This will be my 10th Mad Men episode recap and so maybe I’m getting a little bit restless. Matthew Weiner’s creation is certainly one of the best television shows of my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s above reproach, and I do have a little bit of what I feel is legitimate criticism this time around.
“Christmas Waltz”, as you might guess by the title, thrusts us into the holiday season even though its mid-May for us millennials. It also thrusts back into frame a few characters who have, for the most part, been hovering in the background for the last few episodes.
Before I get to the criticism, I just have to say that I love the fact that Harry Crane and Lane Pryce can so easily go from completely and totally tertiary characters to central figures on an episode-by-episode basis. This is the strength of Mad Men. There is no one character whose development must be moved forward every week, no single story arc that begs your attention.
On to the breakdown.
1. Have Things Gotten Too 1960s?
This is my big question, and it’s more of a cumulative one than something that particularly stuck out about this episode. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Paul Kinsey, who came back into the frame after a lengthy absence as none other than a Hare Krishna who will not stop pestering Harry until he comes to a meeting. If it sounds like Harry is an alcoholic, well, not quite. He’s still more of a vampire, like the rest of the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Anyway, I want to focus on Kinsey, who after all these years has joined one of the most infamous Eastern-inspired countercultural movements of the 1960s in the Hare Krishna. He has the robes and the bald head, save awkwardly placed Steven Seagal ponytail. He has everything he needs except the moral conviction to be truly committed to the cause, but he sticks with them because he is infatuated with Lakshmi and because Lakshmi and the leadership believe he is their best recruiter; “Boy, can he close,” Lakshmi tells Harry later during an illicit encounter.
I didn’t have a problem with this storyline in its own silo. Indeed, I found it quite entertaining. Kinsey has always been one of my favorite secondary characters and the Hare Krishna are ripe for lampooning. Weiner and company wasted no time mocking their recruitment techniques and faux enlightenment — something guaranteed to please a non-believer (of everything) like myself.
That said, I can’t help but wonder if Mad Men has gotten a little too cartoonish in its depiction of the mid-1960s. Yes, I understand that the Mad Men universe has moved on — that we’re in a different era now. And yes, I understand that the Hare Krishna were very real and very popular in the 1960s.
But come on.
Over the last half season, we’ve been treated to a Hare Krishna who writes Star Trek fan fiction, an LSD trip and a prominently featured brush with The Beatles and their Eastern/LSD-inspired classic “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Is this a TV show, or a History of the 1960s course? Again, I haven’t had any problem with any of these individual storylines, and maybe that’s all that needs to be said, but in sum it feels a little too close to a bad NBC miniseries for my comfort. Part of the elegance of Mad Men is that for all the pastel colors and skinny ties you can almost forget what era it’s set in because the themes and characters are so universal. I hope we’re not watching that slip away just because we’re a few years into the future.
2. So There’s Lane Pryce
Last week, I idly wondered what SCDP’s resident Brit had been up to since KOing Pete Campbell. Right on cue (because when I speak, Matthew Weiner jumps), we found out in “Christmas Waltz”. Lane, it turns out, is hiding from the taxman — the British taxman that is. Though his lawyer in the United Kingdom seems to have extricated him from any serious legal problems, Lane is still facing a heavy bill in back taxes, which, overextended as he is, he can’t afford.
Lane solves the problem by lying to, oh, just about everyone. He says he can’t return to London for Christmas, using the resuscitated Jaguar talks as his justification when in reality he’s sticking around to scrape together some extra cash. He adds $50,000 to SCDP’s line of credit under the guise of handing out Christmas bonuses, then when the money doesn’t move fast enough (because Don insists on waiting to hand out the bonuses), Lane actually takes the seemingly unfathomable step of forging Don’s signature on his “bonus.” To top it all off, Mohawk Airlines throws a wrench in the finances by suspending its ad campaign due to a strike, prompting all of the partners to agree to forgo their portion of the bonus money. The die is cast by this point, leaving Lane I’m not really sure where.
Just a few paragraphs ago, I opined that I thought the show had drifted ever so slightly away from its timeless qualities. Well, here was a storyline that felt like it was from another time altogether. Given the last four years in the real world (not the Mad Men world), it’s almost amazing that Weiner and company have avoided corporate malfeasance and “creative accounting” for this long.
3. The Don-Joan Relationship Is Pretty Great, Too
I’ve called the Don-Peggy relationship the spine of the show in the past, but it’s easy to forget that Don and Joan share a similarly terrific and similarly Platonic relationship between them. There’s no question that the best scene in “Christmas Waltz” was Don consoling Joan in a Manhattan watering hole after she receives divorce papers at the office and erupts.
The best thing about it? I don’t think Don had to lie even a little bit, not that he even really could to Joan. He admitted he was intimidated by Joan back when they first met (who wouldn’t be?), and encouraged her to go through with the divorce. I couldn’t help but think of comedian Louis CK’s bit about how divorce is always a good thing and nod my head in approval.