Mad Men Recap: Man, Be Thyself

It's with both joy and sadness that I look upon the final episodes of Mad Men. Like last season's penultimate episode, this season's provided plenty of answers while setting us up for a thrilling finish. 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 on the show 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's self?" Peer asks at the end, finding the answer to be "to overcome one's self."

Peer wanders throughout the play, avoiding the truth of his true self, much like Don, who confesses to Anna while sitting on the 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 whether to wed the daughter or not, 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 persona? 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 seems 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 its 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 Peggy 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 both the Clearasil account and the dinner turkey out the window after finding out that his life partner Trudy has set up 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.

More:

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 the 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)

drake lelane
curator of the music/soundtrack blog thus spake drake