Be careful what you wish for.

This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of"Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.

The second "Mad Men" episode of this season, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year," finds nearly all the major characters grappling with growing feelings of powerlessness. Basically, those people who have clout get the presents, and those who don't wind up humiliating themselves in a goofy red suit. Santa Claus is whoever's left holding the bag.

Near the beginning of the episode we get a literal Santa Claus reference, in the form of Sally's proxy letter to Santa on behalf of her brother, which is delivered to Don at the office. Sally, the letter shows, is already wise beyond her years. She not only paid attention when her young friend/stalker Glen warned her that her mom and Henry Francis would have another child soon, so she'd better ask for big gifts now, but she also seems well aware of how to manipulate Don's guilt to get what she wants.

But the grown-ups engage in a darker, more desperate version of the Santa Claus charade. When the truly loathsome Lee Garner from Lucky Strike invites himself to the office Christmas party, Roger instructs Joan to dial it up  “from convalescent home to Roman orgy." The firm can hardly afford it—the previous catering plan was, as Roger puts it, “a glass of gin and a box of Velveeta." But Lucky Strike is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s (SCDP) biggest client, and what Lee Garner wants, Lee Garner gets (a lesson that departed art director Sal Romano learned at great cost last season). Lee shows up to the bash late, then insists that Roger play Santa Claus. Have we ever seen anyone pull rank on Roger like this before? In the end, Roger complies, and hands Lee the biggest, most beautifully wrapped present in his sack.  "You didn’t need to do that," Lee says. "Yes we did," Lane Pryce replies.

The episode is full of people doing things they don’t want to at the insistence of someone more important. Joan wasn’t planning on attending the party in Roger Sterling’s favorite red dress with a bow on the back ("the one that made you look like a present"), but between Roger's wistful expression and the need to please their most important client, Joan wears the damned dress and leads Lee and the other guests on a conga line through the office with a seductive smile. (As always, Joan is the madam of this figurative whorehouse, making sure all the boys are taken care of.)

Then there’s the profoundly depressed Don, who seems to be morphing from a highly functioning alcoholic into a barely-functioning one. It would be difficult to imagine the Don Draper of Season One failing to pick up either the nurse who lives down the hall in his apartment building or the woman from the research firm who gives a presentation at SCDP. But Don fails with both, and then, following the party, compensates for it by putting the moves on his secretary, Allison. After some initial resistance, she gives in. The next morning, Don coldly ignores their blotto one-night-stand and gives her a cash bonus inside a Christmas card. (Shaken, she goes out to her desk and starts typing something—her resignation letter?)

Peggy, who's trying to keep her young, perpetually horny boyfriend at arm's length, relented and gave him a Christmas present, so to speak. She didn't look unhappy afterward, but I interpreted the moment as a defeat for Peggy, or at least a strategic retreat into more traditional, How-to-Be-a-Good- Gal-and-Please-Your-Man notions of femininity. I get the sense that Peggy's matter-of-fact pre-feminist resolve—displayed last week in the scene where she stood up to Don—was ground down by Freddie Rumsen, the onetime pants-pissing drunk who showed up at the struggling SCDP sober with "a present under my arm"—a $2 million Cold Cream account. His binary ideas for the account clearly hit a nerve: either you're a married, "normal" woman with a husband and kids or a lonely spinster.

The thread that unified all these scenarios was the arrival of a newly refined Madison Avenue sales tactic: psychology-based research that can supposedly divine a would-be buyer's true desires. (Don fled the conference room before a sample test was administered to the agency's department heads. Was it because Don didn't want to delve into his own painful childhood, or because he's constructed so many different lives, and so many false identities, that he feared he wouldn't be able to remember the "right" answer to certain questions?) This kind of research, the beautiful young rep tells Don, is geared toward breaking through peoples' socially approved false fronts and figuring out what the lonely child, the wounded animal, the depressed and alienated American, really craves. (I would love to have seen Peggy's answers to the test questions.)

 "Christmas Comes but Once a Year" is a seemingly straightforward maxim that's repeatedly disproved throughout the hour. Except for a couple of on-the-nose lines (please, "Mad Men" writers, follow the example of the reformed Freddie Rumsen and break yourself of this addiction), the show made its points obliquely, in scenes that require the viewer to juxtapose what actually happened during a scene vs. what the characters felt and wanted at that moment but could not express. Here, as in so many episodes of "Mad Men," the true drama lay not in what characters were asking of each other, or doing to each other, but in watching them swallow their pride and their feelings for survival's sake. As Bob Dylan sang, it may be the devil or it may be the lord, but you've got to serve somebody.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series. 

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