“It’s the future. It’s all I ever wanted.”
After weeks of dense, intricate episodes of Mad Men that have challenged my skills as a writer, it’s something of a relief to experience the plain ol’ symbolic, interesting, well-written, enjoyable quality of At the Codfish Ball. I strongly suspect that I don’t have to spend the rest of my life analyzing this episode, and that I can derive all its meaning in two or three viewings.
Which is not a criticism! I loved this episode, and I love the more complex ones. I do, however, see the difference.
The lyrics of the song “At the Codfish Ball” are about dancing fish. Twice we see Sally confronted with the task of eating fish. The first time, she’s served spaghetti—you know kids, they just won’t eat grown-up food. The second time, at the banquet, she tries it, and it seems like she might be learning to like it. But, while the kids in Megan’s commercial are having beans rather than spaghetti, in either case comfort food and comforting adults aren’t available to girls who eat fish and stumble upon illicit blow jobs. (Watch if you dare!)
At the Codfish Ball is about passing the torch, about generations, about growing up, and about the changes from one generation to the next. It’s especially apropos in 1966, which is approximately when the term “generation gap” was coined, but it’s true for all of us, from cave men to people who eat beans on the moon. 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—in the video above—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. As dark as some of it was, I still feel that way.
How is the torch passed? Let me count the ways. At work, Peggy is proud of Megan and explicitly states that she is seeing the torch passed. Joan is proud of Peggy, and happy for her. Perhaps for the first time she sees Peggy striking out on a path that isn’t the one Joan herself laid out for Peggy in the very first episode of the show. Joan serves as a surrogate mother for Peggy, since Peggy’s own mother refuses to approve of her, and even withdraws Peggy’s father’s approval from beyond the grave. That torch didn’t pass quite so successfully. Sally is praised as a mature young lady, and she heroically saves the older generation—but she’s still too young to wear makeup. Nonetheless, attending the banquet is a significant “graduation.” When she sees Roger, she asks if he’s her sitter, and in a way he is: He’s her “date,” and he passes a kind of torch to her, teaching her how to be an account person and a “wing man.”
We’ve already discussed the way that Sally’s journey into adulthood turns suddenly darker. Megan’s journey into maturity is also both joyful and dark. Those are some tough parents! They seem to have trained Megan well for marriage to Don, accustomed as she is to adultery and drunkenness. Another torch passed.
I loved Pete’s conversation with Emile Calvet. If you recall, way back in Season 1 (Episode 1.04: New Amsterdam), Pete’s own father said he didn’t understand what Pete did, and was disdainful. Now Pete has an answer for the question, and an elegant one. Pete’s been difficult to like this season, but he has grown up!
One of the great things about this episode was the core character development. Every episode of Mad Men is structured around a theme, and almost everything happens because of that theme. What makes these writers extraordinary is that their characters still behave like themselves as their lives move forward. It would be hard enough to write these people authentically without making it all flow from one subplot to another! Yet, while we have to see Joan living with her decision, and Roger with his, and see how Don and Megan’s marriage is doing, and so on, we must do so within the thematic context.
“I for one am not going to let a bunch of dirty teenagers in the paper disrupt the order of things.”
Roger’s conversation with Mona (video below) was one of the highlights of the episode, not because it was thematically important (although the quote above is certainly about the generation gap), but because these two actors are great together, because Mona has always been a terrific and underused character, and because the interplay sparkles.
So much of this episode simply sparkled. Hey everybody, catch a deep breath, let go of interpretation, and just enjoy! Peggy looked so cute in pink, and Katherine Olson is a great character, every mean bit of her. Mona and Katherine are two people the fans always want back, Glen Bishop’s return is another treat, and as if that weren’t enough, we have the stellar Julia Ormond as Marie Calvet, and Ray Wise’s return as Ken’s father-in-law. A real Codfish Ball of a guest cast!
Another motif of At the Codfish Ball is seeing others as they are, and not simply as they relate to you. Roger has suddenly discovered he’s a member of the human race, and he thinks he’s the first person to ever notice, bless him. It’s funny, of course, and Don is bemused, but Don hasn’t previously seen his new wife entirely as her own, separate human being either. Last week he treated her as no more than an extension of his whims. This week, he discovered Megan is actually a person with talent and ability, and lo and behold, it turns him on! Peggy is discovering the same thing about herself; that she has her own desires and needs, and that she may not need to live under the thumb of expectation.
Peggy expected the worst news from Abe. Oh, honey. Then Joan woke her up, and she was so . . . so . . . girlish. With a pink dress with a pink bow on the front and an unshakable grin. She was living the childhood dream of a wedding, one she thought was only for prettier girls, but even though she didn’t get what she thought she wanted, she made an adult choice. She changed from little girl pink to a beautiful and womanly dress to talk to “Ma.” In this case, Peggy is figuring out that she is a person.
Some additional thoughts:
- Meta-generational fun: Creator Matt Weiner’s son Marten plays Glen Bishop. Ray Wise was on Twin Peaks as someone who killed his own daughter (thanks to my sister Roberta for pointing that out). Julia Ormond played Sabrina in the remake of the same name (a remake of a Hollywood classic is, after all, a kind of “next generation”).
- Sally should simply stop opening double doors. There’s always sex behind double doors.
- Quote of the week usually goes to Roger, and he certainly had several runner-ups, but nothing beats Emile Calvet with: “Don, there’s nothing you can do. No matter what, one day your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.“
- The motif of wealth also played itself out in this episode. I haven’t the space to explore it properly, although I probably will on my blog as the week unfolds. Emile is a Marxist who disapproves of what unearned wealth does to Megan’s soul. Mona counsels Roger not to feel guilty for wealth (check the second video, above). The wealthy “establishment” doesn’t trust Don, according to Ed Baxter (Ray Wise).