“The Mountain King”
Season Two, Episode 12
Airdate: October 19th, 2008
There are a lot of problems with choosing “The Mountain King” as the episode of Mad Men to enter into our 2008 Television Time Capsule. There are a lot of subtleties you lose in such a decision: you lose the slow escalation of Don Draper’s emotional distance, the subtle dissolution of Don and Betty’s marriage, and the various nuances that define the series’ ability to take a season and make it feel like a lifetime in the best way possible.
But I feel as if “The Mountain King” is the best example of Mad Men’s best qualities: the inner turmoil of Don Draper, here revisiting his past and the woman who helped him assume the identity of his fallen comrade, was never more vulnerable than it was here. If he was lost in a world he didn’t understand in “The Jet Set,” this episode finds him in one that feels almost too comprehensible: it has simple tasks, simple pleasures, and there is a moment or two where we actually question whether Don is going to return to his old life, and there is not a single moment where we question that Don is at the very least going to return to Sterling Cooper with a different outlook on life.
The episode makes this list, though, because of both its thematic consistency and a single moment of stunning television. For Peggy, this was the episode wherein she made her big move: she closes the Popsicle account with a healthy dose of religious imagery (one of the season’s recurrent themes with the introduction of father Gil), moves into Freddy Rumsen’s office, and achieves a triumphant victory, it seems, for the role of women in the show’s universe.
But what Matthew Weiner makes very clear in the episode (co-scripted by Robin Veith) is that the show isn’t about blanket statements: in contrast to Peggy’s success, Joan (a fantastic Christina Hendricks) is trapped in an impending marriage that in this episode turns violent, and Betty feels so devalued by Don’s departure that she lords her moral superiority over others and shares her grief with her daughter. If Peggy takes control of her own destiny, we discover at episode’s end that Joan has lost control of her own, as her fiancée rapes her on the floor of Don’s office, and that Betty doesn’t even know where to begin.
It was perhaps the most human we had ever seen Joan, in particular, and it’s a sign of the show’s diversity: as we ponder Don’s future, celebrate Peggy’s success, and enjoy the comic stylings of Bertram Cooper’s marvelous sister, we nonetheless depart the episode in absolute disgust at Joan’s fate. While the show is often more subtle than what we saw in the season’s penultimate episode, it was never more powerful in my eyes.
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[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]