Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 10–Christmas Waltz

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 10 YET.

“People buy things because it makes them feel happier.”

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It’s December 1966 for the guys and girls at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and with Christmas around the corner, what better time for a meditation on all things materialistic and consumerist? For the cash-strapped Lane Pryce and newly single Joan Harris, it’s a meditation about money, but for the not-seen-for-ages Paul Kinsey it’s a literal meditation – he’s joined the Hare Krishnas.

With so many episodes recently having centred around Don and Megan, Peggy and Ginsberg, and Pete and Roger, it was a nice change to have the focus changed to other characters, some of whom have seemed rather neglected of late. Lane and Joan in particular, after having been quite prominent early in the season, have been rather pushed to the background in recent weeks.

Lane, who seems to have brought English reserve to a new level in not acknowledging his depressing life, is finally having the financial meltdown hinted at early in the season. With Europe in 2012 undergoing a similar meltdown, it’s tempting to see Lane’s predicament as a timely comment on current events, though with the caveat that the script must have been written quite some time ago.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a fellow Englishman, but I like Lane, and found his desperate efforts to avoid personal ruin while hiding his money worries even from his own wife simultaneously comic and uncomfortable. We already knew that he’s having problems paying for private school for his son Nigel (a name that telegraphs Englishness for American screenwriters but is far less common here than they think). Now it seems that Her Majesty’s tax office is rather keen to get its hands on the $8000 of back taxes Lane owes. Like, right this minute.

So Lane finally blew his English cool at his wife (“Get back to bed right this minute!”), then proceeded to spend the rest of the episode desperately trying to get the firm in which he’s a partner to pay his tax bill. Plan A was to borrow $50,000 on the firm’s account, then tell the partners that the firm was ‘unexpectedly’ better off than they’d thought to the tune of that amount. Thus, everyone could get an immediate Christmas bonus, Lane’s own being the amount he needed.

That’s some dubious stuff right there, but that plan stalled (like economic growth under David Cameron) when Don, Roger, Pete and Bert weren’t that bothered about getting a bonus so soon. So, it was off to Plan B – forge Don’s signature on a company check. OK, you could see that as an ‘advance’ on Lane’s bonus, but I think it’s basically embezzlement.

And the whole plan was totally torpedoed when Mohawk Airlines temporarily withdraw their business, and all the other partners ‘heroically’ decide to forego their bonuses so the rest of the staff could have some. Lane’s obviously going to be in big trouble quite soon, when he has to explain that he did get a bonus, on a check Don didn’t really sign, from a $50,000 windfall the company didn’t really have. Lane might be in the advantageous position of Chief Finance Officer, but he’s going to be lucky to get away with all that.

Jared Harris was, as ever, excellent as Lane throughout. I particularly enjoyed his sly method of persuading his wife that they didn’t need that Christmas trip to England that he couldn’t afford, and his increasingly badly repressed desperation as his plans went awry and he was reduced to actual thievery from his own company.

Still, with the renewed possibility of business from Jaguar cars, Lane might – just – be able to balance the books before he’s caught. It actually took me a few seconds to figure out what new client Pete was so joyful about, due to the American insistence on pronouncing the name “Jag-wah”, rather than the British “Jag-you-er”. Still, as a classic car enthusiast, their inclusion meant I was blessed with a visit to a New York Jaguar showroom boasting the latest 1966 models.

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With Pete having foregone the chance to drive a Mark 2 (just as well considering his inability to drive even an auto transmission American car), it was up to Don and Joan, masquerading as a married couple, to take a test drive. After having spent the last few weeks as an agony aunt for everyone else in the office, it was clearly Joan’s turn to have a horrid time. That’s what happens to any character in this show when the scriptwriter decides to focus on them – it’s never good news.

For Joan, the bad news came in the form of being served divorce papers on behalf of her nasty estranged husband. I thought that was what she wanted anyway, but no, she went ballistic at the (admittedly incompetent) receptionist who allowed her husband’s lawyer into the office, chucking the model Mohawk plane at her. After Lane’s outburst earlier, this was a chance for another normally collected character to explode. Lucky for her, it was Don who was there to pick up the pieces, and off they went to the Jag showroom where the desperately unhappy Joan, quite sensibly, espoused the ‘family car’ Mark 2 in favour of the gorgeous XKE (“also known as the E-Type”, the salesman explained, accurately).

Sadly, we didn’t get to see the XKE cruising the streets of 1966 Manhattan (perhaps its real owner wouldn’t allow that). But it did take Don and Joan to a nearby bar, and one of those trademark Mad Men character revealing discussions. Turns out Joan’s furious at the divorce papers because it’s Greg divorcing her, not the other way round – as though the breakup of the marriage was somehow her fault. This led to an interesting discussion on the merits (or otherwise) of marriage, and Joan’s dating chances as a newly divorced single mother.

Along the way, the theme of materialism, so crucial to the show, was touched on in a big way. Don’s not impressed with the XKE, and Joan thinks it’s because he’s happy (has she been watching the same show I have?). The implication is clear – as Don says, “people buy things because it makes them feel better”. Because in the world as Mad Men sees it, there’s always enough unhappiness to keep consumerism chugging along.

Some people, though, choose to fill the void another way – with religion. A large part of the show was devoted to a slightly less weighty subplot in which Harry Crane had to deal with the return of Paul Kinsey, left behind when the original Sterling Cooper was taken over by McCann Erickson. Kinsey’s been drifting ever downward since, and having hit rock bottom is the perfect target for hip new religion/cult, the Hare Krishnas.

Harry’s usually very much a background character in the show, and it was nice to see him get his own little subplot. The scene of him caught up in a Krishna chantalong was hilarious – and historically interesting, as presumably the ‘Swami’ in charge was the cult’s original founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. But this subplot had its serious side too, once you got over the hilarity of the perma-smiling Kinsey done up in Krishna robes.

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Paul’s at rock bottom, and he needs Harry to try and sell a spec script he’s written for Star Trek. Only trouble is, the script, cringingly entitled ‘The Negron Complex’ (“the twist is that the Negrons are white”) is terrible. How can Harry tell his erstwhile friend that his dreams of TV writing are never going to come true? And on top of that, Kinsey’s prospective Krishna girlfriend, the manipulative Lakshmi, then goes and has sex with Harry in his office, to try and ensure that Kinsey’s dream of a return to commercialism will never come true. What’s an embarrassed married ad exec meant to do, refuse?

In the end, Harry came up with the face-saving tactic of telling Paul that “a reader” had loved his script, but they couldn’t take it on. And then giving him $500 to hotfoot it off to LA and live his screenwriting dream. It’s hard to tell whether this was a selfless gesture on Harry’s part to get Paul out of the Krishnas’ (and Lakshmi’s) clutches, or whether it was just a payoff to make sure that the increasingly embarrassing Paul never bothered him again. This being Mad Men, I’d tend toward the latter theory.

So quite a low key episode this week, that nonetheless had things to say, and gave some welcome plot advancement to some characters who’ve been sadly neglected of late. Clearly Joan’s beginning to go through the same kind of existential crisis that Don permanently lives in, and Lane’s more concrete problems seem set to come back and bite him some time soon. With only three more episodes left to savour this season, I’m wondering which of these aspects is going to ramp up in time for the season finale. OK, Mad Men is more restrained than, say, Game of Thrones, but even Mad Men usually ups the dramatic ante for the end of the season. I can’t help wondering whether Lane’s short sighted desperation is about to lead to a crisis for the whole of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Finally, this week’s Hideous Checked Sport Coat count: zero. But Roger more than made up for it with this tasteful shirt:

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