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Future Perfect: Doomed Expectations on Mad Men

"Some things never change."

And some things do.

This week's fantastic episode of Mad Men ("At the Codfish Ball"), written by Jonathan Igla and directed by Michael Uppendahl, had its eye on the future, with several characters contemplating the shifting mores of 1966 as they--and the viewers--were confronted by traditional values rubbing against modernity.

But, as the episode itself depicts, things do change and they have to. Society may march on with some of those rigid structures intact but with it comes progress as well, and the sense of change and of the future is embodied in the characters of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Megan (Jessica Paré), and Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) here, each of whom undergoes a transformation of sorts (whether physical, psychological, or social) before the installment ends.

The entire notion of the campaign envisioned by Megan toys with the notion that certain things never really change, whether it be spaghetti, beans, or a mother cooking dinner for her child. The structure of the campaign posits that shifting cultures and times--from the prehistoric to the futuristic--don't diminish certain foundations, relationships, or eventualities. Children need to eat, parents need to feed them. The earth--and the moon--keep on turning.

That this becomes the thing that saves the Heinz account (and, as a result, potentially SCDP as well) is crucial, particularly because it's not only Megan who dreams up the campaign, even with a better tag than the one that Don (Jon Hamm) envisions, but who saves the day by warning Don that they're about to be fired and dinner and then provokes him into pitching Raymond (John Sloman) right there with the timeline idea. While Megan allows Don to take the credit for the campaign--at least in front of the client--it's down to her that they're able to transform their luck. But Megan is more than mere good luck charm; she's the brains behind the idea itself. She's more than just the holder of the purse, collector of business cards, the one who gets to whisper, "Get 'em, tiger" before her man enters the ring.

It's exciting to see Don paired with someone who is so well integrated into his world, who understands his business and his methodology, who sees the value of what he does and enjoys doing it with him as well. Megan is certainly the polar opposite of Betty in this respect, a wife who goes with him to the office and engages with the material with as much vigor and intelligence as himself. Her shower reveries aren't of frocks or furniture, but of campaigns. It doesn't make Megan any less feminine or wifely in the traditional sense (after all, we're reminded that she decorated the apartment, and she goes on a shopping spree; her intellectualism isn't at the cost of any sense of materialism), but we can't help but question whether the dream she's living is her own, something that her professor father Emil (Ronald Guttman) throws in her face at the Codfish Ball. Is this what she wants? What has happened to her own pursuits and dreams? Has she shoved them to the back of the queue to please her husband?

(Megan's relationship with Don is juxtaposed against that of Emil and Julia Ormond's Marie; Megan's parents are far more traditional and traditionally unhappy. Emil can't seem to please his wife with anything he does and sees any comment she makes as a personal attack against him and his failures. Unable to achieve his goals, he wants to provoke Megan into making her own choices and not being dependent on someone else's wealth, which he views as the corruption of dreams.)

While we're meant to see Megan as a modern woman, if she's shortchanged her own ambitions in order to fall in line with her husband, that makes her more deeply connected to the traditional role than we've seen before from her. After all, we did learn in Season Four that she wanted to be an actress. Has she traded one dream for another? Is this why she's so low-key and almost deflated after her victory at dinner? It's noticeable that Megan isn't cracking open the champagne or jumping up and down, despite the fact that Don openly credits her at the office for her success with the client and the campaign. She's almost somber here, refusing to soak up the limeline, denying herself a celebratory bow or pat on the back.

It's Peggy who seems to snap her out of it. I half-expected Peggy to be upset or even jealous of Megan's victory here, but Peggy has aligned herself more closely with the male, Don Draper perspective, positioning herself even in the role of mentor or experienced (male) elder, choosing instead to celebrate Megan's accomplishments rather than see her as competition. What she says to Mrs. Draper--"I should be jealous, but I look at you and I feel like I’m getting to experience my first time again...This is as good as this job gets."--clearly echoes Don's words to her earlier in the series.

While it connects Peggy to her own past ("I'm getting to experience my first time again") and Megan to the future (more moments like these), even as it reminds Megan to experience the present, to enjoy the moment for what it is: as good as it gets. But is Megan's hesitation to celebrate a sign that as good as this job gets isn't enough for her? That the reality doesn't match her envisioned expectations?

Those bruised expectations are what fuel the entire episode largely. Peggy fully expects Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) to propose to her over dinner at Minnette Tavern, because traditionalist Joan (Christina Hendricks) pumps her up to believe that a marriage proposal is surely to unfold during the meal. (I loved the scene, by the way, between the two women in Joan's office, as Joan proffered a cigarette and asked Peggy if she wanted to close the door and talk. It was a beautifully nuanced scene that depicted the burgeoning friendship between the two women this season.) She even goes so far as to buy a new (pink!) dress that highlights her femininity and traditional values (the pearls!), but the proposal--of the marriage sort, anyway--doesn't come. Instead, Abe asks her to move in with him, a modern and almost shocking proposition, considering that people didn't really "shack" up much until now, given the view that a couple that did so was "living in sin." (Such hypocrisy, given that such couples were inevitably already engaged in pre-marital sex.)

While she's thrown by the proposal, she accepts his offer, even issuing a somewhat lamenting "I do" in response. But given Peggy's own backstory, she's not one to stand on ceremony or do things that society expects from her. She's a trailblazer, a glass ceiling-breaker. She and Abe are in love and want to do this, regardless of the expectations that Peggy's overbearing mother (Myra Turley) throws at her, that Abe will use her "for practice" and then move on and marry some other woman. Her rage here is palpable, her anger at Peggy transformed into something churlish and spiteful (the entire cat speech), a mother who refuses to see her daughter's happiness because it conflicts with her own notions of propriety and decency.

Kathryn is of the past, while Peggy is of the future: Peggy's decision to move in with Abe without accepting the sanctified bonds of marriage break the eternal timeframe posited by Megan's campaign: this is something that mother and child do not share. The generational bond splinters here as something that's incomprehensible to Kathryn, even as it seems quotidian to the viewers, becomes a reality for her daughter. Times, they are a'changing, it seems, and Kathryn would rather walk out of Peggy's apartment forever than stay and see her daughter do something so "wrong" and selfish. It's heartbreaking, even as it is brutally realistic. Peggy's decision may signal her own happiness, but it's not one that everyone will understand.

I was nervous to see just how Joan would handle the news, given that it was Joan's advice that set Peggy up for some unrealistic expectations about what Abe wanted to discuss with her. But rather than offer the condemnation that Kathryn does, Joan offers heartfelt congratulations to Peggy, talking about how the piece of paper that she had with Greg (the marriage certificate) mattered little when he chose the military over her. Her words shout to Peggy are essentially to grab hold of any happiness you can, regardless of what society might think about it. After all, Joan is choosing to raise her child (had out of wedlock with another man) on her own; their decisions mark them as outsiders but also as modern women as well. Her expectations are that Joan will be disappointed, but here the reality trumps the envisioned: Joan instead calls her decision "romantic."

Those romantic notions are what fuel Sally. After accidentally causing Pauline (Pamela Dunlap), or "Bluto" as Sally calls her, to break her ankle, Sally and Bobby are forced to join Don and Megan in Manhattan, where they're entertaining Emil and Marie as their houseguests. What follows is an attempt on the part of Sally to engage in adult behavior, envisioning herself as a woman rather than a girl. Her transgressive acts begin with the repeated phone calls to Glen (Marten Holden Weiner), now at a boarding school, though she denies herself the role of "girlfriend" here, and continue as she recreates herself in the mold of a modern woman.

While we expect to see Sally dressed in something traditional and girly, she stuns the audience as well as the assembled group at the apartment when she comes out wearing an outfit that is firmly rooted in the modernity of the 1960s: white go-go boots, lots of makeup, and something sleek and futuristic. She's transformed here into not the little girl that Don sees Sally as, but as a young lady on the cusp of womanhood. (It's what leads Emil to make the crack that "one day your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.") While Don refuses to let her attend the American Cancer Society dinner unless she ditches the boots and the makeup, Sally relents, though she forces herself into the role of an adult throughout the evening, forcing herself to eat fish (which she hates, as we learned earlier) and playing at being Roger's "date" for the evening.

While she may have asked for spaghetti rather than Dover sole earlier in the episode, here she not only forces herself to taste a morsel, but finds that she enjoys it, surprising herself at her evolving tastes and identity. Her rapport with Roger (John Slattery) is endearing here, as she tucks her gloves into her purse, which will become a receptacle for business cards Roger gains from prospective clients, pushing him out out onto the floor with a "get 'em, tiger" as her role requires, as she sips another Shirley Temple.

(Aside: The episode's title, of course, comes from a 1936 Shirley Temple film, Captain January, which features a dance number called--you guessed it, "At the Codfish Ball," in which Temple and Buddy Ebsen (filling in, one imagines, for Roger Sterling here) dance together. Interestingly, the film was attacked by Graham Greene for Temple's perceived coquettishness and for a decadence to the entire film.)

But the evening doesn't quite match up with Sally's romantic notions about what will unfold for her first foray into adulthood. Immediately upon entering the ballroom, she horrified to discover that there is no grand staircase here, no means of making a dramatic entrance, taking her cues from film and television, a debutante ball, a Cinderella story wherein she becomes the object of affection for everyone in the room, the char girl transformed into the beautiful princess. But life is not, to Sally's chagrin and horror, a Disney film. She encounters firsthand the realities of both adulthood and of her own desire to return to being a child again, faced with something she's not ready to understand when she catches Marie fellating Roger in a back room. Her revulsion and horror propel her back to a need to reclaim her childhood, reminding her that she's not ready for this leap into adolescence just yet.

When asked by Glen how the city is, Sally sums it up masterfully, capturing the physical state of Manhattan and her own feelings of horror toward what she witnessed between Marie and Roger: "Dirty."

Sally may be on the path to adulthood, and she may be growing up before our and Don's very eyes, but there's also a sense that she's still very much an innocent and a child and that her time will come. The child becomes a woman, the daughter a mother. Time marches on, the cycle continues, but it's impossible not to feel that Sally's future will be far different than what the previous generation has experienced. And even if it doesn't match up with her expectations, there is still magic in the undiscovered possibility of what that future will hold for her and for us.

Next week on Mad Men ("Lady Lazarus"), Peggy is irritated by a secret she has to keep. Pete covers for a friend and Don gets unexpected news.

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