Sunday, May 06, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "At The Codfish Ball"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: April 29th, 2012

Jon: Welcome back to another installment of the Partners' Meeting where someday you can spread your legs and fly away.

This week we start our trip to the codfish ball (whatever that is) by checking in on my homeboy Glen, who is now even extra worldly with a hint of a crustache and post-breakup scars marking his soul. Sally has continued to keep in touch with him via phone since they last parted ways, talking about what pre-teens talk about, which is pretty much nothing. But since she must take the phone from across the hall into her bedroom in order to gab comfortably in private, the outstretched phone cord leads to a sloshed Grandma Pauline to trip over it and be even more unfit than usual to care for Sally and Bobby. However, Grandma Pauline's misfortune is Sally's gain, and now she gets to spend a few days with her father.

But it's not just Don she has the pleasure to join this week as Megan's intellectual French-Canadian parents have come to New York for a visit. Their marriage is hanging on by a thread, with her hitting on a suprisingly unsuspecting Don at every opportunity while Megan's father seeks solace in a phone call from his publisher's rejection from his latest grad student tryst. The kids arrive downtown in time for dinner, but Sally doesn't like the fish the rest are having, so Megan makes her some spaghetti. The next day at the office, Megan finally cracks the Heinz account after being inspired by her and her family's past with spaghetti and applies it to baked beans. During the usual SCDP dinner courting of the visiting Heinz executive and his wife before their morning pitch, Megan learns that they're about to lose their account after all the lackluster work we've seen over the course of the season (bean ballet, anyone?). She warns Don about it and then prods him to make the new pitch here and now before he flips out and they're fired on the spot. It was vintage Don Draper, enhanced by Megan's presence, and it worked. Everyone's ecstatic over this grand success. Except for Megan, who is horrified to learn from Peggy that this is as good as this job gets.

Meanwhile, Peggy's relationship with Abe takes a turn for the more serious with a big decision. Unfortunately for him, Joan has psyched Peggy up for a marriage proposal, not the "let's move in together" one he nervously offers. She accepts with concealed disappointment, then invites her mother over for a meal at their new abode to break the news of them shacking up in sin. That goes predictably awful, so badly in fact that they don't even get any cake out of the deal.

But they weren't the only ones left cakeless. The other big event of the episode was Don receiving an award from the American Cancer Society for his previous work at a hoity-toity dinner, accompanied by Megan and her parents. Sally asks her daddy to be included and he agrees, so long as she leaves the make-up and go-go boots at home. She may finally be allowed to sit at the grown-up's table, but she's still his little girl, after all. Roger, who has been telling everyone under the sun about how great his LSD experience was, is her date and adds to the masquerade by treating her like a Mona in training by bouncing business party etiquette off her and handing out a Shirley Temple when she's showing signs of needing to taper off. All of these moves are incredibly charming to Megan's mother, who finally has a willing partner in Roger to flirt with. Those flirtations quickly escalate to something far more adult than Sally was prepared for after she walks in on them. By the time a dazed Sally makes her way back to the table, she's forever finished with those Shirley Temples and later that night tells Glen that the city is simply dirty. Whether or not she meant dirty in a good or bad way is yet to be seen, but she's officially primed for a new level of trouble to get into.

Just before that, we also learn why Megan isn't excited as everyone else for her big Heinz win. Her father taught her that "giving up" and selling your soul is the worst offense possible in this world, because Karl Marx said so. She's viewed as being handed all of her successes, even the ones she's illegitimately earned, for no other reason than because she's married Don. Apparently being a secretary by day and a struggling actress by night is the path to a more righteous existence. Has she given up or has she found what makes her happy? Her father certainly has shamed her into thinking she's failing at life, but who is he to talk? She and Don may not be together forever, but when they're on, they're amazing together. But I think Megan's rearing is the latest clue these two won't be able to make it work in the end.

And with my final observation about this week, I'd like to point out how wonderful the score of the episode was in "At The Codfish Ball." Outside of something overt like "Bye-Bye, Birdie" and this season's use of "Zou Bisou Bisou" being integral to the plot and unlike the bell-ringing that the inclusion of "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" induced last week, the music on Mad Men (and most other shows, really) is often something that rarely makes itself known while residing in the background. But there were multiple times this week where a classical riff from a clarinet (or was it an oboe?) and a piano struck me. It's not necessarily important to the episode, but is indicative of the show's subtle qualities I appreciate from week to week and it was especially nicely done this week to counteract the silence of the characters in those moments.

Enough about boring background music. What say you, Mike?

Mike: I’m not as good at recapping events like my cohorts Jon and Mark here, but I do want to look at a bunch of stuff in this episode that really resonated with me.  So, here goes:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sally Draper really fucking scares me.

No -- not her, so much as what she could become, so much of which is completely out of her control.  For an entire episode which could actually be summed up as “how to screw your daughter up, sometimes without even knowing it or meaning to,” we saw time and time again how circumstances have created the Peggy and Megan that we know and love, and also got some terrifying glimpses of what might be going on inside Sally’s head.

It’s a credit to the young actress Kiernan Shipka that her portrayal of Sally is so well-rounded.  We can see the all-but-seething discontent with her life in that huge mansion in upstate New York somewhere, the only respite being her flirtatious, precocious conversations with good ol’ creepy Glenn who, lest we forget, in times past had shared in an emotional affair with Sally’s own mother.  Now, Sally has what really in all truth seems like a loving, caring father in Don, especially the seemingly more well-adjusted “Season Five Don,” but he’s also kept at a distance because she does not live with him.  Her everyday life is filled with what seems like an absentee mother and father figure, two ciphers as brothers, and a domineering (but plucky) stepgrandmother whose respect she still has yet to earn.  With this living situation, alongside the serial killings and the brewing cultural-societal tumult of the ‘60s, it’s no wonder that she’s starting to feel a lot of pressure that she might not even be able to give a name to yet.

That said, we also see another side of Sally in this episode that I also buy into -- the girl who loves shopping with her cool young stepmom and showing off her short-skirted dress, who wants her daddy to think she looks pretty in it, and who wants to go watch that same guy, the apple of her eye, win a prestigious award with all of the other adults.  Too bad everyone but Sally’s aforementioned dad and stepmom are determined to behave like children all night.  If it’s not Megan’s constantly warring parents, it’s Roger taking full advantage of his newly hippified, freethinking outlook on life and also, as coincidence may hold, full advantage of Megan’s mom too.

Full disclosure time: I have a gorgeous, funny, brilliant, insane and creative two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who’s got me eating out of the palm of her hand.  (I’ve got an infant son, too, but I’ve only just begun to fear for his future.)  Like I hope most parents do of their own children, I think the world my daughter, and simultaneously balance the thought that I can’t believe how lucky we are to have her with the desperate desire for the sacred and sweet relief of her 8:00pm bedtime.  Maybe those of you out there who are parents can relate.

Anyway, when I see Sally, through virtually no fault of her own, embarking upon the process of losing faith in humanity at such a young age, it terrifies me to think that as much as I would like to protect my own daughter from such experiences, there isn’t any honest way to guarantee her safety.  And does it really do you any good to have faith in humanity in the first place?  Well, this probably isn’t the right place for that discussion.  I guess, at the very least, I would like my kids to have the opportunity to give humanity the chance to prove itself.  And for a child of her temperament, and who has gone through the things that she has, I’m afraid that poor Sally Draper may have already cast her vote.

In other developments this episode, we also saw Peggy seek out a truthful relationship with her mother, who hasn’t been around for a while, at least not onscreen.  From the outset, I knew the whole dinner thing was not going to go well, and I spent some tense moments waiting for what was surely to be the elder Mrs. Olson’s reaction to Abe and Peggy shacking up.  It takes a pretty nuanced hand to show a child you still love them while perhaps not completely agreeing with the path they have chosen in life, and Peggy’s mother has none of it.  As a young father, I (perhaps naively) have a hard time believing that I will ever find myself in that kind of situation with my children, but should that ever be the case, I hope I handle it a whole lot better than Mrs. Olson did.

Finally, I wanted to mention that this may have been the episode where Megan finally won me over for good.  I’ve been so focused on watching the warning signs in Don’s behavior and predicting what tragic turns her and Don’s relationship might (still) take that I might have missed all the good there, too.  Especially in comparison to Megan's parents!  Simply put, the copywriting and advertising magic that the Don and Megan team create in this episode really show that she’s not just some arm candy who humped herself out of a secretary job and into the creative field.  She, like Peggy before her, has really got some talent in the ad arena, and it’s beginning to bear fruit.  I really enjoyed the masterful interplay between Don and Megan as they used every trick in the book to snare a client.  I saw a lot of mutual respect and depth in their relationship, with both Don and Megan knowing when it was time to act and when it was time to step back and let the instincts of the other partner take control.  It was a thing of beauty to see unfold, and I hope there’s more of this kind of success for them in store.

Now, last episode, Burt criticized Don for being on “love leave” in recent times and urged him not-so-gently to get his shit together.  Could it be, though, that this very same love will be the key to his creative resurgence?  Or will Megan’s burgeoning talent begin to outshine Don’s, resulting in an ugly display of bruised pride?  I’m really hoping for the former, to be honest, but as usual I’m intrigued to see what comes next.

Jon: Hey, I'm back! Aren't you excited? Anyway, while trying to find that wonderful piece of piano and clarinet/oboe music I mentioned above (btw, I'm still looking), I figured out what this episode's title is in reference to. Turns out there's a Shirley Temple number in 1936's Captain January called, you guessed it, "At The Codfish Ball." So to know one's surprise, Sally's nibbling on that giant fish while at a "ball" wasn't to be taken literally. Obviously Roger's line about cutting her off from her glass of Shirley Temple had another layer to it. Here's the song if you're curious:

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"


Mark C. Bisi said...

Gah! I can't believe I haven't been able to watch this episode yet. Sally AND Glen are featured?! All of my favorite creepy kids are represented!

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