There's a Lakshmi here to see you. She's got a whole story.
"Christmas Waltz", like other Christmas episodes of MadMen, was a transitional story, bringing closure to some story arcs, e.g. How Don Got His Groove Back and Whatever Happened to Baby Kinsey, developed a couple of others, Roger and Joan, Mohawk Airlines, and thrust an old and nearly abandoned story back into the limelight, namely Lane's money problems, which were just hinted at in the first couple of episodes, then left ignored for several weeks only to come back as a central thread in this week's complicated tapestry. As befits a Christmas Waltz, this week we saw some fancy footwork in many of the stories, as several characters tried to straddle various lines, keeping one foot in each of two worlds.
With the benefit of hindsight, the past three episodes, “Lady Lazarus,” “Dark Shadows,” and “Christmas Waltz,” have played as a 3-part miniseries about Don getting his mojo back. It wasn't until his inspirational speech to the troops this week that he seemed to be fully self-possessed, the Don Draper of legend who's been MIA for 9 episodes of this season, his focus on work blurred by his dedication to his new relationship with Megan.
Two weeks ago Megan left SCDP. Last week Don could sense the need to return to his prior form, and his first pitch (The Devil) was good but not great. This week he began the episode straddling the same line, uncommitted but present at work, Committed but annoyed or angry at home. After seeing the terrible (and very real, you can google it!) play "America Hurrah," and straddling the line between bored and insulted, something changed in Don and he jumped in to work wholeheartedly.
The next morning, on his way out to check out a Jaguar dealership, he decided out of friendly concern to take Joan along with him. The two of them had fun together as a fake couple and test drove the Jag straight to a bar, where they shared a friendly drink. I am sure many MadMen fans were wondering if, some even hoping that these two would hook up, but it was obvious that this story was about Don and the woman who turns out to be perhaps his only platonic friend, if you count Peggy as more protege than friend. Don and Joan had a long and touching discussion the upshot of which is that they're a lot alike. The encounter seemed to bolster them both enough to get them through the holidays.
Don caught hell from Megan when he got home late, though, and he seemed a little mystified by it, even though it was a reaction he was probably hoping to provoke. Their fight was a continuation of the discussion Megan had started after the “America Hurrah,” and even though Megan wants to make it all about their relationship, she ends up bringing it back around to him and work, unable even in her anger to deny him the help she sees he needs :
Megan: You used to love your work.
Don: Well, it's different there now.
Megan: You loved it before you ever met me.
Don must've meditated on the truth of that exchange because it's only the next morning when he gives a big morale boosting speech to the staff to get them excited about working to land Jaguar, and the rewards that await them on the other side of successful work. "Prepare to take a great leap forward. Prepare to swim the English Channel and then drown in champagne." Note that he says this in December of '66, just as the world is about to take a great leap forward into the global transformation that was '67-'68. Note also in the light of Crane's and Kinsey's scene at the Krishna Movement, how much Don's job is like that of a cult leader. Lane, Roger, and Pete can barely get a reaction out of the staff with their functional announcements, but Don's charismatic fervor and his poetry makes these believers audibly excited to work through Christmas and New Years at an advertising firm.
Crane and Kinsey:
Everybody I know who likes MadMen loved Kinsey and was sad to see him go when Sterling Cooper reformed as SCDP. It was kind of the creators to let us catch up with him again and, through hearsay, put together a little bit about his life since. Apparently he slid down the ladder of advertising and has landed roughly in the Krishna Consciousness Movement, aka the Hare Krishnas; but Kinsey’s straddling the line between Krishna bliss and the “Material World.” His desire for success has led him to draw Harry out to the Krishna center for prayerful meditation and lunch, a ‘chant and chew.’ Obviously this freaks Harry all the way out and only the appearance of the lovely Lakshmi can convince him to stay for the chanting. Kinsey takes him out to lunch at a diner, and presses Harry to pass a script he wrote for Star Trek to his connections at the network.
Here the story starts to straddle a line of its own. Is it about Kinsey or Crane? While it’s neat to get this pop-in from a departed and well missed character, the meat of this story is what happens to Harry. He’s induced to stay at the big chant when Lakshmi uses her sexual wiles to keep him from bolting. (This theme of sexual religious recruitment was all over Sunday night TV, popping up in The Big C as well as The Borgias.) Kinsey then slaps him back to reality asking for the big material favor regarding his script, Then Lakshmi comes back to see Crane at the office, using her sexual and spiritual wiles again to manipulate Harry, this time with an evil tinge of Krishna zealotry.
But like Don’s story this week, there’s a neat turnaround and a nice scene of closure at the end. After Lakshmi attempts to place herself between Crane and Kinsey, Harry, who’d not thought much of the Star Trek script, has an awakening of sorts, and in one of his most human moments ever, he discovers the true meaning of friendship, the meaning that entails more giving than taking. He externalized this idea to Peggy when he asked if she realized how lucky they were. In order to help Kinsey fulfill himself, Harry gives him 500 dollars and a ticket to Los Angeles, where if this Star Trek script doesn’t hit, maybe the next one will. Harry’s words of advice to Kinsey were sad but sweet, and not un-swami-like: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure, this life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” I thought the events of the week told us much about Harry Crane’s peculiar but fierce brand of Loyalty. He might be what was called at the time a “man’s man,” and is now more commonly termed a “bro,” though at times, like most archetypical bros, (Barney Stinson,) he straddles the line between bro, and “douchebag”
This story was very progressive for MadMen, we tend to think of Krishnas as a 70s thing, but Hare Krishna formally originated in New York in 1966. Kinsey has actually gotten in on the ground floor of something pretty big. The swami Prabhubada that Crane and Kinsey chanted with is credited with creating the movement that would soon be large enough to be parodied in Airplane, which is pretty much my only other cultural referent for them. Note also that the core message of Prabhubada is identical to the core message of “America Hurrah” namely that the western world has contracted a disease of consumerism and made a false idol of Don’s industry. I believe these messages are included here to set up a main theme we’ll be exploring in upcoming seasons about 1967 and ‘68, specifically how can we advertise to a generation that has been told that advertising is poison?
It was the very first episode of the season when a few hints were dropped about Lane’s financial difficulties. I commented at the time, “Lane's self-destructive streak is about to shift into high gear, and they dropped a series of strong hints that he's in bad financial trouble, which his new friend Alex Polito may complicate.” Alex Polito is not back in the mix yet, and “about to” turned out to be most of a season later, though there was Lane’s fight with Pete in the interim, but here at last we get the development of a story that’s been lying dormant since the premiere. Lane’s troubles to now are largely tax based, UK taxes were notoriously punitive in that era, and his attorney tells him “You gave her majesty's portion to a foreign power, and the taxman is keen to make an example of an expatriate.”
But in this episode he begins straddling the line between failing to satisfy the inland revenue, and embezzling from SCDP to keep them off his back. Once his more legitimate, but still sleazy, avenues to access the needed cash fail, he sneaks into SCDP late at night and uses one of Stan’s lightboxes, putting himself under great strain to do what Don does every day, forge Don Draper’s signature. The moral stress Lane feels as he furtively performs his criminal deed reminds one of what Joan said to him a few weeks ago about what separates him from the other partners, “If they’re making you feel different from them, you are. That’s a good thing to be.” Don Draper feels no compunction about forging that name on a company check, he’s done it hundreds of times and it’s a jailable offense every time he does it. But for Lane one critical, even necessary instance of fraud to help his family survive puts him in crisis. By the end of the episode he’s like a compulsive gambler, playing too many angles and in too deep. The episode ends on a nerve-wracking shot of Lane’s tight-lipped smile. As staff are filing out of the conference room thinking everything’s looking up at SCDP, only Lane knows that the ‘tenuous recovery,’ Don spoke of in his speech as a past event was equally descriptive of the current state of affairs.
Though only 3 episodes remain, I anticipate that we’ll end the season past the new year, into ‘67 a couple weeks or a month or so. That’ll allow season 6 to start in Spring of ‘67, which in turn will allow the Summer of Love to happen right in the middle of the season, where the storytelling sweet spot tends to lie. Having watched this season knowing that it would lead to the Earth shattering events of the following 2 years, I think the overall story of season 5 has been about “the last year” of the middle part of the century, those who wish to remain in this 50’s and 60’s mode were pitted against those who wished for something new, we only saw the slightest peeks at the cracks in the dam that we know are about to burst. LSD, Krishnas, Vietnam, all these things are going to move from the margins to the center of MadMen in the coming seasons just as they did in American cultural life at the time.
Odds and Ends:
I hate to be sexist, but I have to wonder what Peggy’s place will be at a company representing Jaguar. She was barely around this week anyway.
Roger’s Pearl Harbor nostalgia was fitting comic relief that helped us nail down the time period, and I suppose served to remind us of that prejudice of his, but it also felt too brusque I thought, perhaps pointing to something down the road. He’s still going on about his acid trip, which is hard to put a time to exactly, but the episode right before his trip took place in July. That’s a long time to let one drug experience continue driving your behavior.
Roger and Joan finally talked about their situation honestly to each other. It’s difficult to say whether Joan was being entirely truthful or whether her rebuffing Roger was just a necessary way for her to defend herself before she eventually relents. Joan’s scene with Don would tend to indicate that Joan has moved past Roger and is looking for someone “more right.”