"It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone." -Anna Draper"People don't change" may as well have been the motto of Matthew Weiner's previous series. "The Sopranos" was an 86 hour argument against human beings' capacity for real personal growth. As "Mad Men" borrows so many other visual and thematic elements from its mobbed-up predecessor, it would be easy to assume that Weiner, like David Chase, doesn't believe change is possible. But "The Mountain King" makes it clear that, in the world of "Mad Men," people can change -- provided they have a partner to aid their transformation. If you think you're alone, then you're stuck.
"What if that's true?" -Don
"Then you can change." -Anna
"People don't change." -Don
The episode is filled with partnerships both old and new that enable major changes, some more welcome than others. Anna Draper, widow of the woman whose identity Dick Whitman stole, helped our Don step more concretely into his new identity. Betty, fearing that Don may never come home (or that she may never want him to), enlists her daughter as an ally for her potential new life as a divorcee. Pete breaks off his business relationship with his father-in-law rather than be forced to lose his role as dictator in his marriage. Roger wants to use the possible merger with Putnam, Powell & Lowe to pay for the transition into his new marriage, while Bert Cooper fears it will render him an irrelevant old man. And, in the episode's most horrifying moment, Joan discovers what her fiance really thinks of her and her career when he rapes her on the floor of Don's office.
Let's start there, because I haven't been able to get the image of Joan lying on that floor, staring vacantly at Don's coffee table, out of my head since I first watched this one. Yes, rape (and, engaged or not, that's what this was) can be easily used for shock value, but on a show about gender politics at the dawn of a cultural revolution, it was sadly, horribly fitting.
In the first season, we saw that Joan moved through life as an independent. She preached the old rules about marrying your way into a house in the country, but she didn't seem particularly interested in actually achieving that fantasy. (Certainly, she could have talked Roger into leaving Mona if she'd wanted him to.) She had her freedom, and her adventures (sexual and otherwise), and seemed in no hurry to land a husband. And then, for whatever unexplained reason -- and one of my great frustrations with the chronological gap between seasons is that they have to gloss over life changes like this one -- she decided to go for conformity and landed the demographic ideal: a handsome young doctor whose impeccable resume she feels compelled to recite near the end of the episode, less to impress Peggy than to reassure herself that she's making the right decision in spite of the way he violated her. We had already seen signs that Dr. Greg was an old-fashioned sort who just wanted a trophy wife who'd sit on the couch, watch soaps and eat Bon Bons. But this episode made it clear that he was actually threatened by Joan's independence, her career, her sexual history, the works, and he responded to that threat by showing her who's boss on the floor of her boss' office.
As we watched Joan struggle to compose herself afterwards (speaking in a quiet, broken tone of voice you'd never expect to hear from our resident queen bee), and especially as we watched Joan try to put on a good front for Peggy, my wife said, "Wow, I never thought I'd feel sorry for Joan in a scene where she talks to Peggy." Yet for all of Joan's attempts to show that her path was the superior one, she's in a job that she now knows is beneath her, and engaged to a grade-A bastard, while Peggy, for the most part, is the happiest, most personally successful, most well-adjusted employee in that office. Joan and Peggy are both changing, and Joan not for the better.
It would seem like Peggy's also the only character in this episode not involved in or contemplating a partnership. One of the most striking images is of her wandering around the Sterling Cooper offices late at night, stealing a smoke out of a secretary's desk, stretching and surveying her kingdom. And while Peggy's to be commended for both her talent and her boldness (she's the only one with the guts to ask for Freddy's office), she couldn't have done it without Don as her tutor. The Popsicle sales pitch was classic Don Draper: finding the emotion at the heart of the product and selling that feeling direct to the client. It may seem obvious that people tell the Popsicle exec that "people love Popsicles," but that's the genius of good advertising: it tells you something you didn't quite realize that you already knew.
Salvatore's ad mock-up, with the orange circle around the mom's head like a halo, was one of several bits of religious iconography sprinkled through "The Mountain King." (The Popsicle guy thinks she looks familiar because he's probably seen someone like her on a stained glass window at church.) In addition to the halo, we got the Popsicles as Communion wafers, and Don wading into the Pacific, hoping to be baptized into his own life so he can live it and stop being an observer. As he tells Anna, "I have been watching my life. It's right there. And I keep scratching at it trying to get into it. I can't."
Some people speculated that the woman Don called at the end of "The Jet Set" was the wife of the real Don Draper, while others guessed she might have been a former wife of our Don. Turns out, they were both right. Once Don admitted the truth about what happened in Korea (well, most of it; he fudged the part about being responsible for the mistaken identities), he and Anna entered into a relationship more or less resembling a marriage -- and one that, for legal purposes, was exactly that.
It's unclear precisely what Anna did for Don that made him thank her so profusely for making his new life possible. It may be as simple as her agreeing to keep his secret and to support his identity theft. But watching Don be around Anna in her beachside San Pedro bungalow was striking, because he was so unlike either of the two faces we're used to. He wasn't confident and reserved Don Draper, but nor was he cowardly Dick Whitman. He was a human being, capable of opening up to another human and making her a part of his life. Don was so relaxed around Anna, so unreservedly happy -- in both the 1962 scenes and the mid-'50s Christmas flashback, where he talked about Betty like he was a schoolboy with a crush -- that it's obvious just how much his secret is costing him. Because Anna knows who he really is -- and doesn't care -- Don can let down his guard, where he's terrified to open up to Betty, and as a result places her in a china cabinet and seeks sexual and emotional gratification elsewhere.
As for Betty, we get both her good and bad sides tonight. Her phone conversation with Sarah Beth confirms my suspicions from "Six Month Leave" that she pushed Sarah Beth and Arthur towards an affair so she could feel morally superior to both of them. (Remember, earlier in that episode, Betty grew frustrated listening to Sarah Beth talk and talk about how kind and understanding her husband was.) That moment where she chides Sarah Beth for going through with her adulterous impulses was as cruel and calculated as anything Livia Soprano might have tried.
But I was pleasantly surprised with how Betty dealt with Sally throughout the episode. Yes, she sent Sally into the closet after catching the little girl smoking in the bathroom, but that wasn't an uncommon punishment at the time. And once she realized just how acutely Sally was feeling Don's absence, her tone changed. She buys Sally the riding boots she's been asking for since the season premiere, then is candid about the separation, but she does it in a way that doesn't make Don into the villain. She's not buying Sally's loyalty (well, not entirely); she's trying to soften the blow for this 8-year-old girl.
Our other overgrown child, Pete, also displays his good and bad sides here. He has no interest in letting his marriage be a true partnership, and so he severs the business relationship with Clearasil to assert his authority. But the business decision is one of the more mature (if stubborn) ones Pete's ever made. If Pete really doesn't want kids, he shouldn't cave for the sake of an account, professional consequences be damned. As Pete only got Clearasil in the first place as a bribe to start making babies, it seems only right that he should give it away once the deal is off.
And, unlike last year, Pete doesn't try to take advantage of secret knowledge about Don for political gain. It would be so easy for him to run to Duck Phillips and explain that Don abandoned him in mid-trip, to spread gossip far and wide. But he keeps it to himself, confiding only in Peggy -- who, in ways both personal and professional, is the closest thing Pete has to a partner. Their dialogue in Peggy's new office was between two equals, as evidenced by the ease with which Peggy told the joke about sleeping with Don to make her way to the top.
While all the other characters are scrambling into and out of alliances, Bert Cooper is very much afraid of entering into one of his own. For all the talk that the P,P&L deal will be a merger, Bert knows he'll be a figurehead -- even more than he is already -- and that's a hard thing for an aging master of his universe to accept.
"The Mountain King" featured more Cooper backstory than previous episodes combined: his late wife introduced Roger to Mona, he has a cattle ranch in Montana, his mother considered him a failure, and his sister (hilariously named Alice Cooper) acquired a stake in Sterling Cooper by loaning Bert money during a rough patch. Alice also mentions that her brother isn't "well," though if that's a reference to more than his age, we don't know. Robert Morse did a lovely job of showing Cooper's fear of his own irrelevance -- and, then, death.
Some other thoughts on "The Mountain King":
• This is the 12th episode of the season, and like last year's 12th episode it was directed by Alan Taylor and featured some significant Dick Whitman backstory. I'm not sure if they can stick to the latter pattern next season -- and AMC just ordered a third season, though Weiner is currently not signed for it -- simply because I'm not sure what untold secrets ol' Dick has left.
• If I've done the math right, then P,P & L is buying Sterling Cooper for a little over $4 million, which in 2007 dollars would be more than $28 million. Don's take, meanwhile -- largely a result of Cooper's panic when Roger had his heart attack, which gave Don his 12% stake -- would be almost $3.4 million today.
• The scene where Don happens by the hot rod mechanics at first seemed out of place in the rest of the episode, but on watching it a second time, it became clear: just as Don succeeds through his partnership with Anna, the mechanics take parts of two different cars and meld them together into something that's greater as a new whole.
• Still more speculation about the woman on the other end of the phone had people guessing that Don not only had another wife, but other kids, and for a moment while Don listened to the little boy's piano lesson, I began to think those guesses were right, too. Nice fakeout.
• I'm always impressed by how a show set 45 years in the past manages to successfully pull off so much product integration. The bit where Joan and Greg were watching the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still" -- when Jon Hamm is co-starring in the remake -- was a particularly clever one.
• John Slattery, comedy machine. I can't decide which Roger moment was funnier: his frustrated "What do you want!" at seeing Peggy outside his office, or him staring at Alice's two-headed mink stole and saying, "I'm sorry, I don't know whose eyes to look at."
With one episode to go in the season, I again want to remind you of one of the few rules we have around here: no talking about anything in the previews. Any comment that mentions them, even in passing, will be deleted.
What did everybody else think?