Sunday's episode of Mad Men ended with three generations of characters in various states of abject despair, sitting at a table at a fancy dinner. Other characters (like Peggy, for instance) we can imagine felt similar despair, though she wasn't at that event. So, what preceded all this?
The episode began with a phone call between Sally and her former neighbor Glen Bishop, the boy with the onetime crush on the former Mrs. Draper. Sally and her brother are as usual being babysat by the worst step-grandmother in the world, Pauline. This time, Sally—you'll recall one of the last times we saw her she had been drugged by Pauline and was asleep under a couch—gets back at the woman, whom she refers to as "Bluto," whom she says treats her and her brother "like slaves." The phone cord trips Pauline; she falls and breaks her ankle. Betty and Henry are not there. Sally, always Daddy's girl, calls Don.
At Don's house, another daddy-daughter scenario is playing out. Megan's parents Emile and Marie are visiting, as Don is receiving an award at an American Cancer Society dinner for a letter he's written about Lucky Strike. Emile is in town to meet a publisher as well. From the beginning it's obvious that there is disdain for Don, particularly from Emile, even if it's covered up in French. Megan tells her parents to speak English; Don, who thinks he can never do anything to get Emile to like him (remember his relationship with Betty's father?), is attempting to study French. Sally's accident with Pauline, however, adds new family members and another dynamic into the mix: Sally and Bobby are sent to Don and Megan's apartment, and share dinner—spaghetti, the only thing Sally eats; Megan's "favorite food" from childhood as well—after which Marie excuses herself (after touching Don six times in one night, in a bid for male attention, says Megan, who is her father's favorite) and falls asleep, her cigarette still burning in her hand. Megan finds her and throws it away. This image of a grown woman sleeping in child-sized bed, a cigarette in hand, a foil to Sally, is meant to stay with us, and it does: The whole episode is pervaded with a sense of waiting for the cigarette to drop, the fire to begin, while—in contrast to last week's episode—on the surface, seems to be going OK, save the standard family dysfunction.
In subplots, Roger has been freed from Jane and having a drink with his ex-wife, telling her about his LSD trip. "I thought you married Jane because I'd gotten old," she tells him. But then, "I realized it was because you had." Insight to Roger's caddishness, perhaps, but also a lead-up to what comes next. We've known this for a while but it's worth repeating: Roger's fountain of youth is adultery.
At the agency, the gang is talking about Playtex, Stan telling Peggy it's not fair that just because she has boobs her opinion counts more—the opposite of which she'd never be able to say, even ironically, because it is sadly true at the agency. Abe is there, and when he leaves, Stan also tells Peggy he's "too good-looking" for her. Later, Abe calls Peggy and sets a date, leaving her worried he's planning to dump her. Joan, who really should have a dating column, advises her wisely: "It's been my experience that when a man insists on a meal, he has something important to say. Men don't take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate." And so, upon Joan's urging, Peggy goes out and buys a new dress and meets Abe at Minetta Tavern, where he has a proposal, though it's not the one she thought (and, it can be interpreted, hoped) it might be. He wants them to move in together. But Peggy rallies, she accepts. "Do you still want to eat?" he asks. "I do."
Also at the agency, Megan has an idea. Perhaps the inter-generational spaghetti dinner could be applied to the problem of Heinz Beans, with a campaign featuring mothers throughout history serving their kids beans, with the tagline, "Some Things Never Change." Don is amazed. "My God, you get over here," he says. "I don't want to change the subject," says Megan. This pitch will go on to win the Heinz client back, and it's Megan's quick-thinking at a dinner at which the agency was about to be dumped that does it. Contrast that, and Don's clear joy at Megan's success (because it is also his own), with Emile's earlier statement: "My daughter pretends to find interesting what I find interesting because she loves me." While that may have been true for Megan and Don's relationship in the beginning as well, there's a clear departure from that now, and Emile feels Megan pulling away. But Don may, too, if he can't keep to the subject—unlike with Betty, there are aspirational fires simmering in Megan.
The next day Peggy's fears over acceptance of her plan are quelled by Joan, who tells her that she thinks this "shacking up" is romantic, and something to be celebrated. Peggy, in turn, congratulates Megan genuinely for her success with Heinz: "This is as good as this gets," she tells her. Sisterhood, in that moment, is strong.
The ending of the episode, however, is more brutal. First there's Peggy, announcing her plans with Abe to her mother, who's come over bearing a cake. Things do not go well, however, even before the announcement is made, her mom wants to leave because she didn't think it would take so long. Peggy's father is invoked, but he is not there, having passed away, and her mother stands in for both with her censure, telling her to get a cat if she's lonely and, more cuttingly, "You are selling yourself short. He will use you for practice until he decides to get married and have a family”—giving voice to worries Peggy may have herself.
The episode culminates, though, with Don's family, and his new in-laws. Sally asks if she can come to the dinner too; she's gotten a dress. Meanwhile, Emile is on the phone crying to a woman not his wife about a bad meeting with his publisher, and Marie is sequestered away after a fight. "They do this all the time," says Megan. "They will recover, they always do." I'm reminded of last week's dialogue after the Howard Johnson's fight: "It was a fight," says Don. "It's over." Megan responds, "Every time we fight it just diminishes us." Subtext: Generations are bound to repeat the past with regard to more than simply beans.
The family readies for the party; Sally comes down in full makeup and gogo boots and a shiny silver dress. Don tells her to take off her makeup and the boots, and Emile responds, classically, "No matter what you do one day your girl will spread her legs and fly away," a Freudian or French or purposeful slip to which Megan interrupts, "Wings!" They arrive at the party, where Sally notes "there's no staircase," and is introduced to Pete Campbell, the "handsome prince." This party is no fairy tale. The best thing about it, for Sally, is a friendship with Roger Sterling. Temporarily.
At the dinner, each guest is felled in some way, in quick succession. Don is told that everyone likes his work, but no one wants to hire him after the anti-smoking letter that has won him this night's award because they don't trust him. Megan is told by her father that she's taken the easy road, worries she herself feels: "I see you've skipped the struggle and gone right to the end. Don’t let your love for this man stop you from doing what you wanted to do," he says. And most tawdrily, the lonely Marie, enticed by Roger, gives him a blow job, a scene that Sally inadvertently walks in on.
The bookend closing of the episode is another phone call to the creepy Glen, who might be the most stable person in Sally's life after all: "How's the city?" he asks. "Dirty," she responds.
Image via Ron Jaffe/AMC.