Mad Men: Christmas Waltz

Posted on May 21, 2012

Going by online reactions, it would appear that we are the only two people in the world who don’t pine for a Joan/Don hookup. We can certainly see the appeal; they’re both extremely attractive – almost archetypally so – and the actors do have a tremendous chemistry, that can’t be denied. But watching Don and Joan hook up would be watching two people make a terrible mistake. Granted, that’s not exactly notable in the world of Mad Men, which in some ways is all about watching people make terrible mistakes and then squirming in our seats as we wait for the fallout to hit them (e.g., Lane’s embezzling). But worse than actually making the mistake of a Don/Joan tryst is the idea behind the mistake. They’re terrible for each other. We can see Joan or Don having an affair right now – we just can’t see them having an affair with each other. Or rather, we can see them doing it, but we’d have to accept it as the character-breaking moment it would be. In other words, it would be fun to see Don and Joan hookup, but only if we pretend that Don and Joan would hook up at all and that’s something we have a hard time doing.

Fortunately, the writing this episode seems to uphold our view because Don all but stated he’d never make a play for her because she intimidates him. In response, she took a sip of her drink and coolly told Don Draper all about himself, explaining why his first marriage failed and hinting at a failure in his second marriage because “that’s just the way he is.” Faced with a woman who knows his inner workings better than he does, he high-tailed it out of there to burn off some middle-age frustration in his temporary Jaguar. If there’s one kind of woman Don can’t abide in his life, it’s one who knows him well. If there’s one kind of man Joan can’t abide in hers, it’s sloppy ones with messy personal lives. She wants strength and stability and he wants a woman to applaud his every move. They couldn’t possibly find worse candidates to fill those positions than each other.

But it was fun watching them, wasn’t it? Pretending to be a married couple, driving a Jaguar off the showroom floor, and getting a little sloppy together at a bar. Like the movies of the period, it was much hotter to see them dance around the idea of sex than actually engage in it. The scene at the bar was deliciously tense, because it felt like at any moment they were going to stop talking and fall into a kiss. But we’re glad they kept it at talking, not because we’re prudish and not because we’re averse to seeing these characters make mistakes (we’d be watching the wrong show if we were), but because an actual affair would feel like a betrayal of the characters, to us. Besides, we don’t like the idea of Joannie being passed around the partners like a tray of canapes. She did that once and now she’s a single mother in 1966, turning down checks from the childlike father of her child. Better for both Don and Joan to treat each other just as they did: as a temporary Jaguar to drive around for a while, but ultimately something to be returned to the showroom, the check uncashed.

This wasn’t a theme-heavy episode, which is a self-flattering way of saying “We couldn’t pick up on a central theme.” Instead, it felt, to us, like a continuation of general themes of the season. There has been a recurring exploration of people trying to be something they’re not (Megan as copywriter; Lane as accounts man), struggling with the expectations of their role (Don as creative director; Peggy as copywriting dynamo; Pete as suburban husband and father),  or outright rejecting it (Joan as dutiful wife; Roger as doting husband). You could apply any and all of these themes directly to poor Paul Kinsey, whose earlier-season predilection for pretension has now taken a turn toward the self-destructive. He is literally willing to destroy his life just to find someone who likes him. It would be sad – if the sight of him in full Hare Krishna drag wasn’t so hilarious. This is mean of us, but our first thought upon seeing the newly-shorn Paul was “Now, HERE’S something to get Joan out of her funk!” Could you imagine what Joan would’ve said to him if she’d seen him like that? He would’ve gotten a tongue-lashing so severe it would’ve left him in a fetal position, softly weeping.

Instead, he got Harry. And for once, that wasn’t a bad deal. Poor Harry hasn’t had a great year in the eyes of the show’s fans. His charming dorkiness has mostly faded, to be replaced by a smarmy, eyebrow-wiggling jackass who makes jokes about his dick size and fantasizes about fucking a partner’s wife in the office. He’s likeable enough, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to work with someone like that. Still, he was a good enough friend to Paul to realize that his current life situation was toxic for him (Seriously: that bitch CRAZY) and that the pursuit of a dream for which he’s not suited would still be better for him than pursuing a woman who exploits and uses him. That’s kind of depressing, but we were touched by Harry’s concern for his former co-worker. It’s notable that Harry, who never misses a chance to make fun of someone if it’ll make him look better, said not a word to his co-workers about Paul’s recent descent into cultism. And let’s face it, he could have had a field day with the information.

After the initial “OH. MY. GOD.” at the sight of Paul, we found ourselves squirming slightly, however. Dropping characters into the middle of the burgeoning late-sixties movement toward Eastern spiritualism and having them talk about Star Trek seemed just a little too on-point for a show like Mad Men. Considering just a few of years ago Matthew Weiner was seriously considering NOT featuring an episode about the Kennedy assassination, it’s a bit jarring to see the show so openly roll around in the history and pop culture of the period. We expect people to obliquely reference things like the Hare Krishnas and Star Trek; we don’t expect entire storylines to revolve around them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just a thing we didn’t expect. The writing this season (as we’ve noted in practically every review) is a lot less subtle than in previous seasons and the longer this goes on, the more it seems to us to be deliberate. The social upheaval of the sixties, coupled with the drastic changes in the lives of these characters, has resulted in a status quo that is louder, cruder, and more obvious than the smokey, moody, more subtle Mid-Century vibe of the show’s earliest episodes. Look at Peggy as the living embodiment of this idea. Compare the silent, wide-eyed, inscrutable Peggy of season one to the cocky, wisecracking, sarcastic Peggy 0f season 5. It almost seems like a different person altogether, but she’s really just a person who’s been through a lot and come out the other side changed. That applies to each and every one of the main characters and both the dialogue and the plotting reflect that.

And speaking of changed characters, it’s pretty distressing to see Lane slide into the kind of quiet desperation that leads to forging checks. There’s been a heavy pall hanging over the show all season, with some minor foreshadowing towards a character’s death. We’ve all been assuming Pete was in trouble (especially since mentioning the suicide clause in his life insurance), but if we had to pick a character heading for a disastrous downfall, it sure looks like Lane to us. With someone like Pete or Don or Roger, you can imagine that at some point they’ll stop fucking up their private or professional lives. With Lane, it’s hard to see any happy way out of his current situation and indeed, it’s hard to see Lane happy, period. He’s been a tense and unhappy figure since the moment he was introduced and nothing has really changed that. We hate seeing him like this, but we kind of love there’s now an embezzling subplot hanging over the proceedings. It’s been a while since we felt like SCDP had any drama to it that didn’t involve the messy personal lives of its principles. It’s nice to see a return to real workplace drama. Right now, it’s a race to see whether the agency can hold on to Mohawk, acquire Jaguar, and stave off financial ruin in the wake of Lane’s $50,000 of borrowed money.

But even if SCDP doesn’t get its mojo back, it sure was thrilling to see Don get his. It’s funny, though. After years of living in these characters’ lives, knowing everything we know about them, we couldn’t help but see Don’s speech as the load of bullshit it really is. Four years ago, a speech like that would have been stirring, but in 1966, it just sounds like Don trying desperately to regain something that’s lost. Four years ago, the sight of Don taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves while talking about Champagne dreams would have seemed a perfect encapsulation of mid-Century American bravado and ambition; now it just seems like a bit of stagecraft that he falls back on because he knows it looks good. We can’t tell if his turnaround is due to the discussion with Megan about how he no longer loves his job or whether it’s an instance of Don running into the arms of his professional world when life gets too hard at home. After all, he was at his creative peak back when Betty used to sit angrily at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, waiting for him to come home. It was a bit distressing to see his actions turn Megan – who is nothing like Betty – into essentially the same person. Then again, Betty would have never had the nerve to throw a plate of spaghetti at the wall in anger. Still, it seems clear to us that Don can have a fulfilling professional life or he can have a semi-fulfilling home life, but he’s incapable of doing both at the same time.

 

[Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC]

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