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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

a few thoughts on ‘Mad Men’: “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

Christmastime! It makes me feel a little better sitting in the sticky New York summer. But, boy, it’s not really a fun time for the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang, is it?

First: Don. To say that he has daddy issues is an understatement, and here they come again, when he can’t even bring himself to participate in the marketing research practice Dr. Miller is introducing to SCDP because the first question is a tricksy one designed to elicit an emotional reaction — any emotional reaction — by asking about the respondent’s father. He can’t even think about thinking about his past. Does he even consider, I wonder, what his own kids are going to think about him someday? He was never the world’s greatest dad, but things are much worse now. The coda to Sally’s letter to “Santa” was heartbreaking; wishing Don could be there on Christmas morning is plaintive enough, but then it seems grown up way beyond her years for her to acknowledge that she already knows that he won’t be there.
And it looks like Sally’s issues with her parents are playing out in her developing strange attractions to boys, ones that might even be dangerous down the road. Creepy Glenn from down the street, the kid with the divorced mother, the kid who had once tried to “seduce” Betty in a weird little-boy way, has turned his sights on Sally. I figured he was gonna be trouble from the moment he showed off his knife in the first scene, but I never could have predicted his break-in and trashing of Sally’s house. Which he did because he likes Sally, and she was expressing a desire to move, and now this vandalism may well push Betty to finally go in search of a new place to live. If this is what Glenn does when he likes you, what will he do if he doesn’t? I predict a sad scary future for Sally…

Don, of course, is a classic manipulator, and maybe a sociopath. I never considered the latter before, but now that I think on it, has he ever felt anything for anyone outside of his own selfish and immediate needs? It was both Dr. Miller and his new neighbor, nurse Phoebe, who suddenly made me wonder. At first, it seemed as if Miller was going to be the perfect new prey for Don, because it’s pretty obvious that he’s more interested in professional women who are close to being his equal than some of the other guys in the office, who are content to chase subordinate secretaries who refuse at peril to their jobs. But Miller is too smart for Don; not only can he not manipulate her, she has him pegged as a type, which is a real blow to a man who believes he is so thoroughly unique, as Don does. (His secrets obviously terrify him at times, as with the market research questionnaire, but mostly, I suspect, he is thrilled to be so mysterious that most of the people around him don’t even realize he’s being mysterious.)

When Miller explained her work as “helping people to sort out their deepest conflict: what I want versus what’s expected of me,” I suddenly wondered if Don perhaps doesn’t even know what he wants, at least in his personal life. He may know what he doesn’t want — a nutjob like Betty — but what kind of woman does he want?

Maybe Don isn’t a sociopath (though now I’m curious to go back and watch the entire series from the beginning and see if that fits!) but is so confused that he’s just keeps trying different approaches. Don tries to get Phoebe into bed… and she rejects him! That must have been quite a blow to a man like Don, who probably considers himself irresistible. (He was a little stunned, too, when Miller didn’t flirt with him.) And then he gets into a quickie with his secretary. Oh, the look on her face the next morning, when he pretends it never happened. What a rat.

Maybe Don is just an ol’ horndog who cannot leave any woman alone but doesn’t want to cope with the consequences.

The malevolence and the meanness and the resentment that underlies so much of what happens on this show is part of why it’s so fascinating, I think. Everyone is seething with things they cannot or will not say… until, sometimes, they do say it. Like Peggy calling Freddie old-fashioned for his bizarre approaches to selling Pond’s cold cream: though I do think that Peggy was more than solicitous in trying to explain why women consumers would not respond well to being insulted. I’m not sure what to make of Peggy’s treatment of her boyfriend: Is it a “Rules” sort of thing, that he won’t want her if he knows she’s so not a virgin? She doesn’t seem particularly enamored of his guy: is she just so terrified of being alone? Is Peggy ever going to break out into an even more unconventional life, or is she going to continue to force herself to mold to the expectations of 1960s corporate life? (There’s Miller’s conflict again, and another person seemingly unable to answer the question What do I want? And maybe it’s worse for Peggy because what’s expected of her, both professionally and personally, what’s expected of all women, is changing.)

The look on Joan’s face — lovely accommodating ultracompentent Joan — when she is informed that she must ramp up the office Christmas party in less than 24 hours from gin-and-Velvetta to a Roman orgy: this is not a happy woman, but of course she can’t say a damn thing but Yes, sir… and of course she, being the superwoman that she is, gets it done. (I want to know more about Joan. She could be running this company; she already is, in some ways. How does she balance what she wants with what’s expected of her?)

Oh, and Lee the client who must be coddled: What a terrible, terrible person for all of SCDP to be bowing and scrapping before. Hint for the future: At a Roman orgy office Christmas party, don’t give a Polaroid camera to a mean client who is also now drunk.

And a newsflash from 1964: Fatcat rich bastards were bitching about Medicare as evil, civil rights as a slippery slope, and perils of socialism already back then.



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  • I was struck by the way that the story revolves around the “letter to Santa” full of things you want but also expectations of what you’ll receive.

    Don wants a simple life – Husband, wife, 2.4 kids, mortgage, car and he expects he can have that and all the nooky he can entice into bed.

    Peggy wants a career with respect and achievement but expects the husband, the kids, and the baggage of womanly obligation.

    Even Roger Sterling wants the big office, Joan as his mistress and no obligations and instead he expects to have a string of Lees who pay their bills but do so with their own wants and expectations.

    In all one of the better Mad Men Episodes.

  • JoshDM

    The look on Joan’s face when she is informed that she must ramp up the office Christmas party … : this is not a happy woman

    I was under the impression it seemed Joan felt a little excited to have one of the parties of the prior years, rather than something more settled.

    And of course, let’s not forget that Lee is the reason Sal is no longer with the company; and he wants Polaroids of each of the male characters on Santa’s lap.

  • MaryAnn

    Don wants a simple life – Husband, wife, 2.4 kids, mortgage, car and he expects he can have that and all the nooky he can entice into bed.

    Peggy wants a career with respect and achievement but expects the husband, the kids, and the baggage of womanly obligation.

    But does Don really want that family life? Does Peggy? Or have they just been convinced that that’s what they’re supposed to want… ie, that that is what is expected of them.

    Maybe the series will end with Don and Peggy running off to be hippies in Haight-Asbury…

  • lunarangel01

    I actually don’t think that Peggy really wants the marriage and family thing. She might THINK that she does, but look her track record. She really only has one night stands (for the most part; Pete might have been the only exception to that).

    It is always striking to me the way that they film her after these. You always see her after the act, with this very pensive look on her face like she just made a huge mistake and she knows that she doesn’t really care about the guy… She’s only pretending to care.

    She is just like the men of this show in that she really does not connect well with her partners. She simply has sex with them and then walks away. And if you’ll notice, she almost always picks men who are essentially her subordinates in personality and intelligence (or they are way more messed up and needy than she is). She just doesn’t seem to feel anything for these guys. I almost feel like Peggy partners herself with these guys in order to feel “normal.”

    Maybe the series will end with Don and Peggy running off to be hippies in Haight-Asbury…

    I doubt it. That would feel almost a little too predictable to me.

    Don and Peggy have to be true to themselves, and the fact of the matter is that they are NOT hippies. They may be changing with the times, but only because it suits their selfish needs. They are both the tortured creative visionaries, but they are both so very emotionally empty it hurts to watch them.

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  • J.

    Yeah, Glenn is just about the creepiest television character this side of the Smoke Monster. Just thinking about that blank stare of his gives me chills. One of these years, we’re gonna flash forward and find out he’s killed his whole family or something.

    I find Peggy’s final scene interesting. Is sleeping with that boyfriend of hers really what she wanted, or a reaction to Freddy’s “old-fashioned” advice? I think you’re right on, MaryAnn, in your thoughts on wants vs. others’ expectations. I think Peggy is still coming to grips with the fact that she *can* do what she wants instead of what’s expected.

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