Home Is Where the Flying Spaghetti Is: Some Musings on “Christmas Waltz”

by sweatermanifesto

Editor’s note: Every week, our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, offers his unique perspective on the most recent episode of Mad Men.

This year’s season of Mad Men has had more than its share of moments of hallucinatory strangeness: the fat Betty, the excursion to HoJo’s featuring a squirrelly motel manager who would have been comfortable living in Twin Peaks, the return of Glen, grown into television’s most surreal teenager, and, of course, the actual LSD trip that ended the marriage of Roger and Jane Sterling. But this week’s helping of “strange” might actually have featured the strangest moment of them all.

No, I’m not talking about Paul Kinsey’s latest pose, as a Hare Krishna looking to entice Harry into the sect in order to get him to feed a Kinsey-penned Star Trek episode to ST show runner Gene Roddenberry. The chameleon-like Kinsey, who adopts personae the way Imelda Marcos used to try on shoes, is liable to do anything that will a) shore up his terminally sagging self-esteem or b) help him bed down his latest object of affection, is the one MM character who we would most believe would end up in a bald head and robes, banging a tambourine and chanting.    That it was good to see him back, if only to be sent on his way to La La Land by his loyal and decent friend Harry Crane, is a tribute to actor Michael Gladis for making this most annoying (and underwritten) character perpetually interesting.

And, I’m not referring to Lane Pryce’s descent into white collar crime, doing a David Begelman number and forging Don’s signature on a check that will ostensibly keep him from being thrown into a British prison for tax evasion—perhaps sending him to Ryker’s Island instead. (Actually, what’s most strange about that one is that a hot-shot senior partner of an Madison Avenue advertising agency would need to resort to larceny to pay a $8,000 tax penalty—even in 1966 dollars).

No, the strangest moment of all is what did not happen between Don Draper and the formidable Joan Holloway Harris at a midtown bar in the early hours of the night, both drunk as skunks and clearly semi-smitten with each other. Yes, they seemed to think quite a bit about it.  And for the first time, we find out that Don Draper, that consummate swordsman, the man whose libido knew no bounds, was actually intimidated by the shapely redhead when he came to work at Sterling Cooper lo those many years (and sexual conquests) ago.

But while there was flirtation, they avoided hitting on each other, and the strangeness of the encounter, as well as what did not happen between them, represented a poignant moment for the episode. Not to mention that immediately afterward, we see Don in a role he’s never been in before: playing wingman to Joan, encouraging her to sidle up to a dark stranger across the bar, to take advantage of her newfound emancipation after being served with divorce papers by her gung-ho army doctor husband Greg.

Then, of course, Don leaves the bar—and Joanie—in the hands of destiny (or the guy across the bar, which is more likely), and to compensate for his unconsummated go-around with Joanie, takes his Jaguar (on loan from a very nervous salesman) for a careening whirl around Manhattan, where in real life it’s hard to figure how he would avoid slamming into a cab, a pedestrian, or both, given the snail-like pace of midtown traffic and the fact he’s three sheets to the wind.

One of the great pleasures of the show that only happens on occasion are the scenes between Don and Joan; the chemistry between the two is palpable, and they clearly like and respect each other, perhaps too much to give into a momentary impulse to swoop across a saloon dance floor and ultimately into Joanie’s cramped and baby-filled apartment. Besides, Joanie’s mom, the ultimate buzzkill, would probably be hanging around, waiting for Joan to come home from work.

As with many of the episodes this year, the work at the office is secondary to the individual dramas of the characters, driven to extremes by a variety of stimuli—boredom, frustration, fear of incarceration, lack of love and esteem, and wounded pride. It’s fitting that the advertising lodestar for this episode is the Jaguar: an automobile that’s all about extravagance, pride, ostentation, going beyond the speed limit, and seen as a magic carpet ride that would transport SCDP to the big leagues of the advertising firmament. If only they could win it, up against a cattle call of big name Madison Avenue firms also looking for their own car account.

What Jaguar does—coupled with Megan’s frustrated toss of her pasta dish against the wall of their stylish crib (lucky it was olive oil, rather than red sauce)—is revive Don’s animal spirits, reminding him of where he came from and how advertising helped him construct his made-up life. Last episode, Don began to breathe back to life the embers of his creative spark. In this episode, his competitive drive kicks into gear, as that joyride in the Jaguar and the lecture from Megan reminds him of who he is. Megan may have rejected advertising, which still stings Don, but he can’t do the same. Going to extremes for Don, in the context of “Christmas Waltz,” is a vain, perhaps quixotic, quest to upend the advertising establishment, win Jaguar, get (or stay) rich, keep the trophy wife.

So, while there are Christmas bonuses for the hired help, there are going to be long hours on the Jaguar pitch. And, have you ever seen a group of employees so psyched about working weekends over the holidays? I guess free booze for all—and mood-enhancing drugs for the creative’s—is a big enough lure. Not to mention avoiding home, which is becoming an increasingly inhospitable place for these characters.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller