"Christmas Waltz" was not one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men. It felt fairly "sketchy" compared to the rest of the episodes this season. I have read some reviews that said it, like "Dark Shadows" last week, felt like a throwback to earlier seasons. I'm not sure that I agree with that statement-every Mad Men episode that isn't highly conceptual, thematically diverse and airtight, or emotionally devastating can't be called "a throwback".
No, "Christmas Waltz" felt very much a part of Season 5 in tone. From the continued desperation and ominous overtones of Lane's storyline this season to the reemergence of Paul Kinsey as part of the Hare Krishna cult, this episode definitely felt right at home among the rest of this season's episodes. What "Christmas Waltz" did more than anything was continue a mid-late season Mad Men tradition of using the eighth and ninth episodes of each season to more or less tread water and position the momentum of the season for the final push through the final three episodes. Last season we had "The Beautiful Girls" and "Hands and Knees", which ended with Lee Garner Jr. telling Roger that Lucky Strike was leaving SCDP, before we went full tilt into "Chinese Wall", "Blowing Smoke" and "Tomorrowland." This season, we have had "Dark Shadows" and "Christmas Waltz", which ended with Don's triumphant speech about embracing work for the Jaguar campaign and should prove to be the momentum at the heart of Season 5's final three episodes.
What Mad Men has proven to be excellent at is bringing back old characters and showing how much New York, and especially the tumult of the 1960's, can eat a person alive. Last season in "Blowing Smoke", we were given a glimpse into the life of Don's first (to our knowledge) mistress, Midge, and it was a look into the life of a struggling artist who became a heroin addict. In "Christmas Waltz", the always-pompous Paul Kinsey returned to our lives. After being left behind by Don in "Shut the Door, Have a Seat", Paul floundered in the ad game and eventually chose to join the Hare Krishna. Paul's earlier exploits like purposefully dating a black woman to seem progressive, led me to believe that he wasn't truly invested in the Hare Krishna cult; and sure enough, I was right. Paul only remains with the Hare Krishna because he is in love with former prostitute and drug addict, Mother Lakshmi. He reaches out to Harry Krane with his Star Trek script in an attempt to gain some modicum of success or connection back to the creative world.
Both Paul and Harry have always been two of the more "likeable" unlikable characters on Mad Men. Harry's lack of self-awareness makes him hard to truly hate and Kinsey was always so neurotic and insecure that you couldn't help feel bad for him whenever he acted like a snob-his comeuppance was always close at hand. So, to have Harry put in a position where he has to try and help Kinsey get away from the Hare Krishna and the not-so-ex-whorish Mother Lakshmi, was a fascinating bit of character development. Harry tells Paul his terrible script is good and gives him money to move out to Los Angeles. Harry's character will never truly develop but this was a chance to see him in a different light; to see him genuinely care about the well being of an ex-coworker and friend who has fallen on hard times. If you work with someone long enough, you develop a certain investment in their well-being even if you hardly see them anymore. However, despite the touching aspects of Kinsey and Harry's subplot and how their lives have diverged, you have to cherish a moment like the one at the diner where an oblivious Harry tells Kinsey that he had a vision and Paul slightly grimaces with jealousy. Kinsey and Harry will never change as people.
The reason why this episode has scored points with people is the Don and Joan scene that sent everyone's minds racing. I'm most certainly in the minority when I say that I have no secret wish to see Don and Joan get together or even hook up. You may say that I am lying or just saying I have no interest just to be different, but it's true. The on-screen chemistry between Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks is fantastic, but I think the way the show played their scene last night and how they have always played their dynamic is the most true portrayal of Don and Joan's relationship. Sometimes there are people in this world that you have chemistry with, that you share history with; they are attractive and you are attractive, but the timing just isn't right. And it isn't heartbreaking or sad-it simply is what it is and everyone can go home relatively happy. That's kind of dynamic is what Joan and Don have had throughout the series whenever they share an intimate scene, no matter how short. It's not a character dynamic that is often displayed, but it is real and true and more vital than any viewer's dream "hook up" scenario. I'm not trying to take away the fun; I'm just saying what I believe and what I have seen in life.
And Don continues to be lost. When he leaves Joan at the bar, he pulls the brim of his hat down and looks like the Don Draper we all fell in love with and wanted to be like (you know, ostensibly: handsome, confident, mysterious, etc.). Yet, he has that narrow-eyed, focused, but unfocused look on his face as he speeds the Jaguar through the city. We've seen that look before as early as Season 1's "The Marriage of Figaro" where Don drives off to the train tracks during Sally's birthday party, and we have seen it perhaps most classically in "Seven Twenty Three" when Don picks up the hitchhikers. But when Don arrives home, Megan now greets him, which is very different than being greeted by Betty. After throwing a very Betty-like tantrum at first, Megan makes Don sit at the table and eat with her.
Many people have pointed out that the dinner scene is Megan is letting Don push her into a "Betty" role. I saw the scene differently. With Betty, Don would have let her yell at him and get mad and just storm right off again or ask her the classic, "What do you want?" With Megan, it's different. She tells him to sit and eat with her-she is almost acting like his mother. All of sudden, the dashing, ambivalent Don Draper facade is gone and replaced by a very boyish and very Dick Whitman looking countenance, one that was maybe last seen in "The Gypsy and the Hobo" when Betty forced Don to sit down and explain the contents of his secret drawer. Megan won't let Don be careless to her and she won't let him get his way and make her feel small when she expresses her feelings of anger and disappointment. She won't let him just "run away" again. And for that moment, it seemed to work and, to me, it was one of the more gripping moments so far this season.
However, at the end of the episode, Don steps up and gives his speech about Jaguar; about working over weekends and through the holidays and swimming the English Channel and drowning in champagne. It certainly seems like Don has found a way to invest himself in work again after several false starts this season. But it certainly feels like his return to full engagement at the office will come at Megan's cost. Especially after she made a stand like she did at their dinner table.
There are only three episodes left in Season 5. All the traditional treading and positioning is over. Now is when the real fun begins.