Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Mad Men 5-7: At the Codfish Ball

This week's "Mad Men" could have been subtitled Not what you expected, was it? I'm not even talking about the fellatio, though I certainly wasn't expecting that. Though come to think of it, that scene was a fitting capper to an episode devoted to exposing the wide gulf between its characters' elevated expectations and the disenchanting reality. Interestingly, we see this pattern primarily through the eyes of three of "Mad Men"'s principal female characters - Megan, Peggy, and Sally - who each experience an event they imagined would be magically life-altering, only to find themselves feeling deflated and conflicted (or, in Sally's case, revolted).

Megan's was the most intriguing of the three variations, though in some ways the most frustrating. She scores her first real success at work, saving the Heinz account with a canny idea, quick thinking, and brilliant tag-team improvisation with Don. Yet after her first flush of triumph, she seems oddly ambivalent about it - something Peggy picks up on with that wonderful puzzled look after Megan's muted response to her warm congratulations. What's frustrating about Megan's reaction is her general opacity: her feelings and motivations have never been particularly easy to decipher, but never less so than now. Is she troubled because she succeeded at least partly by playing Don's pretty little wife rather than his equal? Because her father's disapproval of her life's choices is weighing on her? Because daddy hit a nerve when he suggested she'd copped out on following her true dreams? (What were those dreams, anyway? Who are you, Megan?) It could be any or all of the above, or something altogether different; my quibble is that even after a season and a half we still don't really know Megan well enough to do more than guess at the answer. Her marvelously dysfunctional French Canadian parents - who weren't what I expected, either, especially her mother - offer a few hints, but no real illumination.

Peggy, by contrast, we do know well enough by now to have at least some idea of what makes her tick. Professionally, that is; her personal life choices are harder to figure out, though they clearly don't give her as much pure joy as the thrill of work she describes with such passion to Megan. Still, apparently deep down she does want to be married, or thinks she does; her face, when she thinks Abe's about to propose, is practically incandescent (almost creepily so, considering she didn't even have marriage in mind until Joan suggested it), and it's heartbreaking to watch that glow fade as it becomes clear he has a different proposal in mind, and to hear her soft "I do" in response to his mundane question about dinner. Even more heartbreaking is her confrontation with her mother, whose brutal, wounding words dredge up Peggy's worst fear - the fear that's haunted nearly all unmarried professional women then and since - that she'll end up alone. It remains to be seen whether moving in with Abe proves to be a good idea or not (this being "Mad Men," more likely not), but for now there's little doubt - despite the brave face she puts on it - that the arrangement isn't giving her the happiness she dreamed about for at least a few hours.

Meanwhile, Sally gets to wear a grown-up dress (but not too grown up - Don's expression, when he sees her all glammed up, is priceless) and go to her first ball, only to discover no winding staircase, no Prince Charming (Roger makes a plausible candidate for a while, only to fail at the finish), and nothing to eat other than a fish with its head still on. Then she stumbles on Roger and Megan's maman's tête-à, never mind. Her introduction to adulthood - in all its "dirty" glory - is now complete. Goodbye, Shirley Temples; hello, creepy pubescent Glen.

And finally Don, the common link between these three ladies, has perhaps the most sobering letdown of them all, as the event he believed would boost his standing in the advertising world instead reveals the utter precariousness of his position. Once again, however, "Mad Men" leaves unanswered the question that's been hanging over Don for some time now - will he regain his footing and ascend to the top, or is he doomed to decline and fall? And if the latter, will he take others with him?

Random observations:

-I never realized until this episode how much Julia Ormond (the actress playing Megan's mother) looks like Juliette Binoche. At first I thought it was Binoche, but the British-accented French was a giveaway.

-I sometimes have difficulty hearing all the dialogue on "Mad Men" (sound issue, or my hearing? I hope the former), so I didn't quite understand what Roger was asking Mona to do for him. But I did like that scene, and their easy détente. It helps, no doubt, that Jon Slattery and Talia Balsam are married in real life. (Further bit of trivia: Talia was formerly married to George Clooney, way back in the day. Now wouldn't you like to have a heart-to-heart with her?)

-Was Glen not wearing pants in that last scene?...Never mind, I don't want to know. And I hope Sally never finds out, either - poor kid's been scarred enough already.

-Best line: Roger, as Pete approaches - "And here's Prince Charming!" (A beat) "Nah."

-Runner-up: "Men don't take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate." Joan made the most of her brief appearance in this episode, as she always does. I'm still not sure if she was just being nice when she applauded Peggy's decision to move in with Abe. Her views on marriage have evolved enough that she might actually have been sincere.

-Best moment: Tie between Roger's facial expression at Megan's dad's "spread her legs and fly away" and Ken vigorously shushing his wife for asking for coffee.

-Runner-up: Pete showing Megan's dad what he does for a living - he greased that old hypocrite good. And this is why I still love Pete, despite everything.


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