Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics
August 2nd, 2010
When it comes to critical reviews of AMC’s Mad Men, each week is more about understanding the nuances of the episode than ripping it apart. And this week, with very little from January Jones’ Betty Draper (who is the series’ most divisive character) and a welcome return for a few fan favourites, the critics are largely in holiday spirits outside of their understandable frustration with the actions of one Don Draper.
It may not be quite like Christmas morning, but opening the collection of Mad Men reviews in various tabs is sort of like opening presents, so let’s take a look at what came down the chimney.
First, as always, a brief glimpse of my own impressions about the episode for some context.
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.
I thought the episode was fairly strong, and also focused much of my analysis on Don Draper’s latest indiscretion, this time with his secretary. As Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune points out, this really does feel like one of his worst offenses, even if it no longer involves adultery.
What was awful about that scene between Don and Allison is that he didn’t even know how terrible his behavior was. He had no clue that all he needed to say was, “Hey, things got pretty crazy last night. You’re amazing, really, but I don’t think we should let that happen again.” Just a couple of sincere sentences and Allison, who appeared ready to move on from the unexpected hookup, would have been fine. Everything would have gone pretty much back to normal.
I think “normal” was what Don was going for: he acts as if nothing has changed because I think that’s how he moves on from things, and he doesn’t understand that others need those moments of transition to properly return to the status quo. Mo captures the fact that Don’s actions were not a calculated effort to humiliate Allison, but rather a failure of social interaction: he doesn’t know how to let a girl down easy, and so he doesn’t know how his actions will be interpreted. He doesn’t realize how what he would normally do for Allison in that situation will become something with much deeper meaning, and it makes the entire situation that much more difficult to watch.
However, I will admit that I had not responded quite as negatively as others, like Jace Lacob, to Don’s treatment of Allison.
Allison’s smiles and warm manner indicate that she did think that this would turn into something more than just a professional relationship between boss and secretary, and yet Don seems to push her into the role of prostitute, acknowledging that he took advantage of her kindness yet paying her for her “services.” The look of shame and horror as she returns to her desk and reads the card (“Thanks for all your hard work”), before she begins typing a letter (her resignation?), are more cutting than any dialogue.
I will admit that the prostitution element of this story was not my first thought: yes, there is no question that he makes her feel like a whore, and that this is a terrible thing for a man to do, but I personally felt like Don tried. He failed, of course, his vague efforts to address their affair doing little to help Allison transition through this difficult situation, but he didn’t just leave the Christmas card on her desk and not even bother to show up (as we presume he could have). He might not have closed the door, but he still tried to talk to her, and I think Don’s failure here is more a lack of foresight (not understanding how the bonus, meant in good faith, would become a humiliation) than a lack of empathy – he knows what he is supposed to do, but he doesn’t know how to do it, and the result is that much harder to watch as a result. It’s one thing to see Don Draper make mistakes, but it’s another to see Don Draper with no idea how to handle a situation – he has had moments of weakness, but he’s never seemed this pathetic, and it’s something that affected almost all critics.
It also ties in with Peggy’s current dilemma, as she is more capable of acting on her decisions but struggles with discovering what is expected of her (which is, of course, the episode’s central theme, as explicated by Faye Miller). Nick at Monsters of TV looks further at Peggy’s position, and what she considers important in her life.
Saying that this cat is her first time means a constant string of lies. She later tells Freddy (who returns this episode to service a nice iconoclast) that she’s not sure if there’s a future with him but sleeps with him anyway despite Fred’s advice to not string him along. Clearly, her priority is not this guy but she angles for stability in the same way that Don needs it. Without the structure, she’s lost.
There have been parallels between Peggy and Don for a long time, but I think what’s interesting is how the two characters seem to negotiate ideas of power and control. In last season’s “Love Among the Ruins,” Peggy seemed to assert in her power in seducing a college boy, but then later in the year had that power taken away from her by Duck Phillips’ advances. Now, as Nick points out, it seems like Peggy is seeking stability over power, still wary of certain power dynamics and thus searching for stability by holding onto what power she has in the relationship. She’s willing to give up some power because she thinks it will help her balance things in the future: if Don is currently thinking too little about his actions, Peggy is thinking too much. Don sees his past, not his present, in Peggy, and the series continues to get good mileage out of using Peggy as insight into what Don would have gone through at a similar point in his career.
However, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, Peggy’s experience is not only about her own anxieties over power and control; she also offers a window into the kind of social pressures which remain, especially amongst those who are “old-fashioned.”
I get the sense that Peggy’s matter-of-fact pre-feminist resolve—displayed last week in the scene where she stood up to Don—was ground down by Freddie Rumsen, the onetime pants-pissing drunk who showed up at the struggling SCDP sober with “a present under my arm”—a $2 million Cold Cream account. His binary ideas for the account clearly hit a nerve: either you’re a married, “normal” woman with a husbands and kids or a lonely spinster.
The episode features a point about how the clients are no longer the sole focus of each advertising campaign, but those campaigns remain a key tool for the series. As Matt points out, Rumsen’s idea for the campaign lacks any subtlety: either you lure women in with the promise of marriage, or you lure then in with the promise that marriage will never come without it. There are no other options in his mind, and for Peggy that’s a terrifying thought. Despite the fact that her success proves you can break through such rigid expectations, I think Peggy is worried about her luck running out, of her opportunity ending before she can take advantage of it. It’s why she’s so worried about losing Mark: he could be the one as far as she knows, which isn’t very far at all. Just as Don doesn’t want to think he’s a type, and can’t imagine being married again in a year, Peggy doesn’t have any real images of her future, so to learn that parts of the world around her seem to better understand her future than she does is inherently destabilizing.
Another power play of sorts in the episode was the return of Glen Bishop, who uses some petty vandalism to try to woo Sally and deliver her from her growing discontent with life in the Francis household. Heather Havrilesky identifies this part of his persona, and rightly points out how unsettling it can be.
By messing with the Draper-Francis household but leaving Sally’s room untouched except for his gift of the twine-cutter, Glen not only shows Sally that he’s on her side, but he demonstrates an alternative to quietly tolerating the lives these careless adults dish up for them. If Daddy Don can’t be Sally’s knight in shining armor, maybe Glen can. Of course, anyone with that kind of focus can turn creepy on a dime.
I like the idea of offering an “alternative,” as Glen’s plan really is quite brilliant: as opposed to fighting with your parents, fight with their situation and force them to change their minds through indirect attacks on their current life choices. We’ve always seen in the past how it is external events, like the Kennedy assassination as an example, which destabilizes situations that might have otherwise gone in a different direction – Alan Sepinwall’s review, which I’ll get to in a bit, looks at how holidays like Christmas have the same function, even. Here, Glen creates the circumstances on his own, and Sally’s lost innocence (indicated by her letter to “Santa” going to Don) has been paired with a young man whose willingness to stir discontent could prove dangerous.
However, as James Poniewozik nicely captures, this storyline is that much more effective as a result of Glen’s history with the series – while it’s meaningful for Sally to meet someone like this, that it is Glen Bishop plays into his complicated past.
But perhaps the most enigmatic and intriguing holiday return was Glen’s. His awkwardness and discomfort with the world—as he first showed as a kid bonding with Betty—has developed into eccentricity, bitterness (he’s quick to take offense at Sally’s ignoring him) and, it seems, a dangerous instability. (Kudos to young Marten for continuing to bring the creepy, something only compounded by the knowledge of his own dad writing this role for him.) And yet, the episode hints at the end, it’s still possible that they could have an actual bond; if nothing else, he offers himself as a guide through the scary process of divorce and remarriage.
Just as Sally is older than her years in knowing that her letter to Santa Claus is going to her father, Glen has always presented as someone who aged too quickly, and in his current form we see what a child like that could grow up to become. After his mother remarried, you can sense how Glen would become neglected, and you can see in Marten’s arresting performance the scars which his past have left on him. However, you can also see how he does offer an interesting service to Sally at this point, someone who has experience and who can help her navigate a tough situation. To this point, we have only ever seen Sally in relation to her parents, but seeing her start to develop her own world and seeing that world through her eyes rather than through her parents is a big step for the series. Using Glen allows for that to tie nicely into series continuity, and I’m with James that this is the most intriguing part of the episode in terms of how it will develop in the future.
Meanwhile, the narratives of power extend to Roger Sterling and Lee Garner Jr., as Alan Sepinwall points out in his review at HitFix.
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.
Alan’s review obviously expands past this single observation, but I like the reminder that we know more about Lee Garner Jr. than most of the characters do. When they started planning the party around women, I couldn’t help but remember what got Sal fired, and the series is often at its strongest when it pits our knowledge against that of the character. The Garner story was humiliating for Roger even without our additional knowledge, but the sexual component really makes it that much more uncomfortable, and I like that the episode doesn’t draw too much attention to it: as with Glen’s history, which is never expressly brought up in the episode considering that Glen and Betty never interact, our knowledge of the show works to add extra layers to those scenes which help to emphasize their meaning within the episode (in this case, expanding the embarrassment in ways Roger couldn’t understand).
And finally, sometimes Mad Men is about smaller aesthetic moments and production decisions, and these reviews are always helpful in capturing their impact. Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly points out one such moment during the office party.
The office conga-line, led by Joan wearing the red dress “with that bow that makes you look like a present,” as Roger described it, was beautifully choreographed, especially the long-shot of the line passing behind a couple making out: It was like a lewd Norman Rockwell painting.
That entire conga line was just a beautiful piece of work: I love that Trudy was front and center (as she would be, considering her dance routine in “My Old Kentucky Home”), I love that Joan was leading it, and I agree that the long scene as they conga their way past the couple making out did make a powerful aesthetic statement. The party wasn’t outright debauchery, but the conga line captured the environment quite nicely, and made a nice counterpoint to Don’s quieter, and yet more disturbing, Christmas celebration with Allison back at his dark apartment.
Meanwhile, I don’t want to reduce Keith Phipps‘ great review down to its opening, but he looked deeper into the use of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” during the closing montage, which is something which intrigued me, and it’s a great bit of analysis.
I’m not sure who’s singing the version here—maybe country singer Molly Bee—but like most versions performed by adults, it takes on a different meaning in a grown-up voice. Listening to it requires buying into the illusion of an adult singing from a child’s perspective while still recognizing that it’s not a child singing at all. It means believing an illusion and recognizing the truth at the same time.
I don’t really have much to add – it’s a great transition to a great review, so what more can I say?
- I remembered a note from Matthew Weiner in his post-premiere interview with Alan Sepinwall about how he felt that Allison was an integral part of the SCDP staff and that he was really taken with Alexandra Allesani, the actress – little did Alan know that Weiner was saying this while planning to humiliate her. It’s still not clear if that was a letter of resignation, but either way she’s been damaged quite a great deal.
- One common thread in numerous reviews: excitement over the return of Alison Brie, whose run on Community has really endeared her to the audience (she posted on Twitter her appreciation for the outpouring of support which came through the social network).
- This is going to sound weird for those who didn’t watch the most recent series of Doctor Who, but the image of Sally staring out her window holding the small token of Glen’s appreciation gave my flashbacks to young Amelia Pond staring out her window waiting for her Raggedy Doctor. I know that’s crazy, but it’s where my mind went.
- As many of you know, critics are no longer receiving screeners from this point forward, so these posts will not likely go up as quickly (as many critics might not post their thoughts until later Monday). However, I also don’t know how much time I’m going to have in future weeks, so there’s a good chance that these posts will either become much shorter (perhaps lacking in the extended analysis) or later in the week as a way to revisit the previous episode to prepare for the next one.
- And speaking of that, Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen has made Mad Men his latest replacement for Lost, doing some weekend analysis ahead of each new episodes. It’s a really interesting perspective that you don’t often see for the show, and a welcome addition to the wealth of Mad Men writing which takes place each week.