21
May
2012
Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 10
Christmas Waltz
Jordan
Mad Men has always been a show about wanting something, about striving for the American Dream and all-too-often coming up short. In that regards, its no surprise that the show does Christmas well. It is the season of wanting, almost as much as it is a season often full of melancholy and regret as much as cheer and goodwill. "Christmas Waltz" is less a traditional Christmas episode and more a metaphorical one, in which multiple characters question what they want and find themselves face to face with materialism and consumerism. Its a clever conceit, executed excellently, and is another fantastic episode in a season that has been chock full of them.

Lane Pryce continues to be an incredibly tragic character, and his struggles tonight made me wince even as my heart was breaking. Lane owes money to the British government, and he doesn't have it. In a fairly clever scheme, he asks the bank for a $50,000 advance for SCDP, gets it executed immediately, then moves to give out Christmas bonuses. Of course, this is Lane we're talking about, so everything goes immediately awry as the partners first decide to delay handing out bonuses and later decide to forego them entirely. So Lane, in desperation, forges Don's signature on a check to himself.

Lane has increasingly become one of the series' most tragic figures, a fish out of water and a representative of a declining empire who has found his way into the new world power and isn't quite sure how he fits. On the one hand, he wants to be viewed as the perfect British gentlemen, much like Don Draper likes to see himself as the ideal American Man. Yet he has also embraced the crassness of his new culture to a degree that seems to disturb him. Lane likes to get drunk, eat big steaks, watch B-movies, and even dated a Playboy Bunny. In many ways, he seems more comfortable as an American cliche than as a British one, but he will never truly fit that mold. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of them all is Lane's lie to his wife. He claims he has to stay in the U.S. for Christmas to work, because the firm simply cannot land Jaguar without him. His wife beams with pride, but we know all too well how irrelevant Lane is to that campaign, and how increasingly marginalized he is within SCDP. As Pete said before their fight, Lane's biggest contribution to the firm happened before it had even been founded, when he fired the rest of the necessary staff and walked out the door with them. Lane, like the country he comes from, is declining in influence, and he isn't sure how to deal with that fact. He wants, but he isn't quite sure what, nor how to achieve it. And the way he handles his money means he is coming up short during the holiday season.

Megan and Don are plagued this week by a sense that what they want might be very different. Megan drags Don to see American Hurrah, an experimental satire that is incredibly critical of advertising and consumerism--two of the things Don holds most dear. To Don, these things are pillars of his daily life, the foundation on which his very being is built. Don is all about creating a want and then supplying something to fulfill that want. Obviously, this is what he does for a living, working in the advertising industry. But more crucially, this is how he structures his entire private life. Don creates an illusion of perfection, cultivating an air of mystery and a sense of charm that is so captivating, it proves irresistible. He knows how to make the pitch, but the product he's selling can never live up to the expectations he sets, and thus, he is always bound to disappoint.

This is what has made the new Draper marriage so fascinating (and as someone who harbored doubts at the end of last season, I freely admit I have been proven completely wrong). While Don is all facade, Megan is perhaps the most straightforward, genuine character on the show. She realized she didn't like advertising and she left. She wants to be an actress, so she pursues it. Megan is honest about her wants, and willing to make sacrifices to get them. Whether this means that Megan is capable of a more genuine happiness than the rest of the cast remains to be seen. Perhaps her authenticity means she can be content, or possibly she will get what she wants only to find out it isn't as satisfying as she expected. If the latter is the case, she will be far from alone among characters on this show.

Easily the strongest storyline in the episode was Don and Joan's day off. The show has always recognized the potential of this pairing, which may be why we see it so rarely. But if their interactions continue to be as phenomenal as they were this week, I'm ok with them being only an occasional thing. Joan gets served with divorce papers, and has the biggest meltdown we've ever seen (seriously, Hendricks needs to submit this for Emmy consideration. The episode has a nice, explosive scene and plenty of phenomenal quiet moments, and I would love to see her get an Emmy). Don takes her out, the two play couple for a Jaguar salesmen, and they end up in a bar, where their flirtation borders on going somewhere, only to retreat. These two know each other too well and respect each other too much to get involved, but that somehow makes the tension all the more palpable and their interactions are given a charge that is downright erotic. Their conversation in the bar is among the greatest scenes this show has ever done, perhaps single-handedly ensuring this episode will get an 'A' (as opposed to the 'A-' it probably deserves otherwise). The two dissect each other, support each other, and very nearly fall into each other in a sequence that is so dizzying and intoxicating, it is difficult, if not impossible to write about (so you'll excuse if I avoid analyzing it too in-depth. Sometimes its better to just let the magic of the moment speak for itself and go no further).

Finally, there's Paul Kinsey, who represents the episode's themes most obviously. Paul has become a Hare Krishna, which means he should be free from all worldly desires. Yet of everyone in the episode, it is Paul Kinsey who most blatantly expresses what he wants, who most openly needs the trappings of the material world. Paul has fallen in love with Lakshmi and wants to move to California to support her as a TV writer. He gives Harry a terrible Star Trek spec script (about the Negrons, a race of white slaves) and openly begs for his help. Harry, always trying to be a great friend (Though usually failing) sends Paul on his way with $500 and a ticket to California, lying to him about his chances and ignoring the fact that he banged the woman Paul is in love with (as a result of a nonsensical scheme of hers to get Harry to leave Paul alone). Perhaps the best moment in this story comes in that otherwise absurd scene, as Lakshmi explains why she wants Paul to stay. She too is a devotee of a religion that dismisses materialism, yet she points out that Paul "is our best recruiter. He really can close." Even those who try not to want are left desiring things that are just outside their reach.

To return, in closing, to the best sequence of the episode, it all comes down to that moment between Don and Joan in the bar, and to a lesser extent to what follows. The two discuss whether a man at the other end of the bar can possibly know what he wants. Don, ever the advertiser, says he knows exactly. Joan knows that he has no idea. It's clear the two are discussing Don, who pushes Joan away because he can't have her. He then jumps into the Jaguar (which he says he cannot see the appeal of) and takes off, driving very quickly despite his intoxication. Don thinks he knows what he wants, but until he defines it, he will never find what he's looking for. And even if he does, there's no guarantee it will bring him the happiness he desires. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Grade: A

Notes:

-"We're heading to Florida. I want to fly, but I think we're going to drive." This season, and this episode, is full of seemingly inconsequential small talk that actually amounts to existential mountains if properly considered.

-"Yup. Nope. Should've been our wedding vows."

-"Well no one's made a stronger stand against advertising than you."

-"I think it was really hard for him." "Then he shouldn't be doing it."

-"My mother raised me to be admired." The tragedy of it is that Joan's closest analogue remains Betty Draper. Joan has always desired a happy ending that has gone out of fasion and built herself to end up in a place that no longer exists. Her efforts to force the issue have left her divorced with a young child. The parallels are enough to write an entire review on, but you get the point.

-"I bet she's not ugly. The only sin she's committed is being familiar."

-"This failure. This life. It'll all seem like it happened to someone else." This is very reminiscent of Don's advice to Peggy in season two: "You'll be amazed how much this never happened." This show has great faith in people's ability to completely recreate themselves, though it is also quick to point out how hollow they often end up inside as a result.

-"When we land Jaguar, the world will know we have arrived." Don is back, for all the good, and the bad, that entails.
Tags: Mad Men
comments powered by Disqus