Monday, August 2, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 2: Christmas Comes but Once a Year

When I first heard that Mad Men was doing a Christmas episode this week, I joked that perhaps Don would finally learn the true meaning of Christmas this year. But, of course, this is Mad Men, so instead, Don spent most of the episode despondent because he already knew the true meaning of Christmas, but was being denied its pleasures because of his choices. Specifically, Don knows that the holidays are all about family, and Don will not get to spend this Christmas with his children. The effects on both Don and Sally shape the bulk of “Christmas Comes but Once a Year,” and give it much of its resonance. Yet I spent far too long tearing apart Don’s psyche last week, so before we get to him, let’s look at where the holidays find some of our other characters.

Freddie Rumsen, for one, is back and is 16 months sober. He walks into Roger’s office at the episode’s opening effectively begging for a job, yet Freddie has never been a dumb guy, and he comes dangling the $2 million Pond’s Cold Cream account as a condition of his hiring. Roger accepts and puts Freddie on the account with Peggy (after an exchange in which Freddie tells Roger he doesn’t want Pete near any of his accounts and then, seeing Pete, remarks “I was just talking about you!” Again, Freddie is many things, but he isn’t dumb), which leads to an almost immediate clash between the two that is reminiscent of Don’s internal clash last week—Peggy is forward thinking and “modern,” while Freddie is painfully “old fashioned.” That may be true in the workplace, yet much like Don each of these characters lead double lives which cause them to strafe the line between old fashioned and modern. At work Peggy may be on the cutting edge, but in her personal life she at least pretends to be old fashioned, refusing to have sex with her new boyfriend and letting him assume that she’s a virgin. Peggy is still learning lessons from her mentor, and perhaps the best one she’s learned yet is that it’s possible to create your own past and through that decide who you want to be going into the future. On the other end of the spectrum, Freddie may be old fashioned at work, suggesting that young women look up to old women for beauty tips, or failing that just want to get married, yet in his personal life he is modern enough to buy into AA in order to keep clean. The episode keeps reminding us that in 1964, the opportunities to drink are plentiful, and most people still ascribe to the “one drink can’t hurt” mentality, but here, Freddie is a bit ahead of the curve. He knows the dangers of even one drink, and rushes off to help his contact at Pond’s (Freddie clearly met him when he became the guy’s sponsor) after the Pond’s man goes on an afternoon bender with Roger.

Which brings us to the other non-Draper related story for this week: Roger’s degradation at the hands of Lee Garner Jr. who will forever be known as “that asshole who got Sal fired.” The episode begins with Roger at his chipper best, and even gives us an excellent Roger-Joan scene (I swear, if Mad Men can supply a few of those every season just to remind me how perfect the two are together, I’ll be happy), yet by the end Roger has been forced to shame himself by donning a Santa suit and making merry for the amusement of Lee, who is still 69% of the company’s business after the landing of the Pond’s account (which means that Lucky Strike has a ridiculous amount of money unk into SCDP). Roger orders the scaled back party to be upgraded, as he puts it, “from convalescent home to Roman orgy,” in order to keep Lee happy, and even buys him a Polaroid camera, yet Lee is not satisfied until he forces Roger into the suit, and later further humiliates him by insisting on taking pictures of every employee sitting on Roger’s lap. Roger knew he would have to get more involved in the new firm than he was under PPL’s reign at Sterling-Cooper, but I am not sure he was prepared to go this far.

Returning to the Drapers, the episode opens with the newly formed Francis family shopping for a Christmas tree, and features the return of another long absent character in the form of Glen (played by series creator Matthew Weiner’s son), the intensely creepy kid who spent most of season one making eyes at Betty and now has his damaged sights set on a younger Draper lady, and one who may be more receptive to his advances. Glen gets off some good one-liners tonight (“I saw you with your new Dad. My Mom said that would happen,” an excellent example), but also vandalizes the Francis home, leaving only Sally’s room untouched and a lanyard on her bed. Sally is already a messed up kid. The only person who ever really parented her is dead, and her actual parents are absent (in Don’s case) or Betty, so chances of her making it out of her youth unscathed are slim. We’ve seen Sally resort to stealing and even violence in desperate attempts to get attention or just to be noticed, but so far her indiscretions have been minor. Yet Sally hates her home life and her mother, and with an influence like Glen, we may see the dark side of Sally’s future this season. Sally has always been one of my favorite characters on the show, and also arguably its most tragic figure, so I’m really rooting for her to pull through and grow up to be a well-adjusted adult, but the show keeps putting her through psychological loops that make that less and less likely. I’ll be championing Sally even if this season does mark an early downfall for her.

And finally, we return to Don, who last week exhibited the contradiction between old fashioned and modern, and this week seems divided between the lady-killer he once was and the desperate divorcee he is quickly becoming. Don still has the moves and the confidence on the outside, yet inside he is racked with guilt, longing and regret, all of which he suppresses with a large enough amount of booze to be drawing eyes even within the walls of SCDP. Don is involved in some way with three women over the course of this episode—Dr. Faye Miller, who seems ready and willing to go toe to toe with him, Phoebe (played by Nora Zehetner of Brick fame) a nurse who recognizes her father’s alcoholism in Don’s booing ways, and Allison, Don’s longtime secretary who succumbs to Don’s drunken seduction and wakes up with perhaps the worse of their two hangovers (Though hers is emotional). Don has always treated the secretarial pool as off limits, and generally rolled his eyes disdainfully as others dipped into it for personal pleasures, but this week he seemed all to willing to cross his own self-imposed line. After Phoebe rejects his advances (bets on how long she’ll hold off, anyone?) and Dr. Miller refuses his dinner invitation (I certainly hope she doesn’t hold off long either), perhaps Don is noticing that his charms aren’t working the way they used to. At best, Don Draper is now seen as a man with baggage, and at worst as an alcoholic divorcee who would spend the night passed out in the hallway if it weren’t for the kindness of his secretary. Don Draper has definitely hit a low point, and while he quickly back peddles away from a repeated tryst with Allison (and ends up giving her a bonus that feels a little bit like payment for sex), it’s hard to deny that he has fallen lower than he ever expected and may have trouble rising up again.

Unsurprisingly, Mad Men didn’t do a traditional Christmas episode, and instead turned in what has to be one of its darker installments. “Christmas Comes but Once a Year” showed us Don at rock bottom, Sally on the verge of ruin, Roger degrading himself for his meal ticket, Peggy creating her own history and lying to her new boyfriend (whom she sleeps with by episode’s end, disregarding Freddie’s advice like she has all episode), and Freddie trying to be the man he once was, and in the process perhaps realizing what he has lost in the last few years. It certainly wasn’t an uplifting hour of television, but at the beginning of a new season of Mad Men, perhaps there’s nowhere better to start than the bottom.

Grade: B+

Notes:

-Tonight marks the show’s first Beatles reference, as Don suggests that Allison pick Sally up some 45s for Christmas. Don is a caring parent, at least compared to Betty, but it is the ‘60s, so his secretary is still doing the shopping.

-“You’re off limits.” “I don’t think he’s the one that needs to be reminded.” Oh Roger and Joan. I love you.

-“My bed is covered with work.” “That’s kind of symbolic.”

-“In a nutshell, it all comes down to what I want, and what’s expected of me.”-Dr. Faye Miller, spelling out advertising, one of the show’s major themes, and the way that most characters on the show make decisions all in one sentence. I like this woman.

-I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Don Draper’s first finger bang of the season. So consider it mentioned.

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