Do any of you remember the first time that you realized that the world could be a thoroughly disappointing place? I don’t remember the specific instance, but I do remember the sensation, and every time some aspect of my life spirals beyond my ability to control it, I’m right back in that moment, disenchanted all over again. After last night, the characters of Mad Men know of which I speak.
Last night’s episode was all about the many and varied ways that the universe can whirl around and smack you in the face when you least expect it, when everything seems like it’s going swimmingly and all you need to do is keep up your stroke. Suddenly you’re further under water than you had ever intended, and the surface seems miles away. With the exception of perhaps Roger, this week’s episode left all of our characters to drown.
I squealed with glee with Creepy Glen turned up in the “Previously on Mad Men” clips, and we didn’t have to wait long at all for his promised return. The episode started on him away at camp, chatting idly with Sally on the phone while she remained firmly ensconced in the Francis House of Darkness and Wood Panelling. Grandma Francis would soon regret her efforts to contain Sally inside, though – she tripped on the outstretched phone cord running across the hall and under Sally’s door and broke her foot, sending herself to the hospital and both the kids (Eugene has been shot into the sun) over to their dad’s house for a few days.
At the Draper household, he was actually planning ways to break his own foot and send everyone away when the call came in to get the kids. Why? Because inlaws, that’s why. Megan’s French-Canadian parents were in town to see Don get an award from the American Cancer Society, and they were almost cartoonish in their annoying, stereotypical Frenchness. Megan’s dad was a Communist and failed intellectual, judgmental of Don’s wealth while simultaneously jealous of his success. Megan’s mom, on the other hand, was utterly gorgeous and a little too flirtatious with Don’s for Megan’s liking. Both of the elder Calvets were at each others’ throats from the very beginning, but mostly in French so that we all had to read subtitles and Don had no idea what was going on.
When the kids arrived, the story of what happened to grandma had changed a bit, with Sally going from unwitting villain to valiant hero. She tripped on one of Eugene’s toys, you see, and Sally acted like a big girl, called 911 and kept grandma calm and covered with ice until help came. For her troubles, Sally was spared the necessity of eating fish for dinner and given spaghetti, every kid’s favorite. Shortly after the kids arrived, Mrs. Calvet excused herself from the table and passed out, fully clothed, on top of her bed’s blankets and with a freshly lit cigarette in her hand. Was she drunk? She didn’t act drunk, but Megan also knew to go check on her and take the cigarette, so perhaps she always does that when her husband’s being an asshat. (Which must be a lot.)
We then witnessed the episode’s second triumphant return, this time of Mona, Roger’s shade-throwing ex-wife. Actually, that doesn’t do her justice. Mona is basically the patron saint of shade-throwers, that’s how devilishly adept she is at the practice. She and Roger got together in some sort of chic lounge to dance on Jane’s grave just a little bit and talk LSD, but more importantly, Roger had a favor to ask of her regarding some of the executives on the board of the charity that was honoring Don. The scene was sort of a throwaway because Mona didn’t appear in the rest of the episode, but it was nice to see the former Mrs. Sterling (and the real Mrs. Slattery) back, looking gorgeous and sounding as razor-sharp as ever.
We then jumped to work the next day, where Peggy received a weird call from Abe, nervously requesting to see her for dinner one night that week at a fancy restaurant. Earlier in the episode, Abe had quasi-stormed out of eating Chinese food with Peggy and her coworkers after one too many jokes about Peggy’s bras, so the phone call made her anxious that a breakup was looming and she headed to the only appropriate place to seek advice: Joan’s office.
Naturally, Joan had plenty of wisdom to idly dole out while shuffling around papers on her desk. Most notably, “Men don’t end things; they ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate.” And, I mean, I don’t even know what to say about that other than the fact that it was entirely effing correct. She was so correct that I actually got a little distracted. It was good for Peggy, though, because it meant that Abe wasn’t inviting her out to a fancy dinner to dump her, which calmed most of her anxiety.
What WAS the dinner about, then? Well, Joan’s a little older and a little more conservative than Peggy, so she assured her that it was an engagement and sent her out on her lunch hour to buy a new dress for the occasion. Joan perhaps should have considered Peggy’s liberalness and her boyfriend’s level of relative radicalism before assuring anyone that an engagement was nigh, but allowing Joan to be 100% correct, 100% of the time would be no fun. Plus, she’d get no work done because people would be constantly visiting her office like the oracle at Delphi.
Elsewhere in the office, other, work-related epiphanies were being had, this time by Megan. She approached Don with an idea for the Heinz people that was inspired by the previous evening’s spaghetti – her mom made it for her, she made it for Sally, Sally would eventually make it for someone. So, you know, THAT but with beans. All the way to the moon with the beans! Megan even had a tag line for it, all of which seemed to shock Don. What, he didn’t realize that his lovely bride might actually be capable of performing the job to which she was promoted upon marrying him?
We then skipped to Peggy’s Very Important Dinner, for which she had purchased a pink-on-pink ensemble that can only be accurately described as a Joan Dress. She and Abe sat nervously for a few moments before he went ahead and popped the question: Would she like to move in with him, or more accurately, would it be cool if he moved in with her, since her apartment is way better? It’s like the modern girl’s engagement! Peggy seemed not to understand for a moment, waiting for the question of a formal engagement to follow the proclamation that they should live together, but it didn’t.
Naturally, though, Peggy said yes anyway. Despite how nice getting engaged sounds, she’s still married to her work more than anything, so much so that she didn’t even really want to bother having dinner with Abe during the work week. She didn’t get exactly what she thought she might want, but what she did get might turn out being more to her liking. She’s willing to tell herself that and try it out for a little while, anyway.
At another dinner that night, Don, Megan, Ken and Ken’s wife whose name no one ever remembers were having dinner with the Heinz exec and his wife for what seemed like it would be the last time. Although SCDP had new work to present the next day, Mr. Heinz let it slip that they had already been in New York, seeing plays and enjoying themselves, for several days in advance of that evening’s dinner, indicating that another ad firm had been wooing them. While that awkwardness set in, Megan and Mrs. Heinz took a very well-timed trip to the bathroom, wherein Megan got the skinny from someone who was trying a little too hard to make a glamourous new friend.
Back at the table, it was the Megan show, but only if you knew the backstory. She quietly indicated to Don that they were going to get fired at their meeting the next day and prompted him to do the pitch right there, after a bit of denseness on his part and over Ken’s protestations. She also assigned him all the credit, even though the idea had been wholly and entirely hers, wise to the fact that the Heinz dude had gotten uppity over Peggy’s assertiveness during the previous pitch. They won the business in short order, and it would be the only Draper victory of the episode.
In the office the next day, everyone was celebrating the Heinz victory and Megan’s surprising adeptness at her job when Peggy and Joan once again met to discuss a very different dinner. Joan intercepted her near the coffee maker and took note of her lack of new jewelry, and when Peggy sheepishly told her that they had agreed to move in together, Joan’s reaction surprised both Peggy and me. Contrary to the woman who once hewed hard and fast to the rules of savvy courtship, Joan’s impending divorcé status has softened her a bit and perhaps made her more sensitive to the nontraditional choices of others.
More than anything, though, my takeaway from that scene was that I could watch an entire episode, perhaps an entire show, of Joan and Peggy talking to each other and be perfectly satisfied. How their dynamic has shifted and matured over the course of the series is perhaps my favorite part of the entire Mad Men narrative arc, and it’s given just enough attention so that I still get really, truly excited when they’re the only ones in the frame. It’s always magic. Anyone remember their scene from the Season 4 finale? Brilliant.
Anyway, the Joan-Peggy magic was brief, after which we moved on to the Draper household once again. Mrs. Calvet and Megan had taken Sally shopping, and in the course of a few hours, they had made her as French as possible while Mr. Calvet stayed home and encouraged Bobby to ruin the white carpet. Upon their return, Sally, addressing Don as “papa,” asked if she could attend the awards dinner with the rest of the family; her request was granted. And it was a good thing, too, because they had already bought her an awesome, mod spacegirl dress with matching boots.
Sally debuted the dress that night, at which point Don ordered her to take off the boots and her makeup. She protested for a moment, like any budding teen would, but then acquiesced without much of a fight. Sally, in her infinite precociousness, has already learned the cardinal rule of teen dressing – start the negotiations on your own terms so that by the time you’ve been argued down, you’re at the place where you’re wearing what you actually wanted to wear.
Before we move further, we need to address Megan’s parents. When all the ladies had returned from the store earlier in the day, Mrs. Calvet urged Don to allow Sally to attend the awards dinner by telling him that every daughter should get to see her father be successful. That sent Monsieur Calvet into a self-righteous, self-pitying French rage, at which point we found out that he’s a serial adulterer (how continental!) and Megan’s mother had found earlier that day, drowning his sorrows in a phone call to his latest grad student. No wonder Megan’s attracted to Don – she has daddy issues! And mommy issues. And just, you know, all kinds of issues.
Now, back to the night of the party. Considering the Calvets’ seething hatred of each other, Megan’s mom’s offer to help Roger tie his bow tie (he doesn’t know how, even after decades of wearing one, because he always had a woman of some sort to do it for him, which is perfect) seemed slightly more meaningful than it might have otherwise. Similarly, Comrade Calvet’s malapropism about how one day, Sally would spread her legs and leave her family seemed a little too on-the-nose for the writers to expect us to think it was a genuine mistake on the part of his character, who speaks perfect English. Way to take a shot at your daughter, pops!
Before any more miniature fires could break out and require tending, the entire group headed to the dinner and we headed over to Peggy’s house, where the evening’s other dinner was about to crash and burn. Peggy had invited her mother all the way from Bay Ridge to Manhattan to have dinner at her apartment with Abe and tell her that they planned to move in together. Before they could get to that announcement, though, they made their way through the entire awkward meal, including Ma Olson sniffing at Abe’s affection for ham.
When Peggy dropped the bomb, things went about as well as you could expect. Ma Olson doesn’t even like it when people say grace the modern way, so you know she wasn’t interested in hearing about any daughter of hers livin’ in sin. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that Abe was Jewish or that Peggy was dishonoring the lord that made Ma Olson irritated – it was that Peggy was selling herself short and setting herself up to be tossed aside when Abe was done practicing.
The argument between Peggy and her mother hit a little close to home for me, and I doubt I’m the only single woman in the audience who felt that way. I’ve never had that argument with my mother, of course, but I think all young women wonder at some point if our attempts to be modern and open-minded about our relationships eventually cause us to deny ourselves what we really want. Peggy, in her desire to be liberated and forward-thinking, has perhaps found a level of “liberation” that challenges even her own sense of progress. Normally I find female characters written by male writers to be a tad flat, but Peggy’s exchanges with both Joan and her mother in this episodes beautifully demonstrated Matthew Weiner’s keen understanding of the types of women he’s created for this show.
Back at the awards dinner, things were going reasonably well on the surface. Roger had chosen Sally to act as his “date” for the night, which gave her a sense of purpose and grown-upness and gave him a place to store his business cards, Pete had neatly put Monsieur Calvet in his place and demonstrated to all of us exactly why he’s a failed intellectual, and in general, the schmoozing and networking and award-receiving seemed to be going well. Seemed!
Remember what I said about Roger and Mrs. Calvet? Well, yeah. The signals they had been sending at Don’s apartment were not a red herring, and shortly after Don received his award, they excused themselves to another room to enjoy some drinks and light sodomy. Unfortunately, this left Sally to her own devices, which meant that she went looking for the ladies’ room and walked in on a blowjob that seemed to single-handedly turn her conception of the world upside down.
While Sally’s innocence was flying out the window, Don’s foundation was in the process of receiving a good shaking itself. Ken Cosgrove’s father, a Dow Corning executive and board member of the American Cancer Society, which had awarded Don’s letter about Lucky Strike that evening, had come over to congratulate him and share a drink. In the process, he somehow let it slip that everyone on the board actually hated Don and would never work with him, because obviously he bit the hand that fed him once and they couldn’t take a chance on him doing it again.
I’m actually happy to see The Letter coming back to haunt Don, because up until now, it seemed as though it had been an all-too-convenient narrative device to tie up the Lucky Strike storyline and move the plot forward. Deus ex letter, if you will. In reality, most of the huge companies of the world have something truly awful in their product lines – Dow Corning, as Roger so conveniently quipped, makes both dishes and napalm – and having that sort of tantrum-throwing on the payroll is absolutely a liability. I think Don and SCDP will survive it, of course, but I appreciate that they’re not being given a free pass.
While Don was having his ego crushed and Sally was getting a quick lesson in the quiet disappointment of adult relationships, Megan and Monsieur Calvet were back at the banquet table, discussing things like only a failed intellectual and his failed actress daughter can. Instead of being proud of her for marrying well and having found an activity for herself (read: “job”) like a normal 1960s dad would, he shamed Megan for enjoyed the fruits of Don’s labor (he’d spell it labour, duh) and not pursuing her true art, which I think we’re supposed to assume is acting. Megan was defiant, but dear old dad’s pinko disapproval clearly got to her.
The awards ceremony’s final scene was great, with the entire Draper clan and guests returning to the table to sit in stunned silence and contemplate the many and varied ways that the universe had managed to steer them into a ditch that evening. No one spoke, no one looked at anyone else, there were simply looks of quiet despair and the implied noises of several sets of grinding teeth.
I assumed that’s where the episode would end, but Weiner actually had a much better episode finale in mind. Back home, in the dead of night, Sally snuck out of her room to once again call Glen, just like she had done at the very top of the hour. In the process of making average pre-teen small-talk, Glen asked her how the city was. Her answer?
- Perhaps what I love best about Mad Men is that I always come away from the show feeling like I’ve witnessed something exceedingly clever. “Dirty?” PERFECT. Also, you don’t know how right you are, Sally Draper.
- “I don’t know what the Canadian equivalent of baseball is, but this is a home run!”
“…We have baseball.”
- Roger was ON FIRE last night. His newfound singleton status suits him. “For all we know, Jesus was trying to get the loaves and fishes account!”
- Sally eating the fish at dinner was subtle, but brilliant. Earlier in the episode, her dislike for fish was established and she was given a different meal from the adults, but at the fancy awards ceremony, she tried the whole fish anyway. It went down poorly, as did Sally’s other glimpses of adulthood.
- This episode wasn’t as dramatically fantastic as the previous two, but as an episode that advanced several story lines and set us up for the tone of the rest of the season, it was pretty fantastic. Weiner’s as good at the workhorse writing as he is when it comes to the standout episodes.