Christmas is the one time of year when almost everyone agrees it’s okay to really want something. Everyone you know will be asking you what you want for the holiday, and even if you say something completely ridiculous, it’s allowed to be an answer. The characters on Mad Men, of course, are infected by the chronic sense of wanting something more but also something ill-defined. Their lives are in a constant quicksand that keeps dragging them downward, and they think if they just get that nice new thing or land that shiny new account, they might drag themselves out. But the only way to escape quicksand is to relax and let it do its thing, float on top until it releases you. Yet even the characters who attempt to do that very thing find themselves sucked down by their desires. These people can’t stop wanting things; their whole job is to make everybody want everything.
“Christmas Waltz” sees the characters confronting materialism and consumerism itself, in a handful of separate plots. (Also, Lane Pryce continues to have the world’s most depressing adventures.) Of course, one could argue the whole show is about people realizing that having something isn’t going to make them happy. That’s true, more or less, but “Christmas Waltz” was damn direct about it at times. Paul Kinsey has left advertising to join the Hare Krishnas, yet doing so hasn’t made him stop wanting to be recognized. He’s fallen in love with a woman in the movement, and he’s written a particularly bad spec script for Star Trek (about a race of white slaves called the “Negrons”—what a twist). He pays lip service to no longer having material desires, yet everything he does is driven by twin material desires. Similarly, Harry’s fervor in the Krishna meeting he attends is driven more by the pretty woman sitting next to him than it is anything pure and spiritual.
At the same time, Don and Megan head out to take in the protest play America Hurrah, which was an attempt by the experimental theater to get the United States (or at least the theatergoers of New York City) to confront the shallowness of their society and the horrible toll the Vietnam War was taking on a whole generation. (Needless to say, it didn’t work.) Seeing Don in an experimental play is amusing enough; having him get somewhat angry at Megan for bringing him to the play is even better. Megan doesn’t realize that Don is a man who values the symbol—and all the emotion we pour into that symbol—above all else. He’s like one of those people who viscerally recoil at the American flag being defaced because of all the American flag represents to them. Yet Don has an even worse thing to be quasi-religious about: advertising.
Mad Men is a show about people who work in advertising, yet its relationship with the form is complicated and hard to pin down. It sees that there can be artistic value in some ads, yet it finds most of them base and corrupted by corporate influence. In the last two seasons, the show has used the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office environment to tell coded stories about what it’s like to work in a TV writers room—where someone is always trying to hand off their shit-ass Star Trek script to you—almost as much as it has stories about advertising. Yet the show’s complicated relationship with the field its characters work in always remains. Advertising is about creating mirages that you can never have, then suggesting you could possess enough of a facsimile to be just happy enough, until you realize you’re not happy and need another thing. It’s about creating desires, then immediately erasing them. It’s about the complete lack of genuineness, so long as the product gets sold.
That’s one of the reasons the rise of Megan Draper has been such an important story arc this season. In her own, naïve way, Megan is the most genuine person on the show. She saw what she wanted, and she went after it, ostensibly with the support of her husband. But now that she’s happy, she can’t stem the way his bitterness is curdling and turning toward her. When she rejected her job at SCDP, was she rejecting him? Megan wants something pure and real, yet if she actually made it as an actress, would that solve anything? Probably not, if the previous characters who’ve gotten what they wanted on this show are any indication. The hole in the center is always there. You just keep looking for something new to fill it.
It’s also fascinating to watch the second Draper marriage slowly morph into the first one. Here, we see the first time Don comes home drunk, after having been out with another woman. Granted, that other woman was Joan, and nothing happened (though oh, does the show lead us on to suspect that it could have, if either Don or Joan had been just a bit weaker). But it’s all the same. At one time, Don would have called immediately to tell her he was going to be late. At one time, Pete Campbell would have been on the early train home. At one time, Harry would never have cheated on Jennifer. (Okay, that last one probably isn’t true.) Yet the longer they stay married, the more they realize that their wife hasn’t properly quenched their desire. The wife grows “familiar.” The eye starts to roam.
The Joan-and-Don scenes in “Christmas Waltz” are terrific, among the best the show’s ever done. After Greg serves Joan with divorce papers, Don invites her to get out of the office with him. He buys off a Jaguar salesman to let him take a test drive in the company’s best model, with Joan by his side, and the two play up the idea of being the perfect married couple. (Again, the image is suggested—and is there a better image of an all-American couple than Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks?—but everything beneath it is a lie.) At the bar, Joan admits to him why she’s frustrated. He lets her in on his secret trick: The more you just move on and act like something hasn’t affected you, the less it will, outside of all the times you’re caught in a stray moment and haunted by the past. This is advice Don ostensibly lives by, but he’s also the man most on the run from himself. He wants to project the image of both caring family man and rich playboy, even as he fears that deep down, he’s still a poor kid who will never find his way.
The need to be free from desire drives the episode’s other major storyline as well, though I’ll confess I found this one a bit more of a chore. It’s been a while since we last checked in on Lane, who’s spent the season finagling to keep anyone from noticing how Joan basically does his job anyway, romancing a might-have-been-mobster’s girlfriend, and decking Pete Campbell. Tonight, we realize his money woes are far beyond anything we’d have suspected before, to the point where he now owes enough money to the United Kingdom (in taxes, presumably) that he could very well be hauled back across the Atlantic and tossed in jail. He keeps this information to himself, gets a cash advance from the bank, then tries to convince the partners that the $50,000 surplus should be cut up into Christmas bonuses immediately—both to boost morale and to boost his sagging bank account. When the partners don’t go for the idea, he forges Don’s signature and cuts a check for himself, only to be laid low by Mohawk suspending service, thus depriving the office of funds. The other partners will go without bonuses until January, while the employees will be paid theirs right now. Thus does the forged check turn into yet another Chekhov’s gun hanging over the whole season (though I suspect this one will go off much more quickly than some of the others have).
Lane’s always been a curious figure on the show—a throwback to an empire that was rapidly fading in one that was rapidly expanding. The show sometimes has trouble coming up with storylines for just him, though it’s usually good at tossing him into storylines with other characters (as when he and Don painted the town red on New Year’s Day back in the fourth season). Lane is just as image-obsessed as anyone at SCDP, but he’s image-obsessed in an entirely different direction. He wants to be the proper British gentleman, with the gorgeous, upper-crust wife by his side and the son in boarding school. Yet every time we see him pursue what he seems to really want, it’s something far more vulgar and, for lack of a better descriptor, American. He dated a Playboy bunny. He likes giant steaks and bad monster movies. His tentative stabs at better Britishness often end in disaster, and he seems increasingly consumed by his new land. Again, the want/have dichotomy is present, just in a slightly askew direction from everybody else.
All of which brings us back to Harry and Paul and the Hare Krishnas. Lakshmi’s arrival to get Harry to leave Paul alone—by having sex with him—is a bit odd, but I found the other scenes in the storyline either entertaining or heartbreaking. In particular, I was taken with the final one. Harry gives Paul money and a ticket to Los Angeles to pursue his television-writing dreams. Harry knows the script is crap, but he comes up with an elaborate lie to make Paul believe it’s not, that he has an actual shot at making it big. Whether he does this because he’s mad at Lakshmi or wants to take care of an old friend (who wasn’t even considered when SCDP was hiring earlier in the season) or just wants the problem out of his hair isn’t clear. What is clear is the terrific moment where Paul thanks Harry for taking a chance on him when no one else would. Harry knows what actually happened, yet his old friend has no idea. He knows how little chance of success Paul has out in L.A. He perhaps even knows that even if Paul succeeds, he’ll be just as miserable as ever, because there’s no way to ever get exactly what you want. It’s a moving target.
At the end, Don is back to wanting success in his professional life. He’s officially come off of love leave after that fight with Megan that could have been any fight he had with Betty (something that must’ve unnerved him). He gives an inspirational pep talk about how much they’re going to work to land the Jaguar account, the inspirational pep talk neither Lane nor Pete can muster. Don makes working over weekends and working on Christmas sound like a triumphant thing, but what he doesn’t say is how that will take him away from home, from a relationship he knows is evolving in a way he doesn’t feel like he can change—even though he’s the only one who can change it. The show has always suggested that Don and Megan could be right for each other, but only if he’d let go of some of his baggage. He’s always been unlikely to, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.
Or think of that man in the bar, the one that Don and Joan look over at. They argue over whether that man can possibly know what he wants, with Joan saying he has no idea, and Don thinking he must know exactly. It’s obvious they’re talking about Don, even as neither of them thinks they are. He pushes Joan in the general direction of the other man because he can’t do anything with her. He sends her flowers the next day. And then, as he heads home from the bar, we see him driving the Jaguar, fast and in control, even though he’s drunk. The camera narrows in on his eyes. This is a man who both knows what he wants and doesn’t know where it’s located. It’s somewhere over there, and once he finds it, then he’ll finally be satisfied. But the hunt never ends.
- Joan gets the line of the week: “There’s an airplane here to see you!” That said, I also liked Meredith saying, “She has a whole story,” when telling Harry that Lakshmi was there to see him.
- Also, that scene in the bar between Joan and Don is officially the sexiest thing to ever have been broadcast on television, right? I now get why so many people want to see those two hook up.
- Background detail: Roger keeps trying to give Joan money to help out with Kevin. Joan keeps refusing. Nice to see that he knows the kid is his (and that he, unlike Greg, can count).
- The woman who said that Don likes to be bad, then go home and be good was Bobbie Barrett, who’s a weird person for the show to bring up again.
- Don’t you sort of suspect that in the show’s final season, we might take another trip out to Hollywood and discover that Paul Kinsey is writing for Marcus Welby, M.D. or something?
- Excellent choice of signature Christmas song tonight. “Christmas Waltz” is one of those carols that hasn’t been over-recorded but is just familiar enough to be recognizable to just about anybody who hears it. It also has a lovely, wistful quality that the rest of the episode echoes.
- So with just three episodes left—and the show obviously ending this season at some point in early 1967—where do we think this is all going to finish up, in terms of historical events to play off of?
- Peggy doesn’t get much to do in this episode, but her one scene with Harry is terrific. I loved her obvious delight-crossed-with-disgust at the idea of reading Paul’s script. (And remember when Paul hit on her back in season one?)
- Next week on Mad Men: Pete knocks on a door before entering a room!