Monday, October 20, 2008

Mad Men: "The Mountain King" - Man, be thyself

It's with both joy and sadness that I look upon the final episodes of Mad Men, and like last season's penultimate episode, this one provided plenty of answers while setting us up for a thrilling finish to the season. While multiple themes were raised this time out, the idea of partnership and the recurring Catholicism, I'm particularly interested in how this episode dealt with this season's overarching theme of 'the self' and a false identity.

In titling the episode "The Mountain King," creator/writer Matthew Weiner has invoked not only composer Edward Grieg's iconic "In the Hall of the Mountain King," played by the piano student, but more importantly, the play for which the song was written, Henrik Ibsen's Peer Glynt. The central theme of the play is a mirror to this season, a theme of identity. "What is it to be one self?" Peer asks at the end, finding the answer to be "to overcome one's self."

Peer wanders throughout the play, avoiding facing the truth of his true self, much like Don, who confesses to Anna while sitting on her porch of the house he bought for her, "I have been watching my life. I keep scratching at it trying to get into it. I can't." In the play, Peer is led astray in the mountains by a succession of women, until finally passing out and entering into a strange dream where he meets the daughter of the troll mountain king. In debating on whether to wed the daughter, the troll king poses the important question of identity to Peer: "What is the difference between troll and man?" And the answer is Man, be thyself. Troll, to thyself be - enough. It's an existential question Don has had trouble with this season, with his true self, Dick, popping up here and there in place of the troll identity of Don that he has created.

Does his rebirth through baptism at the end of the episode mean that he's going to go back to being Dick Whitman? Or is it meant more like the ending that Peer Gynt hints at, that of 'overcom(ing) one's self,' where Don has again shed his Dick Whitman? Either way, does he even go back to Betty? Seeing him fix Anna's chair seemed to suggest otherwise, but I think it would certainly be an interesting twist for the end of the series to have him back on Betty's doorstep as Dick, especially given Anna's sage advice: ""the only thing from keeping you happy is the belief that you are alone."

While Don was finding himself thanks to his old partner Anna, back at Sterling Cooper, different sorts of partnerships are changing both the agency and individuals in different ways. The merger with London gives us more insight into Bertram Cooper, and his identity associated with the company. It's obvious he's on the way out and the scene of him alone in the meeting room after the votes were cast was heartbreaking in a way. Not as heartbreaking, though, as Joan's story. Being raped by her sexually threatened fiancé was hard enough to watch, but her exchange the next day with Peggy was striking in it's illustration of their opposing trajectories. It might be the first time we've sympathized with Joan in an exchange like this, seeing her manning Peggy's old job while she gets an office of her own (an office she acquires mere moments before Joan is raped in Don's adjacent office, emphasized as 'not her own.')

Meanwhile, Pete's throwing out both the Clearasil account and the dinner turkey out the window after finding out that his life partner Trudy has setup an appointment with an adoption agency. I think that most of his misplaced anger is born in finding out about it through his secretary Hildy (and her inference of it being a charitable act,) but it's somewhat encouraging to see him take a stand with his father-in-law, even if he's primarily in the wrong here.

Some debris:
George Jones' "Cup of Loneliness" was a great way to end the show, a song that is entrenched in the religious undertones of Don/Dick's baptism in the ocean, suggesting his rebirth: "I see Christian pilgrims so redeemed from sin, called out of darkness a new life to begin."

I liked that it took the Xerox repairman to unknowingly prod Peggy into demanding her new office, with the line: "if you want it to work, you have to treat it with respect."

The brief appearance of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) on Joan and Greg's television, made for an amusing call out to actor Jon Hamm's role in the soon to be released remake.

Previously: See "The Bob Dylan" (Episode 2.10)


Michelle Auer said...

I love reading your thoughts on the episode almost as much as I look forward to watching them on Sunday! :-) Something I was curious about this week, is why they made a big deal about Betty having her period. Is it their way of explaining why she has been so bitchy or are we going to find out that her seduction of Don last week was maybe her hoping to get pregnant again and feeling needed/useful again? Or will she fake a pregnancy in the coming weeks to gain sympathy from Don? Just a thought. Otherwise it just seemed super random that they threw that in there.

drake lelane said...

Thanks Michelle! I think Betty's preggers, which makes Don coming clean with Dick Whitman all the more an interesting story angle to go forward with (the just announced) season 3. The child helps cement Don's rebirth with an actual birth. Talk about new beginnings ;)

Matt Maul said...

Drake...good stuff.

I saw the Peer Gynt thing too. Great minds think alike :) Although, I guess giving it the title "The Mountain King" isn't all that subtle. ;)

For what it's worth, I thought Pete threw out a chicken dinner. I'll have to rewatch it again. Chicken works better in my deconstruction :)

BTW, I viewed Don's fixing of Anna's chair a reference to the chair that Betty broke in "A Night to Remember." Which, I think, means he wants to go home.

Regarding Betty's bleeding...I have a few kids myself and I don't remember that being a common symptom of pregnancy. That said, even if it is, it can't be a "good" sign. That, coupled with the curiously black trimmed gift box she used for Sally's boots seems somewhat ominous.

drake lelane said...

Yeah, I see we hit on a lot of the same points!

RE: Chicken/Turkey -- I don't know if it's chicken or turkey, turkey dinner just sounds better, but it could've been just 'poultry' for my point. A 14 floor drop, though... poultry hasn't been dropped from such a height since that WKRP thanksgiving stunt ("Turkeys Away") that horrified Les Nessman -- "oh the humanity!).

RE: The Chair - That's an interesting point. Given that the chair is a metaphor for relationship, it's either a metaphor for Betty and Don's specifically, or relationships in general. It can be read both ways, that he's comfortable with Anna, and fixes her chair as a sign that he's back in the flow of their previous 'partnership'. He might be comfortable enough to fix the chair, and unconsciously ready to fix his relationship with both Drapers... which requires coming clean with his Dick Whitman.

RE: Bleeding. Agreed blood is never a good thing, but if she's out riding horses while pregnant...

BTW: I saw someone else theorize that she was just having her period to emphasize the fact that she was finally becoming a women -- closer to taking on the responsibilities of a real parent. An interesting view as well.