If there has been one constant throughout Mad Men's tenure, it is the late season pivot - in Season 1, Pete discovered Don's secret life; in Season 2, Duck Phillips attempted a power play and brokered the deal that sold Sterling Cooper to PPL; in Season 3, Betty discovered Don's secret life (and PPL was selling itself, and SC, to McCann); in Season 4, Lucky Strike left the agency, threatening its viability and Don began his romance with Megan. Now? Who knows. On the one hand, Christmas Waltz felt like so much house cleaning - Joan was officially served with divorce papers, a random character from seasons past re-appeared, and Don seems to have re-engaged with work. On the other hand, Lane embezzled $50,000 from the agency to cover an unpaid tax bill to the Queen (forging a check using Don's signature to boot) and Don provided more affirmation that he has gained insight (dare I say consciousness?) about his life.
The main storyline re-introduced us to Paul Kinsey, who, after falling down the advertising ladder, finds himself a member of the Hare Krishnas, but yearning for acceptance, recognition, an answer. Although he is clad in robes, his desires are mainstream. He wants a life with a woman he loves, a house to call his home and a career, not as a chanting devotee, but a script writer for Star Trek. His cult leaves him wanting, his "girlfriend," a former runaway and prostitute named Lakshmi, wants him to stay not for love, but for his recruiting prowess, and his poverty stops him from listening to Star Trek, because he can only view the show through a window of a pizza parlor. As a charitable gesture, Harry gives Kinsey $500 and encourages him to go to California, where he can start fresh and get a clean start. Moved by the magnanimous and selfless gesture, Kinsey leaves the Krishnas to pursue his future.
Meanwhile, the Queen has been after Lane Pryce for a steep tax penalty he has neglected to pay. Without the resources to cover the assessment, Lane takes out a $50,000 line of credit with the agency's bank and plans to launder it through the distribution of Christmas bonuses to the partners and staff. While he's able to successfully duplicate Don's signature as a co-sign on his check, the other partners put the kibosh on handing out the bulk of the money when it is discovered Mohawk Airlines has pulled its advertising. Whether this storyline ends up being a red herring (because future business covers the bank loan) or a defining experience (resulting in the "Pryce" being dropped from the masthead because he's arrested or the agency goes under) remains to be seen, but it's precisely the type of out of left field plot twist that Weiner injects into the show to keep us off balance.
If Lane's legal troubles are mounting, Joan's are just beginning. She is served with divorce papers by Greg and falls to pieces, lashing out at the front desk receptionist before Don scoops her up for a getaway day of test driving Jaguar and highballs at the bar. Joan's lone interaction with Roger is tempestuous. He's drunk (and wearing a Hawaiian shirt over his vest and button down) and she's in no mood for his antics. It's a disappointing tableau. Their interactions, which were so poignant and tender in Season 4 have been choppy and dismissive this season - as if they just can't seem to get their timing right. Perhaps they never will, but Joan is a soon to be divorcee in 1966, a prospect she clearly does not relish.
But give Don credit. He smartly distracts Joan from her personal drama by giving her a day away from it all, and also gives her an opportunity to process the fact that Greg is divorcing her, not the other way around (as if it matters). Their bar talk is instructive in confirming Don's growth - he dismisses his affair with Bobbi Barrett (referenced elliptically through her line that she "likes to be bad and then go home and be good") as a "disaster" and notes that people have no idea how awful one's marriage has to get before divorce becomes an option (this is 1966 after all). He acknowledges his happiness with Megan and even pushes back against Joan's assertion that a married man's wandering eye is his fault alone.
This level of self-awareness is unusual for Don and his willingness to see that time in his life as what it was - self-destructive - is a theme that has been woven throughout this season. On the other hand, Joan seems resigned to her fate as they speculate on the backstory of a single man across the room who has shown interest in her. Joan assumes he's married and that his wife's only sin is to have become "familiar." Don pushes back, questioning why it's assumed the man is entirely at fault. While this disagreement may simply be a matter of each character's perspective (and history), even in a boozy haze, each shows a remarkable acuity to their own worldview.
Don gets a chance to put his words into action as soon as he gets home. Megan, fuming that he has not called and is drunk, demands that they sit and eat dinner together. She not only forces normalcy onto Don (and into their marriage) at every turn, but builds Don up when he laments his disinterest in work since she quit. At pivotal times this season, when a weaker woman would have been unable to stand up to Don, Megan has. She is relentless in her desire to keep him on a righteous path - when he left her at Howard Johnson's, she explained that action like that erodes their marriage; when he wants to scream at Betty for disclosing his marriage to Anna to Sally, she calmly tells him why doing that will give Betty just what she wants. She even intuits his discomfort with a play they attend for its anti-consumerism message and flips his distaste to show it is unwarranted.
The result is a rejuvenated Don, who speaks to the staff at the Christmas party with passion and verve about the challenge ahead of them - of becoming a "made" agency by securing the elusive car client. His rousing speech is met with applause as he calls the creative team into his office to begin brainstorming ideas and we are left to wonder, as the calendar turns to 1967, where these final three episodes will lead us.