to that final moment. The foreshadowing now is so thick you can barely beat your way through the fog.
Weiner is certainly aware that much meaning is invested in "the end" -- all that came before must to a certain extent be filtered through how the story actually concludes. In fact, as viewers, we can actually see the finish line. It's all right there, before our very eyes. The tricky part is trying to figure out what it is that's actually "before our very eyes."
Consider also that over seven seasons, "Mad Men" has largely (but not exclusively) been preoccupied with the search for Don's soul, just as Don has been preoccupied with the search for his soul, while often wondering whether -- at the end of his travels -- there will even be a soul to find.
That quest is set against the larger background of America's search for its soul in post-war America: an America steeped in commercialism, and which continues to reinvent itself but which is also set precariously on the jagged edge of a series of increasingly insane events, assassinations and war.
What does it All Mean? That's the question that preoccupies "Mad Men," and -- I think -- should preoccupy us, too, in these final episodes.
Capra's "Lost Horizon" arrived in 1937, in the depth of the Great Depression, with Americans wondering what a better world might be or -- aware of the pounding of jackboots on the ground in Germany -- whether there would even be a better world to look forward to.
They certainly wondered about "Shangri-la" with its gleaming white buildings marked only by the shadows of passing pigeons, with flutes attached to their tails.
The movie was about a British statesman, Bob Conway (Ronald Coleman) hijacked on a plane en route to Shanghai. The plane crash lands in the mountains of Tibet, near Shangri-La -- a Utopia where there is no hatred, lust, or anger. The leader of this place, the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), has brought Conway here because he is ready to die, and wants Conway -- whose writings about the need for peace have inspired him -- to rule in his place. The High Lama is 200 years old, and assures Conway that all humans can live to a great age here.
But Conway's brother, who was on the plane with him, convinces him to escape. On the journey back, his brother goes mad and plunges to his death. But Conway makes it out of the mountains ... only to turn around and come back to Shangri-La.
The movie is now largely forgotten, but it was entirely Capraesque -- filled with that sense that each human life matters, and individual struggle is part of the human condition, and that what also matters is the struggle. The alternative to that struggle ... is madness.
The "Lost Horizon" moment from "Time Zones" is never mentioned Sunday, but instead, arrives tangentially: Don Draper is trapped in the purgatory of the first of many meetings at McCann Erickson, as a consultant for Miller Light drones on about a beer that we will all be told some day Tastes Great but is Less Filling.
Don glances out the window. A jet, high over the Empire State, is leaving a contrail on the way to wherever. Without a word, he gets up and leaves, a fading or knowing Cheshire cat grin by Ted Chaough is the room's only reaction.
In that moment, does Don remember Lee, the woman he met on the plane back to New York at the end of "Time Zones?"
Does he recall the trip to LA?
Or that moment looking out over the canyon with the coyotes baying below ?
Or watching "Lost Horizon" with Megan?
He heads to the house in Rye, where Betty tells him, "I'll always be younger than you," another ref to "Lost Horizon," for in Shangri-La, people never age.
Don also notices a copy of Freud's "Dora" -- the famous case study of a woman with hysteria. Betty is going back to school, to study psychology. "Knock 'em dead, Bertie," he tells her. (So Betty is searching for her soul, too? Or at least normalcy and self-understanding?)
Later, on the way to Racine, Bert Cooper's voice is heard over the radio. Bert then appears in the seat next to Don.
Don: "I'm really tired, aren't I?"
Then Bert -- in the next clear reference to "Lost Horizon" -- says: "Driving the wrong direction for seven hours ... why, to see some waitress who doesn't care about you?" (The hijacked plane in "Horizons" was also headed in the wrong direction for hours.)
Don: "You ever read 'On the Road?'
Bert: "You know I've never read that book."
Don: "I'm just riding the rails."
Bert: "You like to play the stranger, don't you?"
Then he recites the famous line from "On the Road:" "Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car...?"
OK, I think we've assembled most of the relevant pieces of "Lost Horizon." Now, let's try to put them together and see what they mean in the context of this very important episode.
I think that what clearly we're seeing here comes under the heading, Searching for Utopia, but Weiner and "Mad Men" are also wondering what a "utopia" is exactly -- and is there a utopia of the mind, or a real utopia? Are they both somehow related?
He is also setting up a series of oppositions, much as Capra did.
Recall that "Lost Horizon," the movie, offered two potential outcomes: There is either madness and death (the fate of Conway's brother) or there is the embrace of life which leads to an even more perfect life (Conway's decision).
Capra fervently believed that the choice was obvious: In the midst of the Great Depression and looming world war, each life mattered, and it was up to each person to make sense of it. That was his utopia.
But then Weiner sets up the opposition: "On the Road," Jack Kerouac's classic trek through the wilds of post-war American, where ultimate meaning was elusive. Just two guys on the road -- Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty -- also searching but also evading what post-war America had in store for them and millions of others.
By invoking Capra and Kerouac -- about as opposing a pair of sensibilities as you could squeeze in the same sentence -- Weiner's setting up the dramatic opposition in Don's soul, too, as expressed in a series of questions that may as well be going through his head while he drives on through the dark night of his soul:
What is the meaning of life?
Does life have meaning?
And if it has meaning, why is it so meaningless?
What of death -- and is it the opposite of life?
Or, in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?
Will Bert Cooper appear, citing a famous line from a famous novel?
Is true happiness attainable?
Forget "true happiness" -- what is happiness...?
Weiner’s not giving answers, Don's not getting them, and he’s maybe just playing with us and poor Don, but at least he's also providing a series of very clear signposts that point to the end.
And because “Lost Horizon” concluded with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” let’s end with that as well. Here are the final lyrics from this classic released in ‘69, just days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, which -- coincidentally or not -- was the day one Bert Cooper died:
“For here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do.”