For three seasons we’ve watched Don Draper (Jon Hamm) keep up appearances. Every lie he’s told and every affair he’s pursued were presented against the backdrop of his sham of a marriage and the veneer of his picturesque suburban family life, until finally it all came crashing down around him. But Mad Men is not American Beauty, and it has never been about a simple deconstruction of the American family. As I wrote in my review of last week’s episode, the many lies of Mad Men are both constructive and destructive, and “keeping up appearances” is always a double movement that sets the characters up as much as it knocks them down. Or, as is explicitly stated in this week’s episode “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” (written by Tracy McMillan and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Michael Uppendahl), it’s a continual struggle between what people want (and who they want to be) and what’s expected of them.
Take the return of Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), for example. His work at Sterling Cooper came to an ignoble end back in season two on account of alcoholism and poor bladder control. Now he returns, sober and with one of his AA buddies in tow as a client. It’s clear that, as would be expected of a person recovering from addiction, Freddy wants to drink. He even skips the SCDP Christmas party in order to avoid, as he says, the flask that comes with the Santa costume (or, more likely, simply to avoid a big, drunken bash full of temptation.) Few people would argue that it’s bad for Freddy to suppress his urges and conform to society’s expectations of him.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), meanwhile, feigns virginity and suppresses both her and her boyfriend Mark’s (Blake Bashoff) urges in an attempt to appear chaste. Mark calls her old fashioned, and tells her something about how freaky the Swedes are (“you’re never going to get me to do anything Swedish people do,” says Peggy.) Peggy later passes the “old-fashioned” insult on to Freddy, as she realizes how far her work has progressed beyond the man she once looked up to (and one wonders if this will ever happen between her and Don.) It will become increasingly difficult for Peggy to reconcile the world she aspired to be part of with the fact that she’s quickly outgrowing that world. Part of her success in moving forward may hinge on her ability to know when to hold herself back, and not make it too obvious to people like Freddy and his outdated ad ideas, or Mark and his stories about Swedes, that they’re actually the ones that need to catch up to her.
The center of “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” of course, is Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and how he manages to keep up appearances at the office Christmas party pulled together overnight after Lucky Strike baron Lee Garner Jr. (Darren Pettie) invites himself over to celebrate the holidays, Madison Avenue style (and prompting Roger to tell Joan to change the rating of the party “from convalescent home to Roman orgy.”) This is perhaps the first time in the entire series we’ve seen Roger actually work, and it isn’t a particularly pretty sight.
Earlier in the episode Peggy momentarily takes on her old role as audience surrogate, when she comments “I can’t believe that’s his job” after a drunken Roger waltzes in from a lunch date with a new client. It’s always been something of a question what, if anything, Roger really does at the agency. The answer has always been something about keeping Garner, the firm’s bread and butter, happy. Finally we get to see him do just that, as Garner thoroughly humiliates Roger by dressing him up in a Santa costume and forcing him to pose for pictures with a (very) uncomfortable Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) sitting on his lap. After Garner chides an emasculated Roger over his heart attacks, and wraps his arm around Roger’s wife Jane (Peyton List), it’s unclear for a few moments whether Roger will simply give Garner his Christmas present or beat him over the head with it. But Roger, in a display of incredibly restrained acting by Slattery, keeps up appearances and plays his role as the firm’s big account man, giving Garner his Polaroid camera and sacrificing a little dignity for the good of the firm and his checkbook.
And finally there’s Don, who is going through his first holiday season alone after the divorce. With no appearances left to maintain, Don becomes a slovenly, drunken mess, slumped over in his hallway (twice!) and relying on either the nurse next door or his secretary Allison (Alexa Alemanni) to let him in to his own apartment. He strikes out twice in this episode, trying to seduce both the nurse and the market researcher whose work he openly disrespects. Finally he succeeds in pressuring Allison, his secretary, into bed. The next day he coldly refuses to acknowledge that the encounter happened, as if he were still trying to hold up appearances as a respectable married man, despite the fact that he’s not.
Back in season one an old classmate recognized Don as Dick Whitman, sending Don into an episode-long bender that culminated in him ditching his own child’s birthday party. In that case he was able to pull things together by playing the role of heroic father and returning with a dog for his kids. For the viewers (and presumably, Betty), it wasn’t a particularly convincing gesture, but still the need to maintain appearances to his children gave him some sort of anchor. As the season four version of Don tries to make his way through a lonely Christmas, he seems utterly rudderless. Of course, the holidays would be difficult for anyone in Don’s position, but who would have ever thought we’d see the day when a lowly art department staffer would refer to Don Draper as “pathetic”?
In this episode we watch both Don and Roger humiliate themselves, yet for seemingly opposite reasons. It’s easy to look down on Roger for prostituting himself to the whims of Lee Garner, but on the other end of the spectrum, lone-wolf, live-for-himself Don, who has no compunction against walking out of parties and presentations, is seemingly faring even worse. At least Roger’s actions are keeping the lights on at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
As the market researcher tells Don, “nobody wants to think they’re a type.” Yet in some way most people are, if for no other reason than that our success in many facets of our lives so often depends on our ability to play a role. Roger’s livelihood depends on his ability to please a man he clearly despises, and if Peggy were to fully express herself sexually, she’d probably wind up intimidating poor Swede-obsessed Mark right out of the relationship. It’s not that these roles are necessarily good or bad, but rather that they’re good and bad at the same time; roles are necessary for success, yet always likely to turn destructive at a moment’s notice.
In “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” everyone plays his or her role to some extent, and it turns out even aimless, lost Don is conforming to the expectations placed upon a recently divorced family man. He’s a drunk mess now, but don’t worry, he’s told, market research says men like him most often remarry within a year. And as much as Don may dislike being a type, it may be in his best interest to be so, because an untethered Don Draper is clearly not a good thing, and the success that he wants may depend on his being tempered by the domesticity that is expected of him.
• I realize that I haven’t mentioned the Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) and Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) plot at all. Part of that is because it’s incredibly unclear, at this point, just where this story is heading. Glen clearly has some sort of attachment to Sally, but it seems a tad extreme that he would trash her house simply to grant her the wish of moving. I’d like to read commenters’ ideas on just what Glen’s motivations are, and just where this thread will end up.
• Last week I mentioned that the saturated white backdrop gave the dark suits the appearance of negative space. This week, Roger Sterling makes the same point in much more humorous fashion: “I feel like with my hair you can’t even see me in here.”
• Mad Men has had its share of depressing moments, but Harry Crane fumbling with the free cookies has got to be up there. No matter how successful he becomes, the man will always be a doofus.
• Lane Pryce: Master of the Obvious. Lee Garner, upon receiving his gift, says, “you didn’t have to do this.” A drunken Lane quips behind him, “yes, we did.” Immediately after, Garner pulls a Polaroid box from the wrapping. “It’s a Polaroid,” says Lane.
• I don’t mind when Mad Men gets overtly political, but the old-dog conversation featuring complaints about Medicare leading to private property being abolished and civil rights being a slippery slope seemed a little on the nose. I don’t doubt that people of the time actually talked like that, but, given its direct relevance to today’s political issues, it’s nonetheless distracting for a 2010 viewer.
• Bobby Draper (Jared S. Gilmore) may be giving Roger Sterling a run for his money when it comes to hilarious one-liners. He follows up last week’s “I love sweet potatas!” with, “maybe it’s a bear!” and “there’s eggs in my bed!”
• My wife, upon seeing Glen place his second phone call to the Francis residence: “Oh Jesus, Glen. How much does Matthew Weiner hate his kid?”
• One day Peggy will have sex that isn’t totally depressing, but it will not be this day.
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.