Don't read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 7 of "Mad Men," entitled "At the Codfish Ball."
A couple years ago, I wrote that you could almost sum up "Mad Men" "by calling it a prelude to Sally Draper's inevitable years of therapy," and those words were never truer than they were after Sunday's episode.
Three generations were arrayed around that ballroom table, united by frustration, disappointment and bitterness. But everything that happened to the other characters -- all the pained judgments they'd made about themselves and the crushing judgments from others they'd endured -- paled in comparison to the stunned look on poor Sally's face.
We've seen this unfortunate girl experience any number of upsetting and confusing situations, but seeing your grandmother performing an intimate act on the family friend who had been treating you as his date only moments earlier has to be the new winner of Most Horrible Memory Sally Has in Her Brain. At this point, even Freud would throw up his hands and say, "Too confusing. Count me out."
"At the Codfish Ball" was very much a variation on the season's discomfiting themes, which are all about decay, disgust and decline; as Sally memorably put it, an uncomfortably "dirty" atmosphere seems to have oozed through the entire city. Yet this week's hour was unmistakably a "regular" episode of "Mad Men": It wasn't as structurally ambitious as last week's trippy outing, it wasn't as dark and chilling as other hours we've recently witnessed, and it wasn't quite the "welcome back" party platter that the season premiere was.
No, this was an episode that focused intently on a few characters, and thankfully, it occasionally had a lighter tone (anything with this many golden Roger quips is going to be more fun than an episode that dwells on violence and serial killers). Still, there was a great deal of discipline evident in the hour, which had a very tightly woven tale about a single theme: It all revolved around how we disappoint and lie to ourselves, and how we sell ourselves short. When is compromise giving up on our true ambitions? When is holding on to certain dreams childish and unrealistic? Each character was trying to figure that out, especially the female characters, most of whom have no map or guide to how they should conduct their lives, personally and professionally.
It was lovely to see Peggy and Joan grow closer, but it was hard not to come to the conclusion that they were reinforcing each other's desire to put the best possible face on disappointing situations. I'll be the first to admit that there's a truckload of complexity embedded in each woman's situation, one that an episodic review can't begin to unpack. Sure, Joanie was smart and strong to kick her bum of a husband to the curb, and her realization that she could go it alone gave her a very different perspective on Peggy's "shacking up" news, a perspective Mrs. Harris wouldn't have dreamed of entertaining just a few years ago.
Yet as Peggy and Joan hugged each other, it was hard not to think that they were trying even harder to convince themselves that they'd done the right thing; convincing the other person was almost a secondary goal. Peggy moved very quickly from saying that Abe's proposal about living together was "better" than a marriage proposal to knitting her brow and wondering if she'd done the right thing by accepting his alternate proposition.
And isn't it sad that Joan's idea of romance is two people living together partly out of affection, but partly out of logistical need and convenience? In some ways, Emile Calvet was the voice of the audience in this episode. Sure, he was facing disappointments and humiliations of his own, and perhaps that caused him to lash out, but he had a point, as did Mrs. Olson: Don't put up with less than you deserve. Don't we want more for these women? Don't we want them to want more for themselves? Or is that kind of thinking just going to set them both up for more letdowns?
The flip side of that "making do" philosophy was Mrs. Calvet's observation that "we should have everything we want." It was a sentiment perfectly designed for the ears of Roger Sterling, the king of lazy entitlement. Yet even he was attempting to get back in the game in this episode and was more actively in search of clients than he ever has been to date. When will he realize that it's all a waste of time, and that these corporate types don't want to give his rebellious agency the time of day? And I suspect that Mrs. Calvet didn't even believe that sentence as she said it; she may want that to be true, but marriage and life have taught her that nobody gets everything they want. I suspect she began to think of her encounter with Roger as an unwise and unenlightening mistake even before it really began.
What gave the episode its great tension was the push and pull between characters trying things and those same characters getting shot down, and picking up the pieces of their dreams from the wreckage. Every victory was shot through with defeat, every disappointment was somehow instructional and couldn't just be ignored or dismissed. The episode was full of people trying to talk themselves into and out of things: Megan pitched Don her idea and successfully helped Don pitch it to Heinz, and then fought a growing sense of disappointment as she realized no one would ever give her full credit for the idea (notice how Stan blithely accepted her statement that the concept had been "beginner's luck," and doubted that the idea had been hers in the first place). Peggy talked herself into thinking the Abe situation was liberating, instead of presumptuous on his part. Don convinced himself he had a shot with these heavyweights, only to realize he was the wallflower at this ball.
One of the most notable things about the episode, I realized on a second viewing, was that we got a Don Draper Pitch, a real one -- we haven't seen one of those for quite some time. After being told by Bert last week to get his head back in the game, he did so with a vengeance, using the swanky dinner as an opportunity to stealth-pitch Heinz and do it with the patented Draper charm offensive of old. (Sidebar: Notice that he told the client they had no other ideas to present, the kind of statement that got Peggy fired from the account not so long ago.)
The pitch worked, but, like so many other characters, the moment of triumph was soon poisoned and spoiled. Ken's father-in-law schooled him on exactly how much damage Don had done with his impulsive anti-tobacco ad; it could mean that SCDP remains a mid-level agency with mid-level clients forever. The big dogs want an agency they can trust, but they can't trust Draper. Don's New York Times ad represented one of many Pyrrhic victories: He got a plaque, but he may have ultimately messed up not just his career, but the entire company's future in one bold stroke.
Megan's dream of being taken seriously as a creative went awry; Don's dream of landing huge clients was punctured; the Calvets' marriage was clearly as badly damaged as Don and Betty's ever was; disappointment and disillusionment were everywhere. But it's hard to pick the most crushing moment for this show's array of supremely complex, realistically challenged female characters: Is it the tragedy of Sally (who's become quite skilled in the art of lying and hiding her real emotional life from everyone) seeing something awful yet again, and not having the skills or tools with which to process what she'd seen? Or was it the pain of seeing poor Peggy's heart break right in front of us?
Elisabeth Moss once again did career-best work in her Minetta Tavern scene with Abe. Peggy -- who has been so battered and bruised by the limitations she must labor under professionally -- showed up transformed for this man, whom she thought might bring satisfaction and joy to her personal life via a marriage proposal. Strip away the hard-drinking advertising professional, and there's still part of her that wants the dream that she was raised to believe in: She showed up glowing, wearing pink, looking like a princess, waiting for the declaration of perfect love from her prince.
Slowly, as it sank in that Abe's proposal was more practical and logistical and affectionate than romantic, and certainly not the proposal she'd been waiting for, her smile became more and more of a mask. It was not an indication of her inward feelings, but a shield she put up to cover her inner disappointment. Roger has been obsessed with finding the moment "where it went wrong," but Peggy fought hard not to allow this enormous letdown to become a dividing line and ruin her chance for companionship. Even so, it's hard not to agree with Peggy's mom, and to think that Abe would eventually leave her and one day marry someone else. Generation after generation, parents put expectations on their children, some of which are self-serving and misguided, some of which come from a place of real love and a desire to see one's offspring avoid steering their lives into a ditch. But parents can't stop children from making their own, tailor-made mistakes.
Should Peggy just accept being alone, or, at best, being an eternally single cat lady? Or should she accept Abe's honest love and affection for what it is -- a probably temporary situation that will provide much-needed companionship as long as it lasts? Neither situation is satisfying, and for a professional woman, the culture doesn't provide much in the way of guidance or sympathy on these fronts.
Maybe, like everyone else, Peggy was determined to make the best of a difficult situation. Or maybe she was selling herself short and too readily allowing "reality" to crush her expectations. What we're seeing this season, however, is that these ad men and women have increasing trouble convincing themselves that the rot hasn't set in, that they can still get what they want. And if they get it, won't it just be ... dirty?
So is this how it is? Will this sense of malaise and decay and disappointment continue to suffuse the season, which is more than halfway over? If so, where does it go from here? Of course other seasons have shown characters going through harrowing times, and Don has more or less pulled his life out of a skid. But the pervasiveness of the disillusionment this season gives me pause. We used to see things through Peggy's hopeful, ambitious eyes; we used to live for the wins the characters used to rack up. I love the complexity and ambiguity of the show, but will it continue to arc downward, until the projected end of Season 7? Like a worried parent, I must confess to wanting more for these flawed, absorbing, misguided, fascinating people.
The wins seem fewer and further between, and the sense of gritty disappointment is almost pervasive. Generation after generation, dining on bittersweet letdowns and dream-deflating compromises, not baked beans. Some things never change.
A few final notes and favorite lines:
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