The romantic potential of Don (Jon Hamm) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) has to have crossed the mind of every “Mad Men” fan at least once, not because it seems likely or because the two even share than much time on screen, but because they’re so perfectly matched. They’re such beautiful, competent retro specimens who possess, at least at times, a heightened understanding of human nature and a burnished armor of control. They are each formidable forces in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the individual king and queen, though both have lost momentum lately for reasons related to their marriages — in Don’s case, thanks to Megan’s (Jessica Paré) choosing acting over advertising and in Joan’s, due to her split with the wretched Greg (Samuel Page).
The centerpiece of last night’s splendidly seasonally inappropriate holiday episode “Christmas Waltz,” directed by regular “Mad Men” helmer Michael Uppendahl, was an adventure in which Don and Joan knock off work before lunch to test drive a Jaguar — the company back in the running as a potential client — and then go out for drinks and reminisce about how goddamn magnificent they used to be and could be again. In a season so filled with dread about growing older, getting replaced or becoming irrelevant, it was a welcome moment of warmth and mutual admiration that felt like fan service after all that dissatisfaction.
It had echoes of “The Suitcase,” an episode that remains a series highlight for the way it focused on and portrayed the relationship between Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), though in this case the interactions aren’t based on any rocky history of mentorship (Peggy has, for good and for bad, molded herself in Don’s image) but on an acknowledgment that Don and Joan have always occupied similarly aloof perches in their workplace hierarchy — as Joan puts it, “my mother raised me to be admired,” and Don may not have been brought up that way, but he’s become accustomed to the same regard.
And watching the pair of them together, breezing into the Jaguar dealership and seamlessly playacting at being a long-term couple with four children and enough money that they’d buy a luxury car because they were sick of waiting for a cab, they do seem worthy of admiration. That scene and the one that follows at the bar showcase the sparkling chemistry between Hamm and Hendricks — their two characters know each other too well and for too long to actually flirt with intent, but they’re enjoying playing at it and trying out old roles they used to inhabit, in the process soothing their sustained slights of Megan’s friend’s anti-consumerist performance (in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “America Hurrah”) and Greg’s serving of divorce papers.
The kingdoms over which they used to so easily preside no longer hold the same desirability, something both acknowledge (Don’s admission, regarding Megan, that “I feel like the office misses her” is a sadly roundabout way of bringing up that he no longer has the same passion for his work). Don cites a line Bobbie Barrett once said to him back in season two — “I like being bad, then going home and being good.” While he sets up Joan to dabble in the former again when he leaves her at the bar, these days all he wants is the latter, a realization that has thrown him off balance, given how fiery his relationship with his young wife has proven to be and how detached he’s felt at the office. And while thanks to Don, Joan gets to be the girl receiving flowers instead of pity from the father of her child Roger (John Slattery), Don returns refreshed as well (or at least able to fake it), delivering a rallying speech to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staff urging them to “prepare to swim the English Channel and then drown in champagne.”
Elsewhere, Lane (Jared Harris) is barely skirting financial disaster thanks to what’s revealed to be a tax problem he’s kept hidden from everyone, a storyline that serves as setup for what’s bound to come when someone discovers that he took his Christmas bonus — one he engineered, after all.
And we learn what befell former copywriter Paul (Michael Gladis), who was left behind like unwanted furniture when the rest of the gang pulled up stakes and left to start their own firm. Always one to show off bohemian tendencies despite (or because of) his Princeton degree, Paul’s ended up deeper off the grid than he ever intended, a reluctant but dedicated member of the Hare Krishnas who calls on Harry (Rich Sommer) for help getting his spec “Star Trek” script to the network in order to escape with his lady love Lakshmi (Anna Wood).
Paul and Harry’s back and forth is a tragicomic counterpoint to Don and Joan’s — they leave not mutually affirmed but deluded, with Harry lying to Paul about the quality of his script out of guilt, pity and cowardice, and Paul unlikely to use Harry’s money to head out to L.A. as suggested, the grip of his new religion and the ferocious Lakshmi probably unescapable. Poor, pompous Paul — he was, once upon a time, one of Joan’s loves, but was dropped after he told everyone about it, and doesn’t seem to understand women any better now. His line about joining up and immediately trying to figure out who in the group the leader likes best was a pathetic echo of his time as a regular at Sterling Cooper and his consistent self-loathing. “Mad Men” has never been optimistic about finding happiness, but what chance at it there is comes with self-knowledge and acceptance. Standing there in a robe in that coffee shop, Paul seems miles away from both.