Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Mountain King" (season 2, episode 12)

Mad Men - "The Mountain King" (season 2, episode 12)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 19, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner, Robin Veith; directed by Alan Taylor): For an episode that feels particularly focused on a few big events, the narrative is surprisingly sprawling in "The Mountain King," with at least six storylines unfolding over many scenes. And that's not even including Paul, who returns from Mississippi boasting of his noble endeavors only to be deflated by co-workers who mention that his girlfriend dumped him a few days into the trip. So much for the slice of early sixties civil rights I thought we'd be glimpsing in the tail end of season two - if Mad Men has anything to say about race relations, perhaps the major issue in the first half of the decade, it will have to wait for later seasons. As for one of the other big crises of the time? Cleverly playing on the title of the Frank O'Hara collection introduced in the season premiere, the next episode is called "Meditations on an Emergency," and I harbor stronger suspicions than ever of what that particular emergency will be.

What does unfold in this episode? Betty catches Sally smoking in the bathroom, scolds her severely, and then - reconsidering after Sally replies with straight fire ("Daddy left you because you're mean and stupid") - buys some riding boots to soften the blow before informing her daughter that she fought with Don and doesn't know where he is. Don, of course, is still in California, visiting the woman introduced several episodes ago in the car dealership flashback. Anna Draper, as the name suggests, was the wife of the man whose identity Don assumed and we see them interact in two timelines in episode 12. In the fifties, she confronts Don - well, Dick Whitman - and quickly gets him to concede what happened; though bewildered, she doesn't seem especially grief-stricken about the fate of her husband. Another scene shows the chummy duo in Anna's Californian house; Don asks for an official divorce (since he's still technically her legal husband) so he can marry the "beautiful, happy" Betty whom he's just met. In 1962, Don is pensive about the state of his life and Anna offers warm support. They have an open, honest connection so distinct from all of Don's other relationships; as he said on the phone, he's Dick Whitman to her and the lack of pretense is refreshing.

Back in New York, Bert, Roger, and Bert's sister Alice Cooper (Mary Ann McGarry) agree to sell Sterling Cooper, disregarding Don's minority share since it's an insignificant factor in the decision. Pete aggressively resists Trudy's desire to adopt (losing his father-in-law's Clearasil account retaliation) and informs Peggy that Don may not return ("He's done it before"), Peggy gets Freddy's old office as a reward for landing the Clearasil account, and Joan brings her fiancee Greg to the office. A nice excursion turns brutally sour when Greg, who's been having trouble with his more advanced lover in bed and grows jealous , convinces Joan to let him into Don's office. He proceeds to rape her on the floor, growling, "This is what you want, isn't it?" Not that Joan has the words to describe what happened to her in those stark terms: tentatively listing his virtues to Peggy in a later scene, she's told "he sounds like a keeper," and the traumatized young woman - who has always seemed entirely sure about the rules of any given situation - looks lost and confused. A global crisis may be on the horizon, but there are plenty of personal emergencies to go around as one episode remains in the season.

My Response: 
I feel a bit foolish for investing so much import in the strange family Don encountered last time; while the sequence was captivating and unsettling, it could easily be a convenient transition into the more actually significant storyline with Anna. I won't be shocked if we do see Joy and her clan again, but I consider it more likely at this point that they were an unforgettable, ever-enigmatic one-off. It's not as if Don could just launch himself into the tumultuous mid to late sixties that effortlessly; as "The Mountain King" makes clear, he's still deeply bound to his past. Yet the palpable sense of freedom, of open possibility, is present in scene after scene - obviously, Don's immersion in the Pacific as the soundtrack sings of a new baptism, but also his casual encounter with a couple hot-rodders on a back road near the beach. For a moment I even thought this scene was another flashback but no, Don is simply unmoored from his current restrictions. Right now he isn't an adman from Manhattan with a high-pressure if rewarding career, he's a former car salesman looking for a new job and staying on the West Coast indefinitely. This storyline is intoxicating in its sense of liberation, the kind of freedom that TV rarely offers yet which, in a sense, only TV can offer.

The other stories remind us of what Don has left behind: the intricacies of interpersonal relationships in the upper middle-class professional milieu of both the city and the suburbs. Betty's response to the friend she set up with Albert is shockingly cruel - as if she toyed with Sarah Beth's life only she could have someone else to reprimand. Like any viewer, I'd imagine, I'm rooting for Joan to escape her catastrophic impending marriage but I wonder if she'll be able to rationalize the ugly truth about the golden doctor. Meanwhile, Pete's scene with Peggy is a welcome reminder of their repressed past and further confirmation that his marriage to Trudy is an only dimly-recognized disaster (not that I'd wish him on Peggy as an alternative). Yet even as this drama brews, it doesn't seem likely to overflow until future seasons. I'm more curious if episode 13 will renew matters long left dormant, like the mystery of Peggy's pregnancy. Some sort of resolution to Don's domestic crisis will probably take center stage but before the curtain falls, we're bound to be reminded that this isn't just his show.


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