COOL: Mad Men S5 E7 “At the Codfish Ball” aka. Something to Sink our Teeth Into

Posted on April 30, 2012 by

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words. TA

Oh, I really loved this episode. Yay! Why? I think I figured it out: because instead of having a Theme and Things With Meaning, it had a lot of characters, interacting with a lot of other characters, and all of these interactions intersected and overlapped in ways that weren’t so easy to map. Reading some post-episode reviews / recaps, I saw several attempts to expose The Theme: this episode was about fathers and daughters, for example. And at first I slapped my forehead and said, of course! But then I realized how much more was in it and recognized that any attempt to say “this episode was about ______” was reductive, and then I understood why it was such a good episode.

Sure, there’s stuff going on in this episode with fathers and daughters, but it wasn’t at all what stood out me about the episode. Rather, I was struck most by two issues: how women interact with one another (of course), and the fact that Mad Men, which has explored anti-capitalist ideologies mainly through the idealism of young people, here allowed it in through a figure of age, experience and wisdom (though not a romanticized one). I’ll discuss each of these issues a bit, and then allow you to agree, disagree, or fill in all the inevitable gaps in this post.

1. Women. Sisterhood is powerful, y’all! Seriously, the women in this episode had every reason to suspect they’d be torn to shreds by their female colleagues. Peggy thought Joan would be disappointed in her for moving in with Abe, and Megan could have expected Peggy to be jealous / angry that she got ahead creatively using her intimate connection with Don. In both cases, these women did the opposite. They were supportive and encouraging. Now, I don’t know how realistic that was. Women have been and still are very disparaging of one another quite a lot of the time. But from a media and narrative standpoint, I loved it. I loved that the script resisted the done-to-death-in-every-melodrama progression of smoldering rage —> catfight —> someone falling in the pool. We just expect women (if they’re not BFF’s, of course) to be at one another’s throats. And so I loved the way this episode turned that cliche on its head and gave us something unexpectedly sweet. On the other hand, the mothers do not come across as well. The women of the previous generation are shown to be either competitive with their daughters (for the affections of the men in their lives) or entirely uninvested in their personal happiness. Delivering what to me was simultaneously the funniest and saddest life advice of all time, Peggy’s mother made her expectations of her daughter clear: “If you’re lonely, get a cat. They live 13 years. Then you get another one, and another one, and you’re done.” I’m still thinking about why we get such a sharp generational divide here; but one thing that comes to mind is simply that the episode wants to show how often those who raise us let us down, leaving us to seek our own nurturance from the people around us (this fits in with Sally’s reliance on Glen as well). I’m open to suggestions, though…

2. Long live the revolution! As an academic, I am instantly sympathetic with Megan’s dad, though he was portrayed as a very flawed man, no doubt. I originally read Megan’s discomfort with Peggy’s congratulations as her knowing that she doesn’t deserve the same kind of accolades as Peggy did, having attained the boss’s ear in a somewhat more compromised way. But Megan’s father’s comments to her at the end of the episode helped put her disappointment in another context. When Peggy says, “this is as good as it gets,” could Megan help but think how far this pinacle of advertising success is from her real dreams of being an actress and artist? We’ve had previous discussions about how Megan has more depth as a character than we may have expected, while at the same time she continues to play a “Betty role,” supporting character to Don’s lead performance. This episode confirmed both sides of that hypothesis; Megan is less sympathetic than Peggy or Joan because she did take a shortcut to success, she did skip the struggle. At the same time, we’re made aware that she is, herself, aware of that fact, and not necessarily comfortable with it.

As the bubble of advertising where closing the deal is “as good as it gets” is put in perspective in this episode, Don is caught between this creative idealism and the absolute tyranny of market logic. He’s told point blank that his one “idealistic” move (which of course, he knows all too well, was entirely pragmatic) has cost him the trust of the entire business community; he’s seen as a traitor who puts his ethics (god forbid!) above the bottom-line needs of the client. I think this assessment of Don’s place in advertising has finally set up our season arc. What can or will Don do about this? Will he have to leave advertising for a profession outside of the business world? (Teaching comes to mind.) Or will he make some devious move to show he’s all shark and no heart? I sense exciting possibilities, as long as Don and Megan don’t retreat to an artist colony and become hippies. As much as I’m intrigued by Don’s and Megan’s respective journeys, I definitely do not think they should be taken together. These two are so essentially disconnected it hurts to watch them on screen together.

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