'Mad Men' Recap: Living in the Material World

Don and Joan take the day off, and an old colleague reappears

mad men
Jordin Althaus/AMC
Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in 'Mad Men.'
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Whenever a new season of a TV show begins, there's the hope and promise of endless time to explore various story lines. We're presented with a variety of open-ended character threads that leave us hankering for any new detail or development – and in many cases, several episodes pass before certain plot lines are revisited.

Now that Mad Men's fifth season is winding down, last night's "Christmas Waltz" illustrated the scramble to address the abandoned plot lines from earlier episodes. So while it was a relief to get more answers behind Lane's financial difficulties and to watch Joan reclaim her sex appeal following the collapse of her marriage, the episode, like last week's, was too lacking in focus to be considered one of the season's better ones.

"There's One for You, 19 for Me"

It's too bad Apple wasn't willing to give Matthew Weiner a two-fer when he paid $250,000 for the use of "Tomorrow Never Knows" in the episode "Lady Lazarus" a couple of weeks ago. Because "Taxman," George Harrison's commentary on Britain's crippling tax rates, which was also on the Beatles' 1966 album Revolver, would've been an ideal song choice for this episode. It appears Lane is in trouble with England's version of the IRS, and while his lawyer has been able to keep him out of prison, Lane is still responsible for about $8,000.

And that's $8,000 he doesn't have. After securing an additional $50,000 line of credit from the bank ("No one's been paying their bills on time," he lies), passing it off as a "surplus" and ensuring bonuses at SCDP for the first time in three years, Lane sneaks into the office after hours. Forging Don's signature on a company check made out to himself, Lane makes the necessary tax payment, but his problems are far from over. For all the online debates as to who is the man falling out the window during Mad Men's opening credits (Don? Pete?), judging by this episode, I think a strong case could be made for Lane Pryce at this point.

Harry, Harry Krishna

The last we saw smug, pipe-smoking copywriter Paul Kinsey, he was staring into Peggy's empty office at Sterling Cooper at the end of Season Three, dismayed that he hadn't been asked to join the fledgling agency. And things haven't gotten much better in the three years since then. According to Peggy, he's imploded at a steady stream of agencies, landing with a thud as an in-house copywriter for the A&P supermarket. Oh, and he's also a Hare Krishna – the George Harrison references continue! –  complete with a shaved head and robe.

After blowing him off several times, Harry meets up with Paul, who explains why he got in touch: He's written a script for Star Trek and he wants Harry to pass it along to his contacts at NBC. Also, he's in love with the sultry, red-robed Krishna Mother Lakshmi and wants to have a life with her outside of the movement. But Paul has bigger problems than getting a script read, especially when he is sorely lacking in talent. His career trajectory outlines how pathetic he's become, so much so that he bemoans to Harry, "No one likes me."

Paul's low self-worth demonstrates why he was a perfect target for the Krishna movement, which is portrayed as a borderline cult here, especially when Lakshmi pays Harry a visit at the SCDP offices. Lakshmi plays off of Harry's weaknesses to bend him to her will: "I'm burning for you. Does your wife burn for you?" The answer is a resounding "no," and it's also pretty safe to say that Jennifer Crane doesn't offer up her ass for a little backdoor action the way Lakshmi does.

During Harry's post-coital cigarette, Lakshmi gets down to business – which is that she's full-on psycho. For all the "peace and love" talk synonymous with the Krishnas, Lakshmi is not above smacking Harry to drive her point home. She wants him to stay away from Paul, because Harry is a corrupting influence – and Paul is the Krishnas' best recruiter. Freaked out by Lakshmi and taking pity on his old friend, Harry feeds Paul a story about how an NBC exec did read his script and loved it – but can't use it for legal reasons. Hoping that the white lie will boost Paul's self-esteem, Harry gives him $500 and a ticket to Los Angeles. Harry may not think Paul has any talent, but at least out in L.A. he'd be living life under his terms. Paul hugs Harry in gratitude, but whether he was able to pry himself away from Lakshmi's firm grasp remains unknown.

Joy Ride

Joan is in need of some good old-fashioned cheering up this episode, and unlike in the past, it's not Roger who comes to her rescue, but Don. If anything, Roger is a thorn in Joan's side these days. They finally have their first on-camera, post-birth discussion about the child they conceived, but there's nothing revelatory about it. Even though her marriage has ended, Joan does not want Roger to be more than a "family friend," and she stands by that decision by repeatedly returning the money Roger gives her for Kevin's support.

But Joan's day takes a turn for the worse when Greg serves her with divorce papers and she takes her anger out on the oblivious receptionist, Meredith (seriously, why is she still there?), by throwing a Mohawk Airlines model plane at her. Don, who witnessed the meltdown, takes Joan out to cool off. What follows is the antithesis of the hooky trip Don and Megan took a few episodes ago to the upstate Howard Johnson's. First they visit a Jaguar dealership – thanks to Pete's tenacity and the departure of Edwin Baker, the car company is back on the table as a potential SCDP client – to check out the merchandise, pretending to be a flirty married couple. These scenes between Joan and Don have been highly anticipated all season, ever since Jon Hamm hinted that the relationship between these two characters would be explored in greater depth. In order to test drive one of the cars together without the salesman tagging along, Don writes out a check for the asking price (and then some): "If we don't come back, consider it paid for." They go to a bar, where Joan gives the reason behind her breakdown: She's upset that Greg got the upper hand by divorcing her. And she reveals how vulnerable she feels as a single mother starting over – she doesn't think she can be appealing to men anymore. Don, displaying a very uncharacteristic but no less appealing humane side, reassures her that she did the right thing. He's proud of her for ending her marriage, and he can say from experience that second marriages can work out quite nicely.

Much of this episode was peppered with clunky, ill-paced scenes, but they're easy to forget when watching the touching moments between Joan and Don, especially when he encourages her to hook up with the handsome stranger staring at her from across the bar. Despite Joan calling Don "irresistible" and Don calling her "Sweetheart," they have enough mutual respect and admiration to not take their feelings to the next level – and that's what made this scene such a pleasure to watch. Of course, the sexual frustration in Don's face as he fiddled with the Jaguar's stick shift illuminated his ongoing inner struggle.

Megan's anger toward him when he came home late and drunk is understandable, but at least we can safely say that her fears are unfounded, even though back in the season premiere we were teased with a possible Megan-Joan tiff. Don tries to blame Megan's quitting SCDP for his sagging interest in his work, but she reminds him that he "loved it before you ever met me." This galvanizes him to make one of his now-famous Don Draper directives to the SCDP staff the next morning, a speech that has the potential to change the future of the company.

Wrap-Up: When Pete announces that SCDP is one of five agencies being considered for Jaguar, Don informs everyone that they will be living and breathing nothing but British luxury cars until early 1967. "Prepare to take a great leap forward," he says. "We will celebrate Christmas here, we will ring in the New Year together . . . When we land Jaguar, the world will know that we have arrived." In other words, failure is not an option. The old Don Draper is starting to resurface, but in the three episodes remaining, could this renewed workaholic be placing his marriage in jeopardy? I couldn't help but notice Joan staring at him throughout his speech.

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