"Prepare for a great leap forward!"
-- Chairman Mao Zedong, er,
"Christmas Waltz" is an improved episode of Mad Men in this uneven fifth season of a longtime great TV series, an episode with a very welcome return to advertising. Too much of this season has been taken up with some fairly arbitrary soap opera doings.
The show is at its best, and most important, when the drama revolves around the advertising business. It's the reason it's called Mad Men, after all, and not, say, Unhappy People.
This season, not incidentally, after reaching new highs early on, ratings have slumped to the lowest level since Season 3. This latest episode, in fact, is the lowest-rated episode in this decade, with viewership little more than half that of the highly anticipated Season 5 premiere.
It's not a surprise here, after the hairpin plotting that marked the first half of this season. Megan's "Zou Bisou Bisou" birthday burlesque and Roger's LSD trip were clever Twitter material, but didn't really go anywhere. The agency losing the nearly-won Jaguar account when the almost-client's wife discovered chewing gum in his pubic hair after the guys take him to a high-end bordello was a twist, all right, but it didn't make much sense. Pete Campbell's sudden, rather inexplicable, plunge into what many fans viewed as a pre-suicidal tailspin whetted an appetite for anticipatory destruction among many, but also didn't go anywhere.
Actually, it's Pete Campbell who is getting Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce back on an upward trajectory. With Jaguar.
As always, there be some spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.
The Jaguar exec from the bordello adventure has, conveniently, gotten himself fired, so his wife's injunction against those bad-boy influencers at SCDP has no meaning. And Pete has been working Jaguar hard, recognizing how the car company from Coventry, England, can be the signature client that the agency needs to break through into the top ranks. Pete has made SCDP a finalist for the Jaguar account.
Jaguar Cars, Ltd. does not make baked beans. It makes what will be seen as the most iconic sports car of the 1960s, the Jaguar E-Type. (Known in the Austin Powers movies as the "Shaguar.") Which, in the U.S. market, with some federal regulatory changes in place, is called the Jaguar XKE.
It makes the sort of product through the advertising of which Mad Men can again become a prism on the era.
"Christmas Waltz" takes place around Pearl Harbor Day 1966 and in the run-up to Christmas. It's Joan Holloway who kicks the main action of the episode into gear, as it were, coming off a rough day.
Roger Sterling has offered to provide major financial support for the baby he made with Joan during their fateful encounter under an apartment stoop after getting mugged one night. But she won't hear of it, dismissing her old lover and longtime friend and touchstone in summary fashion. (Do I buy this? Maybe, maybe not. Moving on.)
Then Joan gets served with divorce papers by the husband she kicked out, Vietnam War-loving Dr. Blockhead. She's furious, even though she's finished with him.
So Don, being a good friend, comes up with an inspired idea. He and Joan will go look at Jags together, Pete having spurred him into action with a Trudy-like technique of asking him what his favorite Jag is, his initial strategy of chiding him for complaining about how much work pitching the account will be not having gotten the desired response.
Don and Joan, not surprisingly, make a stunning pair, with charisma and chemistry to burn. They enjoy playing a married couple, or maybe a not actually married couple, with the clever Jaguar salesman. Don likes the elegant but more conservative sedan, but Joan LOVES the sports car. She says it's the most beautiful car she's ever seen.
Good eye, Joan.
Here's a thought. Why not have these two run an agency? Joan has a much more natural flair for the combination of media and business than anyone else at SCDP. (Recall how she effortlessly punched up the sad roommate ad of Peggy Olson, who had another quiet episode this week.) And Don, when he is on his game, is the master creative director.
So they test drive a Jag. The one she picked out.
It's the Jaguar E-Type in the U.K., the car that the producers wanted for a little movie called Goldfinger. But Jaguar wouldn't make the product placement deal because they were busy selling the cars rather than giving them to movie companies. So the Bond folks settled for an Aston Martin you may have heard of. By the way, I'll get into all this when I get back to writing about this year's 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise after Mad Men is no longer taking up the entertainment part of what I do in this very big political year. (Here's the first such piece here on The Huffington Post, from March.)
Joan's preferred Jag is red, Carmen Red, as Jaguar called that shade. It goes with her hair, among other things.
After Jon Hamm became spokesvoice for Mercedes a couple of years ago, I wrote -- back in 2010 -- that Christina Hendricks would be a great choice for Jaguar. That hasn't happened, but her character is a great match for the car.
The two repair to a bar to flirt and talk about life. She pointedly thinks Megan is perfect for him, saying in passing that perhaps she should have kept the future Mrs. Draper in the secretarial pool. She also pointedly misses the so-called bad-boy Don who was so good at advertising. Don departs, leaving Joan the option to spread her single-gal wings with an admirer across the room.
He and Megan have another of their scenes back home, which I'm growing less and less interested in. (She also takes him to an Off-Broadway play about the evils of advertising and American consumerism, which Don is, let's say, less than entranced by.) Nonetheless, I think they're a good couple. But I don't care too much about it at the moment.
Back in the office, Don is inspired to get the Jaguar account. We haven't seen him this motivated in a long time. Joan has lit a fire that Pete's annoyed hero-worship prodding hasn't.
It's time for a great leap forward at SCDP, he declares. Which is amusing in itself, as the Great Leap Forward, a famous phrase of the era, was Chairman Mao's wildly ambitious and disastrous plan in China.
As for the title of this piece, it's a pun. The "leaper" is the symbol of Jaguar Cars, the leaping cat which for decades adorned the bonnets, as our English cousins call automobile hoods, of Jaguar's sedans. (And yes, I am a Jaguar person.)
Don tells the assembled non-multitudes that Jaguar will be theirs, that they will work over the holidays and into the nights and that there will be no substitute for victory.
"When we land Jaguar, the world will know we've arrived."
It's great stuff, and the assembled non-multitude loves it. Cue the extro music.
The other stuff that happens in the episode?
Well, Lane Pryce, whom we've not seen much of this season -- he's been off trying to destroy two universes on the under-appreciated cult favorite Fringe, where his, ah, alter ego Jared Harris plays a brilliant scientific terrorist (Harris also made an excellent Moriarty in Robert Downey Jr.'s latest Sherlock Holmes epic -- foolishly decides to deal with his sudden financial crisis by embezzling money from the agency. This is set up in not especially convincing ways.
Then there is the return of Paul Kinsey, the pontificating liberal Ivy League copywriter left behind by Draper in favor of Peggy when the current core crew split from the old Sterling Coo in the great final episode of Season 3. He's become a Hare Krishna, shaved head, saffron robes, and all.
So for those who've been wondering who would turn out to be the first ostentatiously alternative '60s type, the answer has arrived.
This subplot involves Harry Crane meeting up with his old friend, in the course of which he kind of gets into the whole chanting thing. At least he does so under the influence of Paul's girlfriend, Lakshmi, actually an Anglo and recent hooker.
Cutting to the chase, Harry proves a mensch when Paul asks him to slip his spec script for Star Trek to the folks at NBC, or maybe even "Mr. Roddenberry." Star Trek premiered only three months earlier, but Paul is into it.
He's also not into the Krishnas, even though he's their best recruiter. He wants a fresh start, in California, the land of reinvention.
Unfortunately, he's not much of a writer. But what the hell, Harry figures, giving his old friend a plane ticket, $500 (about $3,000 in today's currency), and the promise of an introduction.
Don Draper forged a new life for himself on his own trek to California, back in "Tomorrowland," the Season 4 finale. Maybe Paul Kinsey can find a future in television writing.
I'm not so sure about that.
But I am sure that the return of the energized ad man Don Draper is a very good thing.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.