Mad Men – Christmas Waltz
The characters of Mad Men have been dancing around their problems all season, putting up fronts and allowing fights to simply fall away – like say the Don/Megan blow up of earlier in the year – but this week the choreography changed and their motion moved up in tempo. What had once taken only simple steps to avoid now requires a complex number and a much bigger budget. They lie like those Hare Krishna’s chant; softly at first, slowly, then they speed up and repeat then line again and again, getting louder and louder with each lap until eventually they just break and they’re yelling, they’re in a trance an entirely exposed nerve. So far they’re keeping up, they’re managing to stay on their feet but with each passing moment you can’t help but see the trip coming and the fall that will surely follow.
Funnily enough though dancing isn’t the art form that this episode is most concerned with; in another bit of brilliant meta-commentary – I’m sticking with my assertions that Dark Shadows was intentionally included – Matt Weiner has written an episode of the best show on television that purposefully puts all of the mediums other efforts to shame despite also satirizing itself. Having his characters go to the theatre to see a play about America’s audacious excess’ and the advertising industries integral role in this in important enough imagery on its own, that he then has another write a script for network TV and comment on its quality and the way they work transforms the topic entirely. The meta half of this comes in with the fact that all season long people have been criticizing the show for taking its symbolism one step too far into the obvious and here he is having his lead laugh at a show for being on the nose; talk about blunt metaphors and literal stories.
This isn’t just meaningless self reference however, there is a natural statement beneath it as well. What that is exactly I can’t completely say, as you never really can with this show, but the fact that Don is so hurt by the criticisms and so vehemently stands up against them, for advertising, shows that at least on a subconscious level he does still adore this industry and Megan, in instantly siding with Acting in the debate, shows that she was really never meant for that world. We assumed these things of course, as did the characters; they had read the scripts, but it’s not until they find themselves called on to stand-in and actually shout the lines that they know for sure. That the theatre comes first and the episode then transitions to being about TV also talks to the thoughts of the time; the culture was changing, one medium was moving in on the other, taking its job for tis own.
And though Megan is the shows actress it is her husband who does all of the acting this week; Don pretending again to play husband to another of the offices women. It says a lot about his personality, the extent to which he knows what he wants, that week in week out he pretends to be married to a a different woman. As much as he may seem settled Don is not a man who will ever be satisfied by only one spouse. Joan, in the wonderful scene she shares with him, remarks that the Jaguar isn’t the car for him, because he doesn’t need it; in that moment she’s not wrong, in that moment he is happy and charming and irresistibly charismatic but minutes later his mask has slipped to the side, the smile gone and a grimace in its place, his hand violently shifting the stick in an attempt to gain speed.
Though he’s not the only one in the midst of a crisis: Pete’s disappointment has become self-perpetuating, Joan is having a scarlet letter officially stitched to her seductive skirt and Pryce has found that pinching pennies too tight can cause them to fly right out of your fingers. Money problems made up the majority of the shows drama in early seasons but have been missing of late, though they were back this week in full force; the office is concerned again with accounts, needing to net as many as they can to balance out the books, books that Lane has started lying in. Jared Harris is a fantastic actor, as good as if not better than any of the others in the cast, but his character has been bungled this year I feel; thrown in separately to the others and in stuttering sections, he is the Dany of the Draper U. If Lane were the one to flub his lines and fall of the stage, which now seems quite likely, it would be a shame, mostly because he would barely be missed. This stories redeeming element was him forging the name Don Draper on a check; that right there was properly potent imagery that one could write an essay on were they so inclined.
So this episode was many things, most of them good, but funnily enough it wasn’t really a Christmas episode. Mad Men is such a serious show that people seem to forget how much it loves its seasonal episodes, the series featuring many powerful moments that take place at family gatherings, but this time Christmas came and went without much in the way of fanfare. This episode certainly wasn’t a pageant, but i do think that it will be best remembered for its presents. What do you get the man who has everything? A purpose, and that is exactly what Joan, Pete and Megan have given Don. He has been flailing for so long, frightened of his faults and falling prey to these fears but now Don is ready to fight, to swim the channel of champagne that has become his sticky, stagnant life and start anew; he’s alive again…but for how long? The curtain is closing on him and I fear he may be too late to slip under it.