SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, apply some refreshing Ponds Cold Cream to your face and watch last night’s Mad Men.
Christmas 1964 came to Mad Men this episode, and with it, several old friends showed up. There was creepy neighbor kid Glen (Marten Weiner, son of creator Matthew Weiner), who materialized as a love interest for, or at least someone with a love interest in, Sally. There was our good friend Freddy Rumsen, booze- and urine-free, thanks to the implied help of the Friends of Bill W. There was Lee Garner Jr., more important and more obnoxious than ever. And there was Don Draper, skirt-chasing cad, whom we remember from way back, though he seemed to have lost a step in the season premiere.
“I’m sorry. No one wants to think they’re a type,” Don’s new consumer-research colleague tells him, after assuring him that he’ll be remarried in a year. (If I caught her name correctly—Faye Miller?—that was a pseudonym used by Marilyn Monroe before her death. For whatever that’s worth.) Don is visibly annoyed, but as we soon see—after an episode of catching vibes from his secretary Allison—he is indeed a type: the type of guy who gets drunk, bangs his secretary and writes the whole thing off the next day with a vague shutdown and a bonus check.
But his type, as manifest here, goes beyond that. He’s also the type, as he demonstrates in two very similar situations this episode, who wants mothering along with his sex. Thus he initially responds coldly to his neighbor Phoebe, the St. Vincent’s nurse, upon meeting her in the hallway, but—when she puts him to bed drunk and takes off his shoes—he’s suddenly aroused and makes a pass at her. When Allison brings him his keys and he finds himself in a similar situation—a woman in his apartment, ministering to him—he again makes a move, and this time finds her receptive.
Receptive, that is, in a way that would not pass the standards of a 2010 HR department—however she feels about him, he’s still her boss—and receptive after an initial hesitation, for reasons we have to infer. At first it seems she could be entirely unwilling, and this is straight-up sexual coercion, but the episode elsewhere strongly indicates her interest in him. Maybe she hesitates because he is, after all, her boss, and this can not end well. Or because she, after all, knows Don quite well, and has as good reason as anyone to see what type he falls into. Her suspicion, if that is it, is confirmed in the excruciating scene when Don sends her back to her desk with a vague, “I really overdid it,” and a $100 bonus check that—even if she knew the bonus was coming beforehand—may as well be money left on a dresser.
Her situation echoes Freddy Rumsen’s old-fogey advice to Peggy about her own do-I-don’t-I conundrum: “If you’re going to marry him, don’t do anything. He won’t respect you.” Which he follows up with an awkward, and equally paleolithic, warning about the dangers of blue balls. (“That is physically very uncomfortable. It’s not a joke.”) Whether in reaction to Freddy’s advice (“You’ve got to work less and find somebody”), or against it, or simply because it’s what she wants to do, Peggy gives up her fake virginity to her new boyfriend, with just enough seeming conflict to show the contradiction she still faces as a single woman in 1964. She has indeed come a long way, baby, from four years ago, and she’s increasingly confident in the office and in her personal life. Yet she does, as she tells Freddy, want to be married (even if his reducing all women to that desire alone offends her), and she still has to live in a world where gender relations are not that far evolved. Like anyone, she has to figure out what she wants. But she also has to figure out how to reconcile what she wants professionally, what she wants personally and what she wants physically—and to see if it’s possible to keep one desire from frustrating the others. (In that respect, her no-strings affair with Duck makes more and more retroactive sense.)
Freddy’s return was another example of how Mad Men doesn’t make things simple. We last saw him under very sympathetic, or at least pitiable, circumstances, having finally been cashiered because of his drinking. But now that he returns—with the Ponds Cold Cream account liberated from J. Walter Thompson as his Get Out of Jail Free card—he’s not particularly humbled, even if he is clean. (The not-so-subtle implication is that he bonded with his Ponds client through AA.) Sober and redeemed Freddy is, finally, as much of a jerk as any deadwood lifer working in the ad business, oblivious to the weakness of his suggestions to Peggy and easily confident in alienating the one woman who defended him at the agency after he literally pissed his job away. Give some people a little power back, the episode suggests, and they’ll gladly unlearn any lesson adversity has taught them. (More on Time.com: See a gallery of the top 10 things we miss about the Mad Men era)
Also unreformed and unevolved is Lee, whose Lucky Strikes brand is now about 69% of SCDP’s business, and therefore is entitled to be 69% more of a menacing jackass as he was before. It’s hard not to see his positively villainous return as a kind of vindication for Sal, fired last year after rejecting Lee’s sexual advances: Sal told his colleagues that Lee was a bully who didn’t deserve to be indulged. Afraid to lose his business, they indulged him anyway. And now they’re seeing what a bully he is at first hand. Roger (humiliatingly forced into a Santa suit for Lee’s amusement), Lane (forced to swallow his bile and approve a party the firm can’t afford)—they’re all his bitches now.
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. “After a while, they’ll have a baby,” he says sagely, his own mother having remarried. “You should probably ask for something big now.”
It’s sad but practical advice, as this episode sends out the holiday message that there are two kinds of people in Mad Men’s world of stocking-stuffing: those who give, and those who take.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Another passing-of-time touch: Roger Sterling’s very-1964 office with the Op Art canvas (“I feel like I’m getting sucked into that thing”) and white furniture (“I feel like, with my hair, you can’t even see me in here”).
* Good to see Alison Brie back as Trudy; I only hope that her commitment to Community does not mean all her appearances will be this brief.
* Sally’s letter to “Santa” Dad was a little work of genius, perfectly capturing the odd workings of childrens’ minds, both Sally’s and her siblings: “Baby Gene wants a fireman. I don’t know what that means.”
* Mad Men sometimes reflects on today’s politics, but not usually as head-on as in the (entirely period-appropriate) discussion of the dangers of Medicare: “They won’t stop until they ban personal property.” Is it a Christmas party or a Tea Party?
* “It’s a Polaroid!” I don’t know why, but that killed me.
* I’m assuming Don’s encounter with consumer research will become significant, maybe very significant, as the season goes on, but for now it’s just an intriguing instance of someone again getting uncomfortably too close to the truth of him. Don protests that he doesn’t see how knowing somebody’s childhood can help sell floor wax. The dead-on response: “I saw that ad. It’s all about somebody’s childhood.”
* Nice moment when Roger encounters Don the morning after the party and his humiliation by Lee; there are, in a sense, each doing their own walk of shame. Though Roger deflects it with a wisecrack—“Did you enjoy the Führer’s birthday?” in a movie-Nazi accent—he very clearly does feel under occupation.
* Finally a business note: because of Matthew Weiner’s sensitivity about spoilers, this is the last episode AMC is sending out in advance to critics. I’m trying to avoid inside baseball on the blog, but if you’re really interested, you can see this post at Cultural Learnings for my thoughts on why that won’t do much to prevent spoilers (scroll down). But it’s preferable, anyway, to AMC’s practice of sending out the season premiere and soliciting advance reviews, while asking that those reviews don’t reference the actual episode. (Which, incidentally, I’m willing to bet AMC will do next year as well—pre-season publicity is simply financially more valuable than morning-after blog reviews.) In any event, this may mean my future Mad Men Watches will be later or shorter (and shorter may be better anyway), and I probably won’t be able to blog Mad Men the two weeks in August that I’m on vacation, since I’ll be seeing it late. But I’ve reviewed plenty of series I didn’t screen in advance—six seasons of Lost, e.g.—so continue to watch this space.
More on Time.com: