Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 7
At the Codfish Ball
An essential part of growing up is learning to recognize the fact that other people are, well, people. When you're a kid, you default to being completely self-centered, to assuming that everyone around you is a bit of a supporting actor in your life. But at some point, whether when you're five, eleven, or in your '60s, it starts to dawn on you that other people have their own lives that are separate from yours, and that those, too, are important. The most difficult relationship to get this hold on is that between parents and their children. Kids resist accepting the reality of their parents personhood for longer than it takes them to recognize almost anyone else's, and while I have yet to have children, I imagine the same sort of operates in reverse. I think it must be difficult to watch your child grow up to be a completely independent being, the kind of person who might (and probably will) make choices you don't agree with, who may very well turn out to be completely different than what you'd hoped.

It is this tension, in its various permutations, that makes up the bulk of "At the Codfish Ball," another in a string of excellent Mad Men episodes (though perhaps a slight step down from the all-time classic that was "Far Away Places"). The most obvious manifestation of this is Sally Draper, who the show often uses to make its points in less subtle ways, and who is, pardon the expression, oh so often shit on by life. This week, Sally manages to break her step-grandmother's foot by dragging the phone into her room to call Glenn, and gets whisked off to the city, where she gets to feel, very briefly, like an adult. For Sally, its incredibly exciting to get to go to the reception, to see her father accept an award and to be treated like an adult. She puts on a fancy dress, boots, and makeup (and is promptly told to remove the latter two by her father), she sits on the arm of Roger Sterling, acting as his back up (this is pairing is as great as it sounds, and I hope the show returns to it at some point), and she even deigns to try fish, which we learn earlier in the episode she does not like. But then she excuses herself to use the ladies room and walks in on Roger getting a blowjob from Megan's mother. When Glenn asks her how the city is in their conversation that ends the episode, her response is perfect: "Dirty." Kiernan Shipka continues to be an absolute treasure to the series, a child actress who can hold her own with some serious heavy hitters and manages to pull off all of Sally's complicated feelings without a hitch. She is a girl on the cusp of womanhood, excited by all of the possibilities, but not yet ready for some of the harsh realities.

In that way, she is more like her dining companion that either probably realizes. It seems Roger's brief encounter with acid has left him a little closer to becoming a real boy, as he has discovered he does not understand how other people think and that sometimes, when he talks, people are (gasp) not hanging on his every word. Roger's "new perspective" is played almost entirely for laughs tonight, but it fits in with the episode's greater themes very well. He's a man who never really had to grow up, who was born entitled and never really struggled for anything. And now, after self-destructing on two separate marriages and taking a trip on some serious hallucinogens, Roger may be opening himself up to change (just at the time, I should mention, that Joan's marriage has also disintegrated. Something tells me we aren't done with those two crazy kids yet).

At the other end of the spectrum, the episode gives us examples of people trying to get their parents to understand and accept their personhood. Peggy thinks Abe is going to propose to her, but instead he asks her to move in together. This is not that strange a request from our modern perspective, but the practice was a lot rarer in 1966 than it is today. Peggy, only slightly crestfallen, quickly says yes to this non-proposal (only slipping in a slightly cold, slightly wistful "I Do" when Abe asks if she still wants to eat), but soon realizes that this might make her happier anyway. I love the scenes between Peggy and Joan, whose friendship after last season remains rewarding. Joan gets Peggy pumped up for the possibility of a proposal, but just as quickly helps her to manage her disappointment and recognize that cohabitation isn't a bad sign after all. Joan has always been a wise woman, and Peggy does perk up after their talk, but her friend at work was never really the danger she worried about. She has her mother over for dinner later in the episode, and the announcement goes just about how you would expect for the period: her mother decries the two for "living in sin," warns Peggy that Abe is just using him for practice, and tells her daughter she would have preferred a lie to this truth. Peggy's mother completely refuses to accept that her daughter has become her own person, and in a way this is completely appropriate. You see, what remains unsaid tonight, but what lingers in the back of the mind of most viewers, is the other person who is not being accepted: Peggy's own child, who is presumably still being raised by her sister. Peggy refuses to accept even the existence of her own child, and her mother seems to refuse to accept Peggy's autonomy in a similar way. The Olsen women, it seems, prefer a lie, even if it is unconvincing, to the truth if it is imperfect.

Then there are the Calvets, who are the true masterwork of "At the Codfish Ball." We had previously only heard Megan's mother's voice through a telephone, and yet by the end of the episode, her parents are so well fleshed out they might have been recurring characters for seasons. I have left the discussion of them for later in this review, because it seems Megan long ago accepted her parents as autonomous, imperfect individuals: she knows her father is a womanizer and her mother competes with her for her father's affections, she knows they fight, she knows he cheats. Megan seems perfectly able to deal with the flaws her parents have, yet they are less than willing to accept the choices she has made. In particular, this manifests in her relationship with her father, a committed socialist intellectual who seems to despise his daughter's recent flirtation with capitalism, asking her to abandon her wealth, leave her job, and return to pursuing her dreams (being an actress, I assume, unless we have more to learn about Megan's past). She may have accepted the flaws in her parents, but they have yet to accept the independent choices she has made.

Finally, Don has to accept the personhood of two younger women tonight: his daughter, and his wife. That may seem deeply condescending towards Megan, and it is, but Don didn't marry her because he saw her as an actualized person, he married her because of what he thought she could help make him. Now he is discovering that his wife is her own person, and more than that, she is incredibly capable as both an ideas woman and as a pitch woman. Her baked beans idea, which has mothers serving beans to children throughout the generations, is a great one, but her true masterstroke is the way she manages to turn the Heinz account from a firing into a rousing success, simply by directing Don through a conversation filled with landmines. In many ways, tonight, Megan has made herself to Don what Peggy never let herself become: She is great at her job, great at handling clients, and willing to abandon her own ego for the good of the team (read: for the good of Don). Last season, Don and Peggy's largest conflict was over her refusal to give up credit for her hard won ideas. Megan does this unthinkingly, which Don finds (unsurprisingly) incredibly arousing. He has begun to recognize that Megan is her own, very capable person, but he is still excited by the idea that she is willing to subsume that person to further his own ends.

And then there is little Sally Draper. Don makes his daughter take off her makeup and boots, not because she isn't ready for them (though that is debateable, I guess) but because he isn't ready for his little girl to be a "stunner." Throughout the night, though, and really, throughout the entire episode, Sally acts like a very mature girl for her age, and Don swells with pride. If anyone understands the importance of self-creation, it is Don Draper, and while he isn't quite ready for the change yet, he seems willing to entertain the idea that his daughter is becoming her own person, and that he may like that person quite a lot.

There is a moment, right before the end of the episode, in which all of the guests at the awards ceremony sit at the table, staring off into space, lost in thought. Each of them has just seen a glimpse of a reality they were not quite prepared for, and none of them knows exactly how to handle it. Each of them, in their own way, finds this new discovery to be a mixture of tantalizing and revolting. Some are so excited, they manage to suppress their fear and disgust. For others, well, the whole thing leaves them feeling just a little "dirty."

Grade: A-


-Though I didn't discuss it above, Don's discovery (delivered by RAY WISE!) that the award is basically meaningless because no one in the room would trust him with their business, is nicely handled and fits well into the episode's larger themes.

-For those who are curious, here is the Shirley Temple number that gives the episode its title. And yes, Sally drinks a shirley temple tonight:

-Holy crap, guys! New new Bobby spoke!

-"Have a drink, become nice again."

-"Didn't you notice she touched you six times in an hour?" "She's French!"

-"Jesus, I think that's better." Don, being excited and a little put off, at how good Megan is.

-"I'm surprised. You seem like you were born in a tie." "I didn't tie that one either."

-"I got you a shirley temple. Its time to start tapering off." That and "Go get 'em, Tiger" are my arguments for a Sally/Roger spin-off. It will be great.
Tags: Mad Men
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