This week brings a ‘Mad Men’ episode set during Christmastime. Now, this makes sense because last week we were treated to a Thanksgiving episode. But I also feel like a deliberate calculation on the part of Matthew Weiner and the rest of the crackpot geniuses on the writing and production staff. They want us to feel misplaced like the characters are feeling misplaced, disjointed and out-of-place. There’s a new office, Betty’s in a new family situation, and Don is trying on a number of visages. I know that the creators probably don’t care when a show is watched anymore – especially in an era of TiVo, iTunes and everything else – but it really does add a lot to the Christmas episode, seeing it in August.
‘Christmas Comes But Once a Year’ opens, more or less, with Don getting a Christmas list from his daughter. His secretary (what’s her name anyway?) is expected to take care of things. Don empties his wallet and set his girl to do the task. This perfectly captures the sort of helplessness of Don’s situation with his cutthroat, proactive self. Last week, we saw Don reinvent himself over the course of the episode; he went from stiff businessman to slick salesman. When the different Dons clash, we see things flare up and get interesting.
The new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, tries to tighten its built by turning its formerly lavish Christmas gala into a simple affair. Until, of course, the firm’s biggest client invites himself to the office party. So, what’s a struggling agency to do? Spend more money, of course! Roger sends his former flame and current office queen bee Joan to busy herself preparing for the night, while he takes big gulps of Maalox in his streamlined, futuristic-by-way-of-mid-’60s office. (By the way, can we compare and contrast the mindsets and living spaces of Roger and Don? Roger is looking towards tomorrow while everything associated with Don, including his fuddy duddy apartment, seems to belong to a bygone era.)
In an interesting return, Freddy – the adman who wet his pants before a big presentation and was duly dismissed – makes a comeback, with a big client on the line. He clashes with Peggy over his obnoxious views on marriage, which in turn makes Peggy question her prolonged engagement to some nerdy dude (who we see more of this week than last). Freddy joins AA, and throughout the episode we see him dealing with the hard-drinking atmosphere of the agency. In the best example of this, Freddy refuses a drink. Don reacts like Freddy had just told him that he’d gotten off a spaceship from Venus.
It’s those little, human interactions that make this week’s episode so special. They’re a big part of what makes ‘Mad Men’ such a treat in the first place.
Other moments like that include the research scientist lady, who corners Don at the Christmas party and asks why he didn’t fill out his personal evaluation sheet. (Hello, lady! It’s because he has a mysterious past!) Another great moment happens the day after Don manhandles his secretary, and coerces her to have sex with him in his shitty apartment. (She’s there to bring him keys he had drunkenly left behind at the party). The encounter the day after is sweet and weird. She was clearly more into it than he was. He gives her a small bonus, even though the company itself isn’t handing anything out. She opens the envelope, with its dry Christmas sentiment, and has to choke back tears. Two fifty dollar bills fall out.
Where this episode will place in the grand scheme of things in Season Three remains to be seen. It’s interesting to note that the episode is a roughly one month jump from the season premiere last week. I wonder if we’ll see this kind of accelerated chronology for the rest of the season. Previous seasons have skipped ahead like this, but it seems more important to stay grounded and day-to-day as we watch the new agency take off. Last week we saw some jaunty, swinging humor. This week? Not so much. I’m encouraged by Don’s adorable neighbor, though. She seems like she could be a breath of fresh air. Next week promises to be a Joan-centric episode, which is never a bad thing.