On The Road Again: Don Draper’s Back Pages


Don has gone west - and may not be coming back. (Credit: AMC)
Don has gone west – and may not be coming back. (Credit: AMC)

Two weeks ago, my uncle (an English teacher) and I exchanged emails about one possible final Don Draper theory that we have been discussing. He proposed the following:

“Does Don Draper, who overcame every challenge he ever faced, finally cast off the ‘drape’ he’s been wearing since Korea, leave Madison Avenue, and as Dick Whitman, write the Great American Novel?”

It would be uncharacteristic for Matt Weiner to provide us with such an answer – that is, to let us know definitively whether Don will actually end up writing his literary masterpiece. But this week’s episode “Lost Horizon” is as textually deep as any in recent memory, and in addition to drawing on references to the show’s own past, this third-to-final installment of the series features its most obvious use of literature as a source of where Don has been and where it is he is going.

One of the many, many appeals of “Mad Men” is the role literature has played throughout the series. Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations In An Emergency” provides direct dialogue during Season 2 as well as the title of that season’s finale. Season 6 commenced with Don reading Dante’s “The Inferno” on a hot Hawaiian beach, setting the tone for the dark hell that would unfold during that tumultuous year of 1968. While Betty reads Fitzgerald, Joy reads Faulkner, and both Lane and Henry take time with Mark Twain.

“Lost Horizon” presents the latest group of literary references in a series full of them. The episode draws its title from the 1933 novel of the same name, where the main character arrives in Shangri-La, but eventually leaves to return to his real life. (Don watches the 1937 film “Lost Horizon” in the Season 7 premiere “Time Zones.”) Jim Hobart channels his inner Ahab, with Don as his “Moby Dick.” “I’ve been trying to get you for 10 years,” he says. “You’re my white whale, Don.” The ghost of Bert Cooper tells Don “You like to play The Stranger,” perhaps in reference to Albert Camus’ novel of the same name, a classic piece of the existentialist philosophy that has always been at the show’s core. “You remember ‘On the Road’?” Don asks Bert, referring to Jack Kerouac’s epic work about the very Beat culture that Don got high with and spoke down to back when he was hanging in the Village with Midge in 1960. “I’m riding the rails.”

But the ghost of Bert tells Don “I‘ve never read that book, you know that,” and Don does. Despite the generational gap between them, Don always connected more with Bert’s traditional business philosophy than he did with the counterculture that displaced both of them as the sixties unfolded. This was clear in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code” when Bert recommends that Don read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a 1957 novel that helps shape Don’s views on capitalism. Its focus on the importance of individualism only emphasizes how out of place Don would be serving as a cog in a machine like McCann.

So once Don realizes the cog he has become – entering the Miller meeting as just another creative director with a roast beef sandwich and a Coke, listening to a researcher dictate a strategy, sitting as just one of many white shirts asked to bring the company “up a notch” – Don Draper as we know him is gone. He looks up at a plane flying over the Empire State Building, takes his box and goes home, to the many places he has lived (Westchester County, Pennsylvania, Illinois, perhaps eventually California). Unlike Roger, Don finally knew better than to get attached to and confined by walls, and he traded in the ship of advertising (“This was a hell of a boat,” says Roger) for his Cadillac, for a long drive on the road again. For much of the series, there has been a reason for Don to turn back around. He had an account to land, a business to build, a child to raise, a woman to see, a wife to apologize to.

But Don was so much older then, he’s younger than that now. In fact, he told us he was going to do this way back when he was first courted by McCann in Season 1. In the episode “Shoot,” Don uses McCann’s offer as leverage to get a raise from Roger, who asks Don why he decided to stay with Sterling Cooper. “I like the way you do business,” Don says. “If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.” Roger, always confined by the walls with his last name on them, asks what else there could be outside of advertising. “Life being lived,” Don answers. “I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.

“I want to do something else.”

It appears that Don is finally doing that something else, whatever it is. An enraged Hobart asks a finally-arriving Roger whether Don and company have pulled off “the con of the century.” Perhaps they have. Perhaps Hobart spent a decade and a fortune chasing a phantom that was never really there. Perhaps the greatest trick Don Draper ever pulled was convincing McCann – and all of us – that Don Draper actually did exist.

Early in the episode, Hobart tells Don to drop McCann’s name into his, but by the end he’s referring to himself as a salesman named Bill. Don has left McCann, left New York, and perhaps – as my uncle had suggested – left behind his drape and his Draper. He will likely never get that lunch with Joan, never watch Bobby play baseball, or be at McCann to oversee Peggy’s climb up the creative ladder. “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie,” he tells Betty. It’s probably the last we will see him say to her, as he is the one who has flown west.

The preview for next week’s penultimate episode did not include a single shot of Don, and despite how notoriously misleading those previews can be, it is entirely possible that the show focuses only on other characters next week and leaves Don’s conclusion for the series finale. Whether he is Don, Dick or someone else entirely, it is clear we have made it to the back pages of our main character. And I can’t wait to see how this great American story ends.


  • An episode that makes many subtle references to outer space ends with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” We see the ghost of Cooper, who passed away shortly after seeing the moon landing and who once eulogized the departed secretary Ida Blankenship as “an astronaut.” We hear of Conrad Hilton, who once expressed disappointment with Don’s Hilton pitch that failed to deliver “the moon.” We watch Don go AWOL in a manner we haven’t seen since he left Pete at an aeronautics convention in Season 2’s “The Jet Set.”
  • The song playing during Peggy’s epic entrance into McCann is David Carbonara’s “Lipstick,” which was also played during Season 1’s “Babylon,” the episode where Peggy first makes a name for herself on the Belle Jolie lipstick account.
  • Don checks the windows in his new office in a scene that seemed to be included by the writers just to troll those who have believed since the show’s inception that Don is destined to jump out of a window, just like the man falling out of the building in the show’s opening credits. Indeed, it seems as if he’s now escaped the skyscrapers such an act would require, so Roger’s two-story jump off a Navy ship in 1944 may be the closest fans get to a major character taking such a drop.
  • Joan’s storyline is the most prominent example in an episode that deals with women’s struggle for equality in the workplace specifically and women’s independence generally. She references a feminist liberation sit-in at “Ladies Home Journal”, and that the ACLU helped a group of women settle a class action lawsuit against “Newsweek.” Peggy delays her arrival at McCann, where all indications are that they perceive her as a glorified secretary. Shirley proactively leaves advertising to find a professional setting that will be more comfortable. Betty tells Don that they “can’t get mad at [Sally] for being independent,” as Betty herself studies to attain a Master’s degree in psychology.
  • In reference to Sally, Betty tells Don that “[s]he just comes and goes as she pleases.” This same phrase was said by copywriter Michael Ginsberg in Season 5’s “The Other Woman,” then in reference to Megan. The line is significant because it contributes to their eventual successful Jaguar pitch (“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”). It is notable that the writers would repeat this phrase during the same episode where the topic of how Joan obtained her partnership was discussed (given the role the Jaguar account played in that development).
  • Hobart mentions Hilton as one of the clients Don will be able to work with now that he is at McCann. McCann was the reason Hilton severed his ties with Don in the first place. In the Season 3 finale “Shut The Door, Have A Seat,” Hilton moves his New York business elsewhere upon hearing the news that McCann was going to buy Putnam Powell and Lowe, which owned Sterling Cooper at that time.
  • In Season 1’s “Shoot,” where Jim Hobart first courts Don to join McCann, he tells him: “You’ve done your time in the farm leagues. Yankee Stadium is on the line.” It’s not a coincidence this week that we see Ed, the copywriter left stranded making long-distance calls after not being invited to the “Yankee Stadium” of McCann, eventually leave SC&P with nothing else but his bag and a New York Mets cap.
  • While Roger plays the organ, Peggy skates around the office in a manner that is reminiscent of how she circles a commercial shoot riding a Honda scooter in Season 4’s “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword.” Roger opposed the agency’s pursuit of the Honda account due to resentments he still harbors against the Japanese stemming from his military service in the Pacific, an experience he brings up to Peggy during this week’s episode. The painting of Bert’s that Roger gives to Peggy (“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”) is also of Japanese origin.
  • Though Peggy and Roger rarely spent time together onscreen (she even makes a comment about how he so rarely paid her any attention), he tends to bring out the best in her. The last time they shared similar time together, we saw Peggy leveraging $400 cash out of him for secret creative work on the Mohawk Airlines account. Here he throws her a smaller stack of cash and settles for Vermouth.
  • The hitchhiker Don picks up at the end of the episode is the latest in a long list of noteworthy passengers he’s given rides to over the years. In Season 2’s “The New Girl,” he and Bobbie Barrett end up in the drunk tank after a boozy ride to her beach house in Stony Brook. In Season 3’s “Seven Twenty Three,” Don is drugged and robbed by a pair of hitchhikers he drives to a roadside motel. Later that season, he offers to drive the epileptic brother of his then-mistress Suzanne, dropping him off with a wad of cash somewhere between Westchester County and Bedford, Massachusetts. In Season 5’s “Commissions and Fees,” he offers a lift to Glen Bishop from the Upper East Side to the Hotchkiss School, though Glen ends up being the one taking the wheel.
  • The Bauer home that Don visits in Racine shares some visual similarity with the former Draper residence in Ossining, and Don’s rouse of impersonating a salesman to get into the house reminds the viewer of the time Don scolded Betty during Season 1 for allowing a salesman into their home when he was not there.
  • The scene in Racine also shared similarities with another one of Dick Whitman’s former homes: the brothel he was raised in in Pennsylvania. In the Season 6 finale “In Care Of,” a man being removed from the bordello turns to a teenage Dick on the front stoop and tells him “The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.” Here, a similarly religious ex-husband of Diana approaches Don on another lawn and tells him that Don cannot save Diana. “Only Jesus can,” he says. “He’ll help you too. Ask him.” He also mentions losing his daughter to God and his wife to the devil, during an episode where the Sterling Cooper folks learn that the self-described “advertising heaven” of McCann is actually their hell. St. Paul is mentioned as a destination. For good measure, during Don’s foreboding check of his new office window, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is featured in the background, suggesting Don may find Jesus after all.

Author: R. Byrnes

Ryan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Yi! News.

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