“The Mountain King”
October 19th, 2008
A week after watching the penultimate episode of Mad Men’s second season, I still have more to say than I expected. There is something simultaneously disarming and welcoming about the episode. As Don Draper slides further into a life away from his job and the family that we’ve come to know, we see a side of him that in reality we like more: a man who is comfortable, open, and who finds passion in things that are not so much digressions as true directions in life. As Peggy Olsen begins to finally start advancing at Sterling Cooper based on her talent, we see that perhaps her fellow employees are starting to dig into their inner prejudice as she moves ahead of their own status.
And yet everything else we see in the episode is so comparatively vile, the unravelings of everything good in this universe in favour of what is, in fact, totally awful. Whether it’s Pete’s family life falling apart, or Betty searching desperately for some place in her life, or Joan, who I don’t even want to talk about right now in fear of becoming too frustrated with human nature, it’s hard to feel too hopeful when everything is distintegrating rapidly. I won’t have time tonight to discuss everyone, but let’s focus on at least a few key elements.
There is a difference in this episode between who I’m most angry with (Greg, I’m looking in your direction), frustrated with (Joan), and disappointed with (Betty). I want to start with Betty, though, because I have some serious issues with her behaviour in this episode. I understand that she is in a tough situation with Don gone, and that beyond having to forge his signature to cash cheques she is in no mental capacity to handle this issue.
But the issue here is that her phone call with Sarah Beth, as well as her gift to Sally, are both signs of her efforts to displace her own problems on other people. When she calls Sarah Beth, and when she pawned Arthur off on her, she takes her own guilt over her feelings and turns it into a sense of moral superiority. I read in an interview with Weiner done by Alan Sepinwall that this season was meant to be Betty’s adolesence, and this is totally in line with teenage behaviour. In the context of her relationship with Sarah Beth, this is immature and quite awful, but it’s a (sort of) adult relationship – Betty was highly manipulative, but it’s not uncommon.
What isn’t cool is when Betty’s teenage immaturity is transfered to her daughter, an act that I found so much more despicable. While it’s possible to view her act as a moment of maturity, letting her daughter into her life and the knowledge of Don’s true issues, in reality she’s looking more for someone to share in her pain and emotional turmoil. Considering that she isn’t able to understand these emotions herself, her bringing her daughter into the fold is just another effort to be able to feel superior to someone, to feel like she is smarter and better capable of understanding her emotions. While it might seem like a very self-aware thing to do, to keep her daughter from being sheltered for as long as she was by the reality in front of her, I honestly don’t believe that she’ll be capable of bringing the nuance that will keep this from spiralling further from her control.
And then we have Greg and Joan. I don’t know if Mad Men has made a scene quite as powerful as Joan, her faced pushed to the side, staring blankly at Don’s coffee table as Greg rapes her in her boss’ office. The act itself was awful, but the aftermath was what was most frustrating: Joan, talking to Peggy, was trying to justify to herself that she should still marry this man. We haven’t spent much time with Joan all season, and to find out that (beyond our earlier scene with him resenting her new job at work reading scripts) she’s been living a lie for this long. If she actually does marry him, or that we leave the season on a note of them potentially marrying, I don’t know if I can handle it.
What I find most interesting in the episode is our three people who relate to the existence of Don Draper: Dick Whitman who created the persona, Peggy Olsen who has taken his creative advice to heart, and Pete Campbell whose life is the same complex mix of identity issues that Don has to deal with. I won’t spend too much time on them, as I think all three have something more to say in the finale tonight, but I love the religious imagery in the campaign (her pitch was total Don) and how Pete is forced to choose between his own plans for the future and those which admittedly his wife’s parents have pressured him into. His situation, like Don’s, isn’t simple: I don’t think we can condemn him for not being ready for children, as he really isn’t (trust us, Pete).
As for Dick – love the fakeout trying to convince us that the boy at the piano was Don’s, love the way he was set at ease at Anna’s home, and am really curious how this is all going to go down tonight. That he is finally finding some peace with himself at the same time when his false life as Don Draper is falling wildly out of control, and where his sharp opinion could perhaps have changed things at Sterling Cooper. The episode’s guilty pleasure, guilty only because of how grave everything else feels, was in seeing Cooper’s sister, whose snide remarks to Roger and her hilarious Mink Collar were without question the comic highlight of the episode.
But I don’t know how funny this will all be – reading over these thoughts I’m just as discombobulated as before, so now I need to keep myself from overhyping this evening’s finale.