Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Christmas Waltz" (season 5, episode 10)

Mad Men - "Christmas Waltz" (season 5, episode 10)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 13, 2012/written by Victor Levin and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Spectacles are apparently the ticket to stardom in this week's episode, as Lane Pryce and Harry Crane (of all people) take the lead. Lane is under pressure from the British government to pay back taxes in a matter of days; at breakneck speed, he convinces a bank manager to authorize $50,000 in credit, devises a proposal to distribute Christmas bonuses (leaving him with the $8,000 needed), and attempts to swat down all the casual obstacles that his unsuspecting colleagues throw his way. His parries are ultimately unsuccessful; they'll get their bonuses, but not in time for his tax deadline. The stalwart, by-the-book partner is reduced to sneaking through the office at night, photocopying a check and forging the signatures. And then a strike at Mohawk Airlines tightens the agency's belt, encouraging the partners to deny themselves bonuses while offering them to the staff. Where will this leave Lane? Harry's crisis, meanwhile, is really someone else's. Reunited with good old Paul Kinsey from Sterling Cooper days, he learns that Paul has become a Hare Krishna, following his manipulative girlfriend Lakshmi Bennett (Anna Wood) into a spiritual practice that, at first glance, has brought Paul peaceful euphoria but in fact leaves him still dissatisfied. Paul believes that success will come with a spec script for Star Trek (an obvious, cringeworthy allegory titled "The Negron Complex"), and everyone - including Laskhmi who seduces and then berates the horny adman - advises Harry to give it to Paul straight. Instead, Harry tells his friend to follow his dreams to Los Angeles, offering $500 and some lies about how network readers really liked his work - all for the greater good of helping the depressed searcher start over.

SCDP also faces a fresh opportunity as Pete has put them in the running for a new Jaguar campaign (Lane's pal, their prior failed connection, has finally humiliated himself out of the company). Don uses this as an excuse to take a Jaguar for a joyride, posing as Joan's husband - she needs an excuse for an excursion after a process server delivers Greg's divorce papers. Afterwards they get soused at a bar, listening to Sinatra, cocking Don's fedora, and reminiscing over old times before their growing flirtation is cut off by her former boss (in name anyway; as he recalls, she held all the intimidating authority in the office when he was a newbie). Don drives home in a fury only to find Megan more agitated than he is. She tosses her plate of spaghetti against the wall and lashes out at her husband's growing apathy about both his domestic and professional life. "You used to love your job," she reminds him at one point. And in the closing scene, Don finds that old inspiration, offering a stirring rally cry for the Jaguar campaign which he promises will be the agency's ride out of survival mode. What will that mean for him?

My Response:
Although the material in "Christmas Waltz" is generally more interesting than "Dark Shadows," we're still in an episode run whose stakes feel lower, whose energy is more relaxed, and whose aim looks muddled from this vantage point. I commented earlier in the season that after another knockout episode or two, I'd be ready to declare this the best season of Mad Men yet; unfortunately I now suspect that a few more content-to-noodle entries will put it behind some of the more consistent early seasons, despite such a bravura early run. Nonetheless, there's plenty to enjoy and I was particularly happy to see Paul again, though I never expected to see him like this. Wood (a millennial Juliette Lewis) is a memorable presence, and Harry's arc is allowed to be surprisingly redemptive given where he goes not just in this episode but earlier ones. Loyalty is not often an attribute we expect in this world and the way Levin and Weiner explore it here is delightfully perverse. Lane, meanwhile, continues his subtle spiral - all of his screw-ups and close calls have been disconnected (this one, unless I missed or forgot something, comes out of absolutely nowhere), suggesting that a more fundamental insecurity is expressing itself in ostensibly external challenges. Lane, perhaps more than anyone else, is pushing the series' underlying drama despite being so often hidden from view.

If anything is stalled in our narrative motor, it has to do with Don. In finding a personal contentment (however uneasy), he appears to have hit a professional wall - even more so than the lost weekend period depicted in season four, this leaves our antihero with both halves of that title at a low ebb. There's a looming threat, of course - a ticking that both Don and Megan hear, which could either be a harmless if irritating wall clock, just recording the ordinary passage of seconds, minutes, days, weeks, years...or a more pernicious time bomb which will inevitably explode. That threat, that bomb, is infidelity. How can someone who never knew for sure who he was (a source of both motivation and anxiety) cling to the rock of marital integrity? Thus far, the easily thwarted temptations have come in the usual form: eyecatching strangers or unserious old flames, workplace excuses or fever dreams who (even as figures of flashback) entice with the promise of new adventures. This episode teases a far more intriguing possibility. What if Don cheats not merely to continue his streak of ravaging wanderlust but in order to recapture an older, more comforting sense of stability? This is what Joan promises in a scene that could easily be dismissed as a wonderful throwaway, an opportunity to marinate in long-familiar characters whose shared history has mostly lingered offscreen till now. When Madchen Amick popped up for that guest appearance, she functioned purely as a proxy for Don's inner state; what makes this potential pairing so much more intriguing is that we're invested in and worried about the other half of it too.

For a brief moment, that bar is an oasis: a Christmas tree's flickering lights illuminating the dark space like an Edward Hopper painting, a crooner's soothing voice on the speakers. This is Mad Men as we first knew it - still firmly rooted in the solid, moody postwar pop culture - coming alive admidst the more frenetic zeitgeist of '66. Don is forty, Joan is thirty-five; both are either sailing or already have sailed not only out of their youths but also the marriages that were supposed to provide the gateway from that youth into something more long-lasting. Don may be remarried, and to someone he truly loves ("she's perfect," Joan sighs as Don looks uncomfortable) - but his bride belongs to a different generation and not merely in the technical sense that Joan may be. Don and Megan live in the heart of the city, on a perch overlooking New York's buzzing excitement night after night; in middle age, he's been planted right back into the world he thought he was supposed to grow out of. Something isn't quite right in this mixology, a strange brew of newfound maturity and re-discovered immaturity, and it seems like only a matter of time before Don's constitution rejects this concoction. And so the ticking continues.

Next (active on August 23, 8am): "The Other Woman"Previous: "Dark Shadows"

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