Mad Men Recap: It’s Dirty

Photo: Ron Jaffe/AMC

There’s really no such thing as an uneventful Mad Men. “At the Codfish Ball” is exhibit A. Nobody gives up a baby for adoption or gets busted for having a fake identity or loses a foot to a riding mower. But there’s precise and fairly deep character exploration happening in every scene, and it’s deftly patterned, constantly threatening to form into a simplistic “This episode is about X” thesis but restraining itself, erring on the side of mystery.

Written by Jonathan Igla and directed by Michael Uppendahl, this installment splits the difference between episodic TV’s two preferred modes (the serialized novel and the self-contained short story) so elegantly that you can’t say that it falls squarely in one category or another.* More so than most Mad Men episodes, it becomes complete, or at least cohesive, when you talk about it with others. To that end, I’m going to briefly summarize what happened, list some of the key themes and then jump into the comments. “Come along and follow me, to the bottom of the sea,” sings Shirley Temple in the song that gave this episode its title. “We’ll join in the jamboree at the codfish ball.”

Don Draper gets an award from the American Cancer Society for his controversial anti-tobacco ad from last season, which was itself more of a PR stunt for Don Draper, iconoclastic adman, than an honest statement of ethics. Megan’s French Canadian parents arrive for a visit on the same weekend that Sally accidentally trips and injures grandma with a phone cord and has to come stay with her dad in Manhattan. Sally attends the titular event and witnesses … well, we’ll get to that in a minute. The family attends the awards dinner together, accompanied by Roger Sterling, fresh off his marital separation and acid trip and spouting cosmic wisdom when he’s not working the room and bringing back business cards from prospective future clients.

Peggy’s boyfriend Abe impulsively invites Peggy to dinner. Peggy fears a breakup announcement — the boyfriend’s been acting possessive, distant, and furtive — but Joan reads it as an impending marriage proposal. “Men don’t take the time to end things,” Joan tells her. “They ignore you, until you insist on a declaration of hate.” It turns out that Abe wants them to move in together, a half-step that seems to surprise and disappoint Peggy, but that she eventually defines as a good thing. Peggy’s mom disagrees; at a dinner with Peggy and Abe, she snarls that the cake she brought to celebrate what she thought was news of an engagement will not be used to celebrate them living in sin, then tells Peggy that Abe isn’t really serious about spending the rest of his life with her — that this is just a training exercise, and he’ll eventually throw her over for a girl whom he will marry.

There’s a hint of working-class Catholic anti-Semitism in Mama Olson’s reactions to Abe, but unpleasant as she is, she’s not wrong when she tamps down Peggy’s enthusiasm. I never really liked Abe. Although he’s smart and fairly modern in his attitudes, and thus a seemingly good match for Peggy, he has often seemed impatient with, even dissatisfied by, the very qualities that mark Peggy as special. I predict that their relationship will end as Joan’s marriage recently did: poorly. (There’s a motif in this episode of unpleasant people speaking harsh truths. Another example comes in the awards dinner sequence, when Ray Wise’s character Ed Baxter, Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law, tells Don that the industry doesn’t actually like him, but in fact finds him deeply untrustworthy, the kind of person who bites the hands that feed him.)

Peggy is still smarting about getting kicked off the Heinz account, a job she couldn’t really get excited about anyway. Megan rides to the rescue with a smart proposal spun off from a conversation at her apartment, wherein Sally didn’t want to eat the fish that had been prepared for dinner and had spaghetti instead. Spaghetti was also the default meal for a picky Megan when she was a girl. The commercial pitch, a montage of images of mothers preparing beans for children throughout history, on up through the present and into the future on some kind of moon base, becomes a Hail Mary pass that stops the client from bolting to another agency. (I didn’t really buy it as a viable, real-world ad pitch — do you know any children who ever asked for beans with the same enthusiasm that they requested spaghetti? — but the client’s bean chauvinism is so pronounced that I decided to give it a pass.) Don tweaks the idea a bit, but it’s basically Megan’s pitch, and everyone seems pleasantly surprised by its suitability, Megan included. I like that Peggy congratulates her instead of being bitchy and resentful; the notion that in this environment, any woman’s success is a success for all women is not just insightful, but moving.

Woven into this Heinz subplot is one of many sharp observations about the dynamics of male-female partnerships, manifested in the dinner between Don, Megan, the clients, and the Cosgroves. Don and Megan’s verbal choreography is brilliant, the sort of thing you’d speak of with admiration if you saw a couple of married friends do it. Each says exactly what they should, exactly when they should, and their statements are carefully doled out between them so as not to alarm the client, who’s been previously established as a condescending, casual sexist. (When Peggy told him off, Don-style, for being a negative Nelly, he reacted like a cranky granddad dressing down a bratty little girl.) I love how Don and Megan leave out the groaningly obvious “crowning touch” — having the same actors play the mother and child throughout the ad — and let the client come up with it himself, allowing him to be quite pleased with his “creativity.” It reminded me of the maxim that the most successful people are the ones who have a knack for getting others to do what they want while making them think it was their idea. Pete Campbell brings this notion home at the codfish ball when he answers Megan’s dad’s question about what he does by flattering him so subtly that he doesn’t realize he’s being flattered.

There are some nice Don and Roger moments in the episode (I love Roger’s crack about not being able to tie the bow tie he was born in), but “At the Codfish Ball” really belonged to its central women: Peggy, Megan, Sally, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Megan’s mother Marie, a tough, elegant, sexy woman made bitter and resentful by her old Commie professor husband’s literary struggles and serial philandering with grad students. Marie is played by Julia Ormond, whose amazing versatility and force during the character-actress phase of her career retrospectively makes her twentysomething ingénue phase — in the likes of Legends of the Fall and Sabrina — seem like a waste of her talent. The accents didn’t work for me (I thought they sounded more French European than French Canadian), but their alternately haughty and insecure attitudes rang uncomfortably true.

Ormond and Ronald Guttman, who played Megan’s father Emile, captured a dynamic I’ve unfortunately seen many times in real life: the older academic who’s heading into his twilight years without a notable body of work, and his younger, still sexually vital wife, who probably fell in love with his aura of authority decades ago but now thinks him a tiresome, fraudulent blowhard. As I watched them snipe and pose and regurgitate bits of received wisdom, I feared we were seeing intimations of what Don and Megan’s marriage might eventually become. It’s also interesting to note how Megan perhaps unthinkingly “rebelled” against her communist father by marrying an advertising man who’s old enough to be her father; which means the Don-Megan marriage is a rebuke to Megan’s upbringing in some ways and a reenactment in others.

There’s a lot of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”–style rebelling on Mad Men. Don’s whole adult life is a desperate, multifaceted reaction against his rotten childhood. The notion of a poor farm boy remaking himself as the ultimate alpha male urban sophisticate is so extreme that it’s both comical and tragic; no wonder he keeps getting jokingly compared to the likes of Batman and Superman. Joan rebelled against expectations that she’d be a liberated, single working gal (and sometime executive concubine) by getting married to a rapist soldier, having a baby (not his, of course), and trying to make a go of things as a housewife.

Peggy, of course, is already miles away from her own upbringing, blazing trails as a female copywriter at SCDP and dipping her big toe into the sixties boho lifestyle. But the way her face lit up when Joan suggested Abe was about to propose to her suggests that somewhere inside her Feminine Mystique–ready bio lurks another Queens girl reading movie fan magazines at the malt shop and hoping some nice young man will pop the question someday and make an “honest woman” of her. Megan’s dad criticizes Megan for skipping the dues-paying part of her youth and instead settling into a life of luxury built by Don Draper; but if you grew up a sexy, charming girl in a household headed by a father who was constantly spouting anti-capitalist slogans (something about Emile’s dashing-genius-in-decline persona reminded me of Max von Sydow’s pontificating painter in Hannah and Her Sisters), you might end up like Megan, too: a commie’s daughter who ended up in a sadomasochistic version of an Audrey Hepburn movie. Don and Megan’s excited snogging in the cab after the Heinz dinner gave me hope, though. “You’re good at all of it!” Don told her; that he was sexually excited by her creativity and confidence made him seem, momentarily at least, just a bit less of a pig.

What will become of Sally? My heart goes out to this poor girl, who seems to have no unambiguously positive role models, only screwed-up, selfish authority figures who specialize in disappointing her. Her father sends her mixed signals, as fathers often do, demanding that she grow up fast in certain episodes and urging her not to grow up too fast in others. In “The Codfish Ball,” Don makes Sally remove her makeup and put on less suggestive boots before attending the dinner, only to largely abandon her at the actual event, becoming a mostly absent presence in the room, just as he is in the rest of her life. Roger picks up the slack, asking Sally to pretend they’re on a “date” and urging her to cheer him as he heads off to collect business cards like battlefield trophies. (I second Alan Sepinwall’s call for a spinoff series titled “Roger Sterling: Professional Babysitter.”) There are so many damaging messages being sent in the Roger-Sally byplay — and in the behavior of all the adults at the party, particularly Marie and Roger, who shock the girl by carrying on the oral tradition in a back room — that if we parsed them we’d be here all day.

Suffice to say that they didn’t quite disturb me, for one reason: Sally’s reactions. She’s a tough kid, and smart. She doesn’t seem to automatically believe, much less absorb, anything that adults tell her. She’s a little camera, taking it all in, and who knows what she’s thinking? Well, she gave us a two-word reaction at the very end (“It’s dirty,” she told Glen, speaking of New York generally, but the adult world specifically), but for the most part she keeps her own counsel, saving her most trenchant or stinging observations for when adults least expect (or want) to hear them.

I can imagine Sally eventually going the route of pretty much any of the major female characters on Mad Men. She could be another cold, unhappy, narcissistic conniver like her mother. She could be like Joan, outwardly independent but prone to deeply self-destructive behavior. She could go Peggy’s route, forging new paths but constantly fighting the urge to wander off of them and return to the state of psychological servitude she grew up with. Or she could settle into a financially and intellectually dependent relationship like Megan and Marie, one that offers much less potential for real growth than she probably imagined at the outset. What stops me from worrying too much about Sally is her poise. Despite the mountains that her parents have sometimes made of behavioral molehills (her mother’s reaction to the masturbation incident will probably get unpacked in therapy for decades), she seems a much wiser, warier kid than in the show’s early episodes — not so much of a doormat, more of an observer and interpreter of the craziness around her.

As Deborah Lipp writes, the episode is partly “about passing the torch, about generations, about growing up, and about the changes from one generation to the next … Because this is Mad Men, it aims to take a more honest look at the generations than Megan’s commercial does, and it ends on a dark note; that tableau at the end of dinner is as striking as the elevator tableau at the end of ‘The Beautiful Girls’. Yet about three-quarters of the way through, I was wondering if I was watching the most optimistic episode of Mad Men ever made.” Odd as it may sound, there are times when Sally reminds me of Lisa Simpson, another bright girl who’s constantly being failed by her family, her neighbors, and the world at large. We know from Simpsons episodes set in the future that Lisa turned out just fine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sally did, too, despite the forces arrayed against her. There are times when she reminds me of a very young, female Don, but minus a lot of his pathologies. I hope the show runs for a very long time so that we can watch her evolve through high school and college, and watch the remaking begin.

*This post has been corrected to show that Matthew Weiner is not a credited writer on this episode.

Mad Men Recap: It’s Dirty