"Mad Men" Recap: Don And Joan Take Their Chemistry For A Test Drive

"Mad Men" Recap: Don And Joan Take Their Chemistry For A Test Drive

"Christmas Waltz," the latest episode of AMC's Mad Men, had no dancing. Don (Jon Hamm) requested a dance from Joan (Christina Hendricks), but he was turned down, and other requests (some overt, others unspoken) also went unfulfilled, or were (at best) craftily danced around. "Christmas Waltz" took a very Ebenezer-approach to wish fulfillment, stingily providing Mad Men's characters with something that vaguely resembles what they want and allowing them to flirt with it (or in Harry's case, a little more), but allowing their wish list to ultimately evade their grasp. Santa would be disappointed with series creator Matthew Weiner.

All Kinsey Wants For Christmas Is Hare Krishna (Well, Sort Of)

Ex-Sterling Cooper copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis, axed before the other two initials were added on) has always been a little on the progressive side; remember, he was the closest thing to a civil rights advocate the show had. But when Harry (Rich Sommer) meets up with him after his extended hiatus, it's revealed that Kinsey has taken his bohemian state of mind to a whole new level. As in, rocking a bald ponytail (possibly the only hairstyle worse than a mullet), decked in a white robe, and rattling off spiritual sweet nothings about "krishna consciousness."

Has Kinsey had a spiritual transformation? No, he's actually bruised and directionless after being kicked around Madison Avenue, and is seeking approval anywhere he can find it. Mother Lakshmi's (Anna Wood) manipulative allure also has something to do with it. Bottom line, Kinsey is in a bad place, trying to hustle Harry into finding a home for a satirical Star Trek script where a race of slaves are white (subtle stuff). Kinsey's script is terrible, but his girlfriend is worse. 

Mother Lakshimi's colorful past makes itself apparent when she tells Harry she's "burning" for him and pounces on him, only to reveal she's looking to barter her sexuality so Kinsey can be free to continue his spiritual pursuits. Actually, not really. As she hilariously reveals in a break from her religious propaganda, "He's our best recruiter. I mean, he really can close." But how to talk Kinsey out of his sci-fi ambitions? Mother Lakshimi advises: "Tell him the truth. That always works." Does it really, though?

Megan Takes Don To A Show...

"Truth" is always one of those things that is disproportionally more appealing in theory than it is in reality. Megan (Jessica Pare) overestimates Don's ability to cope with the truth of this craft, taking him to America Hurrah, an actual play that debuted in 1966 in New York City that's also another clumsy satire that picks American materialism as its target. Of course, Don feels personally addressed, maybe in a deeper way than he lets on, if his pained expression when the actor confesses "The ad was making me sick" is any indication.

Don argues that "people buy things because it makes them feel better." He believes advertising is a means of altering reality, but we know his statement to be inaccurate. Buying things—or, more broadly, getting what we want—doesn't make us feel better, does it? It attempts to fill a spiritual void with something tangible, and when the emptiness reemerges, a new desire presents itself. That's the root of advertising. Ads are meant to make us sick with need because desiring something somehow makes us feel more alive. But in the end, an ad's promise is just a well-crafted lie.

This is the crux of Don's existential issues. Don wants to believe that material things are capable of changing a person, of curing them somehow. His life is a testament to that. His transformation from Dick to Don is paved in expensive objects; advertising's promise is his "Hare Krishna" mantra, and as a career, it is his source of solace. But does the suit really make the man? Does he really believe his own hype?

...And Don Takes Joan To A Showroom

After Don watches Joan erupt on the receptionist when served with divorce papers, he whisks her away to the Jaguar showroom, where they play husband and wife for a short-lived, delicious moment. Don puts his distressed redhead in the back of a red Jag and takes it for a test drive to a local bar, and the scene that ensues is supremely satisfying.

Don and Joan have a smoldering chemistry; their innuendo-cloaked exchange makes us wish we had more moments like these to salivate over. Don's intention is to truly be a good friend, and the flirtation seems more like an accidental byproduct of that. Yet, Don's once-effortless charm is once again reignited. He's grinning under his hat, tossing off suave one-liners, and, of course, tentatively flirting with trouble. He even repeats the words of ex-fling Bobbi Barrett to Joan: "I like being bad and going home and being good."

Don isn't exactly bad per se, but he does reveal the lengthiest glimpse into his devious side we've seen this season. Part of what makes this scene so successful is Joan's firsthand (yet unspoken) knowledge of this part of Don, something they discuss under the guise of analyzing a stranger across the bar, but it's clearly a conversation about Don himself. Joan claims "being familiar" is the stranger's wife's only sin, but Don hypothesizes (admits, really) that it isn't that she's not giving him what he wants, it's that "he doesn't know what he wants."

Driving home, we see another side of Don we haven't seen in awhile: ruminating Don, speeding home in a car he claimed did nothing for him, eyes squinted into a stony gaze we haven't seen since he ditched Bobby's birthday party to watch the trains speed by. The lure of infidelity is always looming. It's been dancing on the periphery this season, but Joan, either with her acute assessment of him, or with her womanly wiles, has once again brought it tenuously to the forefront.

When Don returns home, we see Megan in a very Betty-like position, sitting at the table with an ice cold dinner, glass of wine in hand, waiting for an absentee Don. To Don's credit, he tells her the truth about where he was and who he was with, but Megan intuitively understands it's a deeper issue than he lets on. "You used to love your work," she offers, adding, "You loved it before you ever met me."  Don's passion for advertising has taken the backseat to Megan, but she's pursuing her own agenda and maintaining her independence in a way that inspires him to do the same, hence the return of old-school Don, in several respects.

Clearly, her little speech works, and we see a newly-amped Don rallying up the SCDP troops for the upcoming Jaguar pitch: "Prepare to take a great leap forward. Prepare to swim the English channel and drown in champagne." Well, at least he's optimistic.

Lane Tries His Hand At Embezzlement

In contrast, Lane's (Jared Harris) storyline, like most of his (infrequent) storylines, offers the most depressing commentary of all. Lane is in tax debt to Uncle William (or whatever the Brit version of Uncle Sam is); instead of trying to haggle Roger (John Slattery) out of some cash like everyone else, or asking Don for a loan (If he did if for Pete, we'd imagine Lane would also get approved), Lane finagles a $50,000 credit line from the bank by offering a falsely optimistic view of SCDP's finances, and concocts a lie about having a surplus as an excuse to give himself a bonus. When Mohawk pulls their account, the whole bonus scheme is suspended, and Lane forges Don's signature to cut himself a hefty check.

The whole situation is really sad, and unlike the struggles of other characters, Lane's predicament incites genuine sympathy. He's a conflicted man with a quiet sadnesss, and unlike most of Mad Men's complicated characters, he has no outlet for his distress. Even Kinsey manages to find a true friend in Harry and manages to score $500 and a short term solution to his dissatisfaction. Lane is knee-deep in unmet needs, and his greatest obstacle in his inability to communicate those needs. Kinsey may claim that "money solves today, not tomorrow," but if Lane would speak up, he could solve his cash flow issue today and still have a job tomorrow.

Other Points Of Interest

- It turns out that Roger not only knows Joan's baby is his, but has been trying to offer her monetary support, which she is stubbornly (or, perhaps, intelligently) not taking. Looks like Joan studied at the Kinsey school of finance!

- When Roger brings Joan flowers from Don (an innocent gesture, playing on Joan's comment that she was raised to be admired, and her taunt that he'd never sent her flowers), Roger remarks, "How many times have i left you alone with a card from another man?"

- On a morbid note, if you're participating in the Mad Men suicide bet, now might be a good time to place your chips and make a lucrative bet on Lane.

Written by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)

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Tags: mad-men, recap, amc, jon-hamm, jessica-pare, elisabeth-moss, john-slattery, matthew-weiner
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