Do not read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 10 of AMC's "Mad Men," entitled "Christmas Waltz."
I'm in New York for Monday's Peabody Awards ceremony (and feel free to follow my Twitter for updates on that event). But my weekend has been very busy with travel and other things, and then, as I settled in to my hotel on Sunday night to watch "Mad Men," I realized my hotel does not carry AMC.
So there was a moment of panic.
Thanks to some help from a fan of the show (thank you, Carla Day!), I was able to find a legal way to watch "Mad Men" on Sunday night. But due to time constraints and various other factors, I wasn't able to watch the episode twice, as I normally do, and I wasn't able to take copious notes on my second viewing, another thing I normally do when I'm writing about the show.
What follows, then, are five quick thoughts about the episode, which saw some financial naughtiness from Lane Pryce, the return of Paul Kinsey and the kind of sexual chemistry that could power a medium-sized city for several years.
- Don and Joan, Don and Joan, Don and Joan. After a very dark and, at times, dour season, what a delight it was to watch these two hang out, revel in their friendship and play around with the attraction they undoubtedly feel for each other. There are so many delicious layers to their relationship; as their conversation reminded us, they have known each other for a very long time, and though they are both very private people, they're willing to confide in each other about the details of their personal lives. There's trust there, and there's attraction there, and those two have been through enough to know that if they ever gave in to the attraction, it would damage the trust, so they don't give in to temptation. But they think about it (as do we).
It's very, very rare to see a believable and interesting depiction of a friendship between a man and a woman who could easily bed each other, but choose not to. And I can't explain why, but, as an audience member, to be poised between the thoughts "Oh, just do it already" and "Please, never do it" is somehow incredibly enjoyable. Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks played the hell out of their bar scene, which called back to Don's long night out with Peggy in "The Suitcase"; stories were told, compliments were given, truths came out and there was comfort in an old, familiar connection.
This episode wasn't on the level of "The Suitcase," but notice how perfectly Hamm and Hendricks calibrated the levels of drunkenness as Don and Joan progressed through the day, and how the possibility of a hookup was in the air, almost as a tangible thing (as tangible as that fire-engine red Jaguar parked out front). Don and Joan understand each other, they appreciate each other's good qualities, and they both know how much fun it can be to be rev the wrong engine. If they ever got together, the resulting sexual energy might incinerate all of New York, if not North America, but hot damn. It would probably be worth it.
- At some point, I'll have to add Bald Paul Kinsey to my roster of "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones" characters who resemble each other (and Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times has had the same thought). Don't he and Lord Varys look as though they were separated at birth?
It was very strange and faintly funny to see Paul back again, and he's not all that different from the Paul who exited stage left all that time ago. Ever the ad man, he really knows how to sell a lifestyle and close the deal, even if he's got very little hair during his "pitch meetings."
Truthfully, that whole storyline was a little hard to get into, given how little time the show has spent on Harry in the past two seasons, and given that we haven't seen Paul in years. But this season thematically returns again and again to the idea that when people get what they think they want, they're still usually resentful, lost and unhappy, and Paul was the countercultural version of the same tale we've seen various other characters go through this season. "Mad Men's" new interest in science-fiction is spot-on; the characters, from Michael to Ken to Paul, are using it to comment on or critique a world and aspirations they don't completely understand or agree with. So there was pathos and bittersweet humor in Paul's attempt to write for "Star Trek," and to get Harry to pass his script to NBC, but there was something about this storyline that didn't quite land; it wasn't one of the season's stronger offerings, though I was glad to see Michael Gladis again.
- The episode really reminded me of an old-school "Mad Men" episode in that a lot of it centered around a Very Big Secret that could blow up in an ad man's face. Chekhov's gun, meet Chekhov's check! Lane Pryce did a very bad thing: He lied to get the company's banker to extend the firm's credit, then forged Don Draper's name (a name with enough identity issues attached to it already) on a check in order to pay off a tax debt (at least that's my understanding of the issue).
The buildup around Lane's secret check gave the episode some welcome tension and momentum, but I am struggling a bit -- scratch that, a lot -- with the idea that Lane would do this sort of thing. We know that he's something of a risk-taker: He came over to the U.S., he helped found the breakaway firm SCDP, he had an affair with an African-American woman and he even kissed the mighty Joan. So we know he's not fully buttoned-down all the time; but he's always been a stickler for procedure at the firm, and he's always been a trustworthy financial steward of it. What would have prompted him to take such a huge chance, not just with his future, but with that of the entire company? Why not ask one of the other partners for a loan? Why not take out a personal loan? I don't see why he immediately leapt to this secretive, dangerous solution, which seems somewhat out of character to me. The more I think about it, the more the check-forging incident seems like a rather contrived way to create tension at the end of the season. I've had some trouble with some other character evolutions previously in the season (Pete is that unhappy? Peggy is that dissatisfied?), but this one has been the hardest one for me to accept. I'll mull it over and try to watch the episode again during the week, and I'll let you know next week if my feelings on the subject have evolved.
- Don really does want to get his head back in the game, after being more or less checked out for a long time. So he pitched the entire firm on the idea of winning the Jaguar account, and even if he was just trying to talk himself into the idea of really going for the brass ring, he managed to sound convincing in the conference room.
- Joan losing it on that idiot receptionist was gold. One hundred percent awesome.
"Mad Men" airs on AMC at 10 p.m. ET on Sundays.