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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: "The Mountain King"

Illustration for article titled Mad Men: "The Mountain King"
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Illustration for article titled Mad Men: "The Mountain King"

I don't know why it bothers me so much in movies and TV shows when characters open up and say what's on their minds. I mean, in my own life, I'm pretty much an open book; if I've got a crick in my neck or I had a weird dream, I share it with whomever happens to be around. But on tonight's Mad Men, when Roger said, "Jane makes me very happy," or Betty told an adulterous friend, "There's a difference between wanting and having," or Flashback Don talked about how much he loved Betty, or Present Don confessed, "I have been watching my life," I shook my head a little. It was like somebody had uttered "Let's fuck" in the midst of a long line of sublimely seductive innuendo.

I'll be honest: I didn't really care for this episode. I found it jumbled, overly busy, and stymied by an epidemic of telling instead of showing. Even the symbolic imagery felt clumsy: Joan pointedly leaving the bouquet of flowers behind after her fiancé rapes her in Don's office, Betty getting her period after having the "You're a big girl so I can tell you things" conversation with Sally, Don taking a baptismal swim at the end… none of it really worked for me. And during Peggy's Don-like pitch to the Popsicle people (her slogan: "Take It. Break It. Share It. Love It."), I felt like I was watching a parody of Mad Men, not the show that delivered one of the strongest episodes of TV I've ever seen last week.

But I don't want to dwell too much on the negative, because I'm sure a lot of you got more out of "The Mountain King" than I did, and perhaps you can persuade me in the comments that I missed something amazing. And anyway, some necessary business was dispatched tonight. Most significantly, we learned that the woman Don called last week–and the one he sent Meditations In An Emergency to back in Episode One–was indeed, as some had guessed, a person who knew the original Don Draper. In fact, she was Draper's wife, Anna, and in a series of flashbacks we learn how "our" Don confessed his identity-stealing to her, and how she's become his well-paid confidante over the years (as well as his secret ex-wife, of course).

Meanwhile, plans for the Putnam, Powell & Lowe merger with Sterling-Cooper are continuing apace, without Don's participation or blessing. And a happy Roger–buzzing with the prospect of cash-flow, and newly enamored of female empowerment–acquiesces to Peggy's request to move into Freddy's old office. And Pete's refusal to go along with Trudy's adoption plan costs him the Clearasil account (and costs Trudy one fine-looking roasted chicken). And Betty seems to be pulling out of her funk. And Paul's back from registering black voters (and losing his girlfriend). Most of the major plot threads introduced early in the season are quickly coming to some kind of an end, which means there's a mixture of relief, resignation and lingering uncertainly filling the air. If you've ever bought a house, you know this feeling: There's a stack of papers sitting in front of you in some generic suburban office park. It's time for the closing.

Yet even in the middle of a very paperwork-y episode, Mad Men managed some moments of real poignancy, mostly involving poor, poor Joan. Her fiancé's sexual assault is a direct reaction to her attempt to be sexually aggressive with him the night before, and as she gives up fighting him and stares blankly at the legs of Don's office furniture, the juxtaposition of her dead eyes and what she sees speaks volumes: about the reality of her sex-bomb image, about the place she's made for herself at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, and about the bargain she seems to have struck with the universe to become the wife of a prestigious man. Adding to her misery, she has to watch her former protégée Peggy take up residence in an office right behind her desk, and to make small talk with her to boot. When Joan took a deep breath and started answering Peggy's questions about marriage–pretending to be proud and excited–I caught a good glimpse of the Mad Men I love.

I also enjoyed Don's further adventures in California, and its continuation of the theme I've been fascinated with the past couple of weeks: the one about the alternate realities that the men of Sterling-Cooper have the money to pursue, if not the backbone. I lit up when I heard Anna Draper say of her late husband, "He wanted to marry my sister; she looks just like me, with two good legs," because that's such a sly way of reinforcing this idea that Mad Men's characters settle for an imperfect version of what they really want, and then regret it. I also dug Don hanging around Anna's San Pedro house, watching a kid take piano lessons or some neighbors work on their hot rods. He looked so at home there, napping on the sofa: The Don Draper of Earth-2.

Then of course, the spell was broken (for me anyway) by Anna turning Tarot cards and telling Don, "The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone." But I'm hopeful that even this piece of dimestore analyis is all part of the awkward but necessary process of moving the story's pieces into place. Either way, I'm willing to forgive. I'll try to keep in mind what Joan said to reassure her doctor pal: "You know there is no before."

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

-Next week's the finale. Despite my disappointment with "The Mountain King," I'm expecting greatness from "Meditations On An Emergency." I'm ready to buy the house. (I think.)