“Space Oddity”, David Bowie
Lost Horizon, Season 7 Episode 12
Doors are an important, yet often ignored, motif in Mad Men. They are harbingers of change when open and agents of secrecy when closed; a metaphor for death and resurrection; and, if we include elevators, a convenient way to bring characters together. According to Roger’s beautiful monologue in the fittingly titled episode The Doorway, life is just a series of doors which close behind you. People’s movement through doorways defines them, helping them end an old chapter and start a new one – something SC&P has been doing bit by bit the whole series, but this time is really the endgame.
Lost Horizon is truly an episode for the ages. It comes after the epochal Time & Life, which changed everything and advanced the plot more than most other seasons did. There are some momentous set pieces here as well, but this hour is even more emotionally potent, coasting on a mixture of regret, contentment and uncertainty as the curtain closes on an era.
Don walks out of a meeting and perhaps the advertising business in general, continuing to grapple with the fear and lies accumulated by his double identity through the prism of one-time lover Diane. Joan leaves the office in frustration and righteous anger after fighting an uphill battle with McCann-Erickson’s sexism and quitting her job. Peggy, always a contrast to Joan, finally enters McCann’s hallways, emboldened and fearless, ready to prove herself in a new decade.
Even when the door symbolism breaks down, these characters are all in limbo after the decisive actions they take here. Roger regretfully cannot help Joan in the discriminatory environment of McCann. After saying a wistful goodbye to his life’s work, Peggy encourages him to take on a new challenge, much like how he was pushed to take the leap from a Navy ship in wartime. Betty, at long last mature, composed and emotionally stable, begins taking classes to better herself and prepare for an uncertain future.
These signs of change seem serene and hopeful in their presentation, but Mad Men always has some other lurking subtext. The episode’s title comes from an old film that Don is seen watching in early season seven. It’s about a group of travelers who stumble upon a secluded tribal Shangri-La. When they get restless in paradise and are able to leave, some of them die and others end their lives out of dissatisfaction, while all of them lose their memory of the place. The gist being that they can never truly get back in once they’re out; they passed through another doorway of life and have to live with that decision.
David Bowie is an iconic artist of the 1970s who had his roots in the late 1960s. He adopted a large swath of musical cultures and styles in the former decade, being known for constantly changing his persona, not unlike one Dick Whitman. His breakthrough hit was decidedly future-focused, and could certainly serve as an after-the-fact demarcation between the two periods. “Space Oddity” is grandiose, yet told on a personal scale. It’s about a triumph that turns into a tragedy, which has characterized many of Mad Men’s advancements.
Its narrative setting of outer space also pertains to this show, with its occasional discussion of astronauts and America’s nascent shuttle program in the Sixties. This choice hearkens back to the second season, when Don and Pete went to an aeronautics convention during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (The top-secret project later came back to haunt both men.) The idea of interstellar travel featured in ads from as long ago as the show’s second episode, using an astronaut to evoke the future. Later, Conrad Hilton asked for a campaign that was literally about the moon. The eventual Apollo 11 landing, depicted in Waterloo, was one of a handful of milestones which closed out the decade and heralded something new.
“Space Oddity” is an ersatz version of that story, with a shockingly gloomy ending. Yet the episode fades the song in at its most glorious, happy moment. There’s still the fear of imminent death and desolation on the horizon, but for now, this feels like a victory. The last shot cuts to black perfectly right after the crescendo and the first time through, I gleefully started belting out the tune along with my TV.
As the camera pulls out on a restless man in his car, speeding away toward a new frontier, rising dramatic guitar stings herald the show’s final transcendent pop music moment and the true beginning of the 1970s. After the dissolution of SC&P, everyone is lost in space, floating along and drifting apart, and for a brief moment, that freedom feels amazing. But the episode title, besides its obscure allusion, is literal: They are in limbo, not sure which way is up and what is right. They have definitively reached a new epoch, free from their reservations and facing their fears, while coming that much closer to the uncertain world we now live in. Time keeps moving forward, and so must they, with the future Ziggy Stardust singing along. It’s time to leave the capsule; just open the door.