Megan's parents visit, Peggy and Abe hit a milestone, and when Sally sits at the grown-ups' table, she sees something VERY grown-up

By Adam B. Vary
Updated April 30, 2012 at 10:50 AM EDT
S5 E6
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  • AMC

After weeks of fat-suiting, genre-busting, punch-throwing, acid-dropping episodes, last night’s Mad Men was content instead simply to zero in on small, happy-sad milestones in our characters lives, deepening their unfinished, pointillistic portraits — i.e., do what Mad Men‘s done best for its previous four seasons. It wasn’t flashy, and save for one holy crap! moment, not particularly daring. For anyone harboring ill feelings towards Megan Draper, it also may have been fairly maddening, since so much of the hour was spent exploring and expanding our understanding of who she is, and where she’s come from. Also, there was a lot of French — but at least we (mostly) got subtitles!

The episode may have spent the most time on Megan, but it really focused on three young women — Megan, Sally, and Peggy — and their yearning for validation, for the need to know that the life they’re carving for themselves is headed in the right direction. Let’s start with Peggy, since her storyline was the one most removed from everyone else’s. She’d shaken off the disappointment of being booted off the Heinz account, and was happily shooting the breeze late one night back at the office with Stan and Michael and her boyfriend Abe — seemingly on his first visit to the office, or at least his first time around Stan the twentysomething frat boy, and Michael the filter-free Martian. Stan turned the conversation quickly to the Playtex account, and some forward discussion of Peggy’s bosom ensued. Peggy liked it — she seemed rather flattered by the attention — but the talk clearly rattled Abe, who made for a swift exit.

I could be crazy, but all this season I’ve sensed a subtle micro-storyline in Stan’s continued attraction to, and possible love for, Peggy. And I think Abe noticed it too. The next day, he brusquely phoned Peggy and demanded they have dinner at a new, nice establishment that night, no matter how busy she’d be at work. Peggy was immediately unnerved, and her snap interpretation was that Abe wanted to break up. So she turned to the only woman she trusts with matters of the heart, the only woman who seems to know all the rules and how best to follow, bend, or break them: Joan.

Joan interpreted Abe’s actions far differently: He’s gonna propose, you dummy! Peggy’s heartbreakingly priceless reaction: Wait, no one proposes to me, they propose to, well, Joan! I loved how nakedly Peggy showed her adulation for Joan, and how Joan allowed herself to enjoy it while also softly swatting it away. “Men don’t take the time to end things,” Joan said, speaking from all-too-recent experience. “They ignore you, until you insist on a declaration of hate.” Peggy, no slouch, realized what Joan was implying, even if she was incredulous about it: “Someone dumped…you?” Joan, pricelessly: “Peggy, I’m just like everybody else.” Joan, I love you, but I beg to differ.

NEXT: Abe “proposes,” and Peggy’s mom is not happy about it

At dinner, Peggy took Joan’s advice to go shopping, and showed up in a very modern, very girly new pink dress. But Abe’s proposal wasn’t for marriage — it was to move in together. It took Peggy a few seconds of frozen-smile heavy breathing to say yes. Abe does make her happy, so why not squelch that dream of a husband and family, a dream she didn’t think she even had until Joan brought it to life. (Gold star to Elizabeth Moss for keeping that final “I do” to Abe from getting maudlin.) The next morning, Peggy sheepishly told Joan her news, expecting judgement, maybe even ridicule. Instead, Joan, ever graceful, bestowed her blessing on Peggy’s modern union: “Peggy: Good for you. Sounds like he wants to be with you, no matter what.”

Which is more than can be said for Peggy’s own mother, someone for whom the not-oft used term “conditional love” was never more apt. Mama Olson was barely in the door before she was calling Abe “Abraham” and sniffing with surprise that he loves ham. She doesn’t even trust her daughter to handle the dessert right, so why on earth would Peggy expect this woman with such a tight fist around her heart to take the news that she’s living in sin well? “You want to stick it in my face?” hissed Mama Olson. “Just lie! You think you’re the first ones ever to do this?!” I was terrified she would stick Peggy’s pregnancy back in her face in front of Abe. Instead, she waited until he’d left to tell her daughter, “This boy, he will use you for practice until he decides to get married and have a family!”

As is so often the case with Mad Men, the person behaving despicably was also not exactly wrong. Abe’s motivations for wanting to live with Peggy seem hazy at best, driven as much by jealousy and possessiveness as love and a desire for companionship. Which isn’t to say they’re doomed, or that Abe is a bad guy; it’s just that things are never simple on a Matthew Weiner show. For example: Just after Mama Olson dropped some acid-tongued truth on her daughter, she followed up with one doozy of a depressing worldview to answer Peggy’s pleading question, “Do you want me to be alone?”

“You know what your aunt used to say?” replied Peggy’s mom with a tone that made me really, really uneasy to hear what Peggy’s aunt used to say. “‘You’re lonely? Get a cat. Feed her 13 years. Then you get another one, and another one after that. Then you’re done.'” Meee-ouch.

NEXT: Meet the Calvets!

Megan was also dealing with issues of filial piety, what with her parents visiting for the week to celebrate Don’s award from the American Cancer Society for his infamous “Why I’m quitting Tobacco” public letter. And now, a brief summary of the Calvet family: Daddy, i.e. Emile (Ronald Guttman), is a failed anti-Capitalist academic and serial philanderer who cannot get publishers interested in his latest book. Mommy, i.e. Marie (Julia Ormond) (wait, I’m sorry, that should be JULIA F—ING ORMOND!), is a stunningly beautiful former free spirit resigned to drunken, passive-aggressive flirtation with other men, and a regular cycle of blow-up fights with her unhappy husband, followed by a fragile détente cut with barely concealed recriminations. “Have a drink,” he’ll smirk at her. “Become nice again.” And when he sneers at Don’s “studied manners,” she’ll snip back, “He’s polite. You don’t recognize it.”

So, kinda like Don and Betty Draper, just more self-aware, pretentious, and French.

Suddenly, Megan makes so much more sense. Of course she loves Don’s working class personality gussied up in white collar affluence — it’s everything her dad isn’t, and everything he professes to hate. Yet because of her father, she’s equipped to handle Don’s own swizzle-dick past, and draw the line her mother won’t, or can’t. And no matter how desperately hard she tries to keep from diminishing her marriage with blow ups of her own with Don, of course she’s ready to spoil for a fight, since that’s the only way she knows how to be in a marriage.

Okay, enough armchair psychoanalysis. (For now.) Megan’s volatile old family may have been uncomfortably intruding into her new one, but at least it could serve as the inspiration for a triumph at work. Watching her mom watch her serve Sally spaghetti sparked an idea for a new campaign for Heinz beans: The comforting tradition of a mother serving her child, passed down from the time of cavemen through the middle ages and Renaissance, through the hip and happening 1960s and onto the obvious future, a mom spooning beans to her son on a lunar colony, the Earth a bright blue marble in the window.

It’s a perfect ad, historical anachronisms and all. (History nerd aside: The never-wrong Wikipedia tells me baked beans were native to North America, developed by Native Americans and brought to Europe only during the 16th century.) Alas, the only way Don knew how to express his approval was to repeat an old, bad habit: “Get over here.” Megan, pleased that her idea was actually good, demurred. “No,” she smiled sheepishly. “I don’t want to…change the subject.” But Don’s eyes lit up even more when Megan topped his awkward tagline (“Kids want beans, and they have forever”) with something much simpler: “Heinz beans. Some things never change.” That was that: Stan and Michael were called in, the old campaign was ripped up, and Megan’s idea was given the greenlight. Maybe use the same mother and son (note: not daughter) in every time frame? And give the space kid a helmet that he has to take off so he can eat the beans.

If it wasn’t enough to come up with the perfect campaign, Megan also rescued the account from certain doom. At a dinner with Don, Megan, Ken, Cynthia!, Heinz Guy, and Heinz Guy’s gabby wife, Heinz Guy let slip that they’d been in New York for several days already. In the ladies powder room, Heinz Guy’s gabby wife further let the cat out of the bag, telling Megan “I hope we continue to be friends.” Turns out, Peggy’s disastrous pitch had torpedoed the entire account, and Heinz Guy was already dating other prospective firms.

NEXT: Megan Draper, to the rescue — but is she happy about it?

So Megan saved the day. First, she expertly tipped off Don, whispering in his ear back at the table, “We’re getting fired.” When Heinz Guy made it clear he was done for the night, Don pleaded that a round of Sauterns would spare him from a night with the in-laws. Again, Megan leapt at the opportunity, teeing up Don sell her pitch as if it was his idea — which Don took a long, painful moment to recognize. But then he ran with it, putting on that old Don Draper salesmanship magic we’d been missing all season. Heinz guy sparked to the idea — maybe the mother and son could be played by the same actors? “We hadn’t thought of that, but that might work.” Some added pressure from Kenny, and the Sauterns became Champagne. “It’s the future,” sighed Heinz Guy. “It’s all I ever wanted.” (Somewhere, Conrad Hilton was barking to no one in particular, “Tell me about it!”)

In the cab back home, Don was on fire. “You’re good at all of it,” he cooed at Megan. I don’t know if Don has been more turned on, on more levels, than he was at that moment. But with Megan’s parents and Don’s kids mucking up their perfect moment back at the apartment, the Drapers high tailed it back to the office to consummate Megan’s first professional triumph — the line between their work life and home life getting blurrier by the day.

The next morning, however, Megan was not feeling triumphant. At first, I thought she was apprehensive about Peggy’s reaction. But Peggy, just moments after winning her own validation from Joan, was in a magnanimous mood, and bestowed her own benediction upon Megan. “If anything, I should be jealous,” she told Megan. “I look at you and I feel like I’m getting to experience my first time again. It’s a good day for me. This is as good as this job gets. Savor it.”

And yet, still, Megan hung her head. Nope, it was her father’s approval she craved, and his own recent failures that dampened her ability to celebrate. “Every daughter should get to see her father as a success,” proclaimed Marie, a statement ostensibly meant to convince Don to let Sally come to the awards dinner, but meant instead as a dagger for her husband’s wounded ego. “They do this all the time,” sighed Megan to Don (who, tellingly, was incapable of grasping the nuances of the Calvet marriage). “They’ll recover. They always do.” Some things never change.

Emile did indeed recover, enough to ignore his wife’s no-longer-passive-aggressive (aggressive-aggressive?) flirtations with Roger Sterling and focus his attention fully on his daughter. If Megan was hoping for his approval, she wasn’t going to get it. As they talked about her work, she wondered why he was speaking English, and not their native tongue. “Because you have changed,” he said, and his tone was clear he did not mean for the better. Emile had always been proud of his daughter’s single-minded determination, but by marrying Don, she had “skipped the struggle, and went right to the end.” All that wealth, all these opportunities, just handed to her. “This is what Karl Marx was talking about!”

“Don’t beat me with your politics because you hate that I love Don,” Megan said, not as her own recrimination, but as a simple fact.

“No. I hate that you gave up,” replied Emile, just as assuredly. “Don’t let your love for this man stop you from doing what you wanted to do.”

So what is it that Megan wanted to do? Be an actress? Become a writer? Infiltrate patriarchal capitalist society and bring it down from the inside out? Whatever it was — and whether that’s still what she wants to do now — Megan wasn’t keen on talking about it. But Emile had succeeded in what he came to New York to do. The seed had been planted; it’s just a matter now of when it’s going to sprout.

NEXT: Sally learns not to go exploring during grown-up parties with an open bar

Finally: Sally. As the “previously on Mad Men” forebode, Glen Bishop was still very much a fixture in Sally’s life. The Internet tells me Glen was 15 in 1966, so I’m thinking he was talking to Sally from a boys boarding school — not exactly a shocking turn of events for the amateur home invader and budding juvenile delinquent. (Quick show of hands: Who still cannot quite get over the moment when they learned Glen is played by Matthew Weiner’s real-life son Marten? Yeah, me neither.)

Their conversation, though, was innocuous, just some mild teasing chit-chat about Glen pining after an ex-girlfriend — “You’ll see when you break up, it hurts” Glen said in a sincere attempt to sound like the grown-up. There was idle chatter about The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ubiquitous No. 1 hit, “Summer in the City,” and we learned Sally’s nickname for Grandma Francis — that slave-driving harpy who makes them set the table — is Bluto. Oh, and speaking of Bluto, her she comes, drunkenly shambling through the hallway, oblivious that Sally’s strung the phone line tightly across the floor into her room. Trip! Splat! “My ankle!”

With Bluto in the hospital, Sally and Bobby had to stay Chez Draper while the Calvets were also visiting. I have to give Mad Men credit for letting Sally get away with the self-serving lie that Bluto tripped over one of her baby brother’s toys. It made the fact that she immediately took charge, called for help, and tended to Bluto less messy, more easy to praise. It’s exactly the kind of lie her father had built his whole life around.

After behaving like such an adult with her step-grandmother (and I mean both the maturity and the duplicity), Sally had earned a right to go see her father win his award. Megan even bought her a brand new dress for the occasion, a stunning metallic go-go frock that took everyone’s breath away. Holy matching knee-high boots! Emile tried to assuage Don’s trepidation, but instead managed to underline the eerie maturity of the outfit in the most cringe-inducing way possible: “No matter what, one day, your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.” Thanks for that, Emile. Don showed great restraint in not decking his father-in-law, and some solid parenting in demanding that Sally ditch the make-up and the boots if she wanted to come to the event.

Dressing down the outfit, however, did not help cushion Sally’s entrée into the world of adults. Her self-proclaimed “date” was Roger Sterling, newly single and invigorated thanks to his “life-altering experience” with LSD. He’d even reached out to his ex-wife Mona for some intel on the ripest hanging fruit at the Cancer Society event, so eager was Roger to get back into the game. At the event, he drafted Sally, all of 13, into his schmoozing plans, asking her to keep business cards in her purse and send him off into the arena with a rousing, “Go get ’em, tiger!” Apparently, this is all Roger needs from the woman on his arm.

But not really. Roger continued treating Sally like a mini-adult — joking that she’s a “mean drunk” — but his eye was always on Marie. Roger had zeroed in on her back at Don and Megan’s apartment, his radar for unhappy and horny women operating in tip-top shape. So when the moment was right, Roger went in to close the only deal he truly cared to make that night, roping Marie in with the tantalizing line, “At what point should we ever stop trying?”

Sally, meanwhile, was bored. There was no staircase, for starters, so no place to make a grand entrance. The fish was served with the head intact — and Sally hates fish, anyway. Her dad’s award was a non-event, with him standing on a dinky stage next to two people who had a good 80 years on Don between them. Besides, she’d already gotten what wanted and needed out of the night: Reassurance not only that she was her daddy’s true award, but that the scary world of adulthood was available for her to enter — eventually. “You know what makes me happy?” Don told Sally. “A beautiful young lady who will someday be wearing makeup, but not today.”

So Sally went exploring, and walked in on the unmistakable sight of Marie’s head bobbing up and down in Roger’s lap. So much for eventually.

First of all, not to trivialize the moment, but if Marie and Roger were attempting to be discreet about their liaison, perhaps the middle of an empty ballroom a single doorway away from swarms of people was not the wisest location. (Also, you’d think in a room that big, they’d hear the echo of a door opening and abruptly shutting.) As for Sally, I’m torn between thinking the moment officially pressed the start button on her adolescence, or drove her back into the safe embrace of immature childhood. Whatever the outcome, she was clearly done with playing grown-up for that particular night, as she rejoined a table filled with adults facing down some very adult problems. With barely a sip, she sent back her Shirley Temple, a drink named after the 20th century’s most famous child living in the world of adults (and the inspiration for the episode’s title, “At the Codfish Ball,” the name of a famous song-and-dance number between Temple and Buddy Ebsen in the 1936 feature film Captain January).

That night, Sally called the one person who understood her, who wouldn’t mind leaping out of bed in his tighty-whities and throwing on a parka to answer the only phone in his dorm’s hallway. “How’s the city?” asked Glen. “Dirty,” replied Sally. Heaven help me, but did I detect a smirk of excitement flash over this young girl’s face?

What did you make of “At the Codfish Ball?” What do you think the Dow Corning guy’s confession that no one trusts Don enough to work with him “after the way you bit the hand” in the anti-Tobacco letter? Do you think we’re headed to Megan leaving SCDP? And, seriously, there’s gotta be at least one Stan/Peggy (Steggy?) ‘shipper out there, right?

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Mad Men

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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