If there’s one season that cries out to be featured on a show about an advertising agency, it’s Christmas. But the holidays haven’t always been happy times for Mad Men‘s characters. Back in Season 1, when Don made the famous “Carousel” pitch just before Thanksgiving, he returned home to an empty house. In Season 4, the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Price had to execute a last-minute Christmas party for Lee Garner, Jr. in order to keep Lucky Strike happy. Look where that got the firm.
So in a season with surprising character development and story lines that haven’t been easy on anyone, it wasn’t likely that the Christmas episode would be a merry one. And with very few exceptions (SCDP’s junior staff finally received Christmas bonuses!), it wasn’t.
The depressing action began with a late-night phone call where Lane Pryce finds out he owes roughly £3,000 (about 8 grand) to her Majesty’s government in the form of back taxes. In order to secure the cash, he starts by extending the firm’s credit line by $50,000, then telling the partners they’re flush with the money and should pay the employees bonuses. “We discover that Lane has become a very, very human character,” Jared Harris said of Pryce. When the other partners decide to forgo bonuses, but give them to the employees, Pryce resorts to forging a check with Don’s signature to retire his debts.
Prior to this act of desperation, Pryce was often the moral voice among the wolves. After all, he taught Pete Campbell a lesson for taking a client out with prostitutes and has always been the voice of fiscal restraint. Pryce has always been human. When he and Don hung out in Season 4, Pryce slept with a prostitute in Don’s apartment. But the operating efficiency of the business has always been Pryce’s sanctuary, and in lying to his partners and stealing money, he’s reached a new low.
The holidays saw the return of a long-lost friend, Paul Kinsey. One of the early copywriters at Sterling Cooper, Kinsey didn’t make the cut when Don, Roger, Bert Cooper and Pryce struck out on their own. Kinsey re-emerged this episode as a full-fledged member of the Hare Krishna movement. Kinsey was always more interested in social justice than his friends—he dated an African American woman and traveled to Mississippi to register voters during the early Civil Rights years—but a lot of his actions, from smoking a pipe to wearing an ascot to dating an African American woman, seemed to be motivated by making life more interesting to give him more writing fodder.
The new Paul Kinsey may be sticking with the Hare Krishnas because he’s in love with a woman named Lakshmi, and he thinks if he can sell one television screenplay, they can start a life together. Harry Crane, who was friends with Paul, visits him, and he and Lakshmi wind up having a desk-side affair that Lakshmi hopes will drive Harry to leave Paul alone. Harry is torn between passing his screenplay along or being honest and telling Paul that it’s terrible. But when Harry finds out that Lakshmi wants to keep Paul in the movement because he’s a good recruiter, Harry gives Paul $500 and a ticket to L.A. and encourages him to strike out on his own and follow his dreams. Like many characters, including Pryce in this episode, Harry tries to finds a middle ground between honesty and deceit.
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He’s back: After Megan left the firm and Don developed a twinge of jealousy after seeing Ginsberg’s portfolio, we’ve been waiting to see the Don Draper of old. There have been glimpses—when he takes Joan out for drinks after she’s served with divorce papers, the old lady-killer don seems to be out in force. It may be part of the new, faithful Don, but he never crossed the line with Joan. Instead, back at the office, we’re treated to a speech from a fired-up Don about how they’re going to work round the clock over the holidays and land Jaguar. If SCDP can snag the car company, it’ll be a huge turning point. Either way, it’ll be fun watching them try.
Not exactly a foregone conclusion: For all of the specific nuances about the costumes and set design that give Mad Men that period feel, the writers should get more credit for tiny details as well. When Paul gives Harry his spec screenplay for Star Trek, Harry’s first reaction is, “If it’s on next season.” He lists the shows that Star Trek is up against and says he’s not sure it’ll be renewed. Paul is confident that it will be. Looking back now, on the far side of five different Star Trek spin-off series and 11 feature films, it’s hard to imagine that at Christmas time 1966, the show that was boldly going where no man had gone before wasn’t going to be around for a long, long time. Yet somehow, the writers make us believe just that.
Domestic drama: Despite his newfound creative hunger, all is not exactly well on the Draper domestic front. After being dragged to a lackluster play and insulting Megan’s dream gigs, Don’s day of playing hooky with Joan, causes Megan to have a bit of a tantrum. She’s been a true star this season, but somehow her hurling a plate against the wall and lecturing Don about communication seemed a little forced. I was half expecting another passive-aggressive sex scene, but all we got was an awkward plate of spaghetti. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next time.