Monday, 21 May 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Christmas Waltz' analysis / review


When people make a big deal about rejecting Christmas, or any other holiday, because of some notion of rampant consumerism, they're usually trying to say something about themselves, projecting a world-weary attitude and distancing their ideals from our corrupt modern times (or something). What it really says about them is that their righteousness has blinded them to how Christmas has nothing to do with what you buy, or where you buy it, but is at its core about showing the people around you how much you care. You don't have to buy an expensive present to express that, and people who act as though that is the only way the 'Christmas spirit' can manifest itself only mark themselves out as every bit as shallow as the predatory capitalism they so decry.

The distinctly unseasonal 'Christmas Waltz' revolves around a similar idea of people getting caught up in ideas of consumerism, whether rejecting or accepting, but failing to recognise the honest personal connections that the day should really be about.
  
Don has built his life around a job that involves creating a false sense of want, telling people they will only be happy if they buy this one product being flashed in front of them. It's how the Christmas-haters see the holiday, approximating love with consumerist outlay: you love me, so buy me a present. Once the gift has been received, though, the excitement of anticipation dissipates into the familiarity of ownership, requiring something new, exciting and unpossessed to take its place. That's a problem with people, though, not a problem with the system. It's people who mistake possession with affection, and while consumer capitalism gives them the means by which to do so, it's their own inability to understand on any deeper level the connections between themselves and the people they care about that is where the corruption of the yuletide ideal really stems from.

I've been optimistic about the new Draper marriage since the beginning of the season, although cracks are slowly beginning to show. There's a stronger foundation for them to be sorted out than there ever was between Don and Betty, but requires Don to shed many of the beliefs he has lived by for so long. When Megan was working alongside him at the firm, he had a glimpse of true happiness: she was part of his life at work and at home, embracing everything he held dear. Since then, she's made clear her real dreams lie elsewhere, and his happiness has been shattered. What he liked was that she was always there to lavish love and attention on him, and the idea of her having her own life takes some getting used to.

He's trying, but having been the centre of attention for most of his adult life, is finding that giving honest love isn't as easy as receiving. He doesn't understand why she wasn't happy having the things he had, because his life is based entirely around the idea of possession, whether of objects or people. He's the epitome of the shallow, corrupt Christmas which solely revolves around love expressed through expenditure. Megan is the opposite, someone who yearns for a more honest expression of happiness and love, whether it is her new husband giving the courtesy of showing up on time for dinner, or her need to pursue real fulfillment through a career in acting, rather than taking the easy money in advertising. She's a dreamer, and uncomfortable acknowledging that her pursuit of creative achievement is only really possible from the platform of her husband's affluence, but unlike Don - who reacts with disgust after being taken to a pretentious play offering a dim view of his profession - she's aware of that dichotomy and trying to make peace with it. Christmas may be most visibly manifested by consumerist images in the outside world, but it's down to the individual to decide whether they want it to be defined in such a shallow way when taken back to the family at home.

Don's conflation of happiness and consumerism is most clearly expressed in his trying to make Joan feel better after she's served divorce papers in the office. His solution is to take her to a Jaguar showroom and test out an e-type, paying off the salesman to let them whizz about in it for the day. To him, her sadness should be alleviated by a shiny material gift. It's not the car itself that matters, though, but the sentiment behind it: Don taking time out of his day to remind Joan that someone cares about her, and wants to make her feel better. The car's fun, but the place it takes them to - a bar where they can talk sincerely as friends - is what really matters.

Both characters have a great deal in common, only now having to recognise how the hollow images their lives were built on (Joan in her marriage, Don in his everything) need to be discarded for something more authentic and personal. As their conversation repeatedly lays out, they're still looking for the wrong things (Joan thinks Don can't appreciate the car because he's happy, even though that's clearly not the case) despite the right path being right in front of them: Don with Megan, Joan with the possibility of new love - or at least, a connection for the night - sitting at the other end of the bar. When Don drives the car home, he's angrily trying to use its power to flush his dissatisfaction away, yet it's only when Megan forces him to sit down with her at dinner that he becomes even peripherally aware of how he's unhappy because the woman he loves - and I do think he loves her, however dreadful he is at showing it - is being let down.

The Harry Crane story played with similar ideas: he goes to see Paul Kinsey, who has fallen far since being abandoned at the old Sterling-Cooper offices and is now part of the Hare Krishna cult. As became obvious in subsequent years, the Krishna movement was all a scam to take advantage of the spiritually lost, and despite Kinsey's expressions of having abandoned all material needs, he recognises deep down that his new life is no more satisfying than his old one. He's in love with one of the women in his sect, and longs to start a family with her, so convinces Harry to look at an hilariously awful Star Trek spec script he has written.

Harry isn't sure what to do, especially when the woman (Lakshmi) comes by and gives herself to him in exchange for not taking Kinsey away from the Krishnas, because he's their best recruiter. She reveals the real motivation behind the cult, and makes Harry aware of how Kinsey is being manipulated on all sides. His gift is to offer him the chance at a new life, and while that's manifested through an airline ticket and $500, it's the intention behind it - Harry trying to do the best thing for his friend - that matters. Kinsey's going to struggle in Los Angeles, but the struggles will be his own. If only Harry were less susceptible to his own urges, he might be able to find at home similar happiness to that he gifts to his friend.

Lane's plot was the least interesting part of the episode, because his money troubles sprung up from nowhere. The character has jumped in and out of prominence this season, getting big moments (thumping Pete Campbell, most enjoyably) but never established as enough of a constant presence to create any real bond with us watching. His tax problems are a result of his attempts to escape an unsatisfactory old life by embracing all things American. Unfortunately, a change of scenery isn't the same as a change of life, and he repeatedly bumps up against all the things that prevented him from finding fulfillment in England. He's still married to a woman with whom he cannot be honest, still as much of a middle-man as he was at his old company (a partner, yes, but one whose job could just as easily be covered by Joan) and still hounded by her Majesty's tax men. He brought into an image of America as a solution to all his problems, without considering where the real roots of his unhappiness were bedded.

Like Don, he has never really confronted his old self, just tried to run away from the difficulties it caused. It will only take a forged cheque being discovered at the cash-strapped firm to finally bring his pretense of a fresh start crashing down around him. Christmas is a time of year which, whether knowing or not, reveals how we see the important things in our lives. Are we like Don or Lane, mistaking a dream of material possession for happiness? Are we like the Krishnas, who shout loudly against such empty ideals even though we are no less obsessed and driven by them than those who at least embrace them honestly, if misguidedly? Or are we like Megan and Harry, who may not be lacking in challenges to overcome but are at least conscious of real fulfillment coming through the meaning of small exchanges and rituals with loved ones, rather than the exchange itself.

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