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'Mad Men' recap: 'Money solves today but not tomorrow'

May 21, 2012 | 10:53 am

Harry Paul Mad Men

In its fifth season, “Mad Men” has taken some big risks. The most noticeable change to the series is its shift to a more obvious style of storytelling. Mostly gone is the inscrutability that made the series, in its first three seasons, such a maddening pleasure to watch. Now “Mad Men” is rife with portentous symbols like toxic fog and empty elevator shafts, and the overall tone is more Gothic than brooding. I like to think that these changes are intentional, that the higher emotional register is Matthew Weiner’s way of dealing with the turbulent era we’re moving in to. In several episodes, like the wonderfully unsettling “Far Away Places,” this approach has worked beautifully.

“The Christmas Waltz” is another thing entirely. It’s an episode of “Mad Men” that’s almost totally lacking in subtlety: The Lane plot is transparent and soapy; the long-awaited reappearance of Paul Kinsey as a Hare Krishna provides an easy joke about the counterculture; and even Don’s growing rift with Megan feels contrived. While I recognize that the real purpose of “The Christmas Waltz” is to set up the narrative for the remaining three episodes — it doesn’t take a genius to realize that Lane’s actions are going to have some terrible consequences for him and possibly the agency too — but it all feels rather clumsy and needlessly cynical. To put it bluntly, this is probably my least favorite episode of the season so far. Though I appreciate most of the chances “Mad Men” has taken this year, there is one truly risky thing the show hasn’t, and probably never will, do: allow any of its characters to be happy. Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?

It’s been a very long time since we last saw Lane — he’s one of several supporting characters whose thread has gotten lost this season — which perhaps makes his story feel more manufactured than it already does. In the opening scene, we’re parachuted into the middle of his crisis, as he surreptitiously takes a late-night phone call from his lawyer. Lane owes $8,000 in back taxes to the British government, and he has two days (!) to pay up. Yes, there were hints earlier this season that Lane was under some financial strain, but this twist still feels like it came out of a grab bag of dusty old plot devices.

As desperate and proud as Lane is, it’s hard to believe he’d pull something as transparent as taking out a new line of credit, lying to his fellow partners about the agency’s profits and then forging a check to himself. And where was Joan for all this? Lane intentionally doesn’t invite her to the partners’ meeting, but it’s not like she wasn’t in the office when all of this was going down. “Mad Men” is rarely the kind of show that I feel the need to nitpick, which is why the holes in this story feel almost egregious. Even still, I do feel some sympathy for poor Lane. I give credit for this to Jared Harris, who lends his character a tragic dignity. It's all very manipulative, and yet I do feel for him in the end. I'm rooting for a miracle.

Joan Don Mad Men
Of course, the fallout from Lane’s malfeasance could be massive. With Mohawk suspending its advertising and the agency doling out bonuses from a new line of credit disguised as profit, it’s even more essential that SCDP shore up some new clients — namely, Jaguar. Pete has hardly endeared himself to viewers this season, but in this episode he’s back to his peevish-yet-strangely-likable self. It’s easy enough to understand his frustration with Don’s defeatist attitude about the Jaguar pitch and the overall lack of excitement over the “blessed news” delivered to the agency. His method of motivating Don, by cheerfully barging into his office and quizzing him on his favorite Jaguar, seems ripped straight out of the Trudy Campbell playbook, which is probably why I enjoyed it so thoroughly.

Unfortunately, Don is trapped in a creative rut. At first, Don was distracted by Megan’s presence at the office; he was, as Bert Cooper put it, on a “love vacation.” Now he’s distracted by her absence, bothered by the fact that she’s not as into advertising as he is. The tension comes to a head after the Drapers attend an experimental play, “America Hurrah,” that’s a critique of consumerism. Don responds by sulking, and Megan rightly calls him out on it.  “I’ve heard you say a lot worse things about advertising,” she says, which is true. (As Thomas Frank argues in his excellent book “The Conquest of Cool,” a lot of the ads from the late ‘60s were themselves critiques of Madison Avenue, which makes Don’s hyper-sensitivity seem even less convincing.) “No one’s made a stronger stand against advertising than you,” he fires back. The show has depicted Megan’s departure from the agency as a cataclysmic rupture in their relationship, but I don’t know if I buy it. Yes, Don loves his job, but why should his wife have to love it too?

Don’s already in a restless mood when he finds Joan throwing a conniption in the lobby. I love it when Joan goes nuclear, and I also appreciate Don’s quietly chivalrous way of calming her nerves. He ushers her toward the elevator and takes her to test-drive a Jaguar. After posing as husband and wife — or maybe “married man” and “mistress” — and taking a cherry red XKE for a spin, Joan and Don decamp to a bar to share their sorrows. The possibility of a romance between Don and Joan is something that’s intrigued viewers ever since their exchange in the hospital waiting room back in Season 3’s “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.” For a few minutes there, “The Christmas Waltz” plays like a remake of “The Suitcase.”  Just as Peggy did in that terrific episode, Joan asks Don why he never put the moves on her: “My mother raised me to be admired. But no flowers from you?” Don explains that he was too scared of Joan to try anything. Fair enough.

Several drinks and a few songs later, the flirting between Joan and Don has reached near-critical levels. Don asks Joan to dance, but, wisely, she turns him down. “I don’t think we should. You and me in Midtown. You with that look on your face,” Joan says, her speech slowed to a languid pace. The entire scene is animated by a sense of possibility: Joan admits to finding Don “irresistible,” and Don no doubt feels the same way, even if he doesn’t pounce on her like Lane. There’s also an obvious kinship between these two inveterate heartbreakers, characters who’ve both seen more than their fair share of romantic travails.

So it’s a tremendous relief when Don decides to leave before he does anything he’ll regret. What Don most likely doesn’t know is that Joan’s self-control no doubt has a lot to do with her relationship with Roger. She’s been the “other woman” before, and look where it got her: She’s a single, working mother who can barely tolerate the inebriated manchild who got her pregnant. Her brief pseudo-affair with Don is more than enough.

Even though nothing happens, the flirtation with Joan is enough to plant some serious seeds of doubt in Don’s mind. He returns, totally hammered, to his apartment, tossing his coat over a lamp (I realize at this moment how much I've missed Don's drunk face). Megan is not amused, and she lets him know it. Their fights usually consist of some fiery accusations followed by hot make-up sex, but all Don gets this time around is a plate full of reheated spaghetti. If Don and Megan can’t even muster the passion to tear each other’s clothes off, I’m worried for their future. The interesting — if not entirely convincing — thing about Don’s marital discord is that it’s being driven by his professional malaise. He’s happy with Megan, but without her at the agency he’s forced to realize that it’s not satisfying him the way it used to. Maybe the Jaguar pitch will help Don reclaim his professional mojo — and save his marriage — or maybe it will just sink him further into a funk.

Now, I’ve taken my time getting to what’s probably the most noteworthy development in this episode, the long-awaited return of Paul Kinsey, last seen at the end of Episode 3. Like Sal, Paul is a character who’s been sorely missed since his unceremonious departure, so it’s a bit of a shame that he’s used as a punchline. I’ll admit, I got quite a few laughs out of seeing Paul in a Hare Krishna get-up — the shaved head, the yellow cloth draped around his fleshy torso. I also like how quickly Harry’s cynicism gives way to bliss. He’s possibly the least enlightened character on “Mad Men,” yet within a few hours he’s incanting in a state of near-transcendence.

Paul becomes even more ridiculous when he approaches Harry with a spec “Star Trek” script he’s written and asks him to get it to the executive at NBC. Of course, it’s terrible, a heavy-handed allegory about racism, but Harry doesn’t want to crush his friend’s dreams. His predicament worsens when Lakshmi, Paul’s Juliette Lewis-lookalike girlfriend, shows up at the agency and throws herself at him. After their sordid assignation, Lakshmi wipes herself off with a tissue and then reveals the truth: She doesn’t find Harry irresistible, she just wants him to leave Paul, the movement’s most effective recruiter, alone. In the end, Harry comes up with a solution that’s both generous and cruel: He tells Paul that he has a future in screenwriting and hands him a check for $500 to use for a move to L.A. Harry is obviously trying to “rescue” Paul from Lakshmi and the Hare Krishnas, and his credulous friend falls for it.

It’s all very easy to laugh at, and I’ll admit to getting a kick out of the Hare Krishna stuff, but the more I think about it, the more this episode rankles me. All too often, “Mad Men” looks back at the '60s with fashionable condescension. Nearly every countercultural figure on the show is portrayed in a negative light: Abe’s pompous and chauvinist, Paul’s a poseur and Lakshmi a patchouli-scented Harpy. From the safe distance of 2012, it’s easy to laugh at someone like Paul, a failed advertising executive who gets caught up in an easily mocked spiritual movement. (By now, Hare Krishnas are basically a prefabricated punchline: Hey, look at the white people in their funny outfits!) Even Paul’s earlier involvement with the Freedom Riders was just a shallow bid to impress his African American girlfriend, a detail that trivialized the very real danger that young civil rights activists like him faced. Similarly, even Roger’s genuinely revelatory acid trip has been dismissed as yet another excuse for his indulgent behavior. It’s not that I expect “Mad Men” to portray the era with the gauzy sentimentality of, say, "The Wonder Years" or "Forrest Gump," but the blanket cynicism is nearly as reductive. Couldn’t someone on “Mad Men” be affected, for the better, by the changes of the decade?  Yes, there were plenty of things wrong with the  '60s, but surely there were some things right too.  

Stray thoughts:

--OK, so the scene between Roger and Joan was pretty great.  (Roger: “Joan, I had an experience.” Joan: “Yes, I know.”)

--There isn't a whole lot of Christmas in this Christmas episode, though the Kinsey plot does play like a critique — or maybe an endorsement — of consumerism.

--In the preview for next week, Megan says, “A wife is like a Buick in the garage.” Don’s trying to win the Jaguar account. You do the math.

--Don quotes Bobbie Barrett (ew) to Joan: “I like being bad and going home and being good.”

--Scarlet on Paul: “What’s wrong with him? He’s very polite.”

--Another parallel between this episode and “The Suitcase” is that, like Peggy, Joan also has a child with a co-worker.

RELATED:

"Mad Men" recap: Every man for himself

"Mad Men" recap: A little something on the side

"Mad Men" recap: A night with the grown-ups

— Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Top photo: Lakshmi (Anna Wood), Harry (Rich Sommer) and Paul (Michael Gladis) chant at a Hare Krishna meeting. Photo credit: Jordin Althaus / AMC.

Bottom photo: Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Don (Jon Hamm) flirt at the bar. Photo credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC.

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