“At the Codfish Ball” lacked the fireworks of the Lane/Pete conference room brawl, and it didn’t feature as brilliantly choreographed a sequence as the Sterlings’ acid trip. And yet it stood out on its own merits. I confess that I was concerned that nothing would live up to Mad Men’s brilliant fourth season. But with the exception of “Tea Leaves” (and even major parts of that episode worked thanks to January Jones’ contribution), Season Five is shaping up quite nicely. At the end of each outing, I inevitably think, “how do they top this?” Peggy gives a stranger a handjob one week. Sally sees Megan’s mother blowing Roger the next. And that wasn’t even the high point of another achingly well-constructed episode.
The first Peggy/Joan exchange is proof that Joan, despite her single working mother status, is still a product of an earlier era with her belief that Abe is poised to propose to Peggy. And Peggy, for all her modern ways, is practically all giggles at the prospect of Abe popping the question. So when he simply asks her to cohabitate, it takes every ounce of Peggy’s strength to conceal her disappointment. But leave it to Joan to adapt to the changing times and label Peggy’s decision to live with Abe as “brave” (everyone should have a Joan to pick them up when they feel down). The dinner scene with the lovebirds and Peggy’s mom is doomed to end badly. And indeed it does. But while we want to side with Peggy and loathe her mother, I can’t help but feel that she’s right about Abe using Peggy “for practice” before moving onto another woman who will get a ring. And now that she’s estranged from her family and her work will never completely fill the void (more on that in a minute) what happens to Peggy in the long run?
Megan proves herself more than a pretty face and the boss’s wife with her Heinz Beans through the years idea (how many variations on this have we seen in many, many, many commercials?). But it is a good idea, and even better is Megan’s quick thinking when SCDP is about to lose the entire account. The fact that she gives Don the credit might strike some as a step backwards, but in the context of these characters and this world, Don and Megan’s impromptu post-dinner pitch followed by their backseat make-out fest might be only time that we’ve seen Don in an equal partnership with a woman fulfilling every need (and this on the heels of Megan’s confusion about her role before Don abandoned her last week). Definitely a strong scene, and the actual ball (Don’s realization that his anti-tobacco letter is really going to hurt him in the long run, Roger and Sally’s sweet date followed by Roger and Madame Calvet totally scarring Sally for life) makes for a strong conclusion. But maybe the most telling moment of the week is a few scenes back.
After thinking about this episode a lot today, I keep going back to the Peggy/Megan exchange where the former congratulates the latter for her apparent stroke of genius. Maybe it’s because of Joan’s pep talk, but Peggy is genuine when applauding Megan’s efforts. But before nominating Ms. Olson for sainthood, Peggy is also vicariously savoring Megan’s victory and remembering when Don and the boys looked at her with amazed awe. I think it has less to do with Peggy’s gender than the nature of this industry or any industry for that matter. Your first idea is what gets your foot in the door. Whatever brilliance that follows is essentially expected and therefore not worthy of as many bravos. And you keep trying because you’re good at your job, but you’ll never recapture that elusive first high. And this is what’s finally dawning on Megan. At the Campbell dinner party, Megan sang the praises of advertising, expressed her admiration for what Don and Peggy have achieved. Now she’s slowly beginning to realize that she’s hit her peak at SCDP, and it doesn’t get any better from here. Couple this with her father’s warning not to let her love for Don make her short change herself, her mother’s admissions of her own mistakes, and the fact that the state of the Draper Marriage wildly fluctuates from week to week, and we see a woman who is doubtful and terrified. Jessica Paré is doing an absolutely outstanding job with this character. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way about a woman on the show. I love Peggy and Joan, pity Sally, usually hate Betty, and most of Don’s other women serve their seasonal function then go (although Rachel Menken was pretty awesome back in the day, and I hated to see where Midge ended up). But Megan is something more. She’s an opportunist, yes, but she’s not just riding Don’s coattails; she’s trying to contribute to the office. She’s good to the Draper kids, which gets her points in my book, and I think she really cares for Don (and seeing how screwed up her own parents are helps and does not hurt her cause). But Megan is also still discovering herself, and ultimately both the firm and Don will not be enough for her. And I think I’ll be quite sad when she ultimately has to decide to leave (but with this show, you never know).