We passed the midway point of the fifth season of Mad Men this Sunday, and right on cue Don Draper pulled things together, got his head in the advertising game and executed the pitch that finally landed Heinz Baked Beans with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for good.
It’s a pattern we’ve grown accustomed to over the years — a personal crisis for Don brought on by any number of factors that affects his work until he seems to realize all that he has built is slipping away, and promptly snaps out of his funk.
The cause of Don’s dip this time around is also behind his shift in fortune in “At the Codfish Ball.” Don’s genuine passion for his new wife Megan has created a great deal of turbulence across the board, most notably with their physically charged showdown in their apartment last week. But it’s creeped into the SCDP offices as well, so much so that even the mostly hapless Bert Cooper chided Don for his sub-par performance.
Megan may be taking away, but she also giveth as you’ll see in the breakdown of this week’s episode.
1. Professional Success Is Never Enough
Unhappiness in the face of success at the workplace emerged as a major theme of the fifth season in “At the Codfish Ball,” though the entirety of Pete Campbell’s arc over the last seven episodes has almost entirely been about that very subject. I wish I could say I noticed it first, but it was actually Vincent Kartheiser himself — the actor who plays Pete — that put my antenna up to it:
“With success comes a level of sadness. You think, ‘I’ll reach this goal, and then I’ll feel a sense of completeness, of wholeness. I’ll feel that I have accomplished something. I will see myself as a worthy man.’ And it doesn’t really exist.”
We know Pete, now the big earner at SCDP, has been dealing with this precise emotion lately; he’s the biggest fish this side of Don Draper at the firm and he has a home, a wife and a child. He has every reason to be happy, and yet he so painfully is not. Pete, we learn in this episode, is not alone.
Principally at least, Megan is the one who shares this emotion with Pete. Not only is the winning pitch to Heinz — something involving the timelessness of their product and a kid in the future pulling off his space helmet to devour a tin of beans — her brainchild, but she almost singlehandedly saves the account, learning that Heinz is about to pull out during a chance bathroom encounter and, just as quickly, putting Don on the spot with her pitch in a successful Hail Mary effort that salvages their relationship with the client.
Megan shows real talent, proving that she can hold her own at SCDP and is not merely Don’s tagalong. We have our first real proof that she belongs in advertising, and not just rerouting phone calls to Don’s office. She is congratulated, most warmly by Peggy, who tells her, “This is as good as this job gets, savor it.” Don beams with pride. And yet Megan clearly possesses this inner melancholy about the whole ordeal.
Megan’s parents are in town and we get a hint of why she might feel that way when her father reveals his disappointment that she has not pursued her true dreams and passions. Of course, Megan’s father himself is in New York to meet with a publisher and that meeting doesn’t go well for him. Peggy, as well as her career is going, is disappointed when Abe falls short of proposing to her.
There is frustration and dissatisfaction in all corners in this episode, and I found the juxtaposition between Megan and her father the most illustrative and interesting part of it all. She is a professional success in a career that was not her first choice. He is not a professional success — at least insofar as his meeting with the publisher goes — and yet he has, we are led to believe at least, stuck closer to his true passion. Ironically, neither of them seem to be particularly happy. Megan appears totally unfulfilled, while her father, despite his devotion to some sort of true calling, doesn’t seem particularly thrilled with his lot in life either.
Oddly enough, Don seems to be the only one possessing some measure of content, though most of it seems to be derived from seeing Megan handle the nearly disastrous Heinz situation so deftly. He’s happy, it seems, only because the people he cares about are.
2. Roger and Sally: Never Again
Roger Sterling and Sally Draper should never end up as dates to the same party — in this case, the one where Don was receiving an award from the American Cancer Society for his incendiary advertorial in the New York Times after SCDP lost the Lucky Strike account — but, paradoxically, I’m sure glad they did.
Sally weaseled her way into an invite to the ACS event after escaping from her slavemaster (aka Henry Francis’ mother) and Roger — free-thinking, hard-drinking, newly single Roger — is just going stag to things now that he’s officially separated from his wife Jane. They made a great team with Roger happy to crack jokes and Sally eager to ask questions about the adult social world she’s just been thrust into. (Dow Corning makes beautiful dishes, glassware and napalm, dontcha know?)
And then, well, Roger had to be Roger and Sally had to be a snoop. It couldn’t end with Roger handing Sally a Shirley Temple and quipping that now was about the time she should taper off, could it? Nope. It had to end with Sally discovering Roger and Megan’s mother in a compromising sexual position and Sally telling long lost Glen that New York was “dirty.”
There’s no arguing that Sally is growing up far too fast, and with two-plus seasons to go I think it’s fair to wonder how things are going to end for her. She’s already taken prescription drugs and witnessed a sordid sexual affair in unwelcome detail and she’s hardly even a teenager yet. If she ends up on a commune, Don and Betty may wind up having gotten off easy.
3. More Joanie, Please
Am I the only person who feels like we haven’t seen nearly enough of Joan Harris this season? Her encouragement of Peggy after Abe calls to make foreboding dinner plans probably made for my favorite scene in the episode, other than any of the ones where Roger was dishing out cocktail party tips to Sally, and I’d like to see more of that over the final six episodes of this season.
Peggy needs someone, anyone to look over her shoulder, particularly given the falling out with her mother that also took place in this episode. Joan, with the sage wisdom gleaned from the end of her marriage with Greg, seems like the perfect person to provide just that.