This week, Christmas comes to Mad Men, courtesy of Doris Day and Charles Dickens. After a run of groundbreaking episodes, the series seems to be catching its breath for the final sprint. But even in the midst of some table setting, there are a few bombshells.
The season started out with the youngsters at the agency overtaking the old folks. Roger was seen wandering aimlessly around the office with little purpose, other than to write checks to keep the operation afloat. Don went from too much womanizing to too much napping this season, checked out and aloof, content to let Peggy, Stan, and young Ginsberg do the heavy lifting.
But this week’s episode, Christmas Waltz, marks a return of sorts of the old luminaries at SCDP. This week we hear the old lions roar.
The episode opens on Lane, who’s been missing of late. He receives an early morning call from his lawyer in England, who is trying to keep in out of prison on tax evasion charges. Lane can remain free so long as he can pay an $8,000 penalty within two days. This is 1966, and that’s a large sum of money, as we will soon see. The rest of the episode answers the question “What will Lane do to maintain his freedom?”
Lane pays a visit to SCDP’s accountant to get a $50,000 extension to the agency’s line of credit. This deal is done old school, over a bottle. After a couple of questions, the accountant agrees to give Lane what he wants. With this meeting, it looks like we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of Lane Pryce.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a call from an old colleague – Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the former copywriter for the old Sterling Cooper – who wants to have lunch. The last we saw of Kinsey, he was among the ones left behind after the midnight defection of Don and the gang. Time hasn’t been kind to Kinsey. He worked his way down the ad agency ladder until he ended up as an in-house writer at A&P, the supermarket chain. Harry senses he wants something and agrees only to grab a cup of coffee.
A third story line is opened when Pete calls a meeting of the partners in order to make a big announcement. It’s first thing in the morning, and as Pete walks by each office, he runs into Roger in the hall – as Don emerges from the bathroom – and calls him out on his drunkenness. “It’s Pearl Harbor Day,” Roger says. “Show respect.” He looks at Don, and without skipping a beat says, “You’re done with your bombing.” Best line of the episode.
Pete can’t help himself and spills the beans right there, telling the guys that Jaguar is back up for grabs. Pete stayed close to the account, cultivating relationships with other prospective buyers expecting a crash from Edwin, Lane’s countryman. The crash came when Edwin got drunk and vomited all over the senior dealer at a convention.
Now, the business is back up for grabs, and SCDP has 6 weeks to prepare for a pitch. “Sounds like a lot of work,” Don whines, not sounding like himself. “Yes,” Pete says. “You may have to stay past 5:30.” Don flashes him a nasty look and tells him he’d live at the office if he thought Pete’s words were more than a pipe dream. Really? Don’s on-the-job performance, this season, would suggest otherwise. Why is the tension between the office and home a zero sum game for this guy? Can’t a guy have a career and a family? Can’t a guy have it all?
As they move into the conference room (minus Roger, whom Pete describes as being “on Battleship Row”, aka drunk), Lane takes center stage to announce that the company will end the year with a $50,000 surplus. To celebrate this, and reward the employees who have worked so hard, he announces SCDP’s first Christmas bonus for all employees, to be paid in tiers according to hierarchy. “God bless us, everyone,” Bert cheers. The guys are happy, but there’s disagreement over when to distribute the monies. In the midst of this, Pete slips in his Jaguar opportunity, advocating for a delay in the bonuses, like Don has suggested. Frustrated and panicky, Lane pounds his fist on the table in a rare display of emotion, causing Pete to ask, “What ghost visited you, Ebenezer?” As tempers flare, Don reminds Pete that he wanted Don to step in the last time he baited Lane. Pete backs down, saying that no one has given him the response he desires. Pete looks to Bert. “They’re lemons,” Bert says. “They never start.” Pete adjourns the meeting and stomps off like a disappointed little boy. Add another tick mark to the Pete-got-humiliated column. What’s the over/under on how many it’ll take before he snaps?
Harry shows up at a storefront, presumably in the Village, where a Hare Krishna meeting is taking place. Based on Hindu beliefs, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in New York in 1966, and in Mad Men, Paul Kinsey is an early convert and champion recruiter. Harry is both tickled and freaked-out at Kinsey’s appearance. He tries to leave, but Kinsey urges him to stay a while. Harry can’t figure out why Kinsey would get involve with something so incongruent to the guy he knew until he meets Mother Lakshmi (Anna Wood), an earthy, attractive young woman. Harry does the math and decides to stick around for the meeting. Before you can sing the first verse of My Sweet Lord, Harry is chanting enthusiastically, having been enchanted by Lakshmi.
Later, as Harry and Kinsey go to eat, Kinsey confesses that, even though he sincerely believes in the Movement, he wants to break away with Lakshmi and start a family with her. They both hit bottom, and somehow cleaned up their acts, though it seems Lakshmi has done a better job of restoring her confidence. Kinsey has a hangdog quality about him. Nothing’s really changed, except he’s even more pathetic than in season 3.
At dinner, the two pass the time with small talk. Harry talks about a vision he had as he chanted, which impresses Kinsey who’s too self-conscious to let go. Finally, Kinsey gets to the real reason he wanted to meet with Harry. This being Mad Men, a Hare Krishna is never JUST a Hare Krishna. Kinsey pulls a tattered script from a bag he carries and hands it to Harry. It’s a spec script for Star Trek. He wants Harry to pass it along to NBC and, if possible, to Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator and runner.
Harry protests, citing the impropriety of making such a demand, but Kinsey calls BS, knowing full well that ethics fly out the window when self-interest is involved. Harry tries another approach, doubting that Star Trek will even be on next season, slotted as it is against My Three Sons and Bewitched, two popular shows.
Kinsey digs in, showing why he’s such a good closer for the Movement, generating self-pity from Harry by disclosing just how desperate and alone he really is. In a world where displaying one’s emotions, particularly the vulnerable ones, is frowned upon, Kinsey’s admission is significant. And Harry, despite being a colossal douche bag, is a softy at heart (remember him leaving Don’s Carousel pitch in tears?) and agrees to do what he can.
Seeing Kinsey in his Hare Krishna robes and shaved head, I couldn’t help but think of Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, the recruit who goes haywire during basic training and murders his drill sergeant. The likeness is uncanny, and I fear that Kinsey might have an equally tragic fate awaiting him. But with so many characters and a season making the final turn down the home stretch, why is he here?
Along the way, there’s a set-up for later when drunken Roger engages Joan in a discussion about their son Kevin. She wants nothing to do with him or his money, and warns him that if he doesn’t behave, he won’t even get to be a family friend.
Now that she’s back taking acting classes, Megan seems to have shaken her negative feelings towards the theatre; so much so that she and Don travel downtown to see America Hurrah, an actual play which premiered on November 7, 1966 and was directed by Jacques Levy and Joseph Chaikin, a close collaborator with Sam Shepard. It was notable for being the first dramatic critique of the Viet Nam war, but Don took offense for its take on the emptiness of advertising and how it drives one to mindless consumption.
After the play, as Don and Megan return home, Don’s answers to her questions are clipped, one-word responses, like a pissed-off Gary Cooper – “Yep.” “Nope.” Megan playfully calls Don out on his aggression, saying his responses should’ve been their wedding vows. Don admits to feeling attacked by the play and her actor friends, and Megan reminds him that he regularly says harsher things about advertising himself. It’s the ugly-sister conundrum – I can say my sister is ugly, but you’d better not chime in unless you want a fight.
Shifting gears, Megan re-frames the nature of the play, saying that it wasn’t so much a strong stand on advertising as it was an attack on the emptiness of consumerism. “Well, no one’s mad a stronger stand against advertising than you,” Don says. It’s a pointed comment that Megan chooses to ignore. He’s still hurt over her rejection of The Life…and by extension, him. At least, that’s the way Don sees it. Further, he doesn’t have any more excuses for not working a full day.
Lane shows up at the offices around the same time that Don and Megan bicker over the play and sets to work forging a check for $8,000. SCDP’s checks require two signatures, and Lane traces Don’s at a light table in the art department. Problem solved…for now.
The next day, Harry goes to Peggy, asking why she didn’t hire Kinsey when they needed a new writer. After Peggy walks Harry through Kinsey’s downward spiral, he asks her to read the Star Trek script, titled The Negron Complex, which Harry says is horrible. Peggy realizes that Harry wants to help Kinsey, which strikes her as bizarre. “I think it was really hard for him,” Harry says. “Then he shouldn’t be doing it,” Peggy says, handing the script back to him. She won’t waste her time with it, and advises Harry to tell Kinsey the truth, if she really wants to help him.
Mid-morning finds Don napping on the couch in his office, something we’ve seen an awful lot of this season. Dawn buzzes him, announcing Pete’s arrival. Don sits up, grabs a legal pad and a pen, and tells her to send him in. Say what you will about Pete, but he’s not fooled by Don. He’s confused and disgusted at Don’s lack of effort. Despite this, he’s there to ask for help. He went to the Jaguar dealership, but all the cars have manual transmission and he can’t drive a stick. Don’s blasé attitude toward the prospective account – a CAR – is more than Pete can take. “If I’d of told you, last December, that we’d be in the running for a car, you’d of kissed me on the mouth,” Pete says. He leaves a sleepy Don to consider the admonition.
Out in the lobby there’s commotion. The ditzy new receptionist has paged Joan to see a visitor, a nervous looking guy serving a summons. It turns out that Greg is divorcing Joan. This news catches Joan completely off guard, and she takes out her rage on the hapless receptionist, first screaming at her and then throwing Pete’s model plane from the Mohawk announcement at her. Joan may have climbed over the desk and bludgeoned the poor girl to death with a stapler if it hadn’t been for Don, who managed to drag himself off the couch to pay a visit to the Jaguar dealership.
Don drags Joan out of the office, and when she won’t be consoled, takes her with him to visit the Jaguar dealership. Soon, the Don Draper charm kicks in – that ability to make women feel like he’s in control, that everything is going to be all right – causing Joan to forget her troubles and take on the role of Don’s accomplice. Together, they commandeer a shiny, red XKE, with Don leaving behind a $6,000 check to cover the cost of the $5,600 car. “If we don’t come back, consider it paid for,” Don tells the salesman, relishing the role of Big Shot.
Later, at a bar, it’s early afternoon and they share a few drinks together. A Christmas tree decorates one corner, and Doris Day sings Christmas Waltz. Don confesses that the XKE does nothing for him. “That’s because you don’t need it,” Joan says. “You’re happy.” She’s nailed a common motivation for why men buy cars like this, but she’s misjudged Don’s budding discontentment. “Okay,” he says, meaning, “If you say so.” She shifts gears, hinting at her troubles until Don tells her that she’s going to have to explain her pronouns if she wants to keep him interested. She gives it to him straight.
She realizes that she was unfair to the receptionist admitting that when me wanted to see her in the lobby, it was to deliver flowers. Don comments on the quantity of flowers, saying that it looked like she was dating Ali Khan. “My mother raised me to be admired, but there were no flowers from you.” She’s flirting, fishing for a compliment. “You scared the shit out of me,” he admits, side-stepping (for now) an opening he would have exploited without a moment’s thought before Megan. Instead, he talks around her sexuality, choosing instead to relate the backhanded tribute that was paid her by guys like Freddie Rumsen – not exactly flattering talk, but it reminds Joan of her unique place in the office firmament.
Don congratulates Joan on her divorce, explaining that she’s been given an opportunity to start over, to find someone better. She shifts the conversation back on him by reminding him that he did exactly that. “You found someone perfect,” she says, making it sound as much like an indictment as a curse, harkening back to Peggy’s observation that Megan is one of those girls who can do it all and should therefore, according to Joan, be hated. Or at least hazed. Don agrees with Joan’s statement, feeling that the office misses her, which is an odd remark. She was tolerated because she was his wife, and now that she’s out of site, she seems to be out of mind with everyone but Don, and maybe Harry.
Speaking of Harry, the Don/Joan date is broken up by a strange happening at Harry’s office. Lakshmi shows up, unannounced, and Harry has her brought to his office. Alone, She comes onto him, explaining that in the Movement, men and women aren’t possessions to be hoarded. Harry tries to resist, but she won’t be refused, explaining that she burns for him. “Does your wife burn for you?” she asks. Harry can’t resist, and they have sex in his office.
When we get back to Don and Joan, it’s later and the bar has filled up with folks having an after work cocktail. They’re both drunk, and now Don is flirting, striking Sinatra-esque poses in his fedora. It’s like a date. When Joan observes people dancing to the songs she’s played on the jukebox, Don asks her to dance, but she says they probably shouldn’t. It’s a weird dance where first one, then the other moves in, making a pass at the other. Joan wants to give in, but knows that it would be a huge mistake (hello? Roger?). Don is teetering on the edge of control.
“You know what this woman said to me, once?” he asks. “I like being bad, and going home and being good.” He’s talking about Bobbie Barret. “I bet that stuck to your ribs,” Joan says. “It was a disaster.” “And you enjoyed every minute of it,” she says. After a pause, she says that she misses those days. Again with the dancing around the subject.
Don notices that a gentleman down the bar looks like he’d like to dance. “What do you think is waiting at home?” Joan asks. “I bet she’s not ugly. The only sin she’s committed is being familiar.” She could be talking about Betty…or Megan at this point.
“So you think it’s all him?” Don asks. “Because she doesn’t know what he wants?” Joan says, talking about her situation more than she maybe realizes. “Because he doesn’t KNOW what he wants. But he’s wanting,” Don says. “He knows,” she says. “It’s just the way he is…”
Don collects his thoughts and decides it’s time to go. Joan offers to drive, but Don cuts her off, meaning he doesn’t want to take any chance on them ending up in bed. He leaves her at the bar with car fare, since she has no purse or coat. “Goodnight, sweetheart” he says as he squares his hat.
Cut to Don driving the car, working through what he and Joan have been talking around. It’s tempting to grade Don on a curve, commending him for not giving into what would have been a slam dunk just a year or two before, but his performance with Joan amounts to a progression, a true act of devotion to his wife, even though he came very close to crossing that line. It’s also worth noting that, aside from Megan, Joan is the one woman with whom Don has had a respectful, respectable relationship.
Not so much with Harry and Lakshmi. After their tryst, Lakshmi cleans herself at Harry’s desk as he marvels at what’s just taken place. She breaks the spell by telling Harry what she really wants – for him to leave Kinsey alone and to dispel his fantasy of writing for television. Harry accuses her of being the worst girlfriend in the world, to which she reminds him of his role in that truth. Harry pleads for Kinsey, telling her of Kinsey’s dream to run off and start a family together. Lakshmi tells Harry that it’s not possible. When Harry asks why she doesn’t just let Kinsey go, she explains that he’s the best recruiter the young organization has. She goes on to explain that she’s trading the only thing she has to get her way, and when Harry points out that she’s already given it away, she punches him in the face, resorting to intimidation. He kind of agrees.
Megan sits at the dinner table, fuming over a plate of plain spaghetti, as Don stumbles into the apartment. He’s hammered. She points out that he’s not only drunk, but that he left work at lunch and never returned. She throws her plate of spaghetti against the wall, but since it’s only noodles, it’s no harm, other than a busted plate. She demands to know where he’s been, and he actually tells the truth, only hedging where the flirting was concerned. “Sit down,” Megan yells. “You’re going to eat dinner with me.” He does. After a pause she asks if he wants cheese. He shakes his head. “You used to love your work,” she says. He says it’s different now, but she won’t let him blame it on her. “You loved your work before you ever met me,” she says. He doesn’t answer. There’s nothing to say to this. It’s true. So, what’s happened to Don? Is it the old Hemingway thing about money corrupting talent and drive?
Lane’s wife is after him to go to England for Christmas, and like the Grinch, he makes up a lie and he makes it up quick, telling her that Edwin was sacked from Jaguar, and that being so, Jaguar has come crawling back to him, wanting him to shepherd them into SCDP. His wife accepts the life without question, fawning him with praise and assurances that she’s happy to spend Christmas in New York. Once again, Lane has bought some time with a lie, but how long can it last?
The next morning at the office, Roger delivers flowers from the front desk, where the receptionist is too afraid to call Joan out to get them. Joan shoos Roger away, and opens the card. “Your Mother did a good job. Ali Khan.” It’s from Don, and once Roger is safely gone, Joan indulges a wistful smile.
Harry meets Kinsey for breakfast. He returns the script to Kinsey along with an elaborate lie designed to build up Kinsey’s hope enough that he’ll take a gift of $500 and a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Harry wants to help Kinsey. He also wants to ease his guilty conscience. Kinsey is reluctant to follow Harry’s advice – to leave now, without talking to Lakshmi, and get on a bus to the west coast. Harry tells Kinsey that if he calls Lakshmi, she’ll talk him out of it. Harry lies through his teeth, telling Kinsey he has too great a gift to squander, and that California is a place for second chances. “This failure. This life. It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else,” Harry tells him, taking a page out of the Don Draper playbook.
They stand to part, and Kinsey hugs Harry, telling him that of all his friends, he’s the only one to follow-through on his offer to help. Kinsey’s on the verge of tears. He’s a wreck, and Harry can’t hardly seem to be able to take the guilt and pity. Finally, he walks off, telling Kinsey to break a leg.
Just before the partners are to gather the office for an announcement of the Christmas bonuses, Pete brings a bit of bad news. Mohawk is going on strike, which means an indefinite cancellation of all advertising. Bert says there’ll be no bonuses. Lane looks like he’s about to die from the stress. After some haggling, the partners decide to defer their bonuses so that the employees can receive theirs. As they head to the conference room, Pete asks Don sarcastically if he’s up for joining them.
Lane fumbles through the announcement of the bonuses, giving an incomprehensibly difficult explanation that is saved on when Roger steps in and tells everyone that they are getting bonuses and the partners aren’t. This leads to some cheering, which motivates Pete to ride the wave of good will and make his Jaguar announcement public. The cheering dies down as soon as he starts talking. He cuts his announcement short, much to the relief of SCDP.
But Don steps forward, asking for a word. “Last year, whether you knew it or not, the survival of this company was on the line. I look at the faces in this room who’ve given their all to this tenuous recovery, and I say prepare to take a great leap forward. Prepare to swim the English Channel and drown in Champagne.” Roger and Pete exchange knowing looks as he warms up to his subject. “There are six weekends between now and the pitch. We are going to spend them all here. We will celebrate Christmas here. We’ll ring in the New Year together, and in the end, we WILL represent Jaguar, and it will be worth it. Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by when they got their car. When we land Jaguar, the world will know we’ve arrived.”
It’s a rousing speech, and just like that, Don seems to have that old fire in his belly. What happened? Was it Megan and her magic spaghetti? First, it provided the inspiration for Heinz, and has it now provided the inspiration for Don’s renewed vigor?
The employees cheer, and as though marching onto the field of battle, Don calls his creative team to his office. If Don is back, it could be better than any 2% Christmas bonus, because a focused Don means life to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
With only a few episodes remaining, Christmas Waltz seems to be setting the table for the final plot twists, one of which has to be the flame-out of a SCDP luminary. Will it be Lane Pryce, hauled off to jail? Will it be Pete Campbell, the victim of a nervous breakdown? What about Harry? Will Kinsey snap and go Full Metal Jacket on him, once he finds out what Harry did to Lakshmi? Don’t forget Roger’s bad ticker, either.
It may sound like As The World Turns, but go back and watch those two scenes at the bar with Don and Joan and tell me if any episode of that soap opera was ever as well written or acted. I doubt it.