Christmas, 1964, I was six years old and living in the suburbs of New York. That year, I knew what I wanted: Johnny Seven OMA (One-Man Army), a big honkin’ gun with a rocket launcher, repeating rifle, and five other weapons in one convenient (albeit huge–over three feet long and weighing more than four pounds) package. Every kid I knew wanted Johnny Seven for Christmas.
I did not get Johnny Seven. I don’t remember what I got, but whatever it was, I wasn’t going to kill any Jerries with it. I was no Sgt. Chip Saunders, if you know what I mean.
On the latest episode of Mad Men, Christmas arrives a few days early. The whole office is bemoaning the cutbacks that will mean a
small, staid Christmas party, when what to their wondering eyes should appear but Freddy Rumsen–yes, that Freddy Rumsen–bearing the Pond’s Cold Cream account. Freddy’s been sober for sixteen months, and he’s in “a fraternity” with the client. He’s still vulnerable to temptation, but committed to what he really wants, which is staying sober–so committed that he’ll ignore the expectations of others, including the idea that he should play Santa at the Christmas party. In his experience, the Santa suit comes preloaded with a bottle, and he’ll be having none of that.
No such luck for Roger. Early in the episode, he gets a call from Lee Garner Jr. of Lucky Strike, the agency’s 800-pound gorilla of a client. Last time we met Lee, he was coming on to Sal Romano, then demanding that Sal be fired. Garner is, if anything, more of a monster than we remembered. At the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Christmas party–super-sized at the last moment for Garner’s benefit–Garner bullies Roger into wearing the Santa suit. Roger is not good with humiliation, but understands he has no choice. The agency’s biggest client insists.
This idea of “what I want versus what’s expected of me”–voiced to Don Draper by researcher Dr. Faye Miller–is the central theme of “Christmas Comes But Once A Year.” It’s a pretty obvious point. But Mad Men complicates it beautifully by making the characters so conflicted. Peggy, for example, tells Freddy she doesn’t “want to be alone on New Year’s Eve.” She wants to be married, she want her career. She’s not sure about the boy, Mark, to whom she’s obviously lied about being a virgin. (Mark is a boy among men. He is, quite obviously, no Duck Phillips.) Freddy’s advice only complicates matters: on the one hand, she shouldn’t sleep with Mark if she wants him to respect her; on the other hand, she shouldn’t lead him on. Her ultimate decision suggests that there’s more than one kind of loneliness, and that the gap between what we want and what’s expected of us isn’t always easy to close.
Of course, our antihero Don Draper has little use for the expectations of others. He ignores business protocols and comes and goes as he pleases–and it pleases him to stagger home drunk every evening. His stoicism about not being home for Christmas with his kids charms his secretary, Allison. When Don takes advantage of her and betrays her, we see very clearly the gulf between Allison’s own desires and Don’s expectations, and it’s heartbreaking.
And then there’s Sally Draper and her creepy friend Glen. One evening when Henry and Betty and the kids are gone, Glen breaks into their house and goes all Johnny Seven on the kitchen–and leaves a coveted lanyard on Sally’s pillow. The whole thing is a gift for Sally from a very bad Santa.
With so many characters playing Santa, the final scene–Don straggling down the apartment corridor loaded with gifts for his kids–is apt, and heartbreaking in its own right. As he tells a neighbor, “I don’t hate Christmas. I hate this Christmas.” He’s certainly lying in the bed he’s made. But it’s still tough not to feel sorry for him. In a way, he’s the one character whose expectations are perfectly in line with his desires. He wants to be with his kids. He knows that ain’t gonna happen.
Oh, and a note to Mom and Dad: Johnny Seven OMA is now a collector’s item. I couldn’t find one on eBay, but the grenade alone is selling for $75. Sometimes, you should listen to your kids.
And now, a scene from this coming Sunday’s show: