Mad Men: At the Codfish Ball

Posted on April 30, 2012

There was a time when Sally Draper would have been appalled to admit it (and that time is probably still happening), but the divorce of her parents has been a good thing for her. She may not love Henry as much as her father, but the relative stability that comes from living with people who don’t loathe each other has started to rub off on her. Now that both parents have remarried, she has something else she never had before; a set of new grandmothers, offering her new perspectives and experiences and challenging her in ways she’s never been challenged. Because after watching both her step-grandmothers go down last night, Sally came out of it a changed young girl.

Thank you. We’ll be here all week. We were up half the night trying to figure out a “Grandma goes down” joke.

But perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to be witty, because Emile Calvet is here to drop quite the little bitch-bomb on the room: “Someday your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.” And we’re awful; we admit that, but we had to pause the show for a few minutes just to stop laughing. Man, we wish we’d come up with that one. Then again, there is no scenario in which the utterance of that line isn’t outrageously inappropriate, so maybe we should leave the jokes to the socially reckless.

As is the case with recent episodes, characters have a tendency to stand up and conspicuously make a show of announcing each episode’s theme. It’s the one thing about this season (which has been spectacular so far) that makes us cringe. On the other hand, it makes writing next-morning reviews just a bit easier, so we should probably thank Matthew Weiner for that. Because yes, Emile; that’s correct. The stories this time around all centered around parents and daughters and how they will inevitably wind up hurting, confusing, and disappointing each other. Whether that means going against Catholic teaching, not pursuing your dreams, or wearing makeup and go-go boots, sisters were doing it for themselves this time around, but daddies and mommies were right there behind them, roaring their disapproval.

With Peggy’s story, the issue and conflict couldn’t be any clearer. So clear was it that we shifted uncomfortably in our seats when that apartment door opened and Katherine Olson stood on the other side, all sturdy coat, delicate cheesecake and Catholic guilt. Abe has made the bold move of asking Peggy to move in with him (although you can bet he’s going to move in with her). And when we say “bold,” we mean it. Cohabitation by a sexually active unmarried couple – by ANY unmarried couple – was still a huge deal in 1966 and would remain so for another decade and a half, at least. Anyone would have been shocked by this move, which makes Peggy’s need to get her mother’s approval both distressingly naive (because it was never going to come) and a little bit of passive-aggression on her part, because she got exactly what she wanted out of that confrontation: she got her mother to speak her mind to her. Not that Peggy wouldn’t have been happy with her blessing, but as we said, she knew that was never going to come from the woman who predicted rape with a gleeful vindictiveness aimed squarely at the daughter who dared to have her own mind. That dinner wasn’t a “I want your blessing, Ma.” That was a “Say it, Ma. Just say it. You know you want to” if ever there was one. And so Katherine said it, telling her little girl that Abe would someday marry a woman, but it wasn’t going to be her. And in yet another of those moments that shocks us into the realization that we’re getting older, we found ourselves unconsciously nodding our heads and thinking, “She’s right.” But maybe she’s not right! She’s probably not! It’s just that when it came down to it, Katherine’s objections weren’t as catechism-based as one might have assumed and that her disapproval over Peggy’s living arrangements comes from the experience of a life lived. “You think you’re the first ones to do this sort of thing?”

Thankfully, not every lady used her experience to predict gloom. In fact, many of the ladies were highly supportive of each other this episode and that support was born entirely out of their own histories. Joan has come out the other side of the marriage experience and even though you could tell she didn’t want to deal with another female co-worker coming to her with romantic problems (one imagines the list of ladies who have done so is epic in length), she put on a brave face and gave Peggy exactly the advice she needed, zeroing in on what was going to happen with efficient accuracy. There was no way she could have predicted Abe’s proposal was going to be more modern in tone than anyone realized, but once she processed the news, Joan was truly and deeply happy for Peggy. Even better, she knew how much Peggy wanted her to be happy for her and gave it to her in spades. Peggy herself was still not entirely sure how she felt about the arrangement until Joan set her straight. “I think it’s romantic.” And of course she would, even with a background as traditional in its own way as Katherine Olson’s. With her string of romantic disappointments behind her, Joan was able to take what she’s learned and apply her own form of blessing on Peggy in light of it all. In other words, 3 years ago Joan would have said something snide and condescending to Peggy about it but after everything she’s been through with Roger and Greg, what Peggy has sounds like a wonderful thing; a man who isn’t running away from her.

Although credit where it’s due: “Or maybe you could go shopping!” was a deliciously back-handed slap in the old-school Joan manner, essentially saying “Nothing in your closet is pretty enough for this occasion; I’ve seen it all.”

And Peggy herself turned around in the middle of her personal upheaval to ensure that Megan was enjoying her moment of success and gave her the wise advice to cherish these moments, because as she knows all too well this year, they don’t stay forever. This was both a surprising twist and a gratifying character moment. There was some subtle shading that Peggy is a bit put out by Megan’s role in the office (as well she could have been), but it seems that Peggy is adopting the tenets of second-wave feminism without even being told them and instinctively understands that when a sister accomplishes something, it raises them all up. She was truly happy for her and there didn’t appear to be one iota of professional jealousy behind her words. Between that and the conversation with Joan, it was hard not to be a little proud of all three ladies.

But Megan isn’t happy; not with Peggy’s advice nor with the office’s (admirably un-sexist) praise for her. Advertising doesn’t really get her as excited as it does Don or Peggy. It’s not in her blood the way it’s in theirs and her father is right there to make sure he knows that about her. This realization comes at the most ironic of moments; when she reveals to Don, the world, and herself that she actually has quite the knack for it. “Beginner’s luck,” she kept demurring, every time someone noted what an incredible thing she managed to do, but Megan couldn’t really hear it.

Still, there can be no doubt of her talent. One of the great things about sticking with this show for so long is that you know the characters really well. And after a ridiculous number of repeated viewings of every episode, we can say with some conviction that was a classic Draper pitch, perfectly presented to appeal both to a client’s sentimental center while pushing their businessman buttons at the same time. But perhaps the term “Draper pitch” needs to be more expansive, because that was something we’d never seen before on this show – a Draper tag-team pitch. Don took the ball and ran with it in only the way Don can, but Megan sat down quietly next to him, slipped him the ball under the table and mentally urged him to “Go get ’em, tiger.”

It’s interesting to note two things here: that Megan is quite eager to downplay her own role in saving the Heinz account (possibly due to the realization that she doesn’t love her job) and that lies flow from Draper lips like honey. Sally quite efficiently (and in pure Draper fashion) changed the details of her story slightly so that Gene’s toys became the culprit in Pauline’s fall rather than the phone cord that really caused it (along with her own lack of consideration). In Don and Megan’s version of the story to Heinz, spaghetti becomes beans, a tense, angry family dinner becomes idyllic, and a smart young woman with a good idea is reduced to a prop. “Don kept staring at me so much I though I’d done something wrong!” And no one even bats an eye. We suspect that this is what’s really bothering Megan so much. Not necessarily that she didn’t get the glory in the moment but that everything about that pitch was dishonest, right down to the wide-eyed reaction to the Heinz exec’s idea to cast the same actors. It’s an extraordinarily cynical business and Megan might be coming to the realization that such easy lying and casual bullshit aren’t good for her. Certainly her father made that clear to her. We wonder just what it is he thinks she’s supposed to be doing with her life. The implication is that she’s always wanted to be a performer of some sort, considering the frequent “actress” comments, as well as “Zou Bisou.”

But she knows what she doesn’t want and that’s to become her parents, which is what that Heinz idea was all about at its heart: children turning into their parents; becoming so indistinguishable from them that you could cast the same actor to play them. It’s a bit surprising to find that sunny, optimistic, bubbly Megan sprang from the loins of two lead actors in a dour, mid-sixties French divorce drama, but this might be the answer to the question of her depths. We all know that something’s going on underneath those ready smiles and bright yellow dresses. In a lot of ways, Megan is like Sally; the child of two people who probably shouldn’t have been together and whose misery sometimes threatens to engulf her. But Sally’s not really comfortable in this world of tuxedos and shiny gowns yet, when a simple trip to the ladies room can turn into an education she really didn’t want to receive. It was fun to go shopping with her new glamorously French relatives, wear the the very latest in fashions, and be Roger Sterling’s date, but at the end of the day, when asked her view of life in the city, she gave an answer that would have had Katherine Olson snorting in weary agreement: “It’s dirty.”


[Photo Credit: Ron Jaffe, Michael Yarish/AMC]

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