Monday, August 2, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 2: Christmas Comes but Once a Year

"In a nutshell? It all comes down to 'What I Want' versus 'What's Expected of Me.'" - Dr. Faye Miller

It's Christmas at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and two episodes into this season, Santa has brought us a few subplots starting to bloom in interesting ways. I know times are tough, so let's just tighten our belts and jump right in!

This week saw the return of a couple of old, familiar faces. No, we haven't yet discovered the whereabouts of the absent-though-credited Ken Cosgrove or the seemingly-departed Paul Kinsey and Sal Romano. Instead, a newly-sober Freddy Rumsen has arrived with some freelance work: a client poached from his former employer thanks to their shared ties to AA. Of course, Roger blows the poor client's recovery over a fancy lunch, once again hinting that Roger is drinking more (and earlier) than we're used to seeing. It was also very telling to see Freddy's scenes with the new, more self-assured Peggy. It was Freddy who noticed Peggy's creative side back in Season One, but now her skills have surpassed his, and she's forced to call him "old-fashioned." She later apologizes, but largely out of kindness and fear that she'll knock him off the wagon; her behavior still indicates that his ideas and advice are of no use to her.

Meanwhile, Sally Draper encounters oddball Glen Bishop working at a Christmas tree farm. Young Glen once again acts both creepy and wise beyond his years as he advises Sally about the ins and outs of post-divorce life. They speak more about it over the phone, where Sally admits hating that she has to stay in her old house because "every time I go around a corner I keep thinking I'll see my dad." Later, Glen and a pal break into the "Francis residence" and create a holy mess throughout the house, though the only thing out of place in Sally's room is the gimp boondoggle Glen leaves on her bed. Glen's actions are ambiguous: has he really transferred his obsession with Betty to her daughter, or is he acting out to punish Betty for not choosing him after her divorce? Is he truly trying to help Sally get her much-desired move by trashing the house? I'm not sure even he knows, though he's already tried to fill Don's shoes once for Betty. Perhaps now he'll do the same for Sally.

Leaving aside the returning characters, we're also continuing to see changes in our regular cast. Don continues to slide into depression. He drinks too much, or simply can't hold his liquor any longer because he barely eats (mentioned in both episodes this season). Even his seductive charms are somewhat lessened. Last week, he couldn't close the deal with Jane Sterling's friend; this week, both his flirty neighbor Phoebe the nurse (played by Nora Zehetner from Heroes and Rian Johnson's excellent teen noir Brick) and the visiting "Consumer Response" psychologist Dr. Faye Miller turn him down. When he finally finds someone ready to succumb to his drunken advances, it's his dutiful secretary Allison, leading to some severely awkward times at work. The cash bonus/pay-off he gives her the next day is a little too on-the-nose, though Alexa Alemanni plays her shell-shocked reaction quite well.

Meanwhile, we also learn a little bit more about Peggy and her new relationship. Peggy has been playing the coy virgin (ha!) in order to avoid having a sexual relationship with her forthright new boyfriend Mark. Perhaps her dalliances with Pete and Duck have given sex a bad name in her eyes, though it's more likely she's pulling a Don Draper and inventing a new life for herself, one that lets her avoid talking about her out-of-wedlock, abandoned child. I also think she's having a hard time figuring out whether or not she really likes Mark; the pained thousand-yard stare she wears after finally sleeping with him seems to say she probably doesn't.

And finally, we have to talk a bit about the office Christmas Party. Lane Pryce, as the much-needed voice of fiscal restraint, had nearly scrapped the party altogether, though a random phone call from the loathsome Lee Garner Jr. -- whose Lucky Strike account is responsible for most of the firm's money -- leads to a last-minute splurge. Garner is fully aware of how badly SCDP needs him; the way he antagonizes everyone and bosses them around, you'd think he'd just been given an Ad Agency Play Set for Christmas. He seems to particular enjoy humiliating Roger: he forces Roger to wear a Santa suit, inappropriately grabs Jane, and even makes the whole office line up to sit on Roger's lap. Roger largely takes it like a pro, but I'm not sure even he can stand much more. Heck, I nearly punched Garner when he told a costumed, sack-toting Roger "Don't want ya to have a third heart attack!"

The quote I used leading off this reviewcap seems to be the most important theme this episode. This week, the usual disconnect between appearances and reality is seen through the lens of the conflict between What We Want and What Is Expected Of Us. Freddy and Peggy spar about this: he expects Peggy to be looking for marriage, but Peggy is more cautious and isn't ready to settle. When Peggy finally sleeps with Mark, it seems she did it more because she was expected to than because she wanted to do it. Similarly, the firm sexes up their Christmas Party because Lee Garner would expect it to be that way, even though the office is barely treading water (it's "Potemkinville," as Roger says to Freddy).

And nowhere is this conflict more apparent than with our poor, sad Don. There was a heartbreaking scene at the Christmas party, when Roger, Harry, Pete, and even Peggy are coupled off around the sad, single Don. Don knows that people expect a certain lifestyle out of him; Dr. Miller says he'll "be married again in a year," before apologetically saying "I always forget; nobody wants to think they're a type." But with these expectations, it seems Don is really not sure WHAT he wants. Does he sleep with Allison because he's expected to (even though he'd always avoided dipping his pen in the company ink, so to speak), or because he's depressed, lonely, and drunk enough to take comfort from her doting concern? Has Don finally succumbed to the expectations and become like Roger? Or is he punishing himself as he was last week with his rough-playing prostitute?

As for Allison, she also seems unable to balance expectations and desires. It's clear she'd probably fantasized about Don prior to their affair, but through the episode there were so many hints that she and Joey from the Art Dept. were entangled. Where does this affair leave her? Can she meet Don's expectations and pretend nothing happened?

Anyway, the episode's final scene seems to show Don doing one thing he both WANTS and is EXPECTED to do: leaving work carrying a stack of presents for his kids. It's sort of an uncertain note on which to leave an episode full of development but short on resolution, but there you have it. This is a standard, building-block episode, and I guess we'll have to wait a few weeks before we can see the structure it is helping to shape.

Random Thoughts

  • That cute scene between Roger and Joan seemingly answered our questions about their relationship. Roger would certainly see her again -- I suspect he and Jane's relationship is being held together by Roger's drinking and willingness to indulge her whims -- but Joan is, for the moment, staying true to her husband. Her rejections are firm, but friendly. "You're off limits," he says, regarding Lee Garner. "I don't think he's the one who needs to be reminded," she replies with a smile.
  • Some good quotes from Freddy and Roger about the latter's overly-white, Jane-decorated office:
    • "Jeez, looks like an Italian hospital in here!" - Freddy
    • "Feel like, with my hair, you can't even see me in here!" - Roger
  • Lots of great little character moments in this episode, as well:
    •  I love the shot of Harry taking far too many cookies in the Motivational Research Group meeting (after being jokingly told it'd mean he was a psychopath if he didn't take one). 
    • And did you catch the look Pete shot at Mark when he and Peggy arrived at the party? Ooh, ol' Petey-boy's still not over that whole mess!
    • I also quite liked seeing all of the wives again, but mainly because Allison Brie's goofy Trudy Campbell is always a welcome presence. So bubbly!
  • Interesting that Deborah Lacey (Draper/Francis housekeeper/nanny Carla) gets her first (I believe) Guest Starring credit for her one scene this week. Still, it's about time.
  • Changing Times Alert: Did anyone notice the poster for Helvetica in the SCDP Art Office? Modernism is starting to permeate both the office's interior design AND graphic design.
  • Changing Times Alert #2: How funny was that little scene with Bert Cooper and Dr. Atherton (played by John Aylward, aka Dr. Anspaugh from ER)? Their discussion of Medicare and the Civil Rights movement as the death of individuality plays as a nice bit of commentary on today's socialism scares and Tea Party nonsense.
  • Finally, I was glad there was at least ONE old-school Don Draper moment: When he realizes Dr. Miller isn't interested in sleeping with him, he cracks "I'm disappointed! I thought you came in to flirt, but you came in to fight!"
Next Week: Looks like we're in for a busy New Year's; I'll be back then to see how things develop!


  1. On Alison Brie and Rich Sommer - I don't think it's a coincidence that the two actors on the show who consistently impress me with their sly humor are also highly entertaining Twitter users. :)

  2. Hmm. I don't follow either of them. Looks like I may have to start!