For those who found last week’s tripartite LSD episode gimmicky, this week’s Mad Men represented a return to the show’s standard format via linear plot development, 1960s gender politics, and some good, old fashioned sexual angst. As an added bonus, some of that angst was all Freudian and Oedipal. (I’m looking at you, Professor Asshole.) And speaking of parents, the theme of generational shift played as big a part as ever.
So it’s clear that little Sally Draper is starting to become a woman, which begs the question, what kind of woman is she going to be? She’s in luck in that there are more options than ever in American history, but none of the show’s examples are without their problems, and none are the fairy tale she seems to be hoping for when she shows up at the ballroom in a glittery dress. First there’s Peggy, who actually seems pretty happy with her boyfriend Abe since taking a mini-vacation from him at Hand Job Theater. Or at least, as happy as her insane work schedule will permit. (I know nothing about the ad world, but is it normal to go back to the office after dinner?) But when he takes her out to a nice dinner, his earnest proposal that they shack up doesn’t land with the enthusiasm he hopes it will. Despite being ultra-modern in many ways, Peggy still clearly wants to get married, and the look on her face when Abe proposes cohabitation is as fine a bit of acting as Xenu has ever helped Elisabeth Moss to do. But is this because Peggy really has wedding fever, or is it because she knows her mother will throw a Jesus tantrum and withhold cake from her for “living in sin” (with a non-observant Jew, no less)? Her relationship is not without its issues, but I’m still rooting for those two crazy kids to make a go of it. After all, this was the era people began to decide that living together before marriage was pretty much normal and fine, and Peggy seems to have things under control now re: not getting pregnant. Time to cut emotional saboteurs out of your life, girl.
Then there’s Megan, who seems like the show’s frontrunner for the title of “enviable modern woman who has it all”: money, beauty, a husband who respects her, and a promising career, even if she has to play into the Heinz idiot’s sexist ideas to get it. But is this really what she wanted? The final conversation with her snotty caricature-ish dad points to no, and is also the first moment he seems to actually care about her well being after a whole day of Oedipal blustering. (Aside: if you’re going to blame his assiness on the fact that he’s a commie professor, don’t. My boyfriend is a commie professor too, yet he somehow manages to get along with my parents and others who don’t share his views, because he’s not a complete jerk. Then again, he’s not French.) What is it that Megan really wanted to do? Was it acting? Because if so, I think he’s the first parent in history to get mad at his daughter for abandoning her (probably ill-fated) dreams of Hollywood for a career that can actually support her, whether she’s married to a rich dude or not. As the show goes on, we see more and more that Don needs Megan but she merely wants him (a much healthier way to love), and I’m interested to see how that plays out.
And then there’s Sally’s step-grandmother. Sacrebleu, that was painful. After Roger Sterling spends all night charming Sally with his witty, silver fox-y ways, she witnesses him getting an illicit beej from her flirty, glamorous, and deeply unhappy step-grand-mère. Talk about disillusionment! When she calls New York “dirty” to her creepy former neighbor Glen, you can hear echoes of The Sweet Smell Of Success…learn to love this dirty town or leave it, kid. Maybe Sally will flee to California the first chance she gets, but I think she likes being a voyeur at least a little. Like that movie’s fictional J.J. Hunsecker, maybe she’s got a career in tabloid journalism.
Wrapped up in Megan’s neat, gender role reliant package of “some things never change,” these events take on an even more depressing quality. Things are changing for sure, but the emotional fall out is enough to make a girl want to retreat into a retro, 1950s Cinderella fantasy like Betty Draper. But as the broken Draper marriage points out, that fantasy was never real to begin with. All these women can do is try to stick together, which they do marvelously in this episode. Peggy supports Megan at work even though Megan’s success completely undermines her own handling of the Heinz account, and even Joan comes out of her ivory-skinned tower to let Peggy know she’s “just like everybody else.” If these 1960s women are exhausted by the effort it takes to live without old, reductive social roles, their hope for political and personal progress lies in helping each other out. Things are shifting away from that alone/together elevator shot from last season, and that can only be a good thing.