'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 10: 'Christmas Waltz'

A thoroughly entertaining episode gives way to lots of worry. Just like "Mad Men," there's a cost to happiness
Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Let’s try a little something different this week because that’s precisely what Mad Men delivered to us. I loved "Christmas Waltz" because it made exceptional use of both Harry and Paul and Don and Joan. And had an awesome car in it.

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What more could you want? It was like a Christmas present itself. People have been dying to get Don and Joan “together,” and they had a grand old time pretending to be married, taking the Jaguar out, spending the daylight hours drinking in a bar while having fantastic, crush-worthy dialogue without crossing the line and losing the respect they obviously have for each other. That scene in the bar should have made everybody happy – in part because it also seemed to make Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks happy to play the scene. I don’t think Don and Joan would ever work as a couple, but they really do know how to flirt and have fun while drinking the day away and talking out some of their personal problems.

Harry has been getting a lot of great scenes in Season 5 -- the Rolling Stones mix-up, his visit here with Paul. There was a ton of humor to mine as he discovered Paul was into the Krishna thing. At the same time, the entire idea was sad because life has really not panned out for Paul. Sensing that, Harry trying to help him, and the two of them sharing tender moments (after funny moments) was just one of those wonderful touches that Mad Men seems to effortlessly pull off when it wants to, almost by accident.

I think there is so much to get into about those four characters, particularly as it relates to the theme of elusive happiness that permeates Mad Men. Where the Don and Joan scenes were just a joy to behold, touching on love and marriage and happiness and knowing what you want (or at least thinking you do), the Harry and Paul scenes were filled with a sense of melancholia. Poor Paul -- he’s been a poseur for so long, but a wishful one. He so badly wants to create a life for himself that’s successful and others will notice, but he doesn’t appear to have the ability to quite get there. Ken Cosgrove has always been the better writer, others have been more hip, and when Paul has had the girl, he’s ruined it. In this instance, there’s a woman – Lakshmi -- using him for the Krishna cause. She’s superbly shrewd and even gets Harry laid (again, so much in all of those scenes to explore, including how the writing deftly used humor and drama together). But she’s also the catalyst that prompts Harry to help his old friend, who apparently has nothing, pack up and find a purpose in life (and escape being used). I kept thinking that the Mad Men writers also were getting a good laugh on the industry, because I have no doubt that as untalented as Paul appears to be in the writing department, I’d wager that he does extremely well with his hackery in Hollywood.

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OK, enough suggesting what might be excellent fodder to explore in this episode (and then not exploring it); let's get to this notion of doing something different this week. I wasn’t overly concerned about whatever thematic elements were present, as some surely were -- mostly the pursuit of love and happiness -- but instead I fixated on what I’m worried is not working. (Yes, boo all you want, especially following an episode that was so damned enjoyable to watch.)

For starters, I’m not as convinced as so many others appear to be that Don and Megan’s marriage isn’t working. In fact, I think Megan is teaching Don how to be a better man. He agreed with Joan at the bar that Megan is perfect (maybe even perfect for Don). Megan, unlike Betty, has managed to yell at Don and change his mind on occasion. And their issues are learning curves for Don. In the opening episode, Don ends up pissed at Megan because he’s the ultimate private person and having so many people in his house to celebrate his birthday (and a big one) and being the center of attention -- particularly with Megan’s embarrassing (to him) birthday song -- was just the wrong call all around. But theirs was a rushed marriage; they are still working out the quirks and scars of each other. They're still finding out about themselves as a couple. The epic Howard Johnson’s fight ultimately proved a few important points to Don. First, that Megan is an individual with her own tastes and opinions (don’t force the sherbet on her, Don). Second, blowing your fuse and cutting off the argument and driving away – that’s something you do to Betty, or you do in your earlier adult years. That’s not acceptable; show more respect or you lose me. And having her own job, finding her own way – those are Megan’s wishes. She likes working and felt important as a team member working on that account that Don seemed to dismiss as nothing. Ultimately, yes, Megan decides that she really needs to give acting a serious go or be forever haunted by what-if, so she quits advertising (at which Don believed she was a natural) to pursue a passion.

Don has been learning to deal with an independent, real woman – not Betty. And he’s also slowly understanding that when you marry someone that young, the divide will show. Don really doesn’t like the Beatles. And in this episode, he doesn’t like experimental theater, either -- particularly if it involves putting down advertising.

I think it’s fine to have spouses argue about taste. Megan didn’t think Don would love the play but also didn’t think he’d get offended. As a new couple, you learn that way. And Don learned that if you’re going to go missing all day and come home drunk, you need to place that call earlier. Otherwise – spaghetti-on-the-wall time.

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I don’t think any of these relatively minor problems that Don and Megan have faced as a married couple are any indication that Don will flee – either into the arms of another (and it shouldn’t be Joan if he does -- that would double up the mistake) or to a lonely hotel room. My worry is that Mad Men will all of a sudden paint the Draper marriage as a disaster, when it’s anything but in realistic terms. Dramatically, they have not sold this as a problem. So I’m hoping it doesn’t go there.

The other issue is Lane and his back taxes and the resulting issue of embezzling money from SCDP. We’ve had Lane’s financial woes peeking at us ever-so-briefly in a few episodes, and now it’s gone full scale. It’s not entirely believable that Lane would be this stupid, especially in the ill-advised passing off of the loan as found money. I hardly think the inherent skepticism of Don or Bert Cooper would let that pass without some kind of questioning along the lines of, “How the hell did $50,000 just turn up?” They would be more likely to blurt that out than some hurray for a Christmas miracle we’re being asked to swallow. Would Lane not ask Roger for a loan given that Roger seems to be the richest man in New York right now? Are we to assume that his stiff-upper-lip British pride is going to get in the way of his financial accountability? This stretch is a close second to, say, Ginsberg being from Mars.

So I think this storyline is suspect, unless it eventually leads to the downfall of the company, and even then -- hmmm. Maybe Lane's indiscretions will be a gigantic issue until Pete really nails Jaguar and saves the company, thus getting all the affirmation he so desperately needs. (And along those lines, isn’t it getting a little old how much of an atta-boy Pete needs? I’m not sure he’d be whining about it endlessly like this.)

And with Lane's dubious troubles comes a question of merit: Why is Lane here again? His storylines appear to be diversions, even when they're quite good. Maybe what has been missing during the past couple of seasons is a Lane-centric arc that better explains him.

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The other worries I have are that there are three episodes left with some major storylines still left to be told (and adding Lane’s embezzling increases the number). Obviously, the Betty story is the one I’d like to see finished or told with more depth (Pete’s affair, Peggy’s home life, Ginsberg’s sad childhood and awkward living arrangement and the Roger-Joan baby-Kevin story being others).

Count me among those who believe Betty is about to be the poster homemaker for the Mother’s Little Helper moment that seems bound to arise. It would certainly slim her down in a relative hurry and cause maximum damage to her marriage to Henry, the kids and how it all crushes in on Don and Megan. Until that happens -- seriously, what about Betty? Is she now just a minor character whose story gets tossed into the rush of the final three episodes. And will it, quite possibly like the others, be something that’s just left unresolved until Season 6?

So, yes, while I loved how much fun "Christmas Waltz" was (can I have that red Jag dropped off in my driveway?), amid the joy of it I started to have a number of worries about storylines – both the unbelievable ones and the unanswered ones.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine