‘Mad Men’ – ‘Christmas Comes But Once a Year’: Holiday spirits

08.01.10 7 years ago 322 Comments


Another new “Mad Men” tonight. You can find my reviews of previous seasons at my old blog, and I have a review of the latest episode – along with a note about the altered schedule of future reviews – coming up just as soon as I’m in the middle of a seven-day beauty plan…

“In a nutshell, it all comes down to what I want versus what’s expected of me.” -Faye Miller

Oh, Don.

Oh, Don.

Ohhh, Don.

You have been a naughty, naughty, naughty boy this Christmas, and you deserve something far worse than coal in your stocking for the way you treated Allison.

The holidays are a stressful time for people under the best of circumstances, and “Mad Men” characters are rarely under the best of circumstances. The Christmas of 1964 brings a lot of discomfort, pain and outright humiliation to the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and many characters are forced to prostitute themselves, or to make others feel like a prostitute, to get what they need before Dec. 25.

The Don we reconnected with last week was in a dark place, but here we see that his first real Christmas without the family (the separation had just happened in mid-December ’63) is dragging him even further down the sinkhole. He’s drinking so much that at night he begins to resemble Freddie Rumsen (who himself makes a mostly triumphant, clean and sober return that we’ll get to in a bit), so sloppy and pathetic(*) that neither Phoebe the nurse nor Faye the market research expert respond to his lame advances, when he’d easily seduce either one were he in peak condition. He’s so lonely that he calls Peggy “sweetheart” when he leaves the Christmas party(**), then turns Allison’s good deed journey to bring him his apartment keys into a chance to feel a connection and make love to someone.

(*) The younger employees at Sterling Cooper always gossiped about Don, but always in an admiring or envious way. To hear Joey use the word “pathetic” to discuss Don shows how bad things are for him right now.

(**) He’s not hitting on Peggy, just acknowledging that she’s the only person who loves him (platonically) in spite of knowing as much about him as any human can without the words “Dick Whitman” attached.

I cringed mightily watching Don pull Allison to her, and then seeing her reciprocate. As I’ve talked about before, being Don Draper’s secretary is not easy. Peggy was okay but mostly distracted by personal issues (she’s a better protege than Gal Friday), Joan great but temporary, Lois a disaster, and Jane more interested in finding a Sterling Cooper partner to sleep with. We’ve seen with Allison – and were reminded early in this episode with Sally’s letter to Santa – that she’s that rare creature who can meet Don’s professional needs, understand his moods and perform her demanding job with a minimum of drama (though she does understandably get choked up at the postscript to Sally’s letter). Allison is probably the most functional relationship Don has in his life right now (Peggy still is a target for abuse, after all), so when Don pulled her towards the couch, I all but begged them to stop before he screwed it up.

But bad as I expected things to go, I never expected anything quite as horrible as Don’s behavior the next morning, when he shocks Allison with how much their encounter didn’t happen, as far as he was concerned, then hands her the envelope with her holiday bonus. Dick Whitman, who grew up with the nickname “whore-son,” is so fixated on keeping his personal life walled off from his professional life that he makes Allison feel like his whore. He doesn’t close the door and apologetically suggest their night together was nice but a bad idea in hindsight; he just acts like it never happened and gives her a hundred bucks, cash. And unlike some other incidents where we see that Don’s weird pathology allows him to forget about the thing that he wants to erase – see, for instance, his initial confusion when Peggy asks him to repay her for the bail money from the car crash with Bobbie Barrett – his expression after a humiliated Allison leaves his office makes it abundantly clear that Don knew exactly what he was doing and feels guilty about it. Just not guilty enough to have stopped himself.

This is among the lowest things we’ve ever see Don do, down there with ordering Adam out of his life and saying “you people” to Sal. We understand by now Don’s need to push people away at all costs, and in hindsight it’s not surprising that he would treat Allison in a way that ensures she would never, ever approach him that way again, nor tell anyone else about an encounter that ultimately mortified her so. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch, though, and it’s a credit to Matthew Weiner (here writing the script with Tracy McMillan) and Jon Hamm that they’ll take the character there, and to Alexa Allemanni’s acting that we’d feel so badly for such a minor character.

Allison isn’t the only character made to feel like a working girl this hour, though. Roger lets Lee Garner Jr. bully him into throwing a lavish party the firm can’t afford, and then into putting on the Santa suit, posing for photos with men on his lap, and everything else, because SCDP can’t survive without Lucky Strike. And because we know more about Garner than anyone at the firm but Don, we can suspect that this particular form of bullying has a sexual component for him, even if Roger is likely unaware of that.

Roger has to wear the suit in part because Freddie wisely declines to risk temptation by doing it himself. Freddie’s “six month leave” from the firm has lasted more than two years, but we discover he’s been clean and sober for 16 months of that. Freddie left the firm humiliated, but manages to reclaim his dignity by bringing in a client who’s a member of the same “fraternity” of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve always enjoyed the writing of the character (and the low-key performance by Joel Murray). Freddie was a hellacious drunk, and he’s still an unapologetic sexist, but he’s the one at the firm who recognized Peggy’s writing talent and brought it to Don’s attention, and who likes her enough to call her “ballerina” when he returns. (This is a good episode for Peggy to be complimented by her mentors.) His skill set and sensibilities probably aren’t of great value to the forward-looking SCDP, even if his relationship to Pond’s is.

But even after Peggy privately embarrasses him for being old-fashioned, he still serves as sounding board for her problems with non-fiance Mark. It seemed last week that Peggy had chosen Mark so she could finally wear the pants in a relationship after sleeping with assertive, problematic men like Pete and Duck, but here we see she’s playing a bit of a role with Mark, pretending to be the virgin she hasn’t been since 1960. He wants to have sex (the way the Swedish people do, of course), and she doesn’t want to, in part because she’s not entirely sold on the guy. Freddie warns her that if she wants Mark to marry her, she can’t fool around with him. Peggy knows that this is more old-fashioned advice from Freddie, and she sleeps with Mark – not because she’s changed her mind about him, but because she doesn’t want to be alone on New Year’s Eve. (Again, the holidays make people do things they wouldn’t at other times of the year.) She doesn’t get an envelope of cash for it, but the post-coital expression on her face suggests she feels just as cheap for having exchanged her body for another warm body to keep next to it a while longer.

The story on the homefront doesn’t have any prostitution undertones – for which I’m grateful, because fast as Kiernan Shipka is growing, that would be… No. Just no. – but it does also deal with holiday anguish and humiliation. Sally runs into Betty’s ex-stalker Glen (creepily played, as always, by Weiner’s son Marten) at the Christmas tree lot, and we see that as Glen has gotten older, his obsessions have gotten younger. Glen is still disturbing, but he does mean well in trying to set himself up as a Sherpa guide to life in a home where a divorced mom has remarried. Sally admits that being in the house on Bullet Park Road is tough without her dad, especially at holiday time, and Glen decides to do her a solid in his own weird way by vandalizing every room in the house but her own. In the process, he makes Betty and Henry (and Bobby and Gene as collateral damage) feel, at least temporarily, as uncomfortable in that house as Sally does, and he makes Sally in turn feel like she has a guardian angel watching her back. I have an uneasy feeling about Sally’s reaction to the lanyard Glen leaves on her pillow, and the expression on her face as she looks out the window late at night, thinking of the bad boy who did a good deed for her. Don’t you?

Some other thoughts on “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”:

  • Some semi-familiar faces as guest stars in this one. In addition to the return of Darren Pettie as the odious Lee Garner Jr., we got Nora Zehetner (one of the new docs from this past season of “Grey’s Anatomy”) as Phoebe, John Aylward (Dr. Anspaugh from “ER”) as Dr. Atherton and Cara Buono as Faye Miller. Buono had a small role in the final days of “The Sopranos” as Christopher’s wife Kelli. That’s a bit noteworthy because while “Mad Men” employs a number of Weiner’s “Sopranos” colleagues behind the scenes, the show has largely avoided using “Sopranos” actors. (Though Paul “Father Phil” Schulze did play the man who taught Dick Whitman the hobo code.) I’m expecting to see more of Zehetner, Aylward and Buono as the season goes along, particularly Aylward and Buono as consumer evaluation is an idea that’s only going to gain steam as time marches on for these characters. (Plus, I’m figuring at some point Don dries out a little and takes another shot at one or both of the ladies.)
  • Of course Don is the guy who won’t take the test. What’s particularly funny is Lane Pryce’s attempt to stifle a laugh as Don walks out, because he knows Don well enough to understand exactly what’s going on here.
  • Can anyone identify the painting that Jane got for Roger’s office? I see big dots and I assume Lichtenstein, but that’s about as deep as my art education goes.
  • Always a pleasure to watch Joan in action as the world’s greatest everything, be it last-minute party planner or debauchery facilitator once Garner arrives. The woman leads one hell of a conga line. Also, does Roger’s question about the whereabouts of Dr. Greg imply that he hasn’t been sent to Vietnam yet?
  • And again speaking of both Joan and Roger, note that she does show up to the Christmas party wearing the red dress he told her he liked.
  • Peggy still has a roommate, whom Mark refers to as “Rasputin.” That doesn’t sound like a nickname you’d apply to the Carla Gallo character. Hmm…
  • I have to say, the last year of “Community” has now made me irrationally happy whenever Trudy appears on “Mad Men.” I suspect I am not alone in appreciating the awesomeness of Alison Brie.
  • Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may be a forward-thinking firm, but we’re reminded in his party conversation with Dr. Atherton that Bert Cooper himself doesn’t really enjoy what the way forward for this country looks like.
  • “That is very physically uncomfortable, you know. That’s not a joke.” Yes it is, Freddie.
  • Hamm and John Slattery have a much warmer, funnier relationship in real life than Don and Roger do, and it was amusing to see that real relationship briefly bleed into the characters as we saw the two joking about “the Fuhrer’s birthday” in reaction to the awful spectacle Lee Garner put on the night before.

Finally, you may have seen elsewhere on the Internets that Matthew Weiner has decided, in response to several pre-airing reviews of the season premiere that he felt gave away too much of the story, to not send out additional screeners of episodes this season. It’s an imposition, but screeners are a privilege, not a right, and so I’ll adapt.

The most obvious impact of this decision means that this will be the last episode of the show (at least until/unless Weiner changes his mind) where I’ll have a review posted the minute the show ends on the East Coast. I have a few years of experience at powering through to the late hours to write about “Lost” (and before that, “The Sopranos”) and while those reviews were likely not as in-depth (or, at least, as polished) as they would have been were I given more time and/or an earlier window in the day, I think I can still put together something that will suit our purposes.

That said, I won’t know until I’m in the middle of the process next week whether I’ll feel comfortable posting what I’ve written by the middle of the night, or if I’ll need at least a few hours of sleep before I can finish, polish, and publish. Just knowing my age and endurance level, I doubt I’ll be able to be up past the end of the West Coast airing, so if I haven’t got it published by then, just assume it’ll be done in the morning. (This may be a good night to be checking my Twitter feed, if you care.)

Things change, “Mad Men” continues, and we’ll get through it all together.

But back to “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” – and keeping in mind the commenting rules that include not insulting other commenters, and not discussing any spoilers (including the previews for the next episode), what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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