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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: "Christmas Comes But Once A Year"

Illustration for article titled Mad Men: "Christmas Comes But Once A Year"
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Let’s start at the end this week. Mad Men doesn’t use songs accidentally and it especially doesn’t end episodes with carelessly chosen songs. It’s always puzzled me that “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” became a holiday standard. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great song. But, unlike most Christmas songs, it’s not a song for kids. In fact, it’s a song that essentially mocks kids for believing in Santa. There are probably ways to explain its lyrics to children who still believe in Santa, but they involve piling a lie on top of another lie.

A songwriter named Tommie Conner—who penned several other Christmas songs and something called “Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo”—wrote it in 1952 and a kid named Jimmy Boyd, who went on to enjoy a fairly long career in show business, recorded it that same year. It was a hit again years later for the Jackson 5, as fronted by a young Michael Jackson. But there’s another tradition of versions by grown-ups, like the sexy Ronettes version on Phil Spector’s Christmas album and the one that closes out this week’s episode. I’m not sure who’s singing the version here—maybe country singer Molly Bee—but like most versions performed by adults, it takes on a different meaning in a grown-up voice. Listening to it requires buying into the illusion of an adult singing from a child’s perspective while still recognizing that it’s not a child singing at all. It means believing an illusion and recognizing the truth at the same time.

That double consciousness must be familiar to ad execs, who have to create a fantasy to sell a product and, to some degree at least, believe that fantasy for it to work. It’s a state of mind that creeps into private lives as well. Witness Don and his secretary Allison at the end of this week’s episode. Drunk, again, after the Christmas party, he’s had to call her to let him in to his apartment. Practically crawling to his couch, he’s still put together enough to put the moves on her and seductive enough, however hammered, for her to give in to his advances. But any of her hopes that their intimacy will stretch beyond that night evaporates back at the office. Don’s all business again, treating Allison as he always has, which is brusque but kind—or would be if they hadn’t slept together. Now business as usual has a cruel undertone and the pair of fifties slipped into her Christmas card feel less like a bonus than a pay-off or, worse yet, a payment for the night before.

Allison, as played by Alexa Alemanni, has been a part of the show since the first season and served as Don’s secretary for the past two years. She knows the man by now, well enough even to cry when reading his daughter’s letter to Santa (a letter Sally knows won’t actually get to the North Pole at all). Unlike most women Don sleeps with, she doesn’t sleep with him purely because he seduces her. She sleeps with him because she has feelings for him based on years of professional togetherness, which makes the end of the episode all the sadder. Alemanni, usually relegated to the background, delivers a performance that makes it seem like her character has been central to the proceedings for a long time.

Don always had the good taste not hit on her until now. That may partly because he’s not attracted to her and that this Christmas encounter is nothing more than a tryst of convenience for him. And unlike Roger, he’s always seemed to regard the secretarial pool as off limits. But Don’s standards have slipped since the divorce. He’s drinking more and others have noticed. (Even Allison, less than an hour before sleeping with him, joins others on commenting on his new enthusiasm for booze.) Strangers see it too. Don’s new neighbor Phoebe would be able to spot a boozer even if her father wasn’t a drunk. (A side note: Assuming Don sleeps with Phoebe, he’ll have bedded both a stewardess and a nurse. Is there a ’60s object of desire he won’t have had his way with before the decade ends?) And yet Don doesn’t necessarily see himself that way. He’s still as forward with women as ever—Phoebe, Allison, Dr. Faye Miller—but he doesn’t sense the desperation he’s giving off beneath the charm. (He does, however, seem willing to discard uppity Mt. Holyoke alums who don’t melt beneath his gaze, if I’m reading between the lines correctly.) He’s got a double life of his own: fearless, forward-thinking advertising genius who’s quietly slipping into lush sadsackdom when not on the job.)

Peggy’s living a bit of a double life as well. At work, she’s an eyes-forward career woman, quick to point out when beloved ex-Sterling-Cooper fixture Freddy Rumson is subscribing to old-fashioned thinking in approaching the Pond’s account. But away from the office she’s willing to let her boyfriend, Mark, think she’s a virgin because she hasn’t slept with him yet. In fact, she uses the term “old fashioned” to insult Freddy after Mark applies it to her. And, having decided Freddy’s pretty much wrong about everything, she ignores his advice and sleeps with Mark by the end of the episode. That settles that. But one question lingers: Will she ever let him know that he’s not her first? Or is she, Don-like, creating another past for herself and committing to it?


The Draper art of keeping a secret gets a new initiate this week, too. Sally has a secret. Specifically, she has a secret friend in the form of Glen, a neighbor from years past. Here Glen returns to make surreptitious phone calls and vandalizing raids on the Draper-Francis household that climax in leaving secret presents for Sally. Sally keeps the token for herself and lets others wonder who befouled the home and left only one room untouched.

I was happy to see Glen return. He brought a welcomingly unnerving presence to Mad Men’s first season by mirroring Betty’s childlike traits back to her. Now he’s shifted his affections to a younger Draper but continues to act as a mirror. The future of Sally Draper comes up every week on the boards here and with good reason: She’s clearly a kid on her way to being messed up. Her father, whom she adores, is out of the picture and her mother, well, her mother is Betty. But Sally doesn’t really do that much in the way of acting out, apart from the occasional sweet potato rejection. In Glen she’s found someone who, for now, does the acting out for her. Whether she’ll start to follow his example remains to be seen. (Glen also has a Roger Sterling-like abundance of memorable lines this week, e.g. “I saw your new dad. My mom said that would happen.”)


We should probably talk about Freddy, another welcome return, for a bit. Once an incorrigible alcoholic, he’s now holding steady thanks to the “fraternity” that sends him off to help his off-the-wagon (thanks to Roger) Pond’s contact. Note the way everyone keeps offering Freddy drinks anyway. That’s partly because they forget, I’m sure, but also because they have a 1964 understanding of alcoholism and figure one drink won’t hurt him when AA tells him that one drink is all that takes to start the way down.

We should also probably mention Drs. Atherton and Miller, who bring a new, scientific approach to demographic research. The art of the ad is finding newly sophisticated approaches. It’s not all about getting stories about ham in the paper anymore and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the doctors or their findings.


And we should certainly talk about the Christmas party, which begins as a Velveeta-and-no-guests affair then erupts into a bacchanalian frenzy once Lee Garner Jr. announces his intention to attend. I loved the sight of the office conga line and the expression of forced merriment on everyone’s face, particularly Roger, who’s forced to play Santa for his meal ticket’s amusement. Here it’s worth mentioning that, for all the dark turf explored in “Christmas Comes But Once A Year”—and I think the Don/Allison material is some of the show’s darkest moments—it’s also a quite funny episode. In broad strokes, Mad Men is a show about a 1960s ad agency whose employees engage in cigarettes, alcohol, and casual sex to a degree appalling to modern sensibilities. The party makes a cartoon of that image by creating a situation that forces everyone to live the Mad Men lifestyle to an uncomfortable extreme. It’s not a party if the merriment’s an obligation. And, as Allison learns the hard way this week, the morning after brings consequences whether you had a good time or not.

Stray observations:

• Note the elegant, chillingly uncomfortable piece of editing that joins Don’s unfortunate coupling with Allison to Sally looking out her window pining for Glen. Or for her father. Or for someone to change what her life has become.


• Dig the op art in Roger’s office. We’re unmistakably in 1964 now, aren’t we? And what a perfect piece for an ad firm, one that tricks the eye into seeing depth and dimension from a flat form.

• It won’t be 1964 for long, though. And this week the show acknowledges one seismic cultural shift by referencing The Beatles when Don asks Allison to pick up some Fab Four 45s for Sally. By the end of 1964, Sally would have had her choice of many singles. She might have even seen A Hard Day’s Night, which made it to U.S. theaters that August, complete with a scene in which a marketing firm tries to capture the new spirit of the age to better lure the youth of the day into buying their products. “They’re fab and all the other pimply hyperboles.” The game has started to change.