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TV Diary | Mad Men – “At The Codfish Ball”

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TV Diary | Mad Men – Episode 5.07 – “At The Codfish Ball” – Original Airdate: 4/29/12

Episode Grade: B+

Families can be a pain in the ass. Oh, and happiness is fleeting. Other than that, how was your week? As far as sobering episodes of Mad Men go, “At The Codfish Ball” certainly was one. A visit from Megan’s parents [1] is the impetus for disappointing times among the series’ characters, chief among them Don, Megan, Roger, and Sally. Let’s hit ‘em up bullet-point style:

  • Don – A visit from the in-laws (particularly from in-laws who don’t necessarily care for you) is never an easy thing. A visit from the in-laws where you suddenly have your kids thrust upon you and your wife is in the midst of a career crisis [2] is a whole OTHER thing. There’s one moment of awkwardness after another in Don’s story this week, from Megan’s mom seemingly flirting openly with him [3], to Megan’s father barely disguising his contempt for Don’s lifestyle and profession, to Roger insisting on doing business at the dinner where Don is being feted [4], Don doesn’t have the easiest of weeks. When he’s later told by Ken’s father-in-law Ed Baxter (Ray Wise sighting!) that although the group throwing the bash is perfectly happy to lavish Don with awards, he’s never going to get any business from them, that’s like the final knife in the back. Don’s seen his salvo against Big Tobacco as a positive until now, but it’s not until Ed tells him that no one trusts him anymore because he’s bitten the hand that fed him that Don realizes the island he’s placed himself on. And swimming back to shore isn’t going to be easy.
  • Megan – I’ll fully admit that I never expected Megan to become this interesting a character when she was initially introduced during season four. But here we are and Jessica Pare has made Megan a fully integrated and essential member of the show in a way that January Jones has never been able to do with Betty [5]. “At The Codfish Ball” manages to give her even more shading as a character, by virtue of the introduction of her parents. We learn that her mother is competitive with her – leading to those awkward moments of physical contact with Don – and that her father dotes on her, to the point that he chides her about her choices during Don’s gala, telling her that she’s taken the easy way out by marrying Don. Instead of striving for success and achieving it through hard work, he views her as having landed it by virtue of marriage. “Don’t let your love for this man stop you from what you wanted to do,” he says. And it’s clear through other happenings in the episode that he’s on to something as Megan is unable (or unwilling) to muster up any enthusiasm when she manages to help Don land a high-profile account with Heinz. When Peggy tells her to enjoy it because that’s as good as it gets in their business, it’s clear that that’s not going to be enough for Megan. In fact, were I a betting man, I’d wager that this is going to be the iceberg that Don and Megan’s marriage is steering towards: She’s going to want to leave SCDP, feeling unfulfilled, and he’s not going to take kindly to that. I’m gonna keep that little theory in my back pocket for future use.
  • Roger – Oh, boy… anyone that didn’t see Roger ending up in, to use television parlance, sexual situations with Megan’s mother just isn’t paying attention. But that’s getting ahead [6] of ourselves. Backing up, Roger has a surprisingly civil meeting with his ex-wife Mona early in the episode [7] where he informs her that he and Jane have split up following a “life-altering experience” while also telling her that she needs to try acid herself. Because, who doesn’t, really? He also tries to curry favor with her in order to get a meeting with Firestone, reminding her that what’s good for him is good for her and her daughter, since he’s still supporting them per their divorce agreement. Kind of interesting that Mona’s been reintroduced here, immediately following Roger’s breakup with Jane. Ultimately, Roger spends most of the evening with Sally at Don’s dinner and OHMYGOD more Slattery/Kiernan Shipka scenes nownownowplease. I mean, their rapport shouldn’t have worked as well as it did but damned if it wasn’t one of he episode’s high points. Of course, that ‘s all blown to shit when Sally unwittingly walks in on Roger getting a beej from Megan’s mom, likely scarring her irreparably. But again, everyone saw this… er.. coming (?) right? Which leads us to…
  • Sally – Yup… Sally’s getting her own bullet point. Firstly… we’re never gonna get rid of Glen, are we? Damn it. Sadly, the little creep seems like he’s Sally’s best friend to this point, which is why it was encouraging to see her successful in her request to accompany Don and Megan to Don’s gala. Her parents [8] are treating her as more of a grown up and Megan even takes her shopping for a new dress to wear to the dinner. When Sally – and by extension, Shipka – emerges from her bedroom all dolled up for the ball, it’s striking just how much this young girl has grown up. And, as all of us know, growing up is often painful and the moment that Sally walks in on Roger and Megan’s mother in a… compromising situation, that was painful. For her and for us to watch. The end of the episode, bookended nicely with her opening conversation with Glen, finds her telling Glen that the city is “dirty.” It really is, Sally. And life isn’t going to get much cleaner in the future, kid.

The final shot (excepting the Megan/Glen coda) is of Don, Megan, Roger, Sally, and Megan’s parents sitting at the ballroom table looking collectively miserable. It’s a nicely symbolic of how much of “At The Codfish Ball” played out and makes for a perfect capper to one of season five’s better episodes.

[1] In town to support Don, who’s getting an award for his anti-smoking letter from season four.
[2] More on that in the next bullet point.
[3] Old Don would have totally banged her by now.
[4] Something that’s strongly implied is seen as gauche.
[5] As an aside, has anyone really missed Betty this season? Anyone?
[6] Haha… puns.
[7] And John Slattery and Talia Balsam continue to have great chemistry, which isn’t particularly surprising seeing as they’re spouses in real life.
[8] But not Betty, because screw Betty.

*The other major character development in “At The Codfish Ball” that really didn’t fit into the motif of everyone at the ball having their happiness stripped away (but that also did technically fit with the unhappiness of life theme) was Peggy’s decision to move in with Abe. She displayed the proverbial rollercoaster of emotions after Abe excuses himself from a lunch with her and some of her SCDP colleagues, making it look at that point like he was on the verge of ending their relationship. However, her perceptions shift after he calls and asks her to meet him for dinner, telling her that he needs to speak with her about something important. I’m still thinking that he’s calling to end things, but after Peggy confers with Joan she becomes convinced that Abe’s about to pop the question and she warms to that possibility more than perhaps she’d thought she would. So, when Abe merely asks her to move in with him, she has to mask her (unexpected) disappointment, even as she’s agreeing to do it. That then leads way to a dinner with her mother, where she lets Peggy and Abe know in no uncertain terms how against their co-habitation she really is. “I’m gonna need my cake, because I’m not givin’ youse a cake to live in sin,” she tells them. Just as the attendees at the titular ball found that happiness is fleeting, so too does Peggy, in her own way.
*I was really surprised to see Julia Ormond as Megan’s mom. Make of that what you will.
*Don and Megan make quite the little ad-conning team, don’t they?
*Not for nothing, but that fish plate that was dropped in front of Sally at the gala was outright disgusting looking.
*Roger Sterling Line Of The Week: “Oh… you two were actually working.”
*”Emile is confused. His eyes and his politics are in a fight.”
*”You make me so happy.” “Me too.” “You still want to eat?” “I do.”
*”But, by looking at your fingers, you might not be in the mood to celebrate.”
*”Greg has a piece of paper with the US Army that’s more important than the one he has with me.”
*”You weren’t even there.”
*”Every daughter should get to see her father as a success.”
*”Don, there is nothing you can do. One day your daughter will spread her legs and fly away.”
*”And that, Emile, is what I do every day.”
*”This boy… he will use you as practice until he decides to get married and have a family.”


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