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Mad Men: Christmas Waltz

Posted on the 22 June 2012 by Eatsleeptelevision

It took me a lot longer than I would have liked to really read into “Christmas Waltz.” I’m not really sure why that was.

Granted, this episode certainly strays from what you’d call a traditional Mad Men episode . Other than a few minutes devoted to Don, “Christmas Waltz” shies away from the show’s power players- Peggy, Pete, Roger, etc- and chooses to focus on those who normally dwell in the background of any particular episode. It’s a neat little change of pace, and in certain places actually upends the slow-moving character study elements that are a hallmark of the show. However, in putting some of Mad Men‘s bit players under the microscope, some of the flaws associated with these characters get amplified alongside all the good.

First up: Lane Pryce. Lane’s had a handful of little adventures over the course of the season so far, but they’ve been few and far between. So when we dive right into the start of this one where Lane’s on the hook for a substantial sum of money (especially for 1967), I was just the slightest bit confused. Should I have known previously that Lane was in some serious debt? Is this just being introduced now? Aside from that small hiccup, though, the story of Lane trying to weasel his way into some cash moves along nicely, and at a very brisk pace.

Much brisker than I’m used to on Mad Men, in fact. Lane’s story upends the usual slow burning, character-focused drama and replaces it with something much more direct. When I’m watching Mad Men, I’m expecting the characters’ motivations and inner conflicts to be hidden far below the surface of what’s actually onscreen. That’s not the case with this segment. It mostly boils down to “Lane needs money. Watch him try to scheme his way into a whole lot of it.”

I actually found this to be really refreshing. Despite the faster pace of everything, there’s still a whole lot of tension being wrung out of those scenes where Lane keeps trying harder and harder to talk his way into a bonus. Jared Harris does a bang-up job of keeping Lane sympathetic while still making him seem incredibly uncomfortable and just a little bit slimy.

Harry, on the other hand, has had a little more trouble when it comes to balancing the sympathetic and the slimy. Overall, I think it was a fantastic idea to take the soft-spoken, wimpy (although not without his share of infidelities) Harry Crane and slowly transform him into the chauvinistic ass that ran rampant when this series was first starting out in 1960. But over the past year or so, Harry really hasn’t had anything to do besides hit on women and make me generally uncomfortable whenever he’s onscreen.

I have the feeling that “Christmas Waltz” was intended to remedy that. Sure, Harry can’t make it through the episode without sleeping with someone who’s not his wife, but at least he’s actively trying to get Kinsey out of a bad situation. It’s clear that Kinsey’s headed to an LA full of crushing disappointment, but it was still a nice gesture and I actually liked the Harry Crane I saw in that scene. Add his spectacular little back-and-forth with Peggy about the Star Trek script and Harry starts to balance the likability with the sleaze.

The one thing I worry about is where Harry goes from here. Maybe he’ll go right back to hitting on everything with a pulse. Or maybe he’ll get a little more comic relief and a few more moments that actually make him seem like a decent human being in between all the sleaze. That’s really what I’m hoping for here.

And so we move on to the final character who’s been given a decent chunk of “Christmas Waltz.” Good ol’ Don Draper. Don’s standout scene in the episode, by far, has got to be him and Joan in the bar.

Holy moley. I sometimes struggle with defining just what good chemistry actually is between actors, but this scene is like a textbook example. Don and Joan certainly had a few sparks flying in the Jaguar dealership, but once they sit down at the bar everything just melts away and it’s like we’re watching two old friends share a drink. All the things that make this is a TV show just fade away.

The writing is fast, snappy, and almost laugh-out-loud funny at times (example- Don’s “you’re going to have to define some of those pronouns if you want me to keep listening”). Sexual tension oozes from the collective pores of Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks. Plus, these two just seem so relaxed around each other that it makes perfect sense that they’d be able to discuss some of the most intimate details of their lives without any kind of apprehension. It also doesn’t hurt that they look, really, really good together as a couple (something that was already proven a few minutes before in the Jaguar dealership).

More than anything else, though Don and Joan’s conversation is, simply put, fun to watch. This pairing just feels so natural (and has been so underused over the last five seasons) that I was visibly disappointed when the scene came to its inevitable end. Don and Joan focus most of their conversation on the problems bogging down their respective lives, but their voices, faces and body language all give off the exact opposite of what they’re saying. They seem younger. Fresher. Renewed. So it makes perfect sense that Don would finally recapture that old Don Draper spirit to rouse the SCDP team around their Jaguar pitch. Don gets a taste of how he used to feel, and then has go back home to a marriage that’s starting to resemble his old one more and more. Don sees Megan’s departure from the ad world as an insult. He pushes away and forgets about her completely in the rush of feeling like his old self. She grows more bitter and spiteful. He grows more bitter and spiteful. This seems to be going down a dark path.

And overall, I feel like a lot of the plot threads in “Christmas Waltz” are the seeds of what’ll take us through to the end of the season. Lane unraveling, Don and Megan unraveling, and even the smaller stuff like Pete Campbell growing frustrated about being the only one who’s really pushing the firm forward and not getting enough credit for it. This all seems like big-picture stuff.

I suppose I’ll find out when I get to the next episode.

Now here’s a few closing thoughts

  • Pete’s star is rising, slowly and steadily, but he still can’t command a room in the slightest- especially when you compare him to Don. He’s like a young Don Draper if you take away everything that made young Don Draper interesting and charismatic.
  • After seeing the return of Paul Kinsey, I can start to see why he might have been dropped from the series. Michael Gladis just seems the slightest bit wooden when compared to the rest of the cast
  • Although for all of Kinsey’s terrible ideas and life choice’s, he’s completely on the money with his support of a fledgling Star Trek.

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