Monday, May 21, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 10: "Christmas Waltz"

I had been idly wondering whatever happened to Paul Kinsey after the end of season 3, when the senior partners formed the new agency but didn’t invite Paul to join them. This week’s episode answered this question quite thoroughly, and once again demonstrated the way characters on this show change, but also how they stay the same. Paul’s a Hare Krishna. Certainly his appearance has changed, as has his belief system and occupation. But in other ways, he’s still the same Paul: insecure, pretentious, envious, and somewhat delusional (or at the very least, a terrible judge of his own abilities and the character of others). As with Don and Roger this season, perhaps Paul’s biggest change in character is his greater self-awareness, which we see repeatedly throughout the episode. He points out to Harry that when the two knew each other better, Paul was very insecure, and he seems to understand the envy he feels when Harry tells him that he had a vision while chanting earlier, and he even admits to Harry that he struggles with the basic tenets of his new religion (particularly emptying his mind during chanting). This last item is not something the old Paul would readily be willing to admit. At the same time, however, he still has these same feelings, just as he did before he became a Hare Krishna, and still suffers from the same inability to estimate his own capabilities, as we surmise from the description we hear of his rather unsubtle Star Trek spec script. Even greater self-awareness hasn’t helped Paul here. His futile struggle to escape from himself brings to my mind the phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

As for Paul’s being a poor judge of character, boy, does he have a poor read of Mother Lakshmi. Paul sees her as a scared runaway, when she’s really a devout believer who is just manipulating Paul into continuing with the Krishnas. What a terrible situation for poor Paul. He’s given his heart to someone incapable of returning the gesture, and he’s put his trust in Harry, who, as usual, proves to be a weak-willed heel (perhaps Harry’s happiness stems from his almost complete lack of self-awareness, or from the comfort he derives from his hedonism. Or both). Harry doesn’t seem to think twice about having sex with Mother Lakshmi, even after Paul has told Harry how much she means to him. In fact, Harry’s only “concern” is that he is married himself, rather than his friend being in love with the woman who is seducing him (and Harry only raises his marriage with Lakshmi as a devil’s advocate argument). True, he does double-check with Lakshmi that their having sex is “completely allowed” by the Krishnas, but if he knows Paul probably wouldn’t feel that way, he’s selectively ignores it. What’s worse, he completely compromises himself with Paul: Harry knows the truth about Lakshmi, but can’t say anything to Paul, not because Lakshmi forbids him from telling Paul about it, but because Harry would lose Paul’s trust if Harry were to tell Paul exactly how he knows that Paul’s dream of a life with Laksmhi away from the Hare Krishna won’t work out. Put in an impossible position by his own actions, Harry does what he can for Paul, giving Paul strong (albeit false) motivation to extricate himself from Lakshmi and the Hare Krishna by telling him a reader loved his script. Given Paul’s options, it’s tough to tell if Harry made the right decision. Is it better for Paul to move across the country to continue to struggle with writing (at which he’s terrible), or is better to tell him he’s terrible, even if it forces him back into a situation where he is being used by a spiritual cutthroat who will never fulfill his romantic dreams? While it might be difficult to determine if Harry made the right decision, it is much less difficult to determine why Harry chose to further delude Paul: it’s the easiest way out. Harry would rather suffer a guilty conscience (to the extent that he has a conscience) than tell Paul the truth about his capabilities as a writer or about Lakshmi. Regardless of whether or not Paul would believe Harry about Lakshmi, either of those truths would lead to a confrontation with Paul that Harry doesn’t want to have. Better to slither away from Paul now, and avoid him in the future should he ever learn the truth either about the favors Harry claimed to pull for Paul, or about his fucking Lakshmi. Hopefully, Harry will be haunted by Paul’s last line about Harry being the first to actually do something for him. Farewell, Paul. May you salvage your life in Los Angeles.

Like Paul, Don is also struggling with the changes in his life, although unlike with Paul, were shown this through the show’s finally indulging in something many viewers have wanted to see for a long, long time: a long, candid, heartfelt conversation between Don and Joan (and one instigated by a hilarious outburst Joan directs toward the imbecilic front desk secretary. “Surprise! There’s an airplane here to see you!”). These two characters have never before been paired together at such length; the closest the show has come was a wonderful little scene between the two of them in a hospital waiting room during “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” back in season three. They had great chemistry together then, and it proves to be the case once again.

Why are Joan and Don such a good fit? There are probably many answers to this question, but a part of it stems from the many ways in which they are similar. They are each practical, world-weary, and somewhat cynical. They are also extremely private, even secretive: Joan’s voluptuous beauty and her upbringing have made her cautious about letting others get to know her. She rarely lets people into her life, and treats her trust like a prize that must be earned. Don, on the other hand, is ashamed of his past (being born a bastard whoreson), and has lied for much of his adult life to compensate for it. He fears being close to others because it increases the chances of their finding out the truth about his past. And of course, he has an even darker secret that has been the cause of much drama on the show: he stole the identity of the real Don Draper during the Korean War. Even here, however, we can see a parallel with Joan, who now has her own secret: the identity of her son’s father. Like Don, it’s a secret she now shares with someone – she has Roger, he has Megan – although unlike with Megan and Don, Roger is of little emotional help to her (and also unlike with Don, now that she is getting divorced there is less urgency in keeping it secret).

Doubtless there are other reasons the two seem like a good pair (Joan is one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, while Don is one of the most interesting, etc.), but no matter the reason, finally seeing the two share a lengthy scene together is extremely gratifying (all it took to happen was Don walking by just when Joan is most vulnerable: immediately after being served divorce papers). And their discussion is great, one of two old hands discussing their shared past (I particularly liked Don telling Joan he used to be scared shitless of her), and what they now have in common, which inevitably leads to talk of divorce and relationships. Don is right to congratulate her for being rid of the awful Greg (even if he doesn’t know just how right he is), but Joan wonders how she’ll ever meet anyone now that she has a baby. Joan seems to judge people by weighing their good qualities against their bad, and she probably can’t help but see being a single mom as a negative mark (it’s likely how she would have previously judged other women in her position). Don offers her the half-practical, half-joking advice of not telling anyone about it until they sleep with her (we’ve seen this strategy both work and not work for Don: it worked for Megan, but not for Rachel Menken in season one). It’s also interesting to note that Joan seems to genuinely drop her cattiness over Megan and Don’s marriage here: she compliments him on his happiness, and seems surprised to hear herself telling Don he found someone perfect. Later, the two flirt innocently and knowingly, giving credence to those who think that they would actually be perfect for one another, if only the timing were ever right (and if only Don liked red-heads). I’d happily watch another 90 minutes of Don and Joan being wingmen for one another.

The conversation takes an analogical turn when Don points out a guy checking out Joan from the other end of the bar. Joan asks Don, “And who do you think is waiting at home? I bet she’s not ugly. The only sin she’s committed is being familiar.” Don has been in this man’s hypothetical position quite often over the course of his marriage to Betty, and replies defensively, “So you think it’s all him?” However, the parallels with Don and Megan are also quite obvious. Joan and Don debate whether or not the man on the other end of the bar knows what he wants. Don thinks he doesn’t know, but Joan replies, “He knows. It’s just the way he is. And maybe it’s just the way she [the man’s hypothetical wife] is.” Considering Don’s own insecurities about remaining “just the way he is,” and his ability to stay interested and faithful to Megan (whom he just agreed was perfect), we can see why this would unsettle him. Like Paul, Don wants to be able to change the parts of himself that he does not like, and he certainly does not want to be a person who perpetually wants what he doesn’t have. Moreover, he knows that Joan’s description of the hypothetical wife certainly does not apply to Megan. She is not a woman who will wait at home for a husband who doesn’t come, and who wants something else. It’s not who she is, and she knows she’s worth much more than that: she’s young, a good person, and is without any child-rearing obligation to stay with a neglectful husband. Don knows he can’t screw up too badly with Megan or she’ll leave him. Perhaps Joan helps him to realize it, because he immediately decides to go home to Megan. And indeed, when he arrives there, he gets confirmation about Megan’s character: Megan is justifiably livid with Don for his inconsiderately not telling her where he was. Moreover, she also says exactly what she thinks of the kind of woman Joan hypothesizes about at the bar: “I put a plate in the oven for you, and sat here like an idiot, waiting for someone who doesn’t give a shit about anybody!” The volatility of her outburst here underlines just how much she is not the person Joan described, and what Don’s typical behavior will lead to with her. So, like Paul, Don has changed in an attempt to make his life happier. However, also like Paul, he still seems to struggle with changing what he dislikes about himself.

Other thoughts:

- Poor Lane, both figuratively and (apparently) literally. As difficult as it is to anticipate what might happen in later episodes of this show, his actions here seem to be setting up for later developments. It wasn’t the most interesting part of the episode, however, as I feel we’ve seen iterations of “stodgy, ineffectual British character” before, both on this show and elsewhere (although I did like the moment where he lies to his wife in order to convince her that they should stay in New York for the holidays, when really he simply can’t tell her that they can’t afford it. Nice bit of acting there from Jared Harris). It’s sad that he’s too proud to simply ask one of the other partners for help. Don ended up helping Pete financially last season, and although that wasn’t a private matter like Lane’s, if I understood correctly, Lane’s current dilemma seems to stem in part from his taking business away from the UK (when he stole away Sterling Cooper), so he might be somewhat justified in asking the others for a loan.

- Pete’s futile quest to get congratulated about the Jaguar news was pretty funny, with Bert’s response giving me the biggest laugh, both because Pete was the most explicit with Bert in asking for praise, and Bert was by far the most negative about the news: “They’re lemons! They never start.”

- More Bert hilarity: Pete tells Roger to meet him in Bert’s “office,” and the two talk together with Don in the hall outside of the men’s room.

- Boy is Joan cold in her dismissal of Roger. Roger: “We made a baby together.” Joan: “Yes, and now it’s some other lucky girl’s turn.” Yikes.

- Excellent minimalist acting from Jon Hamm in the scene where he watches the somewhat avant garde theater performance with Megan. His face should appear next to the dictionary definitions of “bored” and “disapproving.”

- Megan and Don’s relationship takes a backseat for much of the episode, but we can tell they’re growing more distant, and it's even shown to us visually when they return from the theater. In one particular shot, Don pours himself a drink on screen left, and Megan stands on screen right, with the space of the living room between them. Don is sensitive to any implied criticism Megan might have of advertising, now that she’s rejected her opportunity there. Little wonder, considering advertising is so central to Don’s life (if no longer his interests). Also, it’s interesting to note that later, Don misreads Megan’s anger at him as an invitation for sex, and that Megan shuts it down (unlike in the season premiere).

- Apparently Don’s renewed interest in his job from last week’s episode didn’t stick, as this episode, his first reaction to Pete’s announcement about Jaguar is to groan over the amount of work it will entail (and later, he picks up a pad and pencil in order to look busy when Pete stops by his office). He claims he’d be more excited if he didn’t think it would be a waste of time, but later, he has no response to Megan when she accuses him of losing interest in a job he used to love before she met him. These scenes make Don’s troop-rousing speech at the end of the episode ring somewhat false. Are we supposed to believe Don in this episode-ending scene? This seems like a vintage Draper pitch, but does he have the heart for it anymore? I suppose we’ll have to tune in next week to find out.

- It was inevitable that the show reference Star Trek at some point, as it’s an important pop cultural sixties touchstone, but did they have to make Hare Krishna Paul the one who finds it worthwhile? Mad Men doesn’t completely deride science fiction, given the weight of Ken’s moonlighting gig, and the thematic resonance his story had for the episode where we learn about it, but I would have liked to have seen someone else find value in Star Trek (regardless of whether or not the show made fun of it). Also: Peggy is hilarious when she asks Harry if reading Paul’s script will give her a case of the “Negron complex.”

- More Don and Joan goodness: after pointing out that he never sent her flowers, Don sends flowers the next day.

- Lane shouting a greeting and then hanging up during uncomfortable phone conversations continues to be funny: in season three, it was “Happy Christmas!” to Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, and this year it’s “Good day!” to his British lawyer.

- Lakshmi’s a funny hypocrite. She tells Harry she slept with him in order to protect Paul’s soul and prevent Harry from convincing Paul to leave the religion, telling Harry, “You want to make him a gross materialist when he’s living in the spiritual world!” Then, only a beat later, she becomes a gross materialist herself, matter-of-factly stating, “And also, he’s our best recruiter. I mean, he really can close.” The material world is indeed hard to escape. Perhaps Paul isn’t a total loss, but just doesn’t know where his strengths lie.

- Also funny: drunk Don tries to hang his coat on a lamp shade.

UPDTATE: Tom and Lorenzo, Sepinwall, and my roommate all give Harry more credit than I do. True, he does give Paul a considerable amount of money, but I'm skeptical that delusional in Los Angeles is any better than manipulated but aware of his limitations in New York.

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