Mad Men: "Christmas Waltz" - The Kinsey Fail

The bad news is, the senior partners here at the Barker Chappell Daglas Reviewing Firm must forego our holiday bonuses this year. Turns out there’s not as much money in writing online for free as you’d think.

The good news is, that won’t diminish our commitment to bring you our takes on this week’s episode! Put a quarter in the jukebox, don your best Jimmy Durante fedora, and enjoy this week’s installment of the Mad Men roundtable review.

 

Andy: “Christmas Waltz” brought together two of Mad Men’s most magnetic characters for their first extended scene this season, a sizzling exchange that encapsulated so many of the show’s signature strengths.

I’m speaking, of course, of Harry Crane and Paul Kinsey. Their tale hearkens back to Mad Men of old, with Paul diving into a new depth of poseur pretension and Harry showing flashes of his old menschy self.

Oh, and I’d guess the sequence between Don and Joan satisfied a few fan cravings as well.

Fun moments like those abound in this episode, which moves some pieces into place for the season's final stretch while finding room for pleasant digressions. After sparking his creative pilot light last week, Don’s now rekindling his work ethic too—once again due, in part, to resentment. Pete’s earned SCDP a second chance at landing Jaguar, to the grateful hurrahs of precisely nobody.* And although Don couldn’t stomach Revolver’s closing track, Lane is grappling with the substance of its opener: his trouble with the U.K. taxman has him resorting to forgery and embezzlement.

*Well, except for the mannequin he stole and taped a wig and a picture of Rory Gilmore’s face to and now hides in his closet. SHE appreciates him, dammit! 

Still, it’s hard for any of that to compete with the pure delight of Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, and a midtown Manhattan bar. If that’s not a crystalline example of what we love about Mad Men at its apex, I don’t know what is. Gentlemen, were you as captivated by the pair as I was, or are you above such material concerns and happy in the light of Krishna consciousness?

 

Les: The most memorable exchange of the entire fourth season was the moment when Don and Peggy shared a drink (at what I think was the very same bar) at the time of the second Ali-Liston fight, and I think when this season wraps that scene with Don and Joan is going to be the one every fan remembers, even over the Campbell-Pryce fight club. Every moment with Don and Joan was fantastic, from Don's gentlemanly gesture giving her his coat before they left to Joan playing the role of Mrs. Draper* perfectly with the Jaguar salesman, to another of those rare heartfelt conversations Don has with someone important where so much is said in so few words. Hamm and Hendricks killed every minute of that conversations - their longest since "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency" I believe -  as we saw them both let their guards down and admit they're hurting and want things they can't even define. I think I need to buy the episode on iTunes the instant it comes out just for the pleasure of watching that scene six times in a row.

*Had it been Joan instead of Peggy at the Cool Whip pitch, Mr. Belding would have probably signed the entire company over to those two.

Truthfully though? As fantastic as the whole interaction was, there was also something very bittersweet in it. We finally learned why Don never made a move on Joan even in his younger days ("You scared the shit out of me") and while there was one moment where it seemed like Don would make a move in asking her to dance, they moved past it very quickly as they debated the merits of the man on the other side of the bar. There's unquestionably a deep friendship and respect between the two - that move of Don to send her flowers with a simple card was beautifully considered - but it's never going to be any more than that. Don's not going to leave Megan for Joan (though she might leave him if her channeling of Connie Corleone at dinner was any indication of how well that marriage is doing) and Joan would never let him do that, and she's also probably smart enough not to tie her personal life to the baggage of Don Draper. But for one glorious scene - made cinematic with their talk of Sinatra/Durante and a diegetic ballad on the jukebox - we got to see what may have been.

Cory, your take? Or do we need to define some of those pronouns if I want you to keep listening?

 

Cory: It's funny, I didn't watch this episode until early Monday morning but that of course did not keep me from Twitter last night. I kept seeing people freaking out about this scene or that scene and honestly, I expected Joan and Don to be engaged in the "you can take me like this" material, not Harry and Paul's new love. Hyperbolic tweets and expectations aside, I'm a human being, so obviously I loved Don and Joan's scenes together. I understand and respect Weiner's (and thus the characters') reasons for not hooking up but it sure feels like the series is just screwing with the audience at this point. Hamm and Hendricks' chemistry is so electric and the characters understand one another in a really complex and compelling way that I would love to watch a "Suitcase"-like episode with the two of them stuck in a room for an extended period of time.

Andy, you mentioned that Don's work inspiration is based on Pete getting Jaguar. I think that's partially true and yet it also seemed to me that Don had a "moment" in the car after leaving the bar. All that talk with Joan about knowing what you want and how to get it made for a nice catalyst. However, it's also likely true that Megan's scolding had something to do with his new-found passion as well. She really cut deep with the whole "you used to love work" bit. I think we can all agree that Don's final speech was a solid return to form -- one that left Pete so miserably jealous I couldn't help but laugh out loud -- but what do we think about his previous night? Megan is probably correct to be upset with him, but that reaction was damn extreme. Still though, she made Don submit to her angry ranting quite quickly, despite his attempts to make it sexual. How can Don go from the cool, smooth and in control man we see with Joan to the hang-dog, submissive one we see with Megan? And is Don actually happy? Do we think this is still what he wants?

 

Andy: Cory, there was one other source of resentment that I felt put Don back on his heels professionally: the risibly anti-materialist play Megan dragged him to* and their subsequent row. Whatever love he's lost for his industry, he'll be damned to let an outsider denigrate it, and by extension him. Is that, on some level, how he's interpreting Megan's departure from the field? We've observed (not always with praise) how unsubtle much of this season has been, but the subtext in the Drapers' scenes this week was considerably murkier. I'm pretty sure it's setting up a major development within the final three episodes, but as to the nature of that development, it's still anyone's guess.

*The look on Hamm's face sitting in that audience = solid fucking gold.

While the DoJo pairing deserved all the Internet hubbub it launched, so too did the (triumphant?) return of Paul Kinsey. And what's new with ol' Paul? Oh, just cosplaying as Lord Varys from Game of Thrones and writing Star Trek spec scripts even less subtle than this one. The usual.

What's truly weird? How closely Paul's story has apparently been echoing Megan's. He got drawn into a lifestyle that many people regard with reflexive annoyance (Krishnas/advertising). His devotion to that lifestyle was based mostly on a romance with a true believer. He's thrived in that lifestyle almost in spite of himself (Lakshmi calls him their best recruiter). Still, he's eager to escape it and pursue dreams of a creative profession. And it's totally obvious that Harry wants to bang him.

And yet, despite Paul's dopiness, Harry's slimy libido, and the general air of silliness that overhung this whole plot, there was a sweetness to it. Paul's a fuck-up, but also a basically decent guy who wants to find some value in life and has never had any clue quite how to do so. Harry really wants to help his friend, and kinda sorta manages to do so in the least bad way possible. And of course the whole affair allows Peggy to get off the line of the night when running down Paul's resume: "Oh, sorry, I meant the A&P." Sick burn, Pegasus. Sick burn.

Les, Cory, you guys know a thing or two about heartwarming bromances. How did you feel about this one?

 

Les: Touching quickly on America Hurrah, I loved Don's takedown of it: "The mighty theater punches us all in the face with its subtle message. There's a challenge." I wonder if Weiner threw that in as his interpretation of critics like us needling the show for occasionally being heavy-handed in its symbolism. And I wonder what Megan was thinking by taking him to a play so obviously critical of his chosen profession. Between that and her histrionic reaction to him coming home late, there's a lot going on in her head that doesn't seem very healthy. Is she trying to push him deeper into the business to make him care about something, or does she want him to abandon the world of cynical smirks and join her in the land of yellow submarines?

As I've said before, Don's commitment to being the man in the grey flannel suit is Gatsbyian, and now he's identified a green light he can strive for to prove that commitment - one he's driving a Jaguar straight towards. Is this what he really wants? Maybe not, but to paraphrase Joan, that's just the way it is. And maybe he's just the way he is.

But yes, the return of Paul Kinsey. This came very much out of left field, partially for the fact he's traded his Hemingway affectations for full-bore Buddha, and partially that this was a character I never expected to see again. Alan Sepinwall and a few critics were actually talking a few weeks back about how looking back Paul felt he was from a completely different show to what Mad Men is now, and it seems to bring him back they had to turn him completely on his axis. But at the core, none of these changes are at all off from what we knew about Paul: we knew writing was difficult for him, we knew he was insecure about his talents around Peggy (and insecure in general) and we knew he liked sampling the counterculture. It makes perfect sense that after having flunked out of every single advertising agency, he'd take the Don Draper approach and utterly commit to his conception of a lifestyle.

It was nice to see him and Harry interacting again, bringing back a lot of memories of the "chipmunk" days when they, Pete and Ken were cracking wise around the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper. Like you Andy, I found this interaction very touching in its way, both characters' innate douchebaggery notwithstanding. Harry seems to have at least some self-awareness of how lucky he was to be scooped up on the SCDP ship, and feels bad about Paul not getting that same chance. I interpreted him giving the money and the ticket to Paul as him trying to give him that chance as much as it was getting him away from Lakshmi.

Is Paul going to fail? Probably spectacularly. But we're heading for the Summer of Love, maybe he'll find his niche.

 

Cory: It seems to me that the season is building to a moment where Don has to make a choice about his feelings for Megan. Are they real? Are they not? I'd like to think that he will simply realize that what he thought he wanted or what he thought he could change into are not actually possible, but there's still this underlying sense that he's going to tap back into the Don he sort of nostalgically referred to in this episode: doing bad in a bar and coming home and doing good. We've talked quite a bit about how this season is about realizing what you have isn't what you thought it would be and it makes a great deal of sense that that theme hits the hardest and the best/worst time for Don. Megan might be what Don thinks he wants, but it feels pretty clear that it just isn't going to work, as much as it wants it too. Which brings me to my next question: Do we actually think Don and Joan could hook up? I mean seriously, what's stopping them? It's so natural, and not just because the actors have wonderful chemistry.

Les: As I said at the top of our discussion, I don't think it can happen as things stand. Don and Joan are two very intelligent, very charismatic personalities, and they're also very damaged personalities who have built up not inconsequential walls around themselves. Joan's not going to cuckold Megan after what happened with Roger,* and I don't think Don's going to leave Megan after the self-destructive spiral he went into at the end of his first marriage. There's clearly a spark - and they're too smart not to feel it - but they don't want to deal with the grief of what that spark would blow up.

*Joan's utter lack of patience with Roger this episode was a delight. Her crack about his shirt, replying to his praise for his LSD experience with an impatient "Yes, I know," and asking him if he wanted a tip for delivering flowers were all golden.

If Megan's out of the picture it becomes more feasible - stranger things have happened on this show - but both of them have other considerations in the form of their offspring, "four altogether." And even if they're just looking for a fling, they're very sensitive to what that might mean for Sally, Bobby, Gene and Kevin. Don married Megan in part for her maternal instincts: Could he see Joan as his kids' new stepmother? Is he willing to take care of her son, and is she willing to let the secret out about Kevin's true parentage? And going to their metaphorical child, how's Peggy feel about a hook-up between the two people she learned the most from? I'd love to see Sally finally getting the female role model she needs in her life, and Roger's acid-enabled open-mindedness clash with his festering jealousy of Don, but - again - that's a minefield I can't see Don or Joan entering.

Andy, do you agree? Or do you think Weiner and company would dare bring our fan fiction to life?

 

Andy: I think a Don-Joan hook-up is as unlikely as a Don-Peggy one. Their relationship - both personally and narratively - is too potent in its current state to gain from such tampering. There's something rare and intense and touching about that species of male-female friendship, charged by an undercurrent of attraction, wistful for the consummation that might have been but comfortably accepting that its window closed long ago, leaving behind embers of flirtation that burn brighter than most torrid romances. The longer that alternate reality lingers in their minds, the more enriching it becomes - so long as it remains a fantasy. Kinetic energy only vanishes. Potential energy builds.

In less pleasant developments, what is going on with proper old Lane Pryce? His appearances have been sparse this year, but every time we see him, he's committing some sort of felony. (True, no jury in the Tri-State area would convict him of socking Campbell on the snooker, but technically that was still assault.) His desperation to squeeze some cash flow out of the firm was troublesome. Even more so was the fact that he can't bear to confide in his partners. If he had explained he needed an advance on available funds, due to circumstances outside his control, would Don and Bert and Roger really be so callous as to deny him? I doubt it. So my question is - is this a problem with the character, or with the writing?

 

Cory: The writing in this episode was a bit wonky in a few places. The Lane story felt a bit desperate to me. I appreciate "the firm is in crisis" stories as much as the next guy, but his actions seemed at least a bit out of character. Although we've seen him sneak around before, he spent the whole episode acting like a child and it was all...off-putting. I guess you could argue that Lane's issues tie into the season's thematic interest in not getting what you want or realizing what you have isn't that great after all, but criminal activity? Eh.

I didn't really address it earlier, but I found big chunks of the Paul-Harry story to be problematic as well. The scene where Lakshmi seduces Harry and then tries to coldly explain her manipulative "logic" was honestly quite terrible. Harry was right to question what the hell Lakshmi was doing or what her rationale was, to which she basically just said: BECAUSE *smack*. The scene was humorous, but not in the way I assume the script intended. Thankfully, though, those issues were covered up by the great work from Hamm and Hendricks in other scenes.

So we're heading into the final stretch. There are only three episodes left. Do we have predictions? It sure feels like Don and Megan are headed for separation, or at least a massive fight spurred on by a stupid mistake. The suicide watch for Pete has been lowered a bit, but that's still theoretically on the table. Thoughts?

 

Les: I think I'd find the Lane plot much less problematic if we'd actually seen him in the last five episodes. It's rather conspicuous actually: while the show doesn't use every cast member every episode it does let us know that they're still around. Joan hasn't had a major role since "Mystery Date" six weeks ago, but she's been seen in the office at least once an episode since kicking Dr. Greg to the curb. Ditto with bit players like Harry, Stan and Ginsberg - even if it's just to see them walking around the office or having a funny line, we know they're there. Lane may well have not left his office after striking Pete and striking out with Joan for all the impact he's had on the world of Mad Men since.

As such, there's no real context to his actions, for the exact reasons you described Andy. This is the first we hear of him being in dire financial straits, and for a character as fastidious and by-the-book as he is it seems incredibly out-of-character for him to cook the books to get the money he needs (much as I did enjoy the atmosphere of that forgery scene). It feels like an effort to create chaos for the last few episodes, and isn't nearly as well-built as Pete's internal strife or Peggy/Don's professional jealousy of Ginsberg. I felt similarly about when he admitted Joan could do his job after the fight, when all previous indications have been the firm needs both of them to run the trains on time*. He's a character they've had some struggles with in the past, and fight aside I don't think he's been well-served this season (Remember that wallet subplot? Me neither). Cory, your use of "desperate" for his story feels spot-on to me.

*And really, with how good Joan is at everything, how does Lane expect her 
not to notice that check?

In terms of predictions for the season, I think the Don/Megan blowup is coming in some form, but I'm not sure what form that'll take. My best guess is Megan just walks out on him as a consequence of the late nights he's promised to spend on Jaguar, as that'd make a nice duality: he seals the pitch but loses his wife, and has to have the epiphany that this job really does mean more to him than she ever did. Closing scene of Don, Peggy and Ginsberg in the office working on a pitch as Jefferson Airplane plays us out?

As to our death pool, I think the LSD's improved Roger's prospects not to jump out of a window, and if Jaguar goes well and even one person gives Pete an "attaboy" he'll keep the rifle in storage. If someone's going to commit suicide Lane now seems the most likely candidate with all the troubles heaped on him by the writers, and if news of the check comes out before season's end he'll likely be on the same road to self-destruction as Edwin "Bazooka Joe" Baker. I hope that's not the case as I'm quite fond of Jared Harris, but Weiner and company seem to have lost interest in that character.

 

Andy: For what may it profit Don, Lane, and company to gain a car account and forfeit their souls? Only three more hours this season for us to find out. See you again next week, same Mad-time, same Mad-channel!

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