Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "At the Codfish Ball" (season 5, episode 7)

Mad Men - "At the Codfish Ball" (season 5, episode 7)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 29, 2012/written by Jonathan Igla; directed by Michael Uppendahl): In the autumn of '66, Don's personal and professional lives, and - perhaps consequently - the personal and professional lives of those around him, are ascendant. After over a year of teasing a relationship, the many potential goldmine clients who compose the American Cancer Society appear ready to commit to Don's services. He's receiving an award at a gala event and Roger is enlisting his well-connected and now-bemused ex-wife (tickled by both his acid trip and impending divorce) to do some reconnaissance for SCDP. The agency almost faceplants days earlier, when Megan discovers - during a trip to the ladies' room with the apologetic client's wife Alice Geiger (Robin Pearson Rose) - that the insufferably picky Heinz rep is about to finally dump the agency. On the spur of the moment, Megan and Don sell the fickle Raymond on Megan's recent epiphany: a beans commercial that spans millennia from Flintstones era to Jetsons age with a mother and son sharing their wholesome meal to the tagline "some things never change." Elated by not just the success of her idea but the grace with which she improvisationally pulls it off under immense pressure, Don and Megan get frisky during the cab ride home and go back to the office to make love.

They can't go back to their apartment because it's currently stuffed with family members from both sides. After Sally accidentally trips and injures her step-grandmother with a precarious phone cord (while talking to the increasingly Holden Caulfield-esque Glen Bishop, currently enrolled in some private school upstate), she is sent to stay with Don in the city. Meanwhile, Megan's parents are visiting from Canada, her father Emile Calvet (Ronald Guttman) an irascible lefty professor and her mother Marie (Julia Ormond) a sophisticate with a wandering eye. The whole gang goes out to the ACA ceremony, dressing up for the occasion (though Don makes Sally drop the make-up and go-go boots). They're in a good mood but the mood doesn't last, except perhaps for Marie and Roger; after some flirtation, the latter goes down on the former in an otherwise unoccupied room (where Sally stumbles across them, spoiling her mood for sure - when Glen later asks her how New York is, she simply replies, "dirty"). Don is crushed when Ken's father-in-law blabs at the bar, informing him that none of these bigwigs will ever give him their business; they may agree with the moral thrust of his retaliatory strike against Lucky Strike but how could they ever trust him after he stabbed a client, even their enemy, in the back? Megan, however, may fall the hardest. Her father expresses contempt for what she's achieved, characterizing her success as mere piggybacking on a wealthy husband, at the price of sacrificing her noble dreams as an aspiring actress. So much for the big night.

Peggy also receives a rebuke from a parent, in this case inviting her mother to dinner with her boyfriend to share the big news: they're getting......an apartment together. When Abe himself asked Peggy a few nights earlier, she could barely hide her disappointed embarrassment (although there may be some relief mixed in; even if she'd begun to suspect a marriage proposal, she'd initially worried that he was going to dump her). Joan, disillusioned by her own husband, offers encouragement at the office, but Mrs. Olson is only disgusted. Peggy's not sure which is worse in the family's eyes: that Abe the Jew is corrupting her nice Catholic daughter or that said daughter has chosen to live in sin with anyone of any religion. Told that he'll use her for practice before settling down with someone whom he respects more, Peggy is dismayed but not totally shocked by this attitude, which feels related to her status as a working girl rather than an aspiring homebody/child-rearer. There is a frustrated feeling that she's coming up against limits on all sides. When Peggy hears of Megan's Heinz success (where she herself failed), she tells her less experienced co-worker, "This is as good as the job gets." She means this as congratulation, but it could easily be taken as a warning.

My Response:
I saw an image from this episode - one of the last images in fact - when laying out my plans for this year; I needed something to illustrate "the season five viewing diary" and the collection of mopey faces around the fancy table came up. Why do they all look so miserable, I wondered? I assumed that none of them wanted to be wherever they were, perhaps at a dreary formal event (the wedding of a character they didn't like?), tedious but not serious. As this episode progressed, building up to what looked like a triumphant moment, I wondered if I'd misread or misremembered those expressions. Don is receiving an award, re-entering high society after a year of struggling to regain his foothold (thanks to Lucky Strike leaving the agency cold); he's also coming off the high of landing that Heinz account. Megan is coming off an even bigger high (because it's her first in the business), Sally is getting to go out on the town with the grown-ups, even Megan's ever-bickering parents are bemused enough to get by. And then, in just a few minutes of screentime, it all comes crashing down; a full episode's worth of preparation pay offs as each person individually realizes their piece of a collective dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Mad Men likes to toy with the idea that its characters' lives are fundamentally empty, but it only toys...an ambiguity to its credit. At times the show foregrounds the ensemble's existential angst, at others it lets them - and us - believe its own bullshit. Is it really bullshit if you believe it?

Tellingly, the only character absent from that dour line-up is Roger: he has harmonized with his environment not by pretending everything is meaningful but by privileging pleasure over purpose. LSD liberated him from insecurity and anxiety by teaching him to stop worrying and love the surface; in that sense his 1919 World Series hallucination is particularly telling. As he describes the experience to Mona, he is re-engaging with his passion for baseball by delving into the moment that the sport was disgraced, that the game ceased to "mean anything." And nothing about that corrupt moment actually changes, except for Roger's concern about said corruption. After all, the performance is the point. If advertising is an art then he has learned once again to delight in form rather than content, without shame. Peggy, on the other hand, is disturbed by content obscuring form. If she and Abe live together in love does it really matter what they call it? If not, why does she (along with everyone else) view this as a disappointment? Like Don discovering yet again that the pageant of prestige conceals the contempt of exclusivity, Megan realizing that mere success does not command respect (or worse, she suspects, it does not command self-respect), and Sally peeking under the charming facade of the adult world to discern its sordid mechanisms, Peggy's triumph feels hollow. But at least her disappointment is frontloaded.

If it's true that some things never change, despite the appearance of parents shocked by their children's wayward ways, then the actual continuity is precisely in that disappointment.

Next (active August 2, 8am): "Lady Lazarus"Previous: "Far Away Places"

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