Mad Men: "At the Codfish Ball" - Sally forth

Welcome to Week Six of the Barker Chappell Daglas Reviewing Trust, featuring my fellow traditionalists in the bosom arena, Cory Barker of TV Surveillance and Les Chappell of A Helpless Compiler. Grab a plate of head-on halibut and enjoy our take on this week's episode of Mad Men, "At the Codfish Ball."

[For more three way Mad Men thoughts, check out the latest TV Tandem podcast with Julie Hammerle and Andrew Daar.]

Andy: Advertising, more than most businesses, depends on impressing people. But that isn’t the same thing as earning people’s trust, as both father and daughter are reminded this week. Don may have won the esteem of the American Cancer Society, but as tipsy-yet-astute Ed Baxter* points out, he’ll never win their trust—he’s being honored for betraying one of his oldest business partners, after all. And Sally, already so wise beyond her years in ways positive and negative, becomes the latest in a looooong line of ladies to learn that Roger Sterling’s charm runs a mile wide but an inch deep. Never mistake charm or chumminess for genuine decency, especially in someone who wants something from you. Sadly, it’s a lesson that will most likely serve Sally Draper powerfully later in life.

*AKA, Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law. AKA, Mr. Mack.

Other times, striving to impress others only lays bare the insecurities you hope your accomplishments will put to rest. All the material, professional, or familial success in the world can’t help Megan escape the side-eye of her father, and not just because of his anti-capitalist leanings. He hints at some greater ambition she’s forsaken, and suddenly a winning spin on selling beans doesn’t seem like so much to be proud of.** Meanwhile, Peggy convinces herself that “shacking up” with Abe is just the shot in the arm their relationship needs. Yet once again, she can’t make a dent in her mother’s withering disapproval—raising the question of why she felt the urge to even try.

**Am I the only one hoping Megan’s self-thwarted dream was to become a pop sensation touring malls across Canada?

It was one step forward, two steps back all throughout “At the Codfish Ball.” So where does that leave everyone at the midpoint of season five? And, more importantly, have I impressed you guys enough to win your trust and approval yet?

 

Les: Don't worry Andy, your efforts with a trident against the platypus-bear hordes last week were more than enough to ensure my trust.

I felt like this episode was a return to form for the show. Not to say that either "Signal 30" or "Far Away Places" were bad episodes - both were fantastic - but after their surrealistic, experimental elements, "At the Codfish Ball" felt more like a "traditional" episode of Mad Men. It didn't have those big moments where relationships and businesses collapse, it was one that just showed the cracks in those relationships that Mad Men is always so good at making so meaningful.

As you said Andy, this was very much a one step forward, two steps back episode for a lot of characters, and a lot of those steps back were because of characters falling back into old habits. As much as Roger wanted to get back to normal, normal's not very healthy for a lot of these people. Don may be back to delivering pitches with ease, but as Ken's father-in-law* informed Don, this trait means he says things he doesn't mean - it cost the firm Mohawk in season two and caused a rift with Sally after the divorce in season three, and with the letter he's got a reputation for doing that. Roger's once again wining and dining clients with ease, but he still wants what he wants when he wants it, and in this case what he wants isn't business cards but a hummer from Megan's mother.** And Peggy's trying to have a mature relationship after the disasters of Pete and Duck, but it's still not enough to please her mother, the blessing she's always wanted for her independent life.

*He may be Mr. Mack to you, Andy, but to me that's always going to be Leland Palmer. Or the Devil. Either way, this is just more fuel for my theory that Ray Wise is stalking me.

**Played by Julia Ormond, whose broad range of credits includes Inland Empire. So that's two players from the David Lynch company of players - maybe this episode's dreamier than I thought.

What struck me the most this episode was the reaction of Megan, who hasn't been around long enough that we know what's her normal. I spent a lot of our discussion last week speculating that Megan throwing herself into the business could help rebuild their relationship, and the first half of the episode proved me right. She has an idea that fits perfectly into Don's belief in nostalgia (that twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone) and it helps him get back his energy to a degree unseen all season. She knows exactly what to do to prod Don into a pitch at dinner and is willing to allot him credit to sell the deal, and the passion between the two in the cab felt more real than the "love leave" Cooper chided them for last week. Don and Ken give her due credit in front of the rest of the creative team (the credit Harry doesn't grasp for, that is), and even Peggy's thrilled for her after Heinz spent half the season kicking her around.

And yet despite being told "This is as good as this job gets" by Peggy, the one person who'd know? Megan doesn't seem particularly happy about any of it. Her whole relationship with Don began when she expressed interest in ad copy, and now that she's proven she can do it, she's fighting to keep a smile on her face. Is it just because her father's overall disapproval is draining the enjoyment, much as Peggy's mother leeched her daughter's happiness by telling her to become a cat lady, or does she really not want to do this?

 

Cory: I had a weird reaction to this episode. As I was watching, I didn't particularly enjoy it. The individual stories worked quite well, but as a whole, "At the Codfish Ball" left me a smidgen cold. Nevertheless, this one certainly had big connections to the season's themes. As we have discussed pretty frequently, this season has been about the characters trying to find something to make themselves happy and "Codfish Ball" presents us numerous stories that suggest possible avenues for happiness that ultimately close up pretty quickly. Throughout this episode, characters have high expectations for certain conversations, events or plans, mostly only to be shut down by the hard realities of life, business or family.

Don -- and really the whole firm -- hopes that he award for his anti-tobacco ad will bring in new business. Megan hopes that some quality weekend time, including at Don's awards reception, will force her parents to warm up to both her new husband and her career choices. Peggy, with the "help" of Joan, expects to be engaged and later hopes that her mother will appreciate her decision to let Abe move in. And of course, Sally hopes that hanging out with her dad and Megan at a prestigious ball will be just as she imagined in the stories. Whoops.

The constant pervasiveness of this theme is really compelling to me. I often enjoy Mad Men more when it is a story about ambition (this is perhaps why Pete is my favorite character and the season three finale is likely my favorite episode), but I'm really jazzed up about how this season is showing us variations on ambition and what it can do to a person. Pete's gone about as far as he go right now, and he's miserable. Roger had to have a LSD trip to snap out of his miserable rut. After this episode, Peggy's apparently just turning into the skid of her life. But as Les suggested, the most curious characters are Megan and Don.

It was really great to see the former show some real creative juice and moxie in this episode. I appreciate that the series is going out of its way to tell us that Megan isn't just like Jane, a young beauty with not much else to offer. We've already seen that she's strong-willed and fairly mature, but here, she's in full control of the Heinz situation, from the original pitch to saving the business at the dinner. It is in moments like those that make Don's love for Megan make sense. Plus, her complicated relationship with her parents immediately made me think of Betty's relationship with hers, and how different the two women are. Whereas any Betty-related story existed to almost force us to feel sorry for her, this Megan story allowed us to see that she can stand up to her mother and father, at least moderately. Megan isn't a spoiled brat. She's a bit of a rebel, and she's sort of fine with it. I think.

Meanwhile, Don's pronounced lack of ambition has been a driving force up to this episode, so it was fun to watch "old Don" return, slay that Heinz pitch, regain a little swagger and then have it all come crashing down when he realizes that his biggest move of recent memory basically cost him the future. I'll be curious to see if Don reacts to this negative news with more day drinking/napping/sexing/and based on this episode reading or if he hunkers down and tries to kick more ass. We weren't given any indication that Bert's speech had much of an impact on him, however. How do we feel about Don's focus moving forward?

 

Andy: Don’s and Megan’s pas de deux was a thing of beauty. Equally striking is just how thinly-veiled a lie it is they’re selling. The picture of domestic stasis and bliss doesn’t remotely resemble the real-world situation which allegedly inspired it—the three generations under the Draper roof are far from traditional. Megan is Sally’s stepmom, and a working woman to boot. Mrs. Calvet is a freewheeling flirt whose daughter doesn’t seem to regard her as the bean-ladling type. “Some things never change” is a hell of a tagline, and one false enough to offend even the toothless “truth in advertising” law Ken alluded to as the scene began.

Yet there was Raymond, soaking up every word, because it’s precisely what he wanted to hear. And precisely how he wanted to hear it: From a take-charge man and his deferential muse of a wife.

One of Mad Men’s favorite motifs has always been the lies we tell ourselves to get along, whether out of selfishness or self-preservation, but the theme seemed especially pronounced this week. Les, you raise the question of why Megan’s enjoyment is short-lived; Cory, you wonder how Don will grapple with this latest dent in his armor of insouciance. Maybe the answer to both represents another wedge in the Draper marriage, a subtler one than last week’s knock-down drag-out. Don has a remarkable capacity for denial, and he may deflect this setback as deftly as he did Bert’s bit of wisdom. But Megan? She strikes me as much more willing to face the unpleasant truth. Neither of them can win for losing.

Two more examples of the malleability of truth caught my attention, both small but revealing moments. The first was how the telephone cord responsible for Pauline's injury magically became one of Gene's toys in Sally's telling. She did as well as anyone could have in making sure Pauline was cared for, and then she seized the opportunity to avoid any trouble for herself. Cool-headed competence and an ease with deception - no wonder Sally fits in this universe so naturally.

The second was Pete’s slick demonstration to Dr. Calvet of what an accounts man does. In the blink of an eye, this author/philosopher who styles himself a champion of truth allowed himself to be utterly taken in by a professional dissembler. And Pete (weasel that he is) wielded the moment like a weapon. It’s a short but savagely cynical scene. If the message of this week’sGame of Thrones was Arya’s leveling pronouncement that “anyone can be killed,” the complementary message of Mad Man was right here in a nutshell: Anyone can be snowed.

 

Les: I'm happy you mentioned that instance of Sally being both grown up and duplicitous at the same time, because that was one of my favorite little moments in the entire episode. Sally's watched Don and Betty for so long she knows exactly what to say to deflect blame from herself, and she knows exactly how much of a lie she can tell before it seems untruthful.

This was just overall a great episode for Sally, in what I believe is the first time she's been inserted directly into the actions of the main cast beyond a brief appearance at a Draper household get-together. True, there was the instance where she ran away on the same day Mrs. Blankenship died, but she was kept in Don's office for the duration ("Do not come out of there!" "I know!") This is the first time she's felt like she's part of things, more adult than we've ever seen her before - and truthfully, more adult than we've seen Pete Campbell at some spots. She was immediately composed at seeing Pauline break her ankle, very respectful in asking to go to the banquet, disappointed at not being allowed to wear her full space oddity fembot ensemble but not throwing a tantrum, and thrilled not just that Roger's paying attention to her* but that he's doing so in a way that makes her feel like an equal.

*Everyone on Twitter seems ready to propose a Roger Sterling/Sally Draper spinoff, which I think is an excellent idea: your suggestions? Mine is a father/daughter con artist team traveling the country getting in trouble and pulling off scams, much like Sarah Walker's back story on Chuck

And of course, as it always happens when you're a kid and you become part of the adult world, the reality far outweighs the image. I don't think Sally was as in love with idealized stories as Sansa was (to cite another Stark child in the hope this discussion checks them all off), but her upbringing's made her precociously sensitive to when something's wrong in the order of things. She's willing to play along at some things - taking a bite of the fish and trying to like it - but seeing her step-grandmother and her father's best friend (?) in flagrante delicto isn't something she can stand seeing. However, in her continued path to adulthood, she doesn't cause a scene when Marie returns to the table or ask any pointed questions, just sits in silence in what is probably the most awkward family portrait in history. Andy, you said at the start she learned a lesson in terms of the difference between charm and decency, and this is just another piece of the education we've seen her suffer through for four-plus seasons. The question of course is what message she'll take for her own behavior: she tells Glen it's "dirty," but will she accept it's the behavior of the adult she'll eventually become?

Great character moments for Sally, and terrific work from Kiernan Shipka. If the show does jump in time enough to see her as a teenager before the end, it'll be interesting to see how she matures up to the point where she'll "spread her legs and fly away." A turn of phrase that raises a question I haven't been able to answer: did you read that as Emile just mixing up his English in that instance, or was he making a cruel joke at his daughter's expense? And more generally, what do we think of the Calvets?

 

Cory: As I briefly touched on in my last response, I couldn't help but think of Betty and her family when watching Megan interact with hers. We've seen a bit of Betty's mom in flashbacks and a whole lot of her father and brother. I always got the impression that Betty's family was fine with her personal life trajectory. Don seemed like a caring husband, they were financially secure and more. Betty's issues with her family were more about their impact on her obviously-stunted growth. Of course they'd want someone like Don for their daughter; he could take care of her.

What's really great about the Calvets then is how they don't want Megan to be a Betty-like woman. Clearly Megan's parents do not have the happiest marriage -- or really one at all, for that matter -- but her father is particularly interested in her life. "Particularly interested" can manifest itself through judgmental looks and barbs like we saw in this episode and yet, meeting Megan's parents helped me understand her better. She's not just a child of a new generation who assumes the world will come to her. Instead, she's been told by her parents (or at least her father) that she needs to go out there and find the world. Betty, as a woman of the previous generation, was (at least initially) fine with settling. Megan A.) Doesn't see this relationship with Don as settling or B.) Will eventually realize that her father is right and this isn't what she wants. And again, I really loved the scene between her and her father near the end of the episode. She has some gumption, than young Mrs. Draper. Andy, what'd you think on that front?

One plot we haven't talked a whole lot about is Peggy's new living situation. I've never been the biggest Abe fan (hey, maybe I am holding out for all my Pete-Peggy fan fiction to come to fruition in the series), but I find Peggy allowing him to move in, basically in offhanded disappointment, to be really rich from a storytelling perspective. We've always assumed that Peggy, as the youngest original member of the firm we follow, would be our representative of the changing times and new subcultural artifacts. I guess you could argue that a pre-marriage living arrangement fits that bill, but I choose to see it as yet another reminder that ultimately, everyone settles down a bit. Peggy's been pretty disappointed with her life this season, which helps her fit right in with the rest of the characters. I have a feeling this isn't going to turn out well.

 

Andy: This was the latest in a steady string of engrossing Pegasus stories, one of my favorite elements of the season thus far. It was also the latest case of her beginning an episode in a reasonably happy place only to wind up in a ditch by the end. Cory, you characterized her recent decisions as “turning into the skid,” and I think that’s damn apropos. After expecting Abe to dump her, then psyching herself up for the notion that he might propose instead, it makes sense that she’d count mere cohabitation as a win.

It strikes me as a half-measure on both their parts, a lukewarm attempt to keep their relationship adrift out of fear as much as genuine affection. It’s clear that Abe doesn’t fit comfortably in Peggy’s world—his awkwardness amidst the easy rapport of the SDCP creatives was as painful as the rest of that scene was hilarious.* That they stay together indicates Peggy views her love life the same way she views her career: This is as good as it gets.

*Which was the better line: “boob-carrying consumer” or “traditionalist in the bosom arena”? I can’t decide, but it’s good to see the agency is doing its homework on market segmentation. 

Turning back to Père Emile, I’m inclined to think his “spread your legs” slip was somewhat in between your suggestions Les—I don’t think he intended to insult his daughter so overtly, but it was certainly at the front of his mind when he selected (and twisted) that idiom. And the scene you mentioned, Cory, was just as crushing, apparent as it is that Megan views her father as her true authority figure. I’m anxious to see what new dimensions emerge in light of their conversation, and once again I’m impressed how skillfully the show has added a compelling, three-dimensional character to the central ensemble within just a handful of episodes in its fifth season.

One last thing I want to mention is (once again) how consistently funny this episode was. Honestly, up until the last ten minutes or so this was a pretty jaunty hour of TV. Roger rattling off gem after gem (“Here comes your handsome prince….Naahhhh.”)**. Don: “I was just gonna scream in his stupid face!” Mrs. Olson’s incredulous reaction to Abe’s favorite food.  “The Canadian equivalent of baseball.” Harry shamelessly stepping on Ken’s anecdote (“You weren’t there!”). A bevy of wonderful touches from credited writer Jonathan Igla.

**My Roger-and-Sally-spinoff suggestion: Period piece Inspector Gadget reboot. Give Slattery a helicopter hat and La Shipka a computer book and let hilarity ensue.

 

Les: Indeed, this was a pretty damn funny episode of Mad Men, and not in the shocking black way it can be funny (i.e. Mrs. Blankenship, the lawnmower, the Campbell/Pryce one-round brawl) but just allowing these characters to play off each other. I think that also goes to why I found this a more traditional episode of the show as opposed to the extremes it's gone to this season, but yet one I still enjoyed immensely.

Interestingly enough, this was also the only episode this season not credited to Matt Weiner in whole or in part this year, although I'm sure he was heavily involved as always. Apparently Igla (whose only other Mad Men writing credit was as co-writer for S4's finale "Tomorrowland") has impressed Weiner enough he wanted to do him a good turn.

A couple other scattered details: I thought it was fantastic to see John Slattery's real-life wife Talia Balsam back as Roger's ex-wife Mona, as I enjoyed their interactions throughout the series. It's a good sign that they're on friendly enough terms with each other that he can tell her about his LSD trip and admit how useless losing Lucky Strike makes him feel, and that she's willing to help him get back in the game with some networking. I'm also somewhat surprised to see he's made his LSD trip public to the firm (or at least to Don), though we don't see how any of them look at him for it. Either way, this uptick for Roger is great to see and obviously adds to the humor of the show. He's been paired with Harry, Peggy and Sally so far with hilarious results: what partner in crime is next?

And a brief mention to Joan as well, whose return to the office seemed like it would be wrought with friction but has been handled as seamlessly as Cooper's: they just like being there and belong there. It's the second week in a row where she's only been present briefly, but one that yielded some great interactions with Pegasus* in the duration. I was a little bit tense when Peggy came in asking for a cigarette since I thought Joan would simply dismiss her rudely or mess with her head, but Joan actually gave some solid relationship advice on two occasions and was actually candid enough to say that Dr. Greg chose the Army over her, even if she doesn't outright say the marriage is over. Maybe this is just an area Igla likes writing, given that "Tomorrowland" had a similar excellent scene of the two talking in Joan's office, but even though they're too different to be close friends I love the mutual respect those two have built for each other.

**That's a great nickname, thank you Joyce. Though for some reason it puts the image of a Mad Men/My Little Pony spinoff in my mind: Advertising is Magic!

Before we wrap up, I want to go back to Andy's observation that this is the midpoint of the season: six/seven episodes down, six to go. I think we're all united this has been a fantastic season of Mad Men, and we obviously can't judge the whole until it wraps (if then) but how would you rank your interest/engagement compared to this point in other seasons? Personally, I'm more invested than I was by the third season's midpoint ("Seven Twenty Three") but less than I was by the fourth's ("The Suitcase") if only because the (maybe) gradual disintegration of the Draper marriage is somewhat less personally interesting than watching Don Draper self-destruct and be ready to rise again.

 

Cory: That's a tough question. As of now, I feel less attached to this season than I did seasons one, three and four, and I only have slightly vague memories of season two since I caught up mostly on DVD. That's not really a knock this season, not at all. This season has been thematically coherent, but also scattered in a really fun, compelling way. I'm less overtly emotionally invested in this season (especially when lined up with S3 and S4), yet I would say that I am more curious than before. In season three, we knew where the Draper marriage was headed. Last season, we at least had a good handle on the fact that the story was going to be about Don and his recovery. This season though? I'm not really sure what the story is moving forward. And I'm really psyched about that.

 

Andy: My viewing experience colors my assessment as well - this is the first season of Mad Men I've watched live, week-to-week, having caught up on the entire series in the weeks leading up to the season four finale. On the basis of the first half of the season alone, I've grown more and more intrigued. It feels like most of the characters have been skirting a precipice, and it's equally plausible that they'll dance back from it or go tumbling over the edge. It keeps things brisk and tense at the same time - no mean feat for a show where, so many often claim, "nothing happens."

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