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Mad Men Review: "Christmas Comes But Once a Year," Except for These Three Wise Guys

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It's true that Christmas, at least officially, comes but once a year. So why did I see Christmas store displays in July?

On the latest Mad Men, it's December 1964, the days in which Christmas advertising and store displays didn't start until Thanksgiving. There be some spoilers ahead.

This was a good episode, but not one of the classics, and a step back from the season premiere. Think of it as a bridging episode, in which some consequential characters make their return and some key themes get highlighted.

In one case, perhaps too highlighted.

Freddy Rumsen returns! Can an impromptu Mozart concert be far behind?

Incidentally, you can see all my other Mad Men pieces, from last year and this, here in The Mad Men File.

In the season opener, we found ourselves just before Thanksgiving 1964. Now it's just before Christmas. And our anti-heroic protagonist, one Donald Draper, the once and perhaps future Dick Whitman, is taking the holidays badly.

Which I fear is leading some viewers to read too much into it. Be aware that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner likes to toy with with expectations. How many of you thought that Grandpa Gene was going to molest little Sally Draper? How many of you were convinced that proto-hippie schoolteacher Suzanne was going to pull a Fatal Attraction on Don? C'mon now, fess up!

Not surprisingly for someone who created a picture perfect family life only to see it shattered when his fatefully exposed lockbox proved him to be Dick Whitman, Don is having a rough time over a holiday time in which many have rough times. (The relentlessly forced cheeriness of Christmas can be a bit much even if you're in a pretty good place.)

Always a drinker -- think back to the mid-day nap in the show's pilot episode -- Don is drinking heavily with the advent of the holidays. And it's especially evident as he drags himself back to his man-cave of a Greenwich Village flat at the end of his days. (That came out more portentous than meant, unless it was meant to be mock portentous, of course.) And since he's now in his late 30s and apparently doesn't do a lick of exercise even as he smokes up his usual storm, he's not handling the booze well. At all.

A recap of Season 4, Episode 2.

But before continuing on that, and Don's very buzz-worthy encounter with his kindly secretary Allison, let's return to the episode's dark overall Christmas theme.

The Bible tells us that the very first Christmas was attended upon by Three Wise Men. And so it is for the Mad Men crew of Christmas 1964.

Three prodigal characters return, each bringing, in his own inimitable way, a measure of wisdom. Whether he knows it or not.

Freddy Rumsen, forced out of Sterling Co after Pete Campbell, in his early weasel mode, ratted him out for being so drunk that he peed his pants and passed out on his office sofa before a client presentation, made a triumphant return to the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. He came bearing a new client, Ponds Cold Cream, a most welcome and lucrative addition to the roster, and his largely benign dinosaur attitudes.

Freddy, one of my favorite of the non-core characters, was last seen getting into a cab after a farewell night on the town with Don and Roger Sterling, shuffled off to Buffalo, or Baltimore, or Philadelphia, or somewhere, on "a six-month leave." Now Freddy, who's played by Joel Murray, whose brother is some guy named Bill Murray, is dried out, and back to dispense his droll Stone Age wisdom to his one-time protege, Peggy Olsen, and anyone else within earshot.

Political correctness has never been Mad Men's hallmark.

While Don promoted Peggy, who began as his secretary, it was Freddy who discovered her knack for ad writing, said discovery being delivered to the guys with such a trenchantly sexist line that it's probably best I can't recall it offhand. She was furious when he was canned. Now he's back and, let's say, more than a tad behind the times, a bit clueless on how to sell cold cream to young women.

Peggy calls him on his old-fashioned attitudes. But he means well, and dispenses some avuncular advice about her love life. And he may be listening to what she has to say. Since he likes and respects Peggy and doesn't want to have sex with her, he's the closest thing to a father figure we've seen in her life.

Freddy is in Alcoholics Anonymous, and is evidently sponsor to the key Ponds executive working with the agency. After Roger takes the poor fellow to one of his seven martini lunches, Freddy has his hands full. And so he wisely begs off the temptation of attending the agency Christmas party, where Roger had wanted him to play Santa.

Roger's karmic debt for dragging Freddy's AA charge off the wagon is more than repaid at this party, which turns into a command performance for another prodigal character returned, the odious Lee Garner, Jr.

We met him in the very first episode of the show. He's the son of the founder of their big tobacco client, so uninterested in the family business which provides his fortune that he doesn't even know how their product is made. Which leads to the first of many Draper brainstorms we've seen. When his abashed old man explains the process, Don diminishes their worries about encroaching public safety concerns about smoking with the catchy yet meaningless slogan, "It's Toasted!"

Later we came to know Lee as a closeted sexual bully of the first order. Politely rebuffed by art director Sal Romano, he forces his firing. For no good reason, other than the fact that his company provides the bulk of the old Sterling Cooper's billings.

Now, a year after the dramatic breakaway results in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the new agency is even more dependent on Garner's cigarette company, which provided 71% of its revenue before Freddy returned bearing his big account as a welcome Christmas gift. Dropping by NYC without mentioning it, Garner calls Roger and insists on being invited to the agency's frugally downsized Christmas party. Thus resulting in its immediate upsizing.

Don Draper's carefully constructed life was, in some major respects, deconstructed by the end of Season 3.

The resulting party, replete with a conga line of agency staffers led by the ever game Joan, and some arguably discrete Garner pawing of Roger Sterling's young wife, the beauteous former Draper secretary Jane Siegel -- who is keeping her Roger modern with a very Mod new office -- is an exercise in the forced frivolity which a lot of the real Christmas actually entails.

And with Freddy, the natural choice to play Santa, having begged off the party altogether, Garner forces Roger into the Santa suit, cautioning a heavy bag-toting Roger as he pulls Jane toward him: "Don't want you to have a third heart attack." This guy really is a piece of work.

"Did you enjoy the Führer's birthday?" Don asks Roger later. "May he live for a thousand years," quips Roger. But it's no laughing matter, as Garner Jr., having established that he can make even the biggest fish in his ad agency pond jump on command, and probably not finding much success in his halfway thought-out plan to break out of tobacco and into Hollywood, may find new ways to bully his boys.

Speaking of pieces of work, we have young Glen Bishop, he of the sweetly creepy Betty Draper-fixation of seasons past. (He was the only one she could talk to! She gave him a lock of her hair!)

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.

Memorably played by Matthew Weiner's son, Glen, after he and his remarried mom bump into Betty et famille at a Christmas tree lot, fixes his rather disturbing gaze on a more age appropriate pretty blonde, young Sally Draper. He decides to be her telephone Sherpa as a child of divorce.

And Glen has his own disturbing way of showing his blossoming regard for Sally. He and a fellow pint-sized delinquent trash the former Draper family home, sparing only Sally's room, in which Glen deposits a lanyard like the one he'd shown her at the Christmas tree lot.

Is Glen the first, and perhaps foremost, of a series of strangely compelling bad boys Sally will turn to in her alienation from Don and disinterest in Henry Francis?

Which brings us back to Don and this very difficult Christmas.

As he puts it, rather drunkenly, "I don't hate Christmas. I hate this Christmas."

The half-sloshed Don is having little success with the ladies. Nor is his heart probably in the attempt, as holiday season hook-ups can become very freighted with emotional significance that he's clearly not looking for.

Still, he has no success with a fetching psychologist who's consulting with the agency. (She predicts that Don will be married in a year, which causes me to seriously doubt her professional expertise.) Very sloshed, he has even less success with the cute nurse who lives down the hall.

Don Draper's drinking over the holidays has gotten so heavy that this is the TV programming most frequently featured in his bachelor pad.

Extremely sloshed, he finds that he's forgotten his keys at work and calls his very efficient and kindly secretary Allison, very apologetically, to fetch them for him. Finding him in notably sad shape when she arrives, Allison insists on him having some aspirin, successfully, and on getting some food into him, unsuccessfully.

Not surprisingly, given her concern, he makes a pass at her and she accepts. They have sex on his none too stylish sofa. She's clearly pleased, but decides to go even though he wants her to stay the night. (She already had plans with office friends, who knew of her mission with Don's keys and would know what to think if she didn't show up.)

The next day at the office, Allison is clearly pleased, if uncertain what this means for their relationship. And Don is, well, definitely not good, cordial and closed off. For those who think he couldn't be worse, guess again.

He acts as though nothing happened, coolly giving her a card and her earlier promised Christmas bonus, in cash. Of course, the way in which he does it makes her feel cheap. The man of many fine words fails to find even 10 or 12 adequate to the occasion.

In so doing, he jeopardizes the most functional relationship he has with any person.

It's not that it's all that unusual for a guy to have sex with his secretary, especially in that era. One of the remarkable things about the Don Draper character in this show is that he has NOT been having sex with the women at the agency. Remember that he actively rebuffed Peggy when she was his secretary, and practically ignored the future Mrs. Roger Sterling when she was his secretary.

Will Don's inability to open up when he must, rather than on those infrequent occasions when he feels like it, transform his savior of the night before into the Ghost of Christmas Past?

Inquiring minds want to know.

One thing is for sure, our three "Wise Men" will definitely be around this season.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.