Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Mad Men" Review: "Christmas Waltz" (Season 5 Episode 10) - "Surprise! There's a plane here to see you!"


The masterful fifth season of Mad Men continues with episode 10, “Christmas Waltz,” and as always, I’m here with my weekly review and analysis.  To do the hour justice, this review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.

Spoilers for “Christmas Waltz” after the jump…

“I don’t know what it is.  That car does nothing for me.” – Don

“It’s because you’re happy.  You don’t need it.” – Joan

Joan always has been one of the sharpest, most insightful characters on Mad Men.  Unhappiness is, as she suggests, the root of advertising.  We are content when we want for nothing, and vulnerable when there are gaps in our existence.  That gap can be as large as a self-conscious desire for self-improvement – which we’ve seen Don and company exploit when advertising skin-care products or clothing – or as insignificant as the idea of an incomplete kitchen, the vulnerability one would exploit to sell, among other things, beans.  Humans are susceptible to the lures of advertising because of our staggering capacity for dissatisfaction, and for five seasons, Mad Men has explored that singular, destructive quality through its beloved, wonderfully flawed cast of characters.  The series does not explore these themes because it takes place in an advertising agency.  It takes place in an advertising agency because these are the themes Matthew Weiner set out to explore. 

This fifth season, and tonight’s utterly fantastic “Christmas Waltz” in particular, suggests that it may be the very world our characters have chosen to inhabit – the world an ad agency like SCDP represents – that leads to an inescapable cycle of rabid discontent.  The Hare Krishna movement would classify this as the Material World, and throughout tonight’s episode, characters are either confronted with an alternative to that world or are subjected to particular horrors of it.

Harry Crane – in his first truly useful, fascinating appearance since season three – literally encounters the famed sixties movement known for bringing these issues to light.  Paul Kinsey, it turns out, became a Krishna after entering a downward spiral when SCDP left him behind two seasons ago, and wants to show his new friend the power of this new religion.  Unsurprisingly, the Krishna gathering does wonders for Harry; he’s always been spectacularly caught up in the ‘material world,’ and letting go of his TV scripts, meetings, and name-dropping for an afternoon of group chanting is a relaxing, stirring experience.  I would even call it revelatory, were it not for the fact that Harry Crane is largely incapable of such profound self-awareness. 

Neither is Paul Kinsey, for that matter, though he does at least recognize that his many wants make him ill-suited to stay with Hare Krishna forever.  His desire to make a life with Lakshmi – who, as she tells Harry later, doesn’t even believe in romantic ownership – and his ambition to sell his episode of Star Trek – “The Negron Complex,” a delightful never-ending source of humor and trademark Peggy Olsen one-liners – illustrates how difficult it is for Paul to commit fully to Krishna’s teachings.  Harry, disturbed by Lakshmi’s seduction and demands, ‘saves’ Paul from the Krishna life by giving him the resources to pursue a new career in L.A.

Examining this sub-plot in a vacuum, it seems like Harry made the right, even noble choice in helping his friend.  If Lakshmi is our Krishna spokesperson for the hour, she’s certainly intimidating enough to justify Harry’s ultimate call.  Yet taken in a larger context, one wonders if Paul would ultimately be better served by trying his best to commit to Krishna fully, because the world Harry drew Paul back to isn’t going to do him any favors.  In his three seasons on Mad Men, Paul was one of the most perpetually unhappy and confused members of the cast, and as we learn tonight, his continued adventures in advertising only sunk him further and further until he hit rock bottom.  When Lakshmi warns Harry that the agency (and Star Trek, of course) is a destructive influence on Paul, it’s hard to deny the sentiment. 

Especially when “Christmas Waltz” is filled with other unsettling examples of what the ‘material world’ does to people.  Lane Pryce returns after several episodes away, and though his professional exterior is as dapper and pleasant as usual, his personal interior has become disturbingly desperate.  It turns out Lane has some tax issues in his homeland, and given how bad he’s always been at managing stress, he’s let those issues pile up for far too long.  His accountant has finally worked out a solution, but it will require roughly $8000 overnight. 

Lane’s solution to the problem is so dramatically destructive that, were it not so sad to watch, it might be comical.  He falsely requests a credit extension, presents it to the partners as an unexpected surplus, suggests a Christmas bonus for everyone except Joan (why, Lane, why?), and when they insist on presenting the bonus closer to the holiday, steals a check and forges Don’s signature.  Even if the Mowhawk strike didn’t compel the partners to forego their bonuses, it goes without saying that this will, invariably, come back to haunt Lane in a big way.  Mad Men isn’t as strictly Chekhovian as sister-series Breaking Bad, but Matthew Weiner isn’t going to let a mistake that horrific slide by without further attention. 

It’s impossible to say exactly what drives Lane to such destructive ends, but one of the bigger issues at play is pride.  I imagine had he come to Don with his financial woes, or even Bert Cooper, they may have found a simple way to help him out.  But as Lane has demonstrated in the past, he’s too afraid of letting others see his vulnerabilities to ever reach out like that.  Pride is, in some sense, our inexplicable desire to possess and protect our own imperfections, and it’s a way of thought that goes hand-in-hand with the concept of a ‘material world.’  If this is the world Lane lives in, though, how can he ever hope to overcome these bouts of damaging behavior? 

It’s a question Don Draper may need to ask himself in the near future, because as his stirring, climactic speech to the staff indicates, he’s ready to dive headfirst back into the world of advertising.  It’s a colossal moment for Don, as he’s spent close to two full seasons now detached from the world he works for.  We haven’t seen the brilliant Don Draper who could give a rousing, perfect pitch in his sleep since the third season, as he spent much of the fourth year in a drunken haze and the entirety of this year too wrapped up in Megan to pay attention to advertising.  But there, in that final scene, was Don Draper at the height of his genius, flawlessly selling his ambition to his peers as though the old Don never left.  This is the Don Draper we know. 

But is it the Don Draper we love?

Easy as it was to admire Don for his professional prowess in the show’s early years, he was also a much more despicable character back then.  He cheated relentlessly on his wife, was an inconsistent father at best, and never treated people like Peggy with the respect they deserved.  Since he entered a creative fallow period at the start of the fourth season, though, he’s gone on a journey of change and self-discovery that has been, to my eyes, tremendously healthy.  When Peggy helped pull him out of his drunken spiral, he started treating her like a friend and equal; he then quit drinking (at least in egregious amounts), and began seeking a relationship that would affirm the better man he wanted to be, rather than enable the morally compromised man he had been; many thought proposing to Megan was a step-back, but though the couple has had their rough patches, the relationship has been largely harmonious, keeping Don’s dark side in check all season long; and throughout it all, he’s been a vastly better father and adult influence on his children, especially Sally.  Don Draper is a better man now than at any other point in the show’s run, and I would argue that is largely due to his disconnect with the world of advertising.   

It is – as evidenced by Pete’s ongoing implosion, Roger’s debauching ways, Harry’s general unpleasantness, etc. – a dark, dark world to be part of.  One can remain good while living within its boundaries, a la Peggy, but it also enables people to be their worst.  It makes perfect sense that Don feels he needs professional fulfillment at the moment, given Megan’s absence from the office.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the healthy choice for Don to make, and though many will surely find his Jaguar speech inspiring, I only felt looming dread.  Talented as he is, Don and the world of advertising do not necessarily go well together. 

This is Mad Men at its thematically sharpest, for Don’s decision speaks to the ways in which we all hurt ourselves just to feel at home in the world we inhabit.  SCDP is not, of course, meant to be viewed as an island unto itself.  It is a stand-in for our world, a world where we can excel in ways that make us look and feel powerful on the surface, but diminishes our happiness on the inside.  A world where our wants and desires are fulfilled, only to be replenished with new ones, and where contentment is always at an arm’s length. 

In short, the ‘material world.’  Is Matthew Weiner secretly a Hare Krishna follower?

Exiting this broader discussion for the evening, let’s transition to touch on the Joan/Don sub-plot, a story so beautifully written and performed that I had to resist the urge to write an entire article about it and nothing else.  To my recollection, Don and Joan have only had one other significant subplot together – season three’s iconic “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” aka “John Deere tractor to the foot” – but in the middle of their conversation at the bar, I found myself scribbling MORE JOAN AND DON PLEASE!!! in large capital letters across my notes.  They are such a brilliant pairing, largely because they share one of the show’s only platonic, meaningful friendships.  Don and Joan would probably be happy together if they ever entered a romance, but they each respect and care for the other too much to ever mess things up with sex.  They are friends in the truest sense of the word, people who can sense when the other is hurting and be there for them selflessly and completely.

In tonight’s episode, they need one another more than ever, and by chance, it’s Don who walks in on Joan screaming at the front-desk girl.  Rather than judge or condemn her, Don takes Joan to the Jaguar dealership with him, giving her the fun distraction she so desperately needs.  Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks are so fantastic in these scenes, playing off each other as though telepathic, and the real beauty of their performances is that you can see the characters – Joan especially – slowly but surely healing as they spend time together.  At the bar, Don listens when Joan needs someone to open up to, and she returns the favor as they begin airing all their insecurities to one another.  It’s some of the best writing Matthew Weiner has ever done – I wrote nearly a full page of quotes in my notes from the bar scenes alone – and as the two talk about themselves, they begin talking about each other, and come to a more profound understanding of why they matter to one another. 

This is my favorite kind of Mad Men sub-plot: a story that is thematically linked with what the characters are going through, but functions as its own standalone, completely satisfying short story.  It’s even beautifully capped like a good short would be, with Don sending Joan the flowers he’d neglected all these years, making her feel young and desirable once more.  I think the work Christina Hendricks does throughout the hour is particularly notable, and though Joan has been largely periphery since episode four, “Christmas Waltz” entirely makes up for her prolonged absence.  She had to spend time in the background, her angst and grief simmering, for her explosion of emotion in tonight’s episode to hit home, and hit home it did, in every way conceivable.  Despite what I wrote in my notes, I don’t need Don and Joan to go out for drinks every afternoon, but I do want to see them depend on each other even more in the future, because God knows people like these need good friends to rely on.

After all, in the material world, a good friend is the one thing we don’t cling to as a possession, and therefore the only treasure we’re rarely in danger of losing. 

Come back next Sunday night for my review of
Episode 11, “The Other Woman”

“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night
an hour or two after the episode airs,
Right here on www.jonathanlack.com

Photo Credits: AMC

5 comments:

  1. EXCELLENT SYNOPSIS

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow. As English is my second language I'm lacking a tool to express how much I love what you are writing. Mad Men has been my absolutely favourite TV show I've ever seen. And your article helps me to appreciate it even more. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Amazing analysis of last nights episode. Well done. Enjoyed this as much as the actual episode.

    ReplyDelete
  4. wow - my first time to visit your site - you are brillant!
    thanks so much for sharing your insight to my favorite show

    ReplyDelete
  5. I regularly read just about every Mad Men blog/review out there, but this is my first visit to your site. Your take is the most insightful and comprehensive of all. BRAVO and many thanks!!

    ReplyDelete