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'Mad Men' recap: A night with the grown-ups

April 30, 2012 | 10:49 am

Mad Men Don Sally

When it comes to “Mad Men,” I have three basic requests: More Sally, more Roger, more Joan. “At the Codfish Ball” is a relatively subdued hour, especially compared with last week’s doozie. But it’s nevertheless a rich and satisfying installment, one that compensates for its lack of jaw-dropping revelations with some quiet insight into the relationship between parents and their children. Plus, it’s got plenty of Roger and Sally, and Joan doling out relationship advice. What more could a “Mad Men” fan ask for?  

Megan’s Heinz campaign works rather nicely as a summary for the overall theme of “At the Codfish Ball”: When it comes to parents and their children, external factors might change, but the fundamental relationship stays the same. This week we finally meet Megan’s parents. Her mother, Marie (played by Julia Ormond, an unusually big guest star for this show), is beautiful but unhappy, driven to act out in unhealthy ways by her philandering husband. (She’s the Betty Draper of the north.) Megan’s father, Emile, is a left-leaning professor whose resentment of Don is fueled by his own failures as a writer. Emile is openly critical of Megan’s splashy New York lifestyle, and not just because of his Marxist — or Maoist or socialist or whatever — beliefs. He also thinks his daughter has traded in her dreams to be with the man she loves. What those dreams might be, exactly, he never says, though we can probably guess he’s referring to Megan’s thwarted acting career.

His comments, which arrive near the end of the episode, help put Megan’s strangely placid reaction to the Heinz victory in context. She very clearly saved the day, not just with her campaign, but with her fleet reaction to Alice Geiger’s ladies-room confession and the gentle way she forces Don to make a pitch on the spot. (Notice, too, how easily she changes some of the key details of their evening; maybe Megan’s doing more acting than her father realizes.) Don is turned on by his supremely competent wife. “You’re good at all of it,” he moans in the cab, barely able to contain himself. So Megan should be over the moon, right? But at the office the next day, she reacts with discomfort to Peggy’s sincere words of congratulations. At the end of last season, I think many viewers underestimated Megan because of her subservient job, but she’s obviously one smart cookie. The real question is whether she’ll ever be satisfied shilling beans alongside the man she loves.

This episode also marks the welcome return of Sally, a character we last saw passed out under the couch after Pauline slipped her a sleeping pill (I’m not counting last week’s flashback). Don is both proud and slightly terrified of how quickly his daughter is maturing. She handles Pauline’s accident like a pro, but unfortunately growing up also means she wants to wear go-go boots and makeup to the American Cancer Society dinner. Sally’s night with the grown-ups starts off well. Roger takes her on as his “date,” and they have a nice little rapport. Roger is nothing if not a charmer, and he sure knows how to make a lady, whatever her age, feel wanted. “Every business card I get, you’re going to put it in your purse and say, ‘Go get ‘em, Tiger!’” he says. He even gets her a Shirley Temple from the bar. It’s cute!

But, this being “Mad Men” and all, the cuteness quickly turns creepy. Poor Sally wanders off in search of the bathroom and accidentally stumbles on Roger and Marie engaged in some decidedly adult activities. And here she thought fish was gross! (What a great detail, by the way: In the adult world, even the food is ickier.) Sally’s already endured some terrible things this season, but this may be the worst ordeal yet. Imagine the confusion she must be feeling: Roger spends the evening lavishing her with attention, but then she finds him in a back room doing terrible things with her own step-grandmother. Of course, Roger’s flirtation was perfectly innocent, but I’m guessing Sally, not yet old enough to understand adult emotions, feels, somehow, violated by the whole affair.

Peggy Mom Mad Men

Then there’s Peggy, who remains hopelessly confused about what she wants from her relationship. When she thinks that Abe is going to propose, she is terrified; when he asks her to move in, she seems relieved and then disappointed. It’s not until her mother comes over for dinner and, inevitably, expresses her disapproval of their decision, that Peggy realizes that maybe she does want to marry Abe after all. Whatever her true feelings are, Peggy’s attempts to relate to her mother as an adult fail miserably.

Peggy’s mother isn’t the only one who has the ability to make her feel like a child. Despite her considerable professional accomplishment, Peggy remains in awe of Joan and her prowess with the opposite sex. Whenever she’s around Joan, Peggy instantly becomes more girlish, less self-assured. Their dynamic is as fascinating as it is utterly convincing; what woman hasn’t felt like this way around someone as beautiful and seemingly put-together as Joan? She’s one of those women who would, I imagine, instantly make you feel like a messy 12-year-old in her presence. We know more about Joan’s romantic foibles than Peggy does, but still, it’s not hard to understand her incredulous reaction to Joan’s advice: “Someone dumped you?” At the same time, these two have formed a powerful bond. While I doubt they’ll ever be best friends, they are now each other’s allies.

Joan’s response the next day is, I think, indicative of how far she’s come. As late as last season, Joan begrudgingly conformed to the old gender norms. Whenever presented with the opportunity, she seemed to delight in taking Peggy down a notch or two (I’m thinking of that elevator lecture from last season.)  While Joan’s never been the virginal type, there was a time when I’m sure she would have agreed with Peggy’s mom on the subject of cohabitation. I half expected her to give Peggy a speech about how Abe has to “put a ring on it” — or maybe “make it official,” since this is 1966 and all — before they move in together. But Joan surprises me and Peggy alike by expressing her support for their decision. “I think you’re brave, I think it’s a beautiful statement,” she says. While I’m sure Joan is being sincere, her reaction is no doubt tempered by the recent demise of her own marriage. She might as well have said, “Congratulations. You’ve dodged a bullet.” Does Hallmark make a card for that yet?

Stray observations:

--Roger's tryst with Marie surely isn't his finest moment, but it's nice to see that, after the "life-altering experience" of his acid trip, he seems to have his groove back. He's even making an effort at work!

--Glen’s a Hotchkiss man! Funny, I’d have pegged him for more of a St. Paul’s type.

--Also, Glen is apparently so upset about his breakup that he’s forgotten to put on pants. Poor guy. 

-- I’m more and more convinced that Joan is going to be the show’s first avowed feminist. I hope so!

--It’s been three long episodes since we laid eyes on Betty, and based on the preview, it doesn’t look like she’s in next week’s episode, either. I’m beginning to worry!

--For a second there, Roger’s comment about Dow Corning (“They make beautiful dishes, glassware, Napalm”) made me wonder if the agency might get more directly involved in the war. But now that Don knows the titans of industry will never give him their business, could this mean a change in direction for SCDP?

--All of Megan’s outfits in this episode are to die for, especially that little black and white coat and the metallic dress she wears to dinner with the Geigers. To quote Rachel Zoe, “I. Die.”

--Emile criticizes Don for his “studied manners.” Maybe he accurately senses that Don is not quite what he claims to be.

--The music in this episode is great, isn’t it? Slightly French, without going for the full “Amelie” effect.

--When Megan walks into Don’s office, he’s studying a French dictionary. Cute.

--According to Roger, no good deed is performed without some kind of self-interest. “For all we know, Jesus was trying to get the loaves and fishes account.”

--I am slightly ashamed that I even know this, but Roger’s crack about the stout older woman at the cancer benefit is, by my count, the second Margaret Dumont joke on “Mad Men.” (Last season, Pete called the Honda meeting a “Margaret Dumont-sized disaster.”) The execs at SCDP seem to like the Marx Brothers.


"Mad Men" recap: Straight trippin'

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— Meredith Blake


Top photo: Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka

Bottom photo: Elisabeth Moss and Myra Turley

Credits: Ron Jaffe/AMC