Mad Men - At The Codfish Ball

Mad Men Commentary: episode 507 At the Codfish Ball

Death has hung over season 5 of Man Men, like Charles Whitman up in that bell tower, and this week the first, unexpected victim was taken – Sally’s childhood. The episode title, At the Codfish Ball, refers to a song and dance number performed by Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen (that’s right – Jed Clampett) in Captain January, one of Temple’s best-known films. Released in 1936, the film caused a bit of controversy when an English critic protested Temple’s over-sexualized performance. She was eight years old.
That tension between childhood innocence and adult cynicism – or more simply, the perspective of children vs. the perspective of parents – is a theme that plays out through the entire episode.
The action opens on Sally, on the phone with her old friend Glen Bishop, who now attends Hotchkiss, a prep school in Connecticut. She’s lonely and bored, having been left at home, once again, with Henry’s mother Pauline. This is 1966, the old days when phones had cords, and Sally has pulled the phone into her bedroom, creating a Wile-E-Coyote-like snare for poor Pauline, who shuffles down the hall, drink in hand, to call her to dinner. Pauline falls and breaks an ankle, too drunk to know better when Sally concocts a story of a misplaced toy belonging to Gene as the culprit.
Back in Manhattan, the Drapers entertain Megan’s parents, Emile (Ronald Guttman) and Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), French Canadians who are more French and less Canadian. Emile is a college professor, struggling author, and impassioned Marxist who disapproves of his daughter’s new lifestyle. He treats Don with a barely disguised disdain that puts Don on edge. Marie is bored and narcotized, and flirts with every man who crosses her path.
With these four living together, Don and Megan’s apartment doesn’t seem so big and fancy, and when Sally calls, needing a new place for her and Bobby to stay, it gets even smaller.
Roger, as predicted, has discovered ambition. He invites ex-wife Mona out for drinks so he can enlist her help in getting the guest list for an upcoming American Cancer Society gala where Don is to receive an award for his infamous Lucky Strike letter. It’s a tender meeting, with the passage of time and Roger’s fresh insights paving the way to honest communication between old lovers.
Roger describes his acid trip and how he was able to experience the 1919 World Series, the Black Sox Series. He has realized that the significance of his playing in that World Series is that it was fixed, just as his life was fixed. Mona is confused, and Roger explains that nothing in his life is his because he’s earned none of it. It’s a realization that he seems determined to correct, listing Firestone as a fresh target. Mona succumbs to his charm, agreeing to dig up whatever she can.
It’s good to see Roger returning to center stage, not as a sad clown (at least for now), but as an active participant in the day-to-day battle to keep SCDP afloat. That said, I can’t help but think that his newfound vigor will be short-lived. Roger himself referenced his heart attack when talking to Mona. She has a good insight, as well, telling Roger that at first, she thought Jane was a response to her getting old. Now she sees that Jane was a response to him getting old. I sense a shoe about to drop, but until that time comes, I’ll enjoy all the Roger I can get. He’s a delightful cad.
When Don does show up at home with Sally and Bobby, he brags on how Sally handled the situation with Pauline – how she made Pauline comfortable and called the ambulance, and then him. There’s no doubt who Don’s favorite is. Bobby announces that Sally doesn’t like fish, a funny line that will have an echo later in the episode. It also prompts Megan to offer spaghetti, which reminds Marie of making it for Megan when she was a child.
Later, in bed, Don reads The Fixer, Bernard Malamud’s latest novel, which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize – highbrow stuff.  Megan teases Don, telling him that her father won’t mind that he normally reads James Bond, popular page-turners. Don fears there’s nothing he can do to make Emile like him. Megan explains that she is her father’s favorite, which also explains why her mom is so competitive with her. Megan watched her mom closely, counting six times that she touched Don throughout the evening.  Don plays dumb.  They end the night on a friendly, but sexless note.
The next day, Megan stops by Don’s office to share an idea. He’s on his couch reading a Berlitz book on French, another sign that he’s trying hard to win over the in-laws (an effort he never made with Gene, Betty’s father). Megan is excited about the idea, which involves a series of vignettes of moms throughout the ages, serving beans to their children. The story pauses at the present before moving into the future, where we see an intergalactic mom serving beans to her space-helmeted son. The tag? “Heinz Beans – some things never change.”
Don loves the idea and brings Stan and Ginsberg in to cancel the idea they were working on – something called the Human Cannonball. They had nothing, and Megan’s idea is the first time we’ve seen Don excited about work all season long.
Stan and Ginsberg slink back to the office, where Peggy is finishing a call with Abe. They tell her the news as Stan rips apart a board from the Human Cannonball presentation. Peggy asks if the idea is any good, and Stan admits that it’s better than anything they’ve had thus far.
Peggy pays a visit to Joan’s office, pretending to be there on official business. Joan figures out that something’s bothering Peggy and has her shut the door. Peggy confides that something is up with her and Abe, and that the phone call she received earlier was a testy Abe, insisting that they have dinner at a nice place in the Village. She’s worried that Abe intends to break-up with her, but Joan sets her straight, explaining that “men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate.”  Great line.  Peggy is blown away by this, but only because she can’t fathom the possibility that Joan has ever been dumped. Peggy is grateful for the advice, and leaves Joan’s office hopeful.
Don and Megan are hard at work on the Heinz pitch when Roger stops by. “Oh, you two are actually working,” he says, surprised. Megan takes the cue, and leaves the two men alone. Roger informs Don that he’s been working, too, and seems proud to be able to say that. He wants to talk about the upcoming gala and the business opportunities that will be present in the form of dozens of high-powered executives who are either on the American Cancer Society board, or their wives are. Roger is eager to charm the wallets out of a few pockets, but Don doesn’t see it as a good networking opportunity. They get into a debate over this. “Did you forget why you wrote that letter?” Roger asks. “Did you forget that you said it would kill our business?” Don fires back. “Do you think cigarettes are bad, and the people who sell them?” Roger asks. “It’s what [the American Cancer Society] thinks. They know it’s the truth. It doesn’t matter why I wrote it” Don says, badly misjudging the lay of the land, as we’ll see later. “You’re right. Who knows why people in history did good things. For all we know, Jesus was trying to get the fishes and loaves account.” Roger always gets the good lines – especially the sacrilegious ones. Don is downplaying the business potential of this award, while Roger sees Don as an Italian bride on her wedding day, raking in a pillow case full of envelopes stuffed with money – with Roger leading the guests to the bride, of course.
Peggy goes home to change before her dinner with Abe, and she shows up looking beautiful and nervous. Abe is nervous too. His wind-up is slow and clumsy, and Peggy, armed with Joan’s inside tip, helps him along. He finally gets to the point, and suggests that they move in together. At first, Peggy is confused, thinking he is proposing marriage, but she recovers and accepts his plan, the most unromantic shack-up proposal ever. Still, she’s elated – he wants her – and when he asks if she still wants to eat, she says “I do,” perhaps as close as she’ll ever come to uttering those words.
At about the same time, Don and Megan are out with Ken and Cynthia Cosgrove, entertaining Raymond and Alice Geiger. Raymond is the buyer from Heinz, and as his wife excuses herself to the powder room, Megan and Cynthia join her. It’s there that Megan learns that her husband intends to fire SCDP from the account. Cynthia likes Megan, and asks if they can still be friends. Megan plays it straight.
When the women return to the table, Megan whispers the news to Don. It’s like something out of The Godfather. The Cosgroves have no idea. As the conversation progresses, Megan sees an opportunity to set-up Don to make an impromptu pitch of her idea. He gets off to a rocky start, not expecting Megan’s ploy, but the ol’ Don Draper muscle memory kicks in, and he hits his stride. Aside from a few clumsy interjections from Ken, who can’t be blamed, the pitch goes off flawlessly. Raymond is intrigued. His wife, euphoric. Ken, who’s gotten swept up in the pitch himself – to the point of shushing his wife – suggests a celebratory bottle of champagne, which Raymond agrees to.
Afterwards, in a cab, Don can’t keep his hands off Megan. He praises her to the point of worship, replaying the high points as if he’s just seen a great ballgame. The only thing that dampens their ardor is the realization that their house is filled with guests. Megan suggests they go to Don’s office to finish their celebration. It’s a sweet moment, a victory that brings a moment of escape from all the other problems they face.
The next morning, it’s more champagne at the office, with Don and Megan the center of attention. Peggy comes to work in a blah kind of mood. It’s an unexpected attitude, based on the way her dinner with Abe ended. She runs into Joan at the coffee machine, and we realize what’s going on. Peggy’s afraid of Joan’s judgment on her, that Joan will be disappointed with the result of the dinner. It’s a sign that Peggy is ambivalent about her feelings for Abe (another sign? How about the tryst during Born Free?). Joan surprises Peggy with her gracious response to Peggy’s news that they are merely moving in together. Joan spins it well, seeing it as evidence that Abe wants to be with Peggy, no matter what. Peggy seems happy with this pronouncement and thanks Joan for the gift.
Peggy bumps into Megan on her way to the party. Megan’s also not as happy as one would expect, given her role in the big victory, and Peggy picks up on it. Megan feared Peggy’s disappointment, and Peggy gets to pay forward Joan’s grace by bestowing her own on Don’s wife. She tells Megan to enjoy this day, confessing that this feeling – temporary as it is – is as good as the job gets. Megan says she will, but Peggy doesn’t seem to buy it.
The following morning is Saturday, and Don stumbles out of bed to find Emile alone with Bobby. The girls have gone shopping. Emile, in an act of passive aggression, has put Bobby to work, filling his fountain pen…on Don’s white carpet. Nice.
The women return, arms filled with boxes and bags, and Sally asks if she can go with them to the gala. When Marie supports Sally by saying that every daughter should be able to see her father as a success, it sets Emile off, and he storms off to his bedroom with Marie on his heels. Don and Sally and Bobby are confused.
Don and Megan sneak up to the door of the room where Emile and Marie fight, and Megan explains that Marie caught her father on the phone with a female grad student, crying. It turns out he met with a publisher that morning and got bad news on his book. Don tries to soften the news saying that Emile had a lot wrapped up in the book. “He should be crying to my Mother, Don.” Don has a duh moment, and lets out a weak, “Oh. Right.”  Don never confided in Betty, and is still figuring out the dynamics of letting Megan into his working life.
Don asks if Emile and Marie will be okay for the night, and Megan explains that they do this all the time, that they’ll recover in time for the party. Those words reminded me of last week’s episode. After Don chases Megan around the apartment, knocking them down into their submerged living room, they recover. A little while later, they show up for work, all smiles and happy faces. Are they destined to become like Emile and Marie?
At Peggy’s apartment, she and Abe make the final preparations for dinner. The guest of honor is Peggy’s mom Katherine, who has made the trip from Brooklyn. The purpose of the dinner is to spring the news that they are living together. Katherine has brought a cake, and suspects nothing. The meal eaten, Katherine tells them she must be going. The lovers can wait no longer, and after the news is broken, Katherine excuses herself to leave. Peggy is indignant, and cannot understand why Katherine isn’t happy for her. Katherine calls it as she sees it – they are living in sin, and she refuses to condone it. Abe excuses himself to hail a cab, and with him gone, Peggy says she expected her mom to be relieved that she wasn’t marrying the Jew. Katherine doesn’t bite on the insult. Instead, she gives her reasoning for being disappointed. She sees Peggy as selling herself short to a man whom she suspects is merely looking for “practice” until he’s ready to start an actual family. There’s no meanness from Katherine. This is simply a clash of worldviews – young vs. old, if you will. Katherine thanks her daughter, takes her cake, then leaves.
By the time we get back to Don and Megan’s, everyone is happy again. Roger shows up with his bowtie undone. He explains that he’s going stag to the party and has no one to help him. This triggers a response from Marie, who’s all too happy to oblige Roger.
Just before they leave, Sally emerges from her room, dressed in her new clothes. First, we get a reaction shot from the adults, who all gasp at her transformation. Then we get a glimpse. She looks like a miniature Nancy Sinatra, dressed in tall, white boots, short skirt, and makeup. Sally is on the brink of being a young lady. Don lets out a “wow” before sending her back to wipe off the makeup and switch out her shoes. Sally protests, but Don wins.  For now.
At the gala, Sally is disappointed in what she finds, expecting there to be a winding staircase, like in the fairy tales (showing that she’s still got one foot in the kiddie camp). Roger picks up on her disappointment, and, seeing Pete Campbell approaching says, “but here’s a handsome prince…nah!” Pete’s day is coming, but for now, he wants to take Don to meet Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law, Ed Baxter (Ray Wise, from Twin Peaks fame), an executive with Dow-Corning who helped make the award possible. Don takes Megan with him, introducing her as a talented copywriter, like him. Megan seems very uncomfortable with this praise.
With no date to vent his insecurities to, Roger adopts Sally as his partner in crime, instructing her to tell him, “Go get ‘em, Tiger,” each time he brings back a business card for her to drop into her purse. He’s hitting her with his full charm, and she loves the attention.
One of the best moments of the episode occurs as Emile and Pete get to know one another. Emile, doing that smiling insult thing again, asks Pete exactly what he does all day at work. Pete acknowledges the question, but asks if he can ask Emile a question first. “Is it true that you are a scholar and an intellectual?” Pete asks his interrogator. “That’s right,” Emile says. “I hear you’re somewhat of a trailblazer,” Pete says, feeding the ego of the man who just received some bad news. Emile plays at false modesty, but Pete goes on. “The world should know about your accomplishments.” Emile tells Pete that he’s being very kind. He’s taken the bait. At that moment, Pete cuts him off. “That, Emile, is what I do every day.” Emile smiles, realizing he’s fallen into the crass capitalist’s trap. Well done.
Roger works the room, leaving Sally alone with a Shirley Temple. She picks at her fish until the plates are cleared away and the awards are passed out. Marie flirts with Roger, getting his attention just as Don receives his award. Roger catches her at the bar, where they bring their intentions out in the open. “I’ve been watching you all night,” Marie tells Roger. “You’re so full of life and ambition.” Wow! When was the last time someone said that to Roger? When Roger flirts a little more brazenly, Marie calls him a little boy beneath the tuxedo. They disappear together.
Don is called away from the table, and after Sally excuses herself to the bathroom, it’s just Megan and Emile. He can see that something’s not right with her, but she doesn’t want to discuss it. He presses in, asking if she’s all right, if all this is her passion. When she asks why he’s speaking to her in English, he tells her she’s changed. She denies this, but he goes on, accusing her of having skipped from the beginning of her life to the end, leaving out the struggle in the middle. This conversation is a weird bookend to Peggy’s ill-fated dinner with her mother. Both parents only want the best for their children, but can’t force-feed it to them. Of course, the children don’t want to hear it. Emile can only beg his daughter, “Don’t let your love of this man cause you give up what you wanted to do.”
“What thing she wanted to do?” I asked myself, wondering if I’d missed something. All episode long, she seemed to be disappointed, but it was never spelled out, as far as I could see. It started after she gave Don the idea. It’s as if, she feels like she hasn’t earned her place at the table, or maybe she doesn’t like the table. Or maybe she’s still smarting from the fight with Don from the last episode. Whatever it is, it’s big enough that she can’t fully engage.
After Sally goes to the bathroom, she decides to explore the place a little. She ends up walking in on Roger and Marie as Marie is performing oral sex on Roger. Freaked out, she silently backpedals from the room and returns to the table, shaken by what she’s just seen.
Don ends up at the bar with Ed Baxter, sharing a drink. “I’ve been telling Ken you should get out of the business altogether,” Ed says to Don. “Why’s that?” Don asks, sneaking a glance at another executive. “I’d introduce you to him,” Ed says, gesturing to the guy, “But I don’t want you to waste your time.” Don’s confused. “He’s on the board. He obviously likes my work,” he says. “He loves your work. They all do. But they don’t like you.” Don looks like he’s been kicked in the groin. “What?” “This crowd. They bury your desk in awards, but they’ll never work with you. Not after that letter. How could they after you bit the hand?” Ed sees Don’s look, and gives a weak apology before buying them another round. Don is devastated at this news.
Back at the table, it’s Emile, Marie, Don, Megan, and Sally – all disillusioned for different reasons. It’s a great shot of three generations of disappointed people. Nothing is said. Nothing needs to be said. The picture says it all. A waiter tags the scene when he asks Sally if she’s finished with her Shirley Temple. Indeed she is. She’s also done with being an innocent little girl. Those days are gone forever.
Later, Sally calls Glen once more. She needs to talk, but can’t really explain or understand what has just happened to her. She ends up telling him she’s in Manhattan at her Dad’s. When Glen asks how the city is, Sally only says, “Dirty.”
End of episode.
Between Sally, Megan, Peggy, Marie, and Joan, there are a lot of disappointed women in this episode. What’s next? How does Sally process this jarring discovery? What’s eating Megan? Will Peggy get her mojo back, or at least Don, to insulate, inspire and educate.
Roger seems poised to engage Pete in a no-holds-barred battle for account supremacy, a fight that should be as fun to watch as Lane’s thrashing of Pete.
For the second week in a row, Don has received a career wake-up call. Will he get up and replicate his Heinz performance, or continue to hit the snooze button and nap while everything collapses around him? Based on what Ed Baxter has told him, does it even matter?