Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: “At The Codfish Ball”

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When did you first realize your parents were people?

I realize this sounds like a silly question. Of course you realized your parents were people from the time you were sentient! They were the same species as you, right? But I mean something more like this: When did you first realize your parents were people, and not stage furniture there to hang around the edges of the plot of your life? Here’s another one for those of you with kids (I’m not one of you, so I can’t speak with any authority on the subject): When did you first realize that your kids were eventually going to be their own beings, and not just extensions of yourself? There’s that old cliché of the parent who lives vicariously through their own child, but isn’t that sort of true? Don’t we all hope that when we have children, they’ll roughly stand for what we stand for and want to do things we’d want them to do? When comes the part where they start rocking the boat and you start to feel like an old person holding them back?

“At The Codfish Ball” is an episode brimming with scenes between parents and children—both real and imagined. If the fifth season of Mad Men has dealt with generational divides in a more abstract sense—the “youth” movement versus the old guard—then “At The Codfish Ball” dealt with this on a hyper-personal level. Kids grow up and want to become something other than just the child of their parents. Parents find themselves standing in the way, sometimes purposefully, sometimes reluctantly. It’s the kind of dance that’s gone on all the way back to the dawn of time. Somewhere back in the mists of time, there’s probably a cavewoman mother wondering why her son has to be so into all those boys playing around with fire.

I’m kidding, of course, but it’s no accident that the centerpiece ad pitch of “Codfish” involves Megan coming up with the idea that finally lands the Heinz account—and in the nick of time, too. Her ad involves generations of mothers serving generations of sons baked beans. It’s inspired by her own time with her own mother (played by Julia Ormond, of all people) and with Sally Draper, who ends up in the same house as Mama and Papa Calvet thanks to Henry Francis’ mother tripping over a stretched-out phone cord (thanks to Sally dragging the phone into her bedroom to call Glen). The idea boils down to the sort of thing Don Draper sells best: the hope that things will always be like our most cherished memories. No matter how far into the future or the past we go, there will always be mothers serving their children beans.

That’s not true, of course. Cavemen didn’t eat baked beans, and they certainly didn’t lovingly serve each other with big spoons. But it’s something we want to believe, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is great at selling things people want to believe, even as every single person working there is forced to consider how the changing times are rising up around them like floodwater. Peggy Olson moves in with her  boyfriend, and her mother leaves her with a stinging rebuke (that also says Abe is just using Peggy for “practice,” which is harsh). Don tries to impress Megan’s parents and realizes that his daughter is on the cusp of being able to wear makeup and will someday be a stunner. Megan’s dealing with a father who’s disappointed in her for abandoning what appear to be her Marxist ideals, as well as her dreams (of becoming an actress, presumably). Things are changing, whether the characters want them to or not.

One of the best things about “At The Codfish Ball” is the way it sets you up to expect one thing, then goes in another direction entirely. The first half of the episode seems to be setting up Peggy’s worst day ever. Instead of proposing to her like she seemingly hoped he would, Abe instead asks her to move in with him. The Heinz nut that she couldn’t crack is cracked by Megan after a moment of inspiration while serving Sally spaghetti, and everybody in the office thinks the ad’s terrific. We linger on Peggy’s face in these moments, as if we expect her to crack and start wailing in frustration. But she doesn’t. She keeps her cool. When she says, “I do” to Abe at that dinner—in answer to if she still wants to eat—there’s a mask of icy resolve there.


Her reaction to Megan is much different, though. The season’s been toying with us by suggesting the two women might end up engaged in some sort of professional rivalry. And while I suppose that could still happen, “At The Codfish Ball” does its best to put the kibosh on the whole idea, as Peggy is legitimately thrilled for Megan in her big moment. Megan’s victory is a victory for Peggy, too, both in the sense that it brings the firm new business and in the sense that it helps cement the idea of women like Peggy and Megan working in this capacity in the office, something that was unheard of when the series started. Where most shows would turn this into some sort of amped-up rivalry, Mad Men goes for the anticlimax of genuine happiness. It’s a beautiful little moment, and it reminds us just how far Peggy herself has come and what a good person she is on a fundamental level.

Many of you last week commented on how Peggy has patterned herself after Don in more ways than one, and it’s interesting that she and he are the focal points in this episode about parents and children. It’s easy to see where Don fits into that theme, but it’s a bit more difficult to see with Peggy before her mom shows up on the scene. Yet at the same time, Peggy is a sort of workplace daughter to Don, the protégé he’s raising up in the way she should go. When Abe makes the proposal she didn’t want to hear, she eventually realizes that this could be better for her anyway, and she pulls herself on board the crazy idea as quickly as possible. And when Megan succeeds, she’s able to respect the greatness of a great pitch and be happy for someone who never had a leg up in the industry. (Privilege is a slight theme throughout the episode as well, as witnessed by Roger’s attempts to explain his feelings of being born on the proverbial third base to his ex-wife.)


Mad Men episodes break down into two types, roughly. There are the episodes where some long-simmering conflict boils to the surface, and everybody has a fight we’ve been waiting for them to have, and then there are the episodes where everything stays buried, where the characters try to come to terms with how unfulfilled they are. The best episodes—like the last two—blend both of these approaches into something stark and beautiful. But it’s not like there aren’t great moments in the ones more dedicated to one of the two approaches. “At The Codfish Ball” is, obviously, an episode about not being fulfilled. All you need to know to know this is to look at that shot that concludes the next-to-last scene, in which Don, Mr. and Mrs. Calvet, Megan, and Sally all stare off into the middle distance, having realized abruptly that something they thought to be the case isn’t anything of the sort.

I’m impressed with just how quickly “At The Codfish Ball” gets us invested in the Calvet relationship and the parents’ relationship with their daughter. The two are in town to watch Don collect a prize from the American Cancer Society for the ad he wrote at the end of last season. Don’s high on the horse. He’s got a wife who’s great at her job—and seems to have a natural talent for knowing exactly how to keep things like the Heinz account from spinning away from them. He’s got a daughter he couldn’t be prouder of. And he’s got the satisfaction he gets from a job well done. Yet now he has to put up with these people who’ve invaded his house, speaking French and tossing their accusations of infidelity back and forth. It starts out as a somewhat comedic setpiece—oh, look at these two people who are the parents of Don’s wife!—but it gradually becomes richer and richer as the episode goes on. It’s not hard to see echoes of the man Don was in Mr. Calvet (who cheats on his wife with grad students), but it’s also not hard to see echoes of Don’s relationship with Sally in Mr. Calvet’s relationship with his daughter. When Mr. Calvet makes the joke about how one day Don’s daughter will “spread her legs and fly away,” his daughter is standing right there in the frame. It’s an inappropriate joke for Sally to hear, sure, but it’s also a catty rebuke from an old man who can’t seem to get his career back on track to his daughter who’s turned her back on everything he once stood for.


Yet Megan’s a natural in this world. She’s acclimated quickly to being the wife of Don Draper, yes, but she’s also gotten very good at her job. The Heinz dinner is the episode’s highlight, one of those perfect scenes where Don conducts business and makes it look easy. In this case, it’s easy because he’s got someone at his side who perfectly cues him up and helps him keep from going over the edge. Megan’s idea is a great one, of course, but I’m almost more impressed by the way that she and Don navigate the minefield of a client that wants to fire the firm, only to pull the client back in at the end. There’s something about the way that Megan isn’t afraid to take a back seat and let someone else take the credit when it was her idea that’s intriguing. I could see Don seeing her as the perfected version of Peggy: She’s smart and talented and great at her job, yes, but she’s also less interested in getting credit (something that made Peggy angry a couple of times last season), and she’s his wife. I’m also intrigued by how the season is setting up this new generation of people under the ones we already know. Where Peggy and Pete and company were the new generation when the show began, we’ve known them long enough now to have others coming in under them, like Megan and Ginsburg. It makes for a fascinating dynamic.

The final way that “At The Codfish Ball” deals with parent and child dynamics involves the ways that we sometimes get little windows into worlds that we’re not really a part of. This brings me back to that question at the top. For me, I always got that sense that my parents were people outside of supporting characters in the story of my life when I’d see them hanging out with their friends, just playing cards or laughing together. It always gave me the sense that there was a whole world they were privy to that I simply wasn’t. The same is true quite literally here—as Sally goes to the awards banquet and is treated like an adult yet isn’t one, not yet—but it’s also true more metaphorically. The Calvets speak a language that deliberately keeps Don out of their conversations. The awards banquet is hosted by people who will never give Don the time of day when he comes looking for business. Both Peggy and Joan stand on the outside, looking in, at a life of happy matrimony they’re supposed to want but are perhaps realizing they don’t need if it doesn’t make them happy.


There’s a great moment near the episode’s end when Sally wanders off to use the bathroom and peers through a closed door to see Mrs. Calvet giving Roger a blow job. She’s shocked (and she’ll later describe the city as “dirty” to Glen). She’s caught a glimpse of something she’s not supposed to see, something adult that’s still a little over her head, even if she understands what’s going on on some level. The show often uses Sally to literalize its more metaphorical conflicts, and this is no exception: All of these people have opened the door just a crack to see what lies behind it and are horrified by what they saw, even as something about it was tantalizing. And then they’ll run away before someday circling back.

Stray observations:

  • My God, having John Slattery play off of Kiernan Shipka is the greatest thing this show has ever or will ever do. I require more adventures of Roger and Sally!
  • Pete Campbell schmoozing with Mr. Calvet was pretty damn great, too. I like to imagine he knows just as little about half the clients he tries to woo.
  • We haven’t gotten a lot of Joan in recent weeks, but she still makes her mark when she pops up. Her two scenes with Peggy tonight are among the episode’s best.
  • One of the things I like about Mad Men is how it will seem like it’s rushing headlong toward some sort of serialized story, then it will back off from that. After Bert’s confrontation with Don last week, I would have bet anything this episode would be about him getting his professional fire back. Instead, Megan does most of the work, and he tries to learn French.
  • Harry Crane turns up, just so people can insult him. You weren’t even there, Harry!
  • Time seems to have slowed almost to a halt at this point, as we’re still in the apparently endless summer of 1966. One figures time will pick up again, as one of the upcoming episodes features the name of a prominent late-year holiday in its title. Or maybe we’re not! I had assumed so, since the kids seem to spend forever with Don and Megan (and seemingly don’t have to go to school in that time), but the Edward Albee play Ken gets the Heinz guy tickets for is almost certainly A Delicate Balance (one of Albee’s best), and that show opened on Sept. 22. Then again, it could be in previews.
  • Could anybody make out the novel Don was reading in bed? I could not.
  • Next week on Mad Men: Several people close doors!