As I write this, I’m sitting on a third-floor deck of a house on St. George Island, Florida, looking out at the Gulf of Mexico as the sun rises. The sea is calm, almost glassy. There’s no chill breeze, no sound except for the gentle lapping of the waves. The horizon stretches from pink to blue, a hard edge to the cloudless sky. It is just about perfect.
Mad Men has been just about perfect, too. No show since Seinfeld has given us so many episodes of perfectly crafted, beautifully self-contained television. It’s not that the larger storylines don’t matter–just that they’re so often immaterial to one’s enjoyment of the show when each individual episode is such a gem.
Which “Christmas Waltz,” Episode 10 of Season 5 of Mad Men, is decidedly not. For the most part, each of this year’s episodes has been a solid short story. “Christmas Waltz” seems more of a plot-advancer–except that only one significant plot point gets advanced. The rest of episode just treads water.
The big issue: Lane Pryce’s financial woes. As the episode opens, Lane gets a call from his attorney in London. He owes a bunch of money in back taxes, and he doesn’t have it. So he convinces Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s banker to increase the agency’s credit line so they can pay bonuses.
But Don Draper has other ideas. He suggests waiting for the Christmas party to award bonuses, and the other partners agree. So Lane sneaks into the office late one night and forges Don’s name on a $7,500 check. (Since he’s British, perhaps it’s a cheque.) Certainly, it will be only a few days before they’ll be writing checks to the other partners, anyway–
–except that Mohawk Airlines has suspended its advertising due to a mechanic’s strike. The partners decide to forgo their bonuses, and the episode ends with Lane in a perfectly proper British wince. Add Lane to the characters whose lives we fear for; there’s been so much death imagery in this season’s shows that it will seem almost a cheat if someone doesn’t commit suicide by season’s end.
In other developments, Edwin Baker has been fired and SCDP is back in the running for Jaguar. Meanwhile, Joanie’s been served with divorce papers. In an act of chivalry, Don whisks her out of the office to the Jaguar dealer, where they pose as a couple. Don writes a $6,000 check as a deposit on a test drive, proving he’s no Lane Pryce, and he and Joanie go to a bar and get smashed. They chat about why he never made a move on her, blah blah blah. Chivalrous Don Draper’s not that interesting.
And in the episode’s most amusing and disposable storyline, we find out that our old pal Paul Kinsey has joined the Hare Krishnas. He contacts Harry and brings him to a chant-off, but not to recruit him. Paul’s not happy–a sure sign of which is that he’s been writing bad Star Trek episodes in his spare time. He want to leave the movement, although he’s in love with Lakshmi, a dedicated Krishna who’s a little too affectionate with Harry.
Make that a lot too affectionate. Lakshmi boinks Harry at the office and informs him that he needs to stay away from Paul, who’s the Hare Krishnas’ best recruiter. Appalled, Harry hands Paul $500 and a ticket to Los Angeles, telling him that his business contacts loved the script but can’t buy it. Paul thanks Harry profusely. ”All these people said they’d do something for me and you’re the first one who did,” he says.
Okay, so it was fun to see Paul in saffron robes, his head shaved, talking about Star Trek. It was fun to see Don Draper acting the gentleman. But overall, “The Christmas Waltz” was as flat as the Gulf of Mexico on a calm morning in May, and not in a good way. It had all the trappings of a great episode of Mad Men, and none of the substance.
And I may be forgetting something, but I don’t remember a single hilarious line from Roger Sterling. That is like a Christmas bonus in reverse.
Alas, nothing is without flaws. Those cool sea breezes that would have made it too chilly to sit out on the deck this morning also would have kept away the gnats, which nipped at my bare legs until I had to take my coffee inside. Even paradise is not perfect.