In watching Mad Men episode 5.10, Christmas Waltz, my first thought was not about the episode's theme. In fact, at first, a theme didn't emerge. Instead, my first thought was how much fun this episode is. I haven’t been complaining about the season; last week got some bad reviews but I was fine with it, and the season overall has had some amazing episodes (Mystery Date and Far Away Places in particular), but this feels different. This feels like perfect Mad Men, everything we love about it. Scary, unpredictable, heart-stopping in its tense moments, laugh-out-loud funny, sexy, insightful . . . all the great Mad Men things. In fact, I’m pleased that a theme didn't present itself in an obvious way tonight. By being fun, funny, and surprising, Christmas Waltz engaged our interest without having to announce itself. The episode is also brilliant and unassuming, in that it doesn't have to stand on a chair and tell you how meaningful it is. But don't worry, there's meaning, and we'll get to that.
As soon as I saw the "previously on" clips, I thought, 'We're getting everything the fans have been clamoring for.' More Lane, more Joan, less of a laser-focus on the Draper marriage to the exclusion of wonderful secondary characters. But I had no idea, no idea, that the longed-for return of Paul Kinsey was in store, and what a return it was! (I want you all to know that my son has to be at work at 5 a.m. on Monday, and my loud laughter was very inappropriate while he was trying to sleep. But I just couldn't help it. This scene is hysterical. Oh, Paul, we missed you so.) Watch his first scene here:
Paul, by the way, is the perfect access point to what the episode is about thematically: people turning themselves into things they aren't; people layering false identity onto false identity until they don't know, truly, who they are. Paul is a Krishna devotee, except he isn't. He knows himself, to a certain extent: He's still the jerk who wants people to like him but nobody does, and even in the act of serving his guru, Srila Prabhupada (yes, they depicted the real founder of the Krishna Consciousness Movement), he is sure that the guru likes everyone else better. This is the same old Paul who was jealous of Peggy's talent, and realizing he's the same person, whether in ad-man guise or spiritual guise, is actually a profound insight that might someday help him achieve true happiness, but for the moment, it makes him miserable.
Paul has a false image of his own creativity, made embarrassing by his ridiculous Star Trek script (when fans talked about Paul coming back to the show, Star Trek was often mentioned, so this was quite satisfying). He pretends to be a devotee to stay with Lakshmi; he is a twisted mass of false fronts and self-deception. Lakshmi, hilariously, is equally false, trading sex to undermine Paul's dreams, wanting a drink, slapping Harry, and calling Paul a great closer: neither the spiritual teacher she pretends to be nor the vulnerable, frightened girl Paul sees is anywhere in the person she presents (ass-first) to Harry.
Virtually by definition, a Joan episode is a great episode. Christina Hendricks knocked it out of the park again. I am frustrated that we've seen almost nothing of Joan since episode 5.04, but this is a welcome return. Have we seen her melt down before? I don't think so. Oh, Joan, melt down for us:
This scene has everything; Joan Harris losing it, the magnificently silly receptionist, Mohawk's airplane getting crushed (a little foreshadowing for their late-episode strike announcement–historically accurate, natch), and Don coming to the rescue.
Joan, too, has layers of false identity, pretending to be a happy wife at SCDP for over five months when she knows her marriage is over, pretending that Greg is Kevin's father, and managing Roger's efforts to act as Kevin's father, which could pull the curtain away from her story. Joan had an identity she understood: "My mother raised me to be admired." But she also had an identity she thought she understood: Mrs. Harris. Now she just doesn't know. She's as lost as Paul, but without the ponytail. The sweetness of her connection to Don has always been a delight: Everyone loves the scene at the end of Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency where they just get each other, because they know that being admired and feeling admirable are two very different things, and because they know each other as two people who have the appearance part down but not the rest of it. Will they or won't they? I kind of hope they won't, because I love the mutual respect, but I may be the only person on the entire Internet who feels that way, and I have to admit the potential visuals of a Don-Joan hookup make my head spin.
Roger, too, is juggling identities. He thinks his LSD experience exempts him from falsity, but he's still playing Roger games. Like Paul, whose shaven head doesn't drive out his old self, Roger is still trying to manipulate Joan with money and a puppy-dog sort of longing for her that shows no real commitment. He's never had a clue what she really wants and needs.
I haven't talked about Lane yet, and his falsity is most obvious, most pivotal, and most dangerous. All we know by the end of the episode is that he's set himself up to be caught, and probably by Joan, since she's the one who goes over the books. Forging Don's signature was an ugly move by a desperate man; he was so sure he'd figured it all out! At the beginning of the season, Lane was riddled with unarticulated longings; it's almost wrong to say he has a false front because, like Paul and like Joan, he hasn't a clue who the real Lane is. There's no true self hiding behind a false front, just a series of facades that fail to give him any satisfaction.
If there is a flaw in Christmas Waltz, it's that we can feel the machinery of this episode moving towards the conclusion of a later episode. Obviously, early episodes have to set up later ones, and also stand alone. When you experience the set-up more than the stand-alone, that's a structural flaw, and in the Lane storyline, that flaw is present. But: great episode? Yes! I am on pins and needles about Lane's fate.
Don is the mystery at the heart of it here: Who is he and who is he becoming? While we have a pretty clear idea of the positive and negative trajectories of every other character (Paul, Joan, Roger, Harry, even Lakshmi), I honestly don't know who Don is defining himself as in Christmas Waltz.
Unaffected by work earlier, Don is suddenly, at the end, throwing himself into it. Missing Megan, he's angry at her, happy with her, and unhappy with her all at once. He doesn't understand her temper tantrum, at first taking it for sex play, and I'm not sure she understands it either. You know what's hard? Suddenly being home all day. Suddenly being "the wife," and preparing a simple, low-effort dinner and then having nothing else to do. The "problem that has no name" is worse in the suburbs but not only found there. Megan doesn't know who she is now either, and so the circle is complete.
Some additional thoughts:
- We could tease out a second theme of people helping, or withholding help: Harry genuinely helped Paul, Don genuinely helped Joan. Lane got what he thought was the help he needed from the bank, but it proved not to be so. Joan also refused Roger's help, seeing strings attached.
- Quote of the week goes to Don: "You’re going to need to define some of these pronouns if you want me to keep listening." Ha!
- Megan throws food! Joan throws airplanes! Lakshmi slaps Harry! Even though nobody punched out Pete, that was still a lot of violence, and I loved it. Call me shallow.
- We finally see Scarlett! She's been mentioned in many episodes but this is the first time she's appeared on-screen.
- Don quotes Bobbi Barrett from episode 2.03: The Benefactor, "I like being bad and then going home and being good."
Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."