If “Mad Men’s” fourth season revolved around the question that opened its premiere, “Who is Don Draper?,” then Season Five is focused on the next logical question, “What does he want?” Don claims to not know, and he tells Joan as much in Episode 10, “Christmas Waltz.” She isn’t fooled. Don knows who he is and what he wants; he just isn’t honest enough with himself or others to achieve either goals. That really is the “Mad Men” message: honesty is a key to surviving the malaise of modern life, but humans have a way of being dishonest about most everything. Thus, we’re often disappointed. Happy Holidays. A variety of characters struggled with truth in its various forms in “Waltz,” a solid entry as the season draws to a close and a breath of fresh, Joan- and Lane-filled air after last week’s Betty-centric narrative. But it can only be avoided for so long.
Lane has grown increasingly desperate throughout the season, not only with his personal struggles to feel valued and recognized but also with financial pressures at work and at home. But now that he has stolen from the company to pay his back taxes — getting the firm’s credit limit increased by $50,000 and using what would have been his bonus share of that sum to cover his debts — he is officially in over his head. Of course another problem arose and the firm needs the money he already took, but whether Lane will admit to his crime is hard to say. He already has proven he can be erratic (see: fascination with Dolores, fist fight with Pete), and when backed into a corner, he’ll now be even more desperate. His one place to turn, however, is Joan. She’s the person who sees him, and listens to him, because he is the one who likewise sees and listens to her. She can very well be his strength in all this, or at the very least teach him to attack co-workers with model airplanes.
Indeed, Joan was on a roll in “Waltz,” first with her takedown of the clueless receptionist who practically handed the divorce papers over to Joan herself, and later with her skillful handling of Don and his flirtation — Don being the one man who never really has had a chance with her. From their visit to the Jaguar showroom to their long afternoon at a bar, the two oozed chemistry and style and surely made shippers salivate at the possibility of an affair. I doubt it, but as Megan already seems to be boring Don and Joan isn’t even interested in Roger’s offers to help their baby, Kevin, financially, the possibility can’t completely be ruled out. Still, Joan is the strongest character of the bunch, facing life as a single mother with grace even as she wonders how she’ll ever find love again. “Now you get to move on,” Don tells her. “To what?,” she asks. “To start over with a baby? On what date do you share that news?” “Right after you go all the way,” Don says with a smile. Joan always has thought Don charming — most everyone does — but she also sees him as trouble, and, perhaps, too like her to be any good for her. The attention of another man at the bar lets them get to the point, as Joan guesses that her admirer is married:
Joan: “I bet (his wife isn’t) ugly. The only sin she’s committed is being familiar.”
Don: “So you think it’s all him?”
Joan: “Because she can’t give him what he wants?”
Don: “Because he doesn’t know what he wants, but he’s wanting.”
Joan: “He knows. It’s just the way he is. And maybe it’s just the way she is.”
Megan isn’t amused at Don’s drunken return that night — she sat at home “like an idiot waiting for someone who doesn’t give a shit about anybody.” He submits to sitting down for dinner, but he certainly isn’t radiating contentment as he had been earlier in the year, fresh in his marriage and obsessed with spending time with her. Megan’s independence is proving to be one of their biggest problems; his dig at her as they discussed the play “America Hurrah” — “No one’s made a stronger stand against advertising than you” — demonstrates his unhappiness at what sees as her rejection not of the job but of him. He invented his life; now he wants to invent his mate’s. He’s a child, quickly bored with his newest toy and ready for the next one. But that’s “just the way he is.” Is this pattern just going to repeat itself? Is Don, as a character, truly likable?
The long-absent Paul Kinsey, likewise, is struggling with who he is and the notion that no matter what he does, he still doesn’t like himself — and others may not like him, either. After bouncing from agency to agency, Kinsey now is part of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, but behind the chanting and shaved head is a man still unfulfilled, even in the love he says he has for fellow movement member Lakshmi. He reaches out to Harry for his TV connections, wanting his former colleague to shop around “a speculative episode” of “Star Trek.” It’s terrible, Harry admits to Peggy as he seeks her help in the matter. “If you really want to help,” she says, “be honest with him and tell him to write a better script.” “I think it was really hard for him,” Harry says. “Then he shouldn’t be doing it.” A bizarre rendezvous with Lakshmi at the office is what propels Harry to help Paul by both lying to him about his script and encouraging him to follow his dreams of writing. A ticket to Los Angeles and $500 cash are a chance for a fresh start, not to mention an escape from the manipulations of his lover and her determination to keep Paul as a recruiter. Harry’s lies in “Christmas Waltz” may have been the kindest of all.
Money certainly buys opportunity, if not happiness, and the notion of “the emptiness of consumerism” was bandied about the episode, from Don’s carefree writing of a $6,000 check to test drive a Jaguar to Lane’s forging of a $7,500 check to keep up the façade of a stable life. But not even Madison Avenue is immune to the changing times; news of the chance to win the Jaguar account is met with less enthusiasm than Pete was expecting and rightfully points out would have received just a year earlier. Everyone’s problems are bigger now, and even as Don rallies the troops with a speech about winning the Jaguar account and letting the world know the agency has arrived, he lets them know gratification won’t come easily. And for most of them, it won’t come at all.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic at Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.