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TV Recap: Mad Men “At the Codfish Ball”

I guess when Bobby Draper grew up, he became the drummer for Spinal Tap. This season, brave young Mason Vale Cotton is the fourth actor to play Bobby. But if you’re the boss’s kid, you’re always available to portray Glen Bishop whenever he’s needed, regardless of unsettling wardrobe requirements:

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

And so, in the first scene of this episode, Marten Weiner embodies its twin themes: the parent–child trap, and being born halfway up the ladder of success with a silver spoon tied around your neck. (In earlier posts I’ve nodded at the concerns of those people who think Mad Men has a lead foot on the theme pedal, but I think they’re being silly. I’m with Tony Soprano – I like it with some pulp.)

After three installments in which the characters were chased into dark and disturbing corners, this week we get a little space to unwind – but this is still Mad Men, and no one’s sky is blue for very long. When Sally’s phone call to Glen cripples her step-grandmother, the Draper kids are dispatched to Don and Megan’s apartment, where Megan’s parents – M. et Mme Calvet, Emile and Marie, Ronald Guttman and Julia Ormond – have also arrived for a visit. The Calvets are attractively plated and lightly sauced, maybe a little too French for Canadians – Emile is a left-wing intellectual/author/academic (Matt Weiner must have a checklist of Sixties types – “now let’s do this guy”); Marie is flirtatious, drinks and smokes liberally, and competes with her daughter in two directions. They squabble constantly and ignore Megan’s request that they speak English in Don’s presence.

Emile pronounces the Draper living room “exquisitely decadent” – perhaps he noticed the push-button phone, a rarity in a mid-Sixties home. Megan defends Don by saying “he started out with nothing,” but Emile is too Marxist to believe in a self-made man. Don doesn’t seem yet to have a strategy for dealing with these people, apart from hiding his James Bond novels. (In case your Google finger is broke, I’ll tell you the book Don reads in bed is The Fixer by Bernard Malamud.)

When the kids show up, Sally cheerfully lies about how Grandma Pauline broke her ankle, and basks in her dad’s praise for not leaving the old lady to die. (Bobby, perhaps preoccupied with avoiding a bizarre gardening accident, has as much to say this episode as ever; his best moment is a silent one, when Emile allows him to symbolically shit on the white living room rug.)

On another front, there’s the welcome return of Mona Sterling (Talia Balsam). She and ex-husband Roger are chatty and comfortable over drinks. He breezily confesses his LSD trip last episode, and has a surprising insight into his bathtub baseball vision: the 1919 World Series was not a fair contest because the game was thrown, and therefore symbolizes his own congenital advantages. (See also: “I didn’t tie that one either” later in the episode.) Roger is all of a sudden more energized than he’s been since about 1962.

We pick up Peggy Olson at the office, where she and her boyfriend Abe share Chinese take-out with Stan and Ginsberg. (I really like how Peggy is now just tolerantly amused by Stan’s nonstop unchivalry.) Later Abe phones Peggy to arrange a dinner, hinting heavily that he’s got something important to discuss; after a talk with Joan, Peggy is convinced that he’s going to propose marriage. The scene in Joan’s office is one of many this season that invite longtime viewers to reflect on the characters’ histories together, and certainly the Peggy–Joan relationship is as complex as any on the show. We remember Peggy terrified in her early Sterling Cooper days by Joan’s queen-B composure and condescension; Joan offering constructive yet humiliating criticism of Peggy’s bulletin board roommate ad; Peggy growing more confident in her creative career while Joan has to settle for a merely clerical sovereignty.

So now, when Peggy’s in the mood for a cigarette and girl talk, there’s a brief moment when she has to demand Joan’s attention. I think these little chats are kind of a recent experiment for them; there’s a hint of artificiality in Joan’s responses, possibly some calculated flattery when Peggy says she can’t believe that anybody ever dumped Joan. When I think of Peggy’s talk with Dawn a couple of weeks ago, I wonder if Peggy feels she has a calling to advance feminine solidarity in the office.

For her dinner with Abe, Peggy wears a pink dress with a huge bow, so that we’ll feel her disappointment more keenly when it turns out that he just wants to shack up with her. Peggy’s face and manner tell us it’s very close to being good enough, until the slight droop after she says “I do” betrays how much she hoped he was going to ask the other question.

Last week, Peggy’s story was about her failure to land the Heinz Baked Beans account. Now Megan comes up with a concept she thinks Heinz will go for. Inspired by her family’s tradition of serving spaghetti to the kids (when the grownups are eating something gross), she proposes a series of commercials showing a mother feeding baked beans to her son, all through history from “cavemen” to now – “and then the future, like a colony on the moon.” Tagline: Some things never change. This has the same appeal to tradition and emotion as Peggy’s concept, but looks forward in a way that might satisfy Mr. Heinz’s desire for a campaign that speaks to “kids.” (They wouldn’t have bothered chasing The Rolling Stones if they’d known what The Who were willing to do a short time later.)

In a brief scene in Don’s office, we’re very efficiently reminded of Don’s bold, unilateral solution to Roger’s nearly disastrous botch of the Lucky Strike account: his anti-tobacco PSA, which was controversial both within Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and with some industry heavies. Now the American Cancer Society is giving Don an award and Roger, with Mona’s help, has chiseled his way inside the award banquet’s guest list to mine new accounts. It looks like SCDP will need all it can get, as we discover when the Drapers and Cosgroves have dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Heinz. Via an unlikely means (ladies’ restroom chat with Mrs. H), Megan finds out that Heinz is ready to fire SCDP, so she and Don launch an impromptu presentation of Megan’s “beans throughout history” idea. (There’s a too-long moment when Don doesn’t seem to pick up on Megan’s cues, which I don’t think is plausible even under the awkward circumstances.) This is a huge hit, and Kenny Cosgrove gets the Heinzes to take the elevator directly to the bottom line – they were dining, rather conveniently, in the restaurant in the Time-Life building. On the cab ride home Don lavishes lustful praise on Megan in a way we’ve hardly ever seen before – the first time he found a woman he could both admire and desire it was Rachel Menken in Season 1, and then he pretty much lost his mind.

This recalls the early episode in which Don exploits Betty’s hostessing acumen to convince Heineken that upscale housewives will flock to their beer if they just set up a few end-of-aisle displays at the right supermarkets. Betty turned out to be valuable, even crucial, in that more limited role; it was during one of the many tense periods in their marriage, and it didn’t help them much in that department. This episode, Don and Megan are having an orgy of tenderness, mutual support, and mind-reading, as if to make double-sure we follow their road back from last week’s conflict.

Megan’s victory, on the same ground where Peggy fought and died, might lead us to expect a future rivalry between them, but I find Peggy’s huggy congratulations very convincing. She explicitly forecloses any suspicion of competition or jealousy, and I think the slightly puzzled look on her face at the end of this scene is due to Megan’s subdued reaction – “we have baseball” is nearly all Megan says.

We’re also not sure why Megan seems ambivalent about her first work triumph, and the only help we get comes later on in a scene with her father, at the cancer society awards dinner. Emile is odiously sarcastic about her “big beans success.” Emile thinks Megan has given up on her passions – acting, I guess he means – and has “skipped the struggle” by landing a successful capitalist husband. He denies the importance, almost even the existence of her career. So screw him – toss him on the pile with Grandma Pauline and Lane Pryce’s dad and –

Peggy’s Ma! Bless her Popish heart, she’s come bearing a pink-boxed cake for dinner with “Peaches”* and “Abraham” who hope, in the face of a lifetime of contrary evidence, that she will receive the news of their cohabitation equably. Of course this doesn’t happen, but in their heated argument Ma lands one on Peggy – her choice isn’t disappointing because it’s immoral, it’s because she’s cheating herself. When she says that Abe is just using Peggy “for practice,” she might have a point. (So does Emile, but that doesn’t make either of them any easier to bear.) Ma literally takes the cake.

Well, I hope we’ve seen the last of Parents Behaving Badly for the time being…what’s up next? Oh dear. “One day, your little girl will spread her legs and fly away” is tailor-made for Roger’s rejuvenated funny bone – and although Megan plays it as an idiom her father has misunderstood, I’m pretty sure Emile counted his entendres before they hatched. This bit comes as the Drapers, the Calvets, Roger, and Sally assemble for the awards dinner. Sally has been shopping with her new favorite grandmother (the competition is dead or disabled) and is ready to rumble.

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

Don nixes the makeup and stripper boots, Marie Calvet flirts with Roger’s Adam’s apple, and I imagine Bobby calls up Bert Cooper and asks if he wants to hang out.

At the banquet, Roger continues to be altogether delightful, especially with Sally, encouraging her to sneer at Pete Campbell and casting her in a role Mona no doubt played early in their marriage – the business cards in her purse, “go get ’em Tiger,” “you’re a mean drunk.” (When I first watched this scene the other night I was thinking “he’s giving her a night to remember” but…okay, in a minute.) Marie, too is captivated by Roger’s savoir faire – she didn’t see him during his sour second marriage, and finds him “full of life and ambition.”

Earlier this season I hoped for another appearance by Ray Wise as Ed Baxter, Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law, but Don probably wishes I hadn’t. Ed’s an executive at Dow-Corning (stemware, napalm) and therefore, in the grim, postmodern comedy of high capitalism, is exactly the kind of guy who gets on the board of the cancer society. Ed digs right in gleefully, telling Don he’s not going to bother introducing him to another influential guest because “He loves your work – they all do – but they don’t like you.” Don must have considered the possibility that his anti-cigarette ad would close some doors, but I don’t think he imagined his foot would be jammed in one of them with Leland Palmer pushing from the other side.

Don’s ironclad confidence in his own judgment should be shaken by this, for two interlocking reasons. First, as the example of Dow-Corning shows, because the companies that make deadly or polluting products, and are most likely to feel directly attacked by Don’s ad, are, by the late ’60s, the very same companies that make the stuff that Betty Draper puts in her cupboard. Second, because Ed implies it’s not just “dirty” companies who despise Don, it’s any corporation that doesn’t want their ad agency to lecture them. Don can look forward to the rise of “advertorials,” institutional (non-product) advertising by oil and chemical companies, and other tricks borrowed from his peers on the public relations side – but in the meantime, he should watch his back.
At some point in the evening, Sally goes searching for the ladies’ room and opens one door too many. The End.

* Peggy’s path is strewn with nicknames – to Duck, she’s Peanut; for Joyce, she’s Pegasus.

Mad Men, Episode 5:7 “At the Codfish Ball”: B+

Allan Ferguson was born recently near Disneyland and has lived up and down the great state of California for all the years since. He is currently in La Mesa near San Diego where he practices graphic design and recreational atheism. He can be reached evenings and weekends at and apparently on the YouTube, somehow or other.