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Glad Tidings of Great Joy: Christmas Comes But Once a Year on Mad Men

If this is Christmas, we should be glad that it only comes once a year.

On this week's episode of Mad Men ("Christmas Comes But Once a Year"), written by Tracy McMillan and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, the holiday season is in full swing at the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Or at least as much as they can be when Lane is clutching the purse strings and the company is teetering on the edge of fiscal disaster.

Yet, the entire company is forced to put on a brave face--as do many of the series' individual characters this week--when Lucky Strike's Lee Garner Jr. demands an invitation for the company Christmas party and throws everything--from the festivities to the company's future--into chaos.

Meanwhile, Don attempts to come to terms with the fact that he'll be spending Christmas away from his children, Sally makes friends with a sociopath, Peggy contemplates giving herself to boyfriend Mark (Lost's Blake Bashoff), a familiar face returns bearing gifts, and things get even more awkward around the office.

So what did I think of this week's sensational episode? Pick out a Christmas tree, dump some eggs in Bobby's bed, pour yourself a stiff drink, and let's discuss "Christmas Comes But Once a Year."

Don Draper is unraveling before our eyes, really. The once stoic ad man has become, post-divorce, a shadow of his former self, a man heading towards becoming a drunk who can barely unlock the door to his sad bachelor pad and who beds his secretary simply because she's there with two aspirin and a sympathetic expression. That this depiction of Don is so at odds with the variations we've seen in the past--the grimly resolute Don who stole another man's identity, the doggedly optimistic Don who proposes to Betty, the vengeful man who drinks and screws his way around town--is the point. This is a new Don, one whose life has split open at the seams and who is so decidedly lonely, so terrifically isolated that he can't bear to discuss his life on a questionnaire or spend the evening alone.

That he tries and fails to bed his neighbor Phoebe (Nora Zehetner) should be an indication of where things are heading for Don, even as she informs him that she has experience taking men's shoes off because her father was a drunk. But as awkward as it would have been running into Phoebe on the building's landing, it's far worse that Don drunkenly takes advantage of the good nature of his secretary. Having struck out with Faye Miller (Cara Buono), who comes into his office not to flirt but to fight, Don's efforts to have some sort of companionship lead him to make an advance at Allison, a woman who is so enamored of her boss that she anticipates his every move and buys his children Christmas presents without asking any questions.

It's a mistake from the start. Despite his dalliances with Bobbi Barrett and Rachel Katz, Don has managed to largely keep his romantic life separate from his professional one. In pulling Allison down onto the couch, Don not only threads together those two distinct arenas of his life but makes a shockingly powerful call for help. Their act of coitus isn't just sex but an appeal for companionship that connects sharply with last week's slap across the face. Don is desperate to feel something, anything, to experience emotion or pleasure of some kind. That he asks Allison to stay afterwards (something the old Don would never have done) underlines this further. The empty apartment, the half-empty bed, the shoe polishing kit on the floor, they're all a reminder of just how desolate and vacant his life has become.

When Faye tells him that he'll be married again in a year, it's yet another slap. While Don might be furious with Betty, it seems that he too believes that this is just temporary. He's not ready to move on to a new relationship (hence, he doesn't call Bethany) nor is he ready to contemplate another marriage. (His third, if you count the sham marriage to Anna.)

But Don makes the situation between him and Allison even more painful by not directly addressing what had happened the night before and instead being all business... and then, after noticing the gift-wrapped presents she procured for his children, gives her a present of his own: two fifty dollar bills inside a card, her bonus. For all his charm and poise, Don can be monumentally blind when it comes to women. "I just wanted to say thank you for bringing my keys," he says without any real emotion.

Allison's smiles and warm manner indicate that she did think that this would turn into something more than just a professional relationship between boss and secretary, and yet Don seems to push her into the role of prostitute, acknowledging that he took advantage of her kindness yet paying her for her "services." The look of shame and horror as she returns to her desk and reads the card ("Thanks for all your hard work"), before she begins typing a letter (her resignation?), are more cutting than any dialogue.

Freddy Rumsen's return kicks up feelings that have lain dormant within Peggy Olsen as well. Bringing a $2 million Ponds account with him, Freddy rejoins the firm but finds himself enmeshed in conflict with Peggy from the start as he pushes her back into the role of the "office girl" and she accuses him of being "old fashioned." But their arguments--and the subsequent reconciliation--do kick up some issues for Peggy, who is attempting to wait to have sex with her boyfriend Mark.

While Mark reads her hesitation as Peggy being, yes, "old fashioned," the truth couldn't be further from that fact. Mark wants to be Peggy's first, unaware that she has not only slept with Pete and Duck but bore Pete's child. Peggy wants to be taken seriously, both as a prospective mate and as a career woman. If she gives herself to him, will he lose interest? Or, conversely, can she take control of her own destiny by having sex with him on her own terms?

In the end, Peggy realizes that she can have it all in a way that women of Freddy's generation couldn't; he sees young women as "angry" and that their sole desire is to get married. Peggy finally admits to him that she does want to be married some day. Her move to take her relationship with Mark to the next level underscores her own internal debate about value. As he asks her whether she feels different, the answer is clear: she does but not for the reasons he believes.

Elsewhere, Roger was forced--possibly for the first time in his life--into playing the part of the sycophant, into bending over backwards to please the client because without Lee's continued support of the agency, they'll have to close their doors. This means being forced into donning a Santa suit, handing out presents, and smiling glibly when Lee cracks jokes about Roger's history of heart attacks and gets a little too close to Jane. His reaction is at odds with Joan's, as the office manager dons a costume of her own--that red dress with the bow on the back that Roger loved so much--and plays hostess (or Mrs. Claus, one imagines) for Lee, organizing a game of pass the orange and upping the party quotient by about a hundred in order to keep up appearances.

The scene with the Polaroid camera, as Lee snaps picture after picture of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staffers sitting on Roger's knee, underscores just how much he's toying with them and putting them in their place. I half-wondered if whether Lee would can the agency at the end of the night but he wanders off, a placated and spoiled child who received everything they wanted at Christmas.

But Lee's mind games are child's play compared to the complex plots unleashed by the mentally unstable Glen Bishop, whom Sally runs into at the Christmas tree lot. Joined by their shared experiences of divorce, Sally and Glen form a tentative friendship that is based on lies and half-truths. But it's Glen's Christmas present to Sally--the destruction of the home she so bitterly hates (a place where she believes she can turn the corner and see Don) and the piece of twine he leaves for her--that really shows off his skills as a future sociopath. Breaking into the family's Ossining home, Glen and a friend trash the entire house, dumping eggs into Bobby's bed, emptying the fridge, and generally making a mess everywhere, except for Sally's bedroom, which remains untouched.

The entire affair--and the twine left for her atop her pillow--remind me of a dead bird or mouse that a cat might bring its owner. It's a present of sorts, borne of out of an innate need to destroy, but it's horrific rather than pleasurable. Still, it's a reminder to Sally that there is someone who understands what she's going through, someone who would do something spectacular in order to shake up her new reality. I just worry just what plans Glen might have for young Sally, who, after all, is the spitting image of Betty Draper herself. Might this develop into a friendship or something more worrisome? Hmmm...

But while Sally might not feel quite so alone, that's not true for her father. The final scene of the episode depicts Don leaving the now-empty office alone, his briefcase and those Christmas presents clutched tightly to him. For all the glitter and shine of the wrapping, they might as well be a life preserver that he holds to his chest. I just hope that Don, alone once again, chooses to swim rather than sink.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Good News"), Don heads off to Acapulco; back at the office, Joan and Lane fight.

Comments

Hadley said…
Brilliant review of a fantastic episode! The scene between Don and his secretary/latest conquest in his office was completely squirm-inducing. Was she silly to think that this was more than a one night stand? Sure. But for Don to not even acknowledge what happened (and then hand her an envelope of cash!!!) was just downright cruel.
Peachy said…
Don's reaction may have seemed cruel, but it also felt totally in keeping with the reality of the day. I'm not convinced that his secretary *really* thought that sex with her boss was the first step down Fay Miller's envisioned aisle, but I do think it's fair to say that she expected something. But Don is in no shape for anything other than what he offered---a desperate, momentary need tohold on to something or someone. To be fair to him, the $100 in the card was in his drawer intended for her before the previous nights exploits. It did feel dirty, and like she was being paid off for having sex with him, but he actually had said to her in the first part of the hour that even if the firm couldn't afford to give out bonuses, he would see to it that she got something. However, the clumsiness of that moment was shocking.
I do agree, Jace, that we are purposely being shown another aspect of Don. I noticed that the usually tipsy Roger commented on Don's early start to coktail hour. That doesn't bode well...

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