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"Mad Men" — "At the Codfish Ball": Some Things Never Change

By Sarah Carlson | TV | May 1, 2012 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | May 1, 2012 |

Advertising campaigns such as the one Megan pitched to Heinz in the seventh episode of “Mad Men’s” fifth season, “At the Codfish Ball,” almost always succeed thanks to their simplicity. You can rarely go wrong focusing on concepts of family, home, comfort and acceptance, tapping into customers’ sentimental sides and convincing them that to be human is to eat or wear or listen to Product X. In a way, this episode was its own giant pitch to the audience, but we get to see behind the gloss and slogans to the darker truths in life: Yes, we may all want the same things (to a degree), but we don’t always get what we want. We shouldn’t always do everything we want to, either. Several generations of females spent the excellent “Ball” wondering just what it is they are looking for, or dreaming for, and, when it is clear the fairy tale isn’t playing out as it should, just what they will settle for. Age and era make no difference; disappoint is universal. That’s the “Mad Men” message.

Peggy likely didn’t even know that she wanted Abe to propose until Joan suggested that was his intention. Her dedication to work has been causing a rift between them, and even as Abe stopped by the office to eat lunch with Peggy, Stan and Ginsberg, their and ragging on Peggy and casual banter about bras seemed to make him uncomfortable, and jealous. Just as Peggy jumped to questioning whether they should call it quits during their argument at the beginning of Episode Six, she again assumes Abe was breaking up with her when he insists they meet for dinner. But Joan raises her expectations: “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate.” So Peggy buys herself a pink dress with a pink sash and shows up at the restaurant with the giddiest of smiles on her face. She even keeps the smile frozen as Abe reveals his intentions: that they move in together. Peggy warms to the idea, however, and agrees, her slightly wistful “I do” to Abe the only tell of her disappointment. She re-calibrates her desires quickly, and she actually seems pleased with the decision; perhaps this is even the route she would have chosen had she considered her options all along. She is out to make the most of it, which is why she tells her ever-critical mother, Katherine, the news even as she anticipates a negative reaction. Katherine’s advice? Get a cat and stop letting Abe use you as a trial run for marriage.

More importantly, Katherine mainly wishes Peggy hadn’t filled her in on her sinful lifestyle. Do what you want, but lie to me about it, Katherine says, and similar demands were echoed through the episode among the characters. As Peggy tells Joan about Abe’s actual proposal and in a way seeks her blessing, Joan is clear in her approval: Do what you want if it makes you happy. Don’s message to Sally, who tries sporting makeup and go-go boots, is not so fast: You can do (some of) what you want when I say you’re old enough to. She does get to tag along to the American Cancer Society dinner, where Don is honored for the anti-smoking letter he wrote the previous year. Hers is the biggest bubble to burst, first being let down at the lackluster ballroom where the dinner was conducted — no giant staircase, and no handsome prince (only Pete) — and then with her date, Roger. He can charm anyone, and just as his banter with Sally was innocent as she helped him keep track of potential clients, his flirtation with Megan’s mother, Marie (Julia Ormand), wasn’t. Marie’s message to Roger was the clearest of the night: “We should have everything we want.” And just like Briony in Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” Sally opens a door and in the dim light of a room sees something she can’t unsee. Granted, Sally isn’t naive — how she handled Pauline’s fall by calling the police and caring for her as they waited shows her strength — and Roger and Marie’s lives likely won’t be ruined now that a young girl witnessed the two of them in a sexual act. But the shocking discovery is a rude awakening in growing up — welcome to the ball, Sally. It is, as she told Glen, “dirty.” She shouldn’t rush the process; as Emile says in a fascinating slip/mistranslation of the saying, “Don, there’s nothing you can do. No matter what, one day your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.” “Wings, daddy,” Megan says.

Megan does her best to keep Emile (Ronald Guttman) and Marie civil as they visit New York. Each are tired of pretending to be happy with the other, yet Marie still tries to get Emile’s attention by her interactions with other men. “Didn’t you notice she touched you six times in an hour?” Megan asks Don. “She’s French,” he says. “No, that’s not what that is.” Catching Emile crying on the phone to one of his graduate students when a meeting with a book publisher goes poorly only sets Marie off further, and soon she’s making eyes at Roger. Emile is busy worrying about Megan, thinking she is selling herself short in her marriage to Don and her work in his field, and an aspect of Megan’s personality that he relates to Don early on is worth noting: “Megan pretends to find interesting what I find interesting because she loves me.” Has Megan’s stint in advertising really been a way for her to be close to Don because that’s what she, in her good nature, always does? Her desire to learn more about the business in Season Four seemed genuine, as has the time she has spent working with the creative team on accounts. But how to explain her reluctance to bask in the glow of her Heinz win when Don touts her natural instincts and cleverness for getting the job done? She was happy in the rush of the moment the night before, celebrating with Don with an after-hours romp in the office. But in the light of day, she demurs. Even Peggy encourages her to take credit where it was due: “I tried to crack that nut,” Peggy says, “and if anything I should be jealous. But I look at you and I feel like, I don’t know, I’m getting to experience my first time again. It’s a good day for me. This is as good as this job gets. Savor it.”

As good as it gets may not be good enough. Emile doesn’t think it is, not where Megan is concerned, and he chides her on what he sees are her complacency in her new life. You’re never too old to be lectured by a parent, with Emile and Megan’s discussion mirroring Katherine and Peggy’s. Emile has better advice, however: Do what will make you happy, and don’t lie to yourself, the latter of course a main theme of the series. “I always thought that you were very single-minded about your dreams and that that would help you through life,” he tells her. “But now I see that you skipped the struggle and went right to the end.” “It’s not the end, it’s the beginning,” Megan says. “This apartment, this wealth that someone handed to you,” he replies. “This is what Karl Marx was talking about. And it’s not because someone else deserves it. It’s because it is bad for your soul.” “Don’t pick at me with your politics because you hate that I love Don,” she says. “No, I hate that you give up. Don’t let your love for this man stop you from doing what you want to do.”

Perhaps it’s a sense of obligation — or a feeling that she’s stuck — that has her sticking around SCDP. Don certainly didn’t feel any toward his advertising peers; he did what he wanted when it came to writing the anti-smoking ad, and sure, he received an award for his insincere trouble. But he won’t receive any extra business, as Roger had assumed. Ed Baxter (Ray Wise), Ken’s father-in-law, set him straight: “This crowd, they’ll bury your desk in awards but they’ll never work with you. Not after that letter. How could they trust you, after the way you bit the hand?”

Scattered thoughts:

  • Even with all his new-found enlightenment, Roger is still very much himself. Roger: “You know it’s very interesting. Lots of times you think people are looking at you, but they’re not. Their mind’s elsewhere.” Don: “Lots of people that haven’t taken LSD already know that, Roger.”

  • It’s good to see Mona doing well, and I only wish we saw more of her. Actress Talia Balsam (Slattery’s real-life spouse) is wonderful.

  • The interactions between Joan and Peggy felt like those between sisters — with Joan, naturally, being the oldest and coolest one with all the advice. Peggy’s awestruck “Someone dumped you?” followed by Joan’s suggestion that Peggy needed to buy something nice to wear to dinner was perfect.

  • More great moments — Peggy: “I don’t know what the Canadian equivalent of baseball is, but this is a home run!” Megan: “We have baseball.” Peggy: “Then this is a home run!”

  • I felt for Megan as her father began quoting Karl Marx to prove his point My dad sticks to quoting Jesus, however. Trust me; he’s harder to live up to.

  • Put some pants on, Glen.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic at Pajiba. She lives in Texas.