Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Couch Trip

Episode 12 of Mad Men, "The Mountain King," is a not too subtle homage to Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Both Gynt and Don Draper find themselves on frustrating quests in search of their true identities. Gynt compares himself to an onion that has many layers but is ultimately empty. In TMK, Don similarly confesses to being able to see his life, but can’t “get into it.”

The title, "The Mountain King," refers to a musical number from Peer Gynt, "The Hall of the Mountain King," that accompanies a dream sequence. This parallels Episode 11, “The Jet Set,” which I argued was also a dream. In Gynt’s dream, he meets the Troll King and falsely claims to be royalty in order to win the hand of the king's daughter. After the truth comes out, Gynt escapes. This is not dissimilar from Don’s experience with Count Willy and his daughter Joy (symbols of royalty who accept Don based on the false front he’s presented). In a way, it’s also not all that different from what Don is going through with Betty (who also comes from a more pedigreed background).

TMK's slow, methodical feel plays out in a restrained manner that belies the number of dramatic storylines contained within. Setting the stage for next week’s finale, the centerpiece of the episode, Don’s encounter with the ORIGINAL Mrs. Draper, is revealed both in real-time and through wistful flashbacks.

The episode begins with Betty finding her daughter Sally smoking in the bathroom. Upset, Betty, follows typical child disciplining techniques of the 1960’s, and locks Sally in a closet. As in the Sopranos, the children suffer as much or more of the emotional fallout from their parent’s dysfunctional lives. Sally pleads with Betty to talk to her father while standing next to Don’s suitcase (a commonly used allegory in Mad Men for one’s life) which Betty has left in that same closet (Don's in trouble too, after all).

Inside Peggy’s cramped office, distracted by the noise of the copy machine, Peggy, Sal and Ken discuss strategy for the Popsicle account. They visualize the “ritual” of breaking a pair of frozen Popsicles apart and even compare the act to sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Something that must truly hit home for Peggy. It also serves as a metaphor for a number of other “break-ups” taking place in TMK: Don and Peggy, Roger and Mona, Pete and Trudy, Paul and Sheila, Bert Cooper and his company.

Bert Cooper meets with his sister, Alice Cooper (that's right, Alice Cooper), to discuss the sale of SC that Duck Phillips had engineered in “The Jet Set.” Interestingly, Alice, ignoring the ritual of removing her shoes when entering Bert’s office, clearly seems the "boss" in that relationship. She is also more enthusiastic about the sale than Bert. Alice tries to alleviate her brother's concerns by pointing out that he’d be able to do other things such as spend more time at his home in Montana. She jokingly alludes to the fact that Bert “ruined the architect’s life” during its construction. Given that Bert has been established as a devotee of Ayn Rand (in fact there’s even something Randish about Alice), this is almost certainly an homage to Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” about visionary architect Howard Roarke who would not sell out his principles and is “ruined” by media mogul Gail Wynand. Bert makes it clear in this episode that he’s ambivalent about “selling out” his life’s work.

We first see Don (now going by his real name of Dick) getting of a bus. Instead of a fancy suitcase, he carries his belongings in a plain shopping bag. He approaches the house of the person he called at the end of “The Jet Set.” Inside, we can hear “The Hall of the Mountain King” being played inside. We’re then abruptly taken into a flashback that picks up where a previous flashback from "The Golden Violin" had left off. Having confronted Don at the used car dealership where’s he’s a salesman, Anna, the widow of the real Don Draper, gives Dick hell over the theft of her dead husband's identy. She’s disabled and it’s clear that her marriage to the real Don Draper was loveless. He, apparently, preferred her sister. The flashback ends with the two seeming to reach a happy stalemate. From there, we flash forward to Don’s visiting Anna after ditching the aeronautics conference. Anna teaches piano lessons and its one of her students who is playing the Peer Gynt piece, “The Hall of the Mountain King.” Don is clearly showing sings of distress and Anna takes him in.

At this point, it’s worth noting that the color red seems to have special meaning Mad Men’s universe. Red is prominently used in the color scheme of the show’s opening. It’s also the color used for the word “Mad” in the Mad Men logo. Whenever the needs, desires, ambitions, or yearnings of a character are evident, they seem to be accompanied by a red design element. Consider in “The Jet Set” where red flowers were visible behind the bar as Don is approached by Joy. Or the red lamp shades, table clothes, and waiter jackets that surround Duck during the lunch meeting with where he makes his big play to take over SC.

And so it is in TMK. The color red is prominent on the artwork Peggy, Sal and Ken use to pitch their "Take it. Break it. Share it. Love it" campaign for the Popsicle executives. Peggy describes how her mom would break a Popsicle in “equal halves” for her and her sister. This seems an important, if unreal, idea for Peggy, who must feel less favored in her mother's eyes than her sister, Anita. The sister reference also arguably refers to Anna, who doesn't see herself as the equal of her own sister. The client notices something “familiar” in the drawing of the mother in the ad mock up. It seemed to me that the mom looks pregnant.

This would certainly relate to Pete and Trudy’s storyline that depicts the couple’s standoff over the question of adopting a child. Pete has been told by his mother that she would cut him out of the will for “watering down” the Campbell name. Pete and Trudy have particularly raucous argument about it in their apartment, which ends with Pete throwing their chicken dinner over the balcony and onto the street far below. Just as another Pete, Peter Keating, traded in his integrity for success in The Fountainhead, it also the case that Mad Men’s Pete similarly settled by marrying into Trudy’s wealthy family. However, jettisoning the "chicken" may be symbolic of the new found courage Pete displays when he calls the bluff of his meddlesome father-in-law, Tom Vogel, after the latter threatens to cancel the lucrative Clearasil account because Pete won’t acquiesce to Trudy’s demands.

Later, Joan and her young doctor fiancĂ©, Greg Harris, are in bed. Joan initiation of sex angers Harris who is seems intimidated by her wealth of "experience" in such matters. The Day the Earth Stood Still plays on a TV in the background. Part of me wondered if this is a blatant product placement for the remake, that features Jon Hamm, due out in December . However, it’s also worth noting that the scene used shows Patricia Neal who also was the love interest in the film version of The Fountainhead.

As he has for the past number of episodes, Don is shown lying on a couch. This extends the imagery from the opening credits of a falling figure who, in the end, turns out to be sitting on a couch. Anna awakens Don with new clothes (also in a shopping bag). Don flashes back to a "divorce" discussion, he had with Anna after he first met Betty. Apparently, after the incident at the used car lot, Anna and Don had struck up a friendship. The exact nature of this relationship is unclear, but given Don’s personality, I can only assume that there was a sexual component. In order for him to marry Betty, Don has to end his paper marriage to Anna. Anna accepts the news surprisingly well. She’s used to being second choice and Betty will be, in a manner of speaking, her new sister. As stated earlier, Don’s recognition that Betty comes from a wealthy family harkens back to the engagement of Peer Gynt to the Troll King’s daughter under false pretenses.

A snarky copy machine serviceman inadvertently inspires Peggy to ask Roger for Freddy Rumsen’s old office. She is successful. Later, Peggy, alone in the office, sneaks a cigarette from someone's desk. I can't help but link it to Sally's smoking at the start of the episode. Both are, as the song said, "smoking in the boys room."

Joan brings Harris into the office, ostensibly to show off, and introduces him to Roger and Peggy. Always a sucker for the “wrong boy,” Peggy is impressed. Roger makes familiar small talk with Joan that the doctor picks up on. Outside of Don’s office, Harris indicates that he too wants to pretend to be Don Draper. What starts out as a flirtatious moment between them in Draper’s office turns ugly when it becomes clear that Greg has some definite issues with women. While being raped by Harris, a shocked Joan looks blankly away and in the direction of Don’s couch. Afterward, as they exit the office for their “date,” Joan conspicuously leaves behind her red bouquet of flowers. As is often the case in Mad Men, the transition to a subsequent scene relates to the action that has just occurred in the previous one. The very next shot after the rape is a sidewalk’s eye view that looks up the side of the office building. Metaphorically, this is what Joan would have seen after a fall, like Don in the opening credits, from a skyscraper.

The SC partners hold their meeting, without Don. All, including a reluctant Bert Cooper, approve the sale. The last shot of Cooper sitting alone, is reminiscent The Fountainhead where Gail Wynand, who after having selling out to keep his empire alive, spiritually dies (he actually commits suicide at his desk in the film version).

Later, walking back to Anna’s, Don is impressed by the sight of a couple of red sports cars. The men working on them offer to customize a car for Don that would look just like him. This refers to the scene from "The Golden Violin," where a Cadillac salesman comments that Don would be as comfortable in a Coupe de Ville (with red interior) as he is in his own skin. That Don is carrying a shopping bag, the symbol for his current life, suggests thats he's searching for some new purpose.

Peggy proudly moves into her new office. Prominently visible in a box she’s using to carry her things is a red thermos. A parallel between Peggy and Don is clearly being made. Her first act is to have the name changed on her office door. One of the jealous junior executives tells her that she should get a new couch. While this is meant to be a joke about Freddy’s bladder control problem, the symbolic implication of the remark is that the former copywriter’s metaphorical fall has damaged the couch. Interestingly, Joan seems sincere in her deference to Peggy’s new found authority.

Betty tries to make amends with Sally by giving her a present. Opening an unusually morbid and funereal looking box that's conspicuously decorated with black (not red) trim, Sally finds riding boots, the same as Betty wears. Betty then abruptly tells the excited Sally about her and Don’s marital woes. The young girl seems to recover a little too fast. At the end of the scene, Sally notices that Betty is bleeding. Presumably her menstrual cycle. However, sneaking a peek at the web teaser for next week’s finale, I read “Betty learns some disconcerting news.” That, coupled with the color scheme of the gift box and the fact that the last episode is titled “Meditations in an Emergency,” makes me wonder if this portents something more serious for Betty.

Of course, as Don says about Anna’s tarot cards immediately afterward, one can see what one wants to in “ink blots.” I found that an interesting choice of words given what the audience has just observed happening with Betty. The final scene has Anna reading Don's future as he fixes a chair. By mending a chair, an act that relates to Betty’s breaking of the dining room chair after learning of Don’s infidelity in “A Night to Remember,” seems to hint that Don plans to return home. It's also here that Don sees the book "Meditations in an Emergency" on Anna's shelf. Could this be another aspect of Anna's ability to see predict the future?

Anna interprets the tarot cards she's dealt for Don as judgement and resurrection. Anna tells Don that he feels alone because that’s what how he sees himself. His resolution corresponds to the one Peer Gynt arrived at regarding his own identify crisis. To find himself, Gynt needed to "to overcome" himself.

It’s fitting then that the song “Cup of Loneliness” plays in the background as Don walks into the ocean. His ritualistic baptism is accompanied by lyrics: “I see Christian pilgrims so redeemed from sin, called out of darkness a new life to begin.” This idea of “resurrection” was teased earlier with the aforementioned clip from The Day The Earth Stood Still, a film where, at the end, the lead character literally is resurrected.

As discussed above, I have my theories on what will happen next week. But there's still enough loose ends to keep me sitting on the end of my couch for next week's finale.

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