The most crowd-pleasing episode of last season was capped with a bloody office party, in which a rogue John Deere lawnmower cut Sterling Cooper’s British owners down to size and merrily rejiggered the entire series. Compared to that mayhem, this Christmas-party episode was a truckload of coal jammed down your stocking by the world’s most resentful Santa. The mistletoe was hung over all the wrong heads. Old relations, whom you never hoped to see again, barged right in. And talk about awkward family photos
As noted in our first recap, the overriding theme of the season premiere was Don’s role-playing: specifically, the distance between Dick Whitman’s past and the various Don personae he struggles to embody. This episode makes that theme absolutely literal, in the form of an audience research scientist, who is said to dissect the human soul like a “surgeon with a scalpel” (and who also confirms the suspicion that Don’s GloCoat ad was autobiographical). Though her take is overconfident and reductive (40 years later, marketing research is still not a perfect science), even Don admits that she’s right when she says that people are torn between “what I want versus what’s expected of me” — and that it’s hard to decode what they “really want rather than what they say they do.” In the episode, Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and blasts from the past Freddy Rumsen and Glen all try to find the right way to play their parts, and to get what they want by faking the funk. The whole episode is a conga line: people pretending to be having fun when they’re not.
It’s a month later and Don’s lost all the false bravado he projected at the end of the season premiere. Depressed by the holidays (not that he’s lawyered up to fight for his kids) and looking awful, he has apparently ditched the Betty look-alike Bethany (judging from Jane’s behavior) and sunken into 24-hour alcoholism. Peggy’s cute art partner calls him “pathetic” because Don’s not just getting Roger Drunk, he’s getting Freddy Rumsen Drunk (more on that later). Thanks to his precarious divorcée ego, Don literally can’t help but make a pass at every woman who crosses his path — whether the nurse with a savior complex (who says Don reminds her of her drunk Dad), the loyal secretary (who just bought Christmas presents for his kids), or the cocky market-research guru (who thinks she has him figured out).
In the one instance during which he isn’t rejected, drunken Don puts sloppy moves on his secretary (who cried over his kids’ “To Santa” letter and may just be giving him a pity fuck). She seems to have a decent-enough time, but she also bolts out of his apartment seconds after the act (so much for the legendary “Don Draper treatment”). Since Don mainly deals with difficult situations by pretending they don’t exist, he just hands her a bonus the next day. She’s bummed, certainly, but she had sex with him knowing what he’s like — and that he was blotto: It’s as if she tried to play the role of a sexually liberated new sixties woman (1962’s Sex and the Single Girl was old news) but was surprised to find that it hurt anyway.
Meanwhile, the social scientist thinks Don will be married within a year. Do you think so? For more than one year now, it seems like Don has actually rejected anyone who seemed halfway healthy (his secretary, Bethany) in search of whatever’s temporary or kinky (the prostitute, random hook-ups). Don himself seems irked by the idea — but we’ll see. Is he truly collapsing, or just coping poorly with the divorce? He seems utterly unmoored: It’s not just he’s caught between what people expect of him and what he really wants, as the researcher said. Don seems to have no idea what he wants at all.
Meanwhile, Freddy, who got fired for pissing his pants before a big pitch, returns just in time to reflect back on the ugliness of Don’s 9–5 cocktail hours — and to stand in as a reminder of odious chauvinism, because no matter how retrograde he appears, he’s not so different from any of the other SCDP men.
Meanwhile, it’s becoming more clear that there may not be a man decent and smart enough for Peggy. Her current sorta-fiancé comes off as a baby-faced dweeb who thinks he deserves to get laid because, he says, “I brought cookies.” (All throughout the episode, threading from Roger to Peggy to Harry to Don, there’s this cynical line which seems to imply that people will play any sort of role for the right reward, whether it’s cookies or cash or accounts or love or a job.) The freaked-out, bug-eyed horror-movie look on Peggy’s face as she lays atop this idiot prince is priceless. Previously a woman who only ever spoke the truth, she’s been telling huge lies (a virgin?!) to get what she wants, too. But it’s not working. Smart and savvy, Peggy seems to have been dropped down into some alien planet populated by dumb boys who prattle about Swedish sex and old dudes who complain about blue balls. In that kind of a madhouse, will she give up on men entirely?
If anything, this episode was one of the more explicitly sexual in the series, hinting at some greater step toward the sexual revolution: The Carefree gal in the white pants, Freddy Rumsen’s blue balls, Don’s no-nonsense flirtations, the dweeb’s Swedish sex theories — and, strangest of all, the interplay between Roger and Lucky Strike’s money man Lee Garner Jr. Knowing that Garner has attempted to force Sal into having sex with him, Roger’s attempt to please him with a “Roman orgy” of a Christmas office party felt like an elaborate metaphor for client servicing. In the last episode, Don told the hooker to leave on her brassiere. In this one, Lee told Roger to put on the Santa suit and then took Polaroid pictures of Roger with men on his lap. Which was kinkier?
And what was up with that Maalox dribbling from Roger’s mouth as he first discussed the party? (Not to mention the sloppy continuity error: The white mess suddenly appears on his lip after a sip of iced vodka, not Maalox.) It’s the most crass reading imaginable, but it seemed to be a kind of low-blow Perez Hilton–ish gay-joke metaphor, pointing out that Roger is doing what Sal refused to do: i.e., blowing Lee Garner Jr. Either way, Roger takes the slaps at his age and the groping of his wife because he doesn’t want to lose his job, the way Sal lost his. (And the next morning, he can even joke about it, because he knows it’s all part of the deal.)
If this episode is about the gap between what people say and what they mean, and the roles they play and what they really want, the one hero is that creepy kid Glen. He tells it like it is (divorced parents suck, living in the same house sucks, it’s weird that Henry doesn’t want to move, his friend is a “shithead”), and he acts out in a way (trashing Sally’s house) that the object of his affection seems to both understand and appreciate. “I brought you cookies,” Peggy’s man said. Fuck cookies, says Glen, and fuck faking it till you make it in the hope of some reward that may never come: I’m going to be real. I’m going to empty out the whole fridge and egg your kitchen and leave a friendship bracelet on your pillow so you know it was me who scared your family into moving. There’s no distance between what that kid says he wants and what he really wants, and he isn’t tormented by what people expect of him versus who he really is. That kid’s interesting. And his relationship with Sally can only get more interesting: When do you think he’ll show Sally the lock of Betty’s hair?
Finally, did this episode inevitably pale in comparison to last year’s party episode? Should Mad Men have avoided another party altogether? If so, at least we got it out of the way early. As one of the researchers says, “Audiences will listen to anything in anticipation.”