Mad Men – “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

“Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

August 1st, 2010

“I don’t hate Christmas – I hate this Christmas.”

When Don Draper sits down to take part in a demonstration of a new form of customer research, he finds a questionnaire which asks him to describe his relationship with his father – the question, according to the Doctor heading the study, is designed to create a sense of intimacy which will then influence a more honest or meaningful answer to the following question about who makes household decisions. Of course, the test is not designed for someone like Don Draper, who has trained himself to shut down at the mere mention of his past – he walks out on the test because he cannot fathom that someone would want to return to their past in that fashion.

“Christmas Comes But Once a Year” is about what happens when people who are still running away from their past run smack dab into the present, people who are either so focused on not repeating past mistakes that other parts of their lives suffer or people who have lived so much of their lives covering up their past that they have no idea how to live in a present which no longer has the same rules. All of them are hoping that what they feel now won’t last forever: they remember happier Christmases, Christmases before their lives were thrown into a state of upheaval, and they hope that those Christmases will come again.

However, Don Draper also seems to think that it will happen without having to actually do anything.

It’s not a huge surprise that last week’s big moment for Don, revealing the story of SCDP’s rise to the Wall Street Journal, was not the beginning of a character transformation: we knew that moment was pure performance, more an appeasement of his colleagues than a real step forward into his new life at SCDP. And yet we wanted to see that he would learn something from it, that putting himself out into the spotlight would in some way change him: instead, he seems to be just as reserved as ever, sneaking out of the research meeting early and even slinking off at the Holiday party before he could get roped into taking a picture on Santa Sterling’s knee. You get the sense that, had he not left his keys at the office, he would have been perfectly content to leave that party behind, and to simply fall into bed and wake up in the morning with a hangover – this is not the predator we once knew, choosing his newest conquest and seducing her, but rather someone who tries to take what stands in front of him because he doesn’t bother not to. The wall around his past may be as solid as it’s ever been, but there now seems to be no wall between Don and his present – with no wife to anger, the sexual tension he shares with secretaries or neighbours becomes fair game, and so he seduces poor lovestruck Allison.

What I find so intriguing is that despite the fact that this isn’t adultery, I feel worse about this transgression than I did about many of his previous escapades. There is something about bringing that drama into the office which seems so much more short-sighted, self-destructive in a way that his previous affairs were not. In those cases, Don was smooth, careful to avoid his various lives crossing paths and working to compartmentalize; sure, his relationship with Rachel bled into their business dealings, and Bobbie was quasi-related to his work, but he’s kept those two parts of his life predominantly separate. In those instances, we felt like Don was ruining a marriage which was already ruined, but Allison was one of his most competent secretaries: she felt empathy for his situation, she bought gifts for his kids, and she even understands and doesn’t judge his anti-social behaviour. She was a normal girl, flirting with Joey the artist and hopeful that she could bring someone to the Christmas party (a girlfriend, it looked like), and yet Don didn’t take any of that into account. He slept with her because he wanted her, without realizing that he would be ruining their working relationship. He didn’t take advantage of her because she was his secretary (after all, he tried the exact same thing with his neighbour): he took advantage of her in spite of that fact, which, despite the act being quite familiar, seems quite unfamiliar considering his previous affairs.

Weiner isn’t coy about the episode’s central theme: it’s all about balancing what people want with what is expected of them. For Don, he realizes the next day that he has crossed a line, and to his credit he doesn’t act as coldly as he could have (even if his general disregard for emotions keeps him from actually navigating the situation properly). He can’t help, though, that his normal actions now have completely different meanings: what was once a harmless Christmas bonus becomes a potential conduit for a more meaningful greeting, his nondescript Christmas Card greeting going from a nice gesture of his appreciation to a soulless ignorance of their deeper connection. With Don still caught up in his past, both recent and distant, he has yet to understand that his present will soon become his past, and the actions he undertakes now could just as easily come back to haunt him. It’s a lesson he should have learned with his earlier affairs, but we see why he didn’t: back then, the ramifications were never so immediate, as he had lived so long hiding his affairs from Betty that there was almost no change in his daily life until she started to fight back. Now, the whole world is fighting back, and Don has yet to wake up and smell the coffee.

Don isn’t the only one: ever since the start of the second season, it has been clear that Don sees a lot of himself in Peggy, and here we see Peggy struggling in a similar way as she grapples with her sexual past while trying to take steps forward. We learn that she’s been withholding sex from Mark, and that she willfully allowed him to believe that it was because she was a virgin and not because her previous sexual relationships have made her feel used, taken advantage of (hence why the brief glimpse of her affair with Duck in the “Previously On” segment). She’s terrified of what Mark might expect from her, that giving into his desire for sex will somehow doom the relationship, and that continuing to withhold it will ruin what could potentially be a future for them and potentially leave her alone on New Year’s Eve. We don’t know enough about Mark to know whether his intentions are pure (let’s remember that happened with Joan’s Greg), but we do know that Peggy has reason to feel these anxieties. However, Peggy seems like she’s really carefully considering her next steps, tentative in a way which Don seems to have thrown out the window: she sleeps with Mark eventually, perhaps because the only thing that terrifies her more than getting used again is having no one at all, but it’s a conscious choice (perhaps because she wasn’t drunk out of her mind when she made it).

Seeing Freddy Rumsen walk into Roger’s office was one of two moments in the episode where you almost want to stand up and cheer (the other is Alison Brie’s return as Trudy, who just brings that out in me); the character left under poor terms, but he was always the kind of guy who seemed to be a decent sort outside of his drinking problem. Now, though, that seems to be under control: he’s gone through AA, and we even learn that he’s sponsoring one of his clients, and that side of his life seems to be on track. However, while he may have lived up to people’s expectations in that area of his life, expectations vary: while they wanted him to be sober, Peggy also wants him to be relevant, and his notions for various campaigns just aren’t cutting it. Like Don tells Peggy and Pete as they discuss Sugarberry, the company has been selling hams for a long time, and they won’t immediately know what to do with the sudden uptick which their stunt offered them. Similarly, Freddy Rumsen has been working in the business for a long time, and in putting so much focus on his personal life it is clear that he is not quite as progressive as he might otherwise have been; I love the way Peggy calls him old-fashioned as if is the world’s worst insult, a four-letter word in the advertising business.

This is especially true at a firm which is no longer dependent on their relationship with their clients, or at least shouldn’t be. Lee Garner Jr.’s presence at the company Christmas party (which exists solely for his benefit, as Lane had otherwise tightened the purse strings and cut it back to a quiet gathering with little to no excess) is a relic of earlier times, as the firm is forced to kowtow to his desires in order to keep him happy. It doesn’t matter what kind of work they do for Lucky Strike (which is perhaps why we haven’t seen a campaign for them in so long) – as with Sal’s unfortunate incident with Garner Jr. which resulted in his firing, here it is all about keeping the man happy through conga lines and Santa suits. Earlier in the episode, Peggy romanticized Roger’s job: he’s the one who gets to enjoy a booze-filled working lunch with the clients while she slaves away writing copy to impress them and, most importantly at the new agency, impress the world. Their advertisements are no longer simply designed to impress these individual clients, they’re designed to impress other potential clients who might see them and want to move their business to SCDP. The audience for the agency’s work has increased, and yet there are still moments where Roger Sterling is a man performing for an audience of one, the obnoxious man with the Polaroid camera and a chip on his shoulder. In those moments, there is nothing romantic about his job, which is why Roger has at times envied Don’s ability to slink away (and why he was so frustrated when Don refused to accept the responsibility of stepping into the limelight in the premiere).

The other side of the episode, of course, is young Sally Draper: while the adults are dealing with people’s expectations of them, Sally seems content to live her own life, which is something we’ve never seen to this degree in the past. While last week spoke to her conflict with her mother through Betty’s actions, this week we see Sally’s side of the story: we listen, for example, to Allison reading out her letter to Santa Claus, revealing that she has matured to the point where she is aware of Santa’s fictional nature but is maintaining the charade for Bobby and that she understands why it is that Don can’t come home for Christmas morning even thought she so desires him to. Meanwhile, her interactions with Glen (still played far too creepily by Matthew Weiner’s son) allow her to demonstrate how she (unlike her mother) wants to move away from the house – she doesn’t seem to have any anger towards Henry for replacing her father, but rather frustration with both of them for refusing to allow her to move on. There are points when Kiernan Shipka being asked to carry storylines all on her own proves a little bit trying, in that her lines read like exposition (especially during her phone conversation with Glen), but it’s worth it in the end. We see that Sally is actually dealing with the divorce fairly well, but she’s so caught up in it that she doesn’t realize just how creepy Glen’s behaviour (the burglary designed to hopefully force Betty to move out of the house) really is, and how his obsession with her is very much an extension of his previous efforts to seduce Betty – of course, we can’t really expect her to know better, as unlikely everyone else she’s only a child. While it may not be the smoothest of entries, we are now part of Sally Draper’s own little world, an important step for the year where Shipka becomes a cast regular.

When she talks to Don at the Christmas party, Faye Miller tells Don that the Glo-Coat ad was clearly about someone’s childhood – there’s no question that the ad is a reflection of what Don experienced as a child, but note that he talks about the ad in terms of its technique rather than its content. And yet, it is the technique which is changing Don Draper at this moment: his actions are the same, but the sort of compartmentalized life he once led has been removed in favour of a reckless lifestyle which will come around to bite him far faster. Just as every ad campaign is an opportunity for SCDP to sell someone new on their company, every character seems to be further under the microscope than ever before, and it’s resulting in a season which really focused on the characters even after the fairly plot-heavy transition between the two seasons. Thus far, it’s resulted in two strong episodes, so I’m hopeful that this trend continues

Cultural Observations

  • Joan is yet again in the background, but I’ve got plenty of questions: for example, when she answers Roger’s questions about Greg by suggesting that he is “saving lives,” does this mean that she is maintaining the image that he is still a surgeon? She could be referring to his new position in the Army, but I would think that Roger would have known this if it was public knowledge, so I wonder what kind of secrets the office manager is keeping.
  • Interesting to see Freddy return with more concerns about Pete: while Pete is one of the guys in some ways, Roger’s language seems to indicate that either he’s putting on in order to gain Freddy’s account or he too has reservations about Pete’s competency.
  • Lane is another character still without much work this season, but the fact that his wife left for England for Christmas before he did would tend to indicate that she continues to feel little love for the city.
  • Love the little moment where Harry, after being told that the cookies are there to indicate that they value his time, proceeds to place a high value on his time by taking three cookies.
  • Unsure whether Rumsen’s less than progressive approach to advertising and his lack of respect for Peggy’s power are new or not: she obviously remembers him fondly from Sterling Cooper, considering the hug, but she’s changed a lot since his exit, and perhaps it is just that he hasn’t. It’s also important to remember that Freddy left before Peggy took his office, so he remembers Peggy from a point where her efforts to be a copywriter were more “non-threatening” in his eyes.
  • Also on Rumsen: this is only vaguely implied, but was he taking advantage of his position as the Pond’s client’s sponsor in terms of bringing the account over to SCDP? While I know that we should be proud of him for making that leap, it still seems a little bit shady, and represents another form of mixing business with your personal life which could backfire (as it seems to when the client falls in Roger’s presence).
  • No big shocker to hear that Bert Cooper and his research friend aren’t so much down with civil rights (or, as one calls it, socialism), but it will prove interesting the further we get into the decade.


Filed under Mad Men

12 responses to “Mad Men – “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

  1. S. Tarzan

    “Joan is yet again in the background, but I’ve got plenty of questions: for example, when she answers Roger’s questions about Greg by suggesting that he is “saving lives,” does this mean that she is maintaining the image that he is still a surgeon? She could be referring to his new position in the Army, but I would think that Roger would have known this if it was public knowledge, so I wonder what kind of secrets the office manager is keeping.”

    She told Pete that Greg was going into psychiatry when he ran into her at the department store, and I assume if she told him, she’d tell anybody else in the office the same thing. And once she admitted that he was leaving surgery, I don’t see her then lying and saying he’s gone back into the field in a civilian capacity.

  2. I love Cooper’s Randian stabs at his times. It equally represents the archaic thoughts of the 1960s (racial equality being the entry point of a slippery slope, any similarity to socialism is the death of freedom) and a “some things never change” parallel to our modern times (equality for those with different sexual orientation being the new entry point for the slippery slope, hints of socialism are still death). Cooper makes me giggle with the same 20/20 historical hindsight I feel when the men are terrible to women in this series, almost in the same way that South Park or The Sarah Silverman Program make me chuckle (when I actually watch those shows): it is so wrong. But then I also get fearful for the “some things never change” part of it — the parties that Randian perspective points its guns at are different but the bullets are still the same.

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  4. Mimi

    Still haven’t been able to watch the episode, because iTunes is teh suxx0rs over this for some reason, but I must repeat a camp song that my mother taught me, in the long, long ago:

    Fell from a window
    Second story window
    Caught my eyelash on the sill, sill

    Go get an axe, there’s a fly on baby’s mustache!
    A boy’s best friend is his mother!

    I’m a liar, you’re another
    Absence makes the heart grow fonder
    Peroxide makes the hair grow blonder
    Christmas comes but once a year

    My father shot a horse – bang!

    Not sure it’s relevant, and camp songs are always hilariously nonsensical, but you can see why I kept thinking of this one!

  5. Mel

    “Love the little moment where Harry, after being told that the cookies are there to indicate that they value his time, proceeds to place a high value on his time by taking three cookies.”
    I thought that this was a reaction to her psychopath line, as harry reached for the cookies at that point and was already getting them when she said the bit about the value of their time. either way its amusing, though.

    “Seeing Freddy Rumsen walk into Roger’s office was one of two moments in the episode where you almost want to stand up and cheer (the other is Alison Brie’s return as Trudy, who just brings that out in me);”
    I didn’t stand up (I’ve been dealing with a migraine since Sunday morning, and only watched after I started feeling better) but I definitely cheered when Freddy and when Trudy debuted this season.

    I think this season is moving a LOT faster than previous seasons, and have to wonder what that means for the season arc–the first three seasons I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see if certain characters would learn what I already knew or act on things they know and all that, and this one I’m still on the edge of my seat but I find myself surprised with how much they production staff is showing already–does that mean this season is gonna be showing more than previous seasons, or something bigger? or is it just a reaction to stuff like that essay you linked to recently on twitter by the person who doesn’t like the show?

  6. skittledog

    Harry took four cookies: I counted. And was amused. He’s eaten two of them by the time he’s picking up a pencil…

    Small thing which entertained me: Britain has just (marginally) elected a Labour government (aka the closest mainstream thing to socialist) in October 1964. Is Bert Cooper actually paying attention to international politics (and if so, what is he talking about, since two months in office is hardly time to establish yourself as a danger to society), or is he making some incredibly dated and oblique reference to the dangers of National Socialism? Either way, I really enjoyed the slightly nonplussed look on Lane Pryce’s face at the bizarre non-sequitur.

    Seeing Don circle the drain of consciously turning himself into Archibald Whitman (prostitutes last week, regular drunkenness this week) is horribly hypnotic in all the best ways. I just really hope he can find a way to come back from this very public patheticness before he starts destroying all the people who will try to stand by him and pull him back.

    • S. Tarzan

      I can’t remember how it was worded exactly, but I took Cooper’s comment about Britain being used to socialism to be a reference to the post-war Labour government (1945-1951), which started the NHS, nationalized a number of major industries, overhauled the education system, and so forth.

      • skittledog

        I just checked and I was wrong – it’s not Cooper who says it, it’s his friend (Atherton?). And the exact phrase is “you’re from Britain. I’d think you’d be familiar with the perils of socialism.” Heh. Anyway… it’s possible. I shall need to consult with my mother on how that government was viewed afterwards.

        (On second consideration, maybe I won’t ask my mother: she loves this show, but bringing up its view of London advertising in the 60s – in which she worked – invariably makes her rant for a while.)

  7. Watching Don and Roger together in the corridor the “day after,” made me wonder if Don wasn’t somehow ashamed of the fact that he’s now acting like Roger used to over at Sterling Cooper.

    Roger met Jane when she was working as Don’s secretary and we recall the anger Don had at both when the affair was revealed (and he was dragged into the middle of it). I wonder if part of Don’s next day reaction was because of how he treated Roger in the months following the Jane affair…and yet now, here he is pulling the same tricks.

  8. Adam

    Not sure if this is too late or not to garner a response from anyone (am watching the series from the UK and have only just seen ‘Christmas’), but I just wanted to ask something regarding one comment in the review; the reference to the “Previously On” segment.

    For whatever reason that isn’t broadcast over here- the show starts straight off with the opening credit sequence (as on DVD) – and I was wondering how this device affects your viewing of the show; for example, watching Peggy and Mark I was reminded of her experiences with Pete, as well her adventures in playing the field with the student she met in the bar, but had overlooked her relationship with Duck, which gave me a very different interpretation of her motives. Does having these reminders of previous plotlines have an impact on the interpretation of each episode? With so many different characters and strands running at once it’s nigh on impossible to predict where an episode’s focus will lay; presumably the inevitable reveal of Joan and Greg’s current relationship will be preceded by a similar clip of their previous moments together, and I can’t help but think this would ruin something of the drama of the reveal.

    Do signposts to an episode’s developments in advance have an impact on the reaction to its content? Does it make it easier to follow what’s happening with a reminder of a character’s back-story? It would be great to hear what people think.

    And on a sycophantic note, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed these recaps; they’re both appreciated and enjoyed, even if on a delayed schedule, and long may they continue.

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