In September 1966, just as the Lovin' Spoonful's new album is set to "drop," Mad Men spent some time updating us on gender roles. Like Season Four's The Beautiful Girls, this season's At The Codfish Ball tells a story largely through the eyes of the women of that time. The set piece is a dinner hosted by the American Cancer Society that honors Don for (as Ginsberg called it) "the Letter" - Don's screw you to American Tobacco, his "I broke up with him, he didn't dump me" page length advertisement in The New York Times to get people talking about something other than the fact that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had just lost a client of 30 years.
Megan's parents are in town, another couple of the apparent May/December type, who fuss and fight, only stopping to berate Megan for her lavish lifestyle (her dad is a communist, or socialist, or something, according to Don) or subtly compete for men's attention (her mom). Adding to the fun is the unexpected presence of Sally and Bobby, who were supposed to be with Grandma Pauline except she tripped over the extension cord to the phone in Sally's room and broke her ankle. Of course, Sally is feeling pretty proud, both because "Blutto" landed on the disabled list, but also because she is getting accolades for her cool headed thinking while Pauline was squirming on the ground in pain. Her reward? A shopping trip with the generations Clavet, an attempt at the Nancy Sinatra look (complete with boots and make up, both nixed by Don), and an impromptu assignment as Roger's wing woman at the ACS dinner.
The three generations housed under the Draper roof result in a light bulb moment for Megan, who comes up with a pitch for Heinz, just as Raymond Geiger is ready to jump ship to another agency. At a dinner with the Cosgroves and the Geigers, Megan deftly feeds Don the pitch so he can take credit for its creation while embellishing the idea at key points to take advantage of Mrs. Geiger's fondness for Megan. The full court press works and Raymond, who has seemingly done everything to avoid saying "yes" to SCDP's work, finally capitulates. Megan's success is a double edged sword, as all things are when you are the boss's wife. She switches from junior copywriter to Don's wife in the flash of a cab ride, but by the time the celebration ensues at work the next day, she appears deeply ambivalent about her achievement.
Perhaps Megan's mixed feelings are because of her skepticism about her co-workers, who she describes as cynical, always smirking and not smiling. Having bagged a client, she is not jumping for joy as Peggy expects she would be, and Peggy's comment that the experience of winning a client is as good as it gets at work leaves Megan empty. Later on, she is pestered by her father, himself a failed academic who grasps for youth by seeking comfort in the arms of his graduate students, for giving up on her dreams (of what, we are not told, though we do know Megan moved to New York to be an actress).
Peggy is dealing with her own mixed societal messages. She receives a breathless invitation from Abe to a nice dinner and confides in Joan, who indicates that men only do such things when a "proposal" is imminent. Peggy lights up, taking Joan's advice to go shopping for a new dress and gets a proposal alright, one to live together, but not in marriage. All credit to Elizabeth Moss, whose reaction to Abe's idea is a mask of inscrutability. The following day, Joan effortlessly shifts from June Cleaver to Gloria Steinem, congratulating Peggy on her "brave" decision to live with Abe without marriage while casually mentioning that the "paper" she has with Greg is less important than his "paper" with the U.S. Army. When Peggy invites her strict Catholic mother to dinner and tells her that she and Abe are now living together, she gets a stern (and predictable) dressing down about the perils of such an arrangement.
At the end of the spectrum is young Sally, who is keeping in touch with an in-the-full-throes of puberty Glen and has already been exposed to divorce, dislocation and drugs (Seconal) in the last year. Even at a young age, she is brimming with the self-confidence that signifies our teen years, and the attention she receives from Roger and others at the dinner does nothing to deflate her sense of self. All of that comes crashing down when she excuses herself to go to the ladies room and walks in on Roger and Megan's mother in flagrante delicto, the older woman's head bobbing up and down in Roger's lap. Asked by Glen during a call later that night how Manhattan is, her one word response is simply "dirty." She may think she's a mature young woman ready to use those white boots to her advantage, but when exposed to adulthood, her reaction is that of a child having another slice of her innocence destroyed.
Of course, the men fare no better. Megan's father is a neutered old man whose ambition is snuffed out and warns Don that like Megan, Sally will (as he put it in a hilarious misstep of French to English) "spread her legs and fly away." He is envious of Don's wealth, bitter at the lack of support he receives from his distant wife and openly mocks Pete, who cleverly puts Mr. Clavet in his place by feigning interest in his work only to end the conversation by explaining that faux flattery is what he (Pete) "does." Don too is cut off at the knees by Ken's father-in-law, a major player at Dow Chemical who, over drinks at the bar, tells Don that he is disliked by the heavy hitters who make up the board of directors of the ACS because his letter indicated disloyalty to a client, something that none of these masters of the universe can tolerate.
Meanwhile, Roger's acid trip has seemingly turned him on to a new life perspective. Instead of his pending second divorce making him shrivel deeper into the ball of misery and helplessness that has defined him in Season Five, Roger is reborn, connecting with first ex-wife Mona to get intelligence on the people he will meet at the codfish ball, shmoozing the executives at the party and embodying a looseness in his interaction with women that results in getting a blowie from Megan's mom.
Of course, we know that Don believes people do not change, and Don himself is skeptical of Roger's newfound openness to the world around him. The "table of sad" (h/t @thenewlolila) shot of Megan's parents (who are both deeply unsatisfied with one another), Megan and Don (who blow hot and cold) and Sally (scarred from witnessing such an overt sexual act) is more in keeping with the show's general theme of alienation and anomie. Of equal interest is the lack of a true pivot point. As a general matter, Mad Men tends to make its move to the second half of the season right about now, as they did in Season 2 (Don and Bobbi's affair exposed), Season 3 (Don and Suzanne begin their relationship) and Season 4 (The Suitcase/Summer Man), but last night's episode did not feel as meaningful. There were no defining moments, but rather, another story of people slowly being destroyed by the things they do not have.