Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" (season 4, episode 2)

Mad Men - "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" (season 4, episode 2)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 1, 2010/written by Tracy McMillan and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Add another holiday to the Mad Men canon (when my viewing diary closes, I'll have to compose a visual tribute encompassing all of them). Although the last season finale came close on the calendar, I don't believe we've run all the way into Christmas before; season one ended with Thanksgiving, season two with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October. And speaking of major sixties events, we get our first Beatles references when Don suggests his secretary Allison pick up some of the band's 45s for his daughter; she for her part is touched by the poignancy of Sally's "Santa" letter to her dad which ends with a wish he could join them Christmas morning though she knows he can't. There's a hint of personal tenderness here that crystallizes before long. Allison has been around since very early in season one, eighteen episodes in all so far, but she's only come up in one of my reviews: when Ken ripped her clothes off in front of a guffawing crowd at the old office's 1960 election party. Now she's in for a different, more subtle form of humiliation: when Don forgets his keys at the Christmas party and she shows up to escort him into his apartment, he quickly seduces her. She's glowing when invited into his office the next morning...only to discover he will only allude to the event in the vaguest terms and has no plans to adjust their professional relationship. Worse, he almost makes it seem as if what happened was simply a byproduct of that workplace hierarchy.

Allison is not the only one deflated by the events of that night...Roger is sadistically brought down several pegs by Lucky Strike owner Lee Garner, Jr. (the man whose harassment of Sal got poor Sal fired). Considering he currently represents virtually all of SCDP's business - despite good old Freddy Rumson returning with an Alcoholic Anonymous-arranged Pond's Cold Cream account under his arm - Lee is able to command a lavish party on whim and force the desperate-to-please admen and women to dance on a string for him, including Roger in a baggy red suit, white beard, and hearty-as-he-can-manage "ho ho ho." Don chooses this moment to sneak out; he'll get plastered (enough so to sleep with his secretary) at another location, discreet, alone, as he often does these days - indeed a few nights beforehand, his nurse neighbor Phoebe (Nora Zehetner) came to his rescue when he collapsed outside his door (she, unlike Allison, escaped his eager embrace). Not that he needs any more excuses to be driven to drink, but Dr. Faye Miller's (Cara Buono's) parting shot certainly doesn't help. Offended by his hasty exit from a meeting in which she asks the staff to tell their life stories, the visiting consumer research psychologist brusquely tells Don he'll "be married again within a year," and then sarcastically apologizes for reminding him that he's a familiar type rather than a unique individual. Regardless, he agrees with her assessment of life's primary challenge: trying to reconcile what you want with what's expected of you.

My Response: And Don still can't quite figure out what's expected of him, let alone live up to it. As usual, I read a little too much into the ending of the season premiere; Don took on a new persona for his Wall Street Journal interview but it's not as if he's snapped out of his post-divorce funk and into a new, callow Master of the Universe self-presentation. He's still a mess in "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" and the ways in which he's dispatching his some of his old reservations, while doubling down on others, are not calculated - they are foolhardy. Coming home drunk to his bachelor pad night after night, this pathetic figure still draws women to him - with barely an active attempt - but, at least in Allison's case, the upshot isn't positive for anyone. Indeed, this episode is full of men (or boys) embarrassing themselves: glumly stoic Roger in his Santa suit (how ironic he asks Joan to wear her red outfit to the party), lovably shlubby Freddy barely hanging on to his dignity despite Peggy's accurately withering assessment of his "old-fashioned" sensibilities, dopey Mark lecturing Peggy about the wonders of sex as if she isn't far more worldly than him, and little serial killer in training Glen Bishop shifting his creepy attention from mother to daughter as he unnervingly pops out from behind Christmas trees and then trashes the Draper house when they aren't home, in order to impress Sally. Worryingly, he appears to succeed - a reminder that the male characters' descents don't necessarily correspond to an elevation of the distaff side of the ensemble. Peggy seems exhausted by her dilemma of how far to go with Mark and ambivalent about her eventual decision to give in, while Allison's face looks crestfallen as her cash payment and thanks for her "hard work" seem less like a Christmas bonus and more like something sordid. All of these characters are more likely to express relief than regret when reflecting on the episode's title.

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