Semi Chellas on the Most Feminist Episode of Mad Men Yet

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Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

On Sunday’s “Lost Horizon” episode of Mad Men, the women of SC+P find out just how welcoming their new McCann corporate overlords are. Joan is greeted by female copywriters “fighting over the crumbs” and repairing to the Oyster Bar for “consciousness-lowering.” Meanwhile, Peggy, who’d been mistaken for a secretary and sent to the typing pool, defiantly cools her heels in the empty SC+P offices. Before long, Joan is threatening a sex-discrimination suit, and Peggy is drunkenly roller-skating around the SC+P offices while Roger plays the organ. Vulture rang up writer Semi Chellas, who co-wrote the episode with Matt Weiner, to talk about what’s surely the most feminist Mad Men yet.

Was it always the plan to do a specific women and sexism episode? Obviously, the theme has run throughout the show, but “Lost Horizon” was pretty in-your-face about it.
No, Joan’s story evolved. It’s always about where the characters are taking us, what their personal and often selfish needs and agendas are. We saw what the climate was at McCann when Joan and Peggy went to talk about Topaz. So she walks in there with a sense that she can handle it, as she has in the past. [But] she realizes this time it’s different, and there’s a half million dollars at stake. She pulls every feminist headline into her cause, but her cause isn’t a political one. She just wants to get her [money]! It was about following Joan’s trajectory and the different kinds of power she’s wielded, and how she’s wielded it, including in “The Other Woman,” where she made a bargain to sleep with a client in return for a big account and a partnership. She’s using everything at her disposal to get what’s rightfully hers.

So you didn’t intend to invoke Betty Friedan and the women’s march and the sit-ins at Ladies Home Journal and Newsweek? No. There was a debate about, what is the best thing for her to do in this climate? What leverage does she have? And we thought, maybe she can’t win the legal case, but they were being played out in the news, and Joan was fully aware of that.

So she didn’t march in August 1970?
Oh, I don’t think she took part in that. She was at work!

Joan’s greeted by female copywriters bearing flowers — who seem to want to steal her and Peggy's accounts. They drink to deal with the environment, but tell Joan there’ll be no women's lib talk.
We were showing the culture, what it was like at that company because the characters are coming there for the first time. Joan didn’t jump on their bandwagon. She didn’t say, Sure, I’ll come to drinks with you. She was very reserved. They were assuming she was on their side because they’re all women. And for Joan, that’s a big leap, because that’s not necessarily how she wants to define herself in her new job.

After experiencing incompetent Dennis, she goes to Ferg Donnelly for help. He volunteers to service more than her clients. Had you heard anecdotes about what McCann was like in those days?
Like much of Mad Men, it was steeped in real experiences, stories we’d heard, stories we had heard our mothers tell, things we read about the time. And, sorry to say, personal experiences in contemporary life.

Her boyfriend Richard isn’t much help, first offering to take her to Bermuda, then talking about getting lawyers involved, or saying he’d “call a guy.”
Part of her realization is that she’s going to have to take care of it herself. She tries to do it diplomatically with Ferg, looks to Richard, and in the end, goes to Jim Hobart.

I thought when she confronted Hobart, she was becoming the guy Richard spoke of! But for all her threatening to stick the EEOC, ACLU, and Betty Friedan on his ass, Hobart is the 1970s glass ceiling — or brick wall!
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s an interesting interpretation. In the end, it’s Roger who tells her the solution. And it’s not as palatable a solution as she would have liked. But he says it was always about the money. He’s saying, think about what you really want out of this.

Peggy’s humiliated in a different way: being mistaken for a secretary and sent to the typing pool. So she rebels by staying in the SC+P offices.
It’s the culture; a mistake is made because of what a huge place it and the assumptions they’ve made.

Roger wants Peggy to go out and buy him some booze …
That’s just Roger being Roger; he’s used to pulling out cash and getting what he wants. And it’s reminiscent of that wonderful season-five scene where she held him up for cash to do some work he’d forgotten. It was exciting to get those two characters together again cause they have a very distinct relationship that’s not like any other in the show.

When Roger offers her Bert’s 150-year-old Japanese octopussy painting, she declines, saying, “I need to make men feel at ease.” And Roger says, “Who told you that?” Seems like the answer is society.
No one needed to tell her that; it was understood, especially as she tried to ascend to a position of power. When she and Joan first went to that McCann Topaz meeting, she says to Joan, “Would you rather have had a friendly ‘no’?” That’s her attitude. And Joan says she’d like to have burned the place down. But in Peggy’s mind, you do what you gotta do to get to “yes.”

How did that scene of them drunk with her roller-skating around the empty office while Roger plays “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” come about?
That sprung from Matt Weiner’s brain. We were thinking about the office being emptied out. And of course, we were in the final days of working in our offices and thinking about what that meant. There was lots of discussion about what happens when you move out of a place and the detritus left behind. And Matt suddenly walked in and had this vision! We all knew how perfect it was. There’s something so childlike about roller-skating. And if you look at the lyrics of the song, they express that moment. At one point, Matt wanted to change the song, and we were like, no, no!

Of course, Peggy’s last scene is so memorable, striding into the McCann offices hung-over, sporting sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from her mouth with the octo-painting peeking out of a box. Is that transformation going to be short-lived?
I won’t speak to what the future holds. As for the transformation, drink vermouth with Roger Sterling for 16 hours, and you’re gonna have the worst hangover in the world. [Laughs.] But she was starting a new job, so she had to get in there. I imagine the inside of her head felt like a jackhammer.

Yeah, but if you thought she has a headache then …
[Laughs.] Yeah, wait until she realizes Joan’s gone and Don’s gone. Like Jim Hobart says to Roger, "Aren’t any of you planning on working here? Or was this the con of the century?"

What should we read into Betty reading Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria? After all, she was deemed psychologically unstable, perhaps hysterical, a few years back.
She’s a keener [Canadian slang for bookworm]! I took great pleasure in that image, given that in season one she was “on the couch” trying to sort through her own problems and the psychiatrist was reporting back to Don. Now we see her in the final episodes studying psychoanalysis. The characters are complex and so often surprise us as women of their time. That’s what drew me to the show before I worked on it. From season one, I felt there were these women going along in their lives and you could see that there was a giant wave of feminism right behind them about to crash over them. But they aren’t the wave, they’re in the wave.

Anything else you want to add?
The heart of the episode for me was the appearance of Bert Cooper in Don’s car. That odd moment of vision or dream or whatever it was. And that beautiful line he quotes [from On the Road], “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” It was such a treat to see Cooper and such an interesting moment inside Don in an episode where we’re watching him do things that maybe he doesn’t even have an explanation for himself.

Speaking of which, what does Diana represent? We find out there have been a string of men she’s bedazzled and dropped.
She doesn’t represent anything. She’s just living her life. As her ex-husband says to Don, “She can’t save you.”