In certain glorious episodes, Mad Men seems to exist primarily to remind us of a time when Americans danced. In unison. On purpose. The centerpiece of this week’s episode was a Potemkin Christmas party—a lavish bash thrown exclusively to show Lee Garner Jr. just how wonderfully well SCDP is doing—and the centerpiece of that centerpiece was Joan Holloway leading a conga line through the office, swishing her derriere with a bit more syncopation than usual as Lee Garner Jr. pantomimed lasciviousness behind her and Pete and Trudy Campbell showed off their moves in hot-stepping pursuit.
The party scene was a Mad Men tour de force—full of lust and forced jollity, intrigue and ulterior motives. I love that Joan showed up clutching an orange (a temptation from the tree of insouciant badinage?) in the red dress Roger had requested. I loved the moment when Peggy introduced her nudnik boyfriend and her colleagues exchanged “That guy?” glances. I loved Bert Cooper’s casual racism and Trudy Campbell’s pushy vacation plans and Don calling Peggy “sweetheart” and the simmering scene-stealing contempt felt for Harry Crane by his wife. The crux is Lee Garner’s humiliation of Roger, who is goaded into a Santa suit and forced to sit for a spate of photographs with each SCDP employee seated on his lap. All that silver savoir faire evaporates; as Santa, Roger is an aggrieved and sweaty mess. (Maybe he really is allergic to velvet.) Is it possible that Matthew Weiner’s greatest medium is the party scene? Think of Sally’s fraught birthday party in Season 1, Paul Kinsey’s hepcat soiree in Season 2, Roger’s indelible Derby Day bash last season. Weiner is masterful in capturing the emotional cross-currents of such occasions.
But the party was just one aspect of an episode packed with incident. For one thing, Freddy Rumsen is back! (A nice screw-you to viewers who’ve been lamenting the absence of Kinsey, Sal and Kenny—we did fine without Freddy for a whole season, didn’t we? Patience, everyone.) Rumsen’s return shows Peggy just how far she has come. Freddy was Peggy’s first mentor—the first Sterling Cooperite to notice her knack for language on the “basket of kisses” campaign—and she’s genuinely startled and disappointed to learn that he’s a bit condescending, and a bit of a hack. His ideas for the Ponds account he’s brought in are trite and lazy, and she struggles to figure out how to tell him so, realizing in the process how confident—and good—she now is.
An indication of how far Peggy’s colleagues have come is Faye Miller, the blond marketing analyst who makes a presentation to SCDP. I believe she’s the first professional woman we’ve seen brought into the boardroom (now with table!) since Rachel Menken in Season 1, and her presence there passes without sneering comment from the men. Don, however, excuses himself when she circulates a survey of personal questions, and in general, his treatment of her is rather retrograde. When Faye corners him at the Christmas party, he assumes she wants to flirt. When, instead, she castigates him for ditching her presentation and impresses him with her observation that advertising boils down to “What I want vs. what’s expected of me,” he asks her out to dinner. Faye seems to sense that she can either accept or be taken seriously and declines with a parting shot: “You’ll be married again in a year,” adding, “Oh, I forgot, nobody wants to think they’re a type.”
If only Faye had let Don take her to Jimmy LaGrange. Instead, Don goes home drunk and keyless, and when his secretary Allison comes to the rescue with his keys, he thanks her by pulling her onto the couch for a quickie. Allison resists and then—I think genuinely charmed by the idea of her boss turning his powers of seduction in her direction—kicks off her shoes and acquiesces. We know it’s trouble as soon as she gives him a sweet, swoony kiss before leaving, and sure enough, the next morning, she’s all knowing smiles and “should I shut the door” until Don pulls a Draper on her, refusing to acknowledge what’s happened, buying her off with her Christmas bonus. The look of stunned understanding on Allison’s face afterwards is one of the finest acting moments of a show that’s full of them.
Why Allison? For all Don’s roguery, he’s always known better than to get extracurricular with the secretarial pool. In the very first episode of the series, Don rebuffed a timid advance from Peggy: “I’m your boss, not your boyfriend.” Perhaps Don’s getting tired of a world without transgression (and perhaps he was piqued by Faye’s dig about his predictability). Now that there are no more affairs to be had, perhaps abusive prostitutes and willing nurses don’t give him the off-limits charge he needs. Whatever the reason, it’s a real jerk move: One of the most unlikeable things Don has ever done.
Perhaps Don could have given Allison a hand-made lanyard instead. That’s the courting tactic adopted by Glenn, the neighborhood weirdo who’s transferred his crush on Betty to her daughter Sally. It’s nice that Sally has someone to confide in, and rather sweet when Glenn trashes the Ossining house but spares Sally’s bedroom, befouling the place so the family will move as Sally hopes. Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Carla, who will no doubt have to clean up that mess.
Final questions for you all: Did you see Don was typing in the first scene? Things at SCDP must really be tight.
Do you think Allison was drafting routine correspondence or a resignation in that final scene?
Did you like the Medicare joke? Or was it a little on the nose?
I’m expecting you guys to take this from convalescent home to Roman orgy,