Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mad Men: 'The Mountain King' (2x12)

I’m a couple of days behind on the Mad Men review, but in those couple of days, I’ve read the rest of Grant Morrison’s Batman: RIP, and now the time has come for a multi-part blog thematic crossover dissecting these two stories of men going through psychotic breaks with their lives and a series of increasingly bizarre identity crises. Reading/watching these two works so close together, the similarities really jump out, and also gel with some themes that I’ve been writing about a lot lately, namely the way that we build and change our identities. For now, enjoy the Mad Men post, then later today or tomorrow morning I’ll have the post on Batman: RIP.

Much of this season’s Mad Men has been about Don Draper exploring his identity, struggling with the boundaries of the life he’s built for himself, and the realization that he can’t fuck around all the time and do whatever he wants and still maintain the respect of others. The critical moment is when Bobbie tells him he’s got quite a reputation among women of a certain circle. Don has a type, and that type likes him. The comment implies that Don’s had a lot more affairs than just Rachel and Bobbie, that he’s always drawn to these professional, strong women.

This comment starts the downward spiral that eventually leads to Don abandoning his identity, regressing back to Dick Whitman, and eventually trying rebaptize himself at the end of this episode. There’s a number of key scenes along the way. One of the most important is Don’s realization that he’s turning Sally into someone like Bobbie, the daughter he does legitimately love is being warped by his behavior, even while his son acts out in reaction to his perpetually absent father.

Don is feeling the consequences of his actions more than ever before, and it hits home most obviously when Betty confronts him about the affair and kicks him out of the house. He waits it out for a bit, assuming that this is just a temporary fit, she would never break the implicit contract between them, that he’ll provide her with an easy life of luxury and in return, he can do whatever he wants. But, she does break that contract, she demands more of him and refuses to be set aside in favor his other women. When he realizes that she won’t take him back, he initially feels bad. But, when he’s given the opportunity to go to LA, he realizes that it’s also kind of liberating.

Concurrently with all of this, we’ve seen Don slipping away from the office, watching art house movies instead of being at the office, and spending most of his time there asleep. He’s still got the reputation to coast on, the name “Don Draper” goes a long way in the ad business, but he’s barely even been there this season. As with all the best TV dramas, the ostensible premise of the series is little more than a hook to get people to watch, a metaphorical way to represent the issues that are really at stake.

Don has put down these ties over the years, to his home, his office, he thinks that he has to be the person these others expect him to be. But, Joy offers him the chance to escape, to follow his pleasure and be free from the social restrictions he’s chosen to place on himself. Last week’s episode posed the simple question, if you could walk away from yur life, leave behind all your responsibilities in favor of living a nomadic, hedonistic lifestyle, would you do it? It’s a question that fascinates me. I have ties to people, but at the same time, the lives we lead are all so limited by what society allows. I go to work for nine hours everyday, does it have to be this way? Why do we all have to live in this rhythm of “struggling” through the week, enjoying the weekend, then getting down when Monday comes around? Is this life really necessary, or would it be possible to just walk away and keep running without ever going back to the old status quo? Society tells us that’s wrong, that we should work and be productive, and then retire, but I’m selling 45 hours of my week every life, what’s the price that makes that worth it?

For Don, he’s “working” all the time, trying to live up to this false persona that he’s created of the perfect husband/father/worker. The past events on the show make that construction more pointed than normal, but isn’t every suburban parent ‘pretending’ to be a real adult, even as they feel inside like they’re not that old yet, that deep down, they’re just kids playing at being older? Everybody feels like an impostor amongst people who really belong.

As I mentioned earlier, the season’s arc has largely been about the ‘contamination’ and now the destruction of the Don Draper persona. Dick Whitman grew up ashamed of his family, hating his father and wanting nothing more than to walk away and leave it all behind. For Don, Dick Whitman is emblematic of the weakness he wants no part of. So, he let Dick Whitman die, and took on this new persona, ‘Don Draper,’ a war hero who came without the baggage of the life that Dick left behind. But, it’s not so easy to leave everything behind, as Don found out when the real Don Draper’s widow came to him at the used car lot.

As we find out in this new episode, Don lived a brief, apparently happy life with this woman, Anna. She knows him as Dick Whitman, but also allows him to keep the Don Draper persona. Why is this? That’s not exactly clear from what we see in the episode. She is one of the few people who knows his whole story, and hearing about his father and his bad upbringing, she probably sympathized with him. She likely saw his adoption of Don’s name as a coping mechanism, an exorcism of those childhood demons, and who is she to force him back into that old role.

Perhaps the central scene of the episode was the Christmas flashback where Don enthusiastically talks about first meeting Betty, and his decision to marry her. Anna gently mocks him, saying how he’s lost in the lavender, the first giddy stages of love. We know that it will all turn bad, but at this moment, Don is full of love for Betty. People have often asked that question, is there any real affection between the two of them or is the entire marriage just a sham? This scene is not conclusive. Don is clearly in love, but is he in love with Betty herself, or is he in love with the idea of Betty. He describes her as a model, an image, an illusion.

His entire motivation as Don Draper has been to try and live out the American dream, and getting this beautiful, blond haired wife would be a critical step. Perhaps marrying her would prove to his father that he could make it on his own, and get out of the oppressive world he left behind. Marrying her would also legitimize his new identity. It’s notable that he doesn’t tell her any of the backstory that he spreads so liberally amongst his other female companions. He wants her to be part of the illusion, and she can’t be as convincing if she’s aware of the constructed Don Draper persona.

After his surreal journey with the Europeans, Don chooses to go back to Anna, and decides to restart his life with her as Dick Whitman. The European sequence functions as a kind of identity dissolution ritual, with them he can be anyone he wants to, their identities are all puts on, designed to make them look better than they are. They are drifters, perhaps even criminals, but when you call yourself the Viscount, that’s all good. Over the course of his surreal experience with them, Don says goodbye to the world he left behind. He’s briefly reminded of his kids, but he turns away from them too. Left alone at the end of the ‘ritual,’ he calls Anna and chooses to delve deeper into his past.

While the Anna scenes were great, perhaps the most fascinating scene in the episode was Don’s conversation with the hot rod crew. He introduces himself as Dick Whitman, and asks about finding some work, implying that he’ll both be sticking around town, and staying in the Dick Whitman persona. That scene, apart of its interesting connotations, had that very charged, emotionally important feel that Mad Men does so well. Particularly in this latest Don arc, I’m not really sure why things feel so important, but it hits something deep in the subconscious.

Anyway, as Don explores his old life, life goes on back in New York, and various other characters struggle with stretching the boundaries of their personal identities. Peggy, Don’s best student, is running with his life of live the life you want, the stuff you don’t like didn’t happen, and jumps on the chance to get Freddie Rumsen’s vacant office. She isn’t beholden to the office decorum that prevented the others from asking for it, she jumped up and took what she wanted. She walks through the office at night, basking in the glory of her new job and her new power. With Don gone, she’s the go to person for clients, the one who can spin the perfect mix of anecdote and hard sell, all tinged through that golden nostalgia of a childhood that never existed. She describes the ritual of the popsicle, tapping into the client’s subconscious in the way that Don perfected. Her actual relationship with her sister is full of resentment and ill feeling, a lot of it centered around the church and its ritual, but in the ad, it’s transformed into a single perfect image, a single perfect moment.

Joan faces a more difficult task when it comes to defining herself. She seems to have found the perfect man, as detailed in the excruciating scene where Peggy talks about how handsome he is, and Joan runs through her rote speech about his merits, how he practices the most difficult kind of medicine, how he’s the perfect doctor you image from TV. But, the thing about Joan is she doesn’t want to be defined by the man in her life, and though this guy is everything she says, he’s also a controlling brute who’s scared of Joan’s sexual power and independence. He didn’t want her working for the TV department earlier in the season, and he keeps making reference to the fact that he just wants her to sit at home and watch TV all day. He can’t deal with a woman with her own life, never more so than when it comes to sexuality.

He sees Joan’s sexual advances as evidence of her earlier promiscuity, and chooses to punish her for it by raping her in the office. In doing so, he is essentially claiming her domain for himself, making it clear that she can go away for eight hours a day, but she’s his. He’s the dog pissing all over to mark his territory. Don Draper may be on the door, but he’s her real boss. This is all conveyed in a wonderfully dedramatized, haunting shot of Joan staring at the foot of the couch, gradually going numb as she realizes that she’s unable to stop him from getting his way.

Over with Betty, we get a couple of wonderful scenes. The first is the crazy opening where she catches Sally smoking. Betty locks her in the closet, thinking that she can make her problems go away just by putting them out of sight, but she soon confronts Sally about it. She sees how much Sally misses Don, but there’s nothing she can do, Don is gone at this point.

At the end of the episode, Betty buys Sally the riding boots she’s been wanting all season. I’d argue that this is a gesture designed to secure Sally’s affections. Sally may be missing Don now, but if Betty gives her what she wants, she can make sure that Sally loves and stays loyal to her. Throughout the season, Betty’s had this jealousy of the kids’ affection for Don, which manifested itself in her anger at Don not disciplining the kids when he comes home from the office. She’s always got to be the ‘bad guy,’ and despite the fact that she spends all day with these kids, they’re always more excited to see their dad. But, buy Sally enough riding boots, and Betty might have an ally down the line.

I should go back and watch the episode again for more detail on Don’s tarot reading. The emphasis was on “The World” card. This is the last card in the Tarot deck, and represents the end of a journey, the pause before the start of a new one. This fits perfectly with what we see with Don at the end of this episode. He is regressing back to his old persona as the last stop before total dissolution of Don Draper, and the subsequent reconstruction of something new.

Dick Whitman may be asking for work from the hot rod guys, but we know that he won’t be staying there forever. The show needs to get him back to New York, but in what condition will he return? At the end of this episode, Don walks out into the sea, baptizing himself again as a new man. There’s a lot of potential readings of the scene. The first thing that jumped out at me was a similar scene in Six Feet Under, where we see Nate walk out into the water, then flash back to the land, saying that he’s in the game, he’s going to live. Later on, in “Ecotone,” we see him walk into the water again, and subsequently die.

The water here, like The World tarot card, is both death and life. It is the end point of one journey and the beginning of another. When he submerges himself, he wipes the sins of the past away, he has a clean slate, alone in a vast ocean, which definitely has a womb connection. These past few episodes have been about stripping away all the things that made Don Draper who he is, he left his family, he left his job, he even left his name behind. Now, he has nothing, he’s adrift in a vast sea, and the future is a blank slate.

I’ve really got no idea where they’ll go with Don in this next episode. He was conspicuously absent from Sterling Cooper as the company is sold to the Brits. The name on the door may be the same, but for Cooper, the core of his identity has been sacrificed. This is the first step on the journey to death. But, what does it mean for Don? Part of himself has been sold to someone else, the work Don Draper did is no longer his own. It’s just another piece of the persona dying. But what will rise in its place? That’s the question now.


R.A. Porter said...

Came over from Sepinwall's. Nice analysis, really interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing you tie it with your Batman: RIP thoughts.

And I'll say that's it's ballsy and brave to try doing an overall analysis of the season when there's an episode remaining. I never trust my conclusions with Weiner until he's finished having his say.

My thoughts on "The Mountain King" are here. As the week's gone on, my feelings on the themes of the episode have changed somewhat, but it's still a decent summation of what I took away.

Patrick said...

Yeah, it may have been a bit premature to figure out what the season's about, a lot of the arc's meaning depends on what happens to Don after this experience. I mean, he's got to go back to New York, right? That's that you'd believe, but how will he be changed? This season has just zipped by, hopefully the finale will match last year's brilliant last episode.