‘Mad Men’ – ‘At the Codfish Ball’: The dirty city

04.30.12 6 years ago 517 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I spread my legs and fly away…

“It’s the future. It’s all I ever wanted.” -Raymond

Midway through “At the Codfish Ball,” Don and Megan discover that the business dinner they’re attending isn’t what they thought it would be, and that Raymond is going to fire them (and, based on his prior Edward Albee tickets, has likely already flirted with another agency) at their meeting the next day. But Megan improvises like a champ, prodding Don into doing their pitch on the spot (and Don in turn masterfully plays to Raymond’s ego by pretending like they hadn’t already thought of his casting idea), and they nail it. It is the pitch Raymond has been waiting months to hear from them, the pitch that lands them the account and makes both Don and the rest of SCDP realize that Megan really does have a gift for this business and isn’t just mid-life crisis arm candy.

It is a glorious moment, and the best Don Draper pitch in ages. It is also, unfortunately, the last moment in this terrific episode where the rug is pulled out from under someone and they respond remotely that well. Raymond gets all he ever wanted; everyone else gets dumped on, usually by the people whose love or respect they crave the most.

Abe scares Peggy with a dinner invite that she assumes is leading to a break-up, while Joan convinces her that it could be a marriage proposal. Instead, it turns out to be neither: Abe just wants to move in together. And while Peggy Olson is a very modern woman in so many ways (though Raymond didn’t want to see it, she’s very much living in the future), there are certain traditions from her family and her religion she hasn’t been able to entirely leave behind. Much as she’s not sure about Abe, and much as she wants to be independent, when Joan puts the marriage idea in her head(*), she realizes she actually wants it. She shows up for the dinner wrapped up like a Christmas (or Chanukah) present for Abe, and is positively giddy as he goes through what she assumes is a proposal. She goes along with it, but you can see in her face when Abe looks away that what she badly wants is for her “I do” to have a more traditional context.  And then her old-fashioned mother – who, remember, responded to Peggy’s last major piece of housing news by warning her that she’d get raped if she moved to Manhattan – tears her to shreds, suggesting that Abe is using her for practice for the woman he’ll actually marry, and that if Peggy is this desperate and lonely, she may as well become a cat lady. Peggy still wants approval from her mother – wants to act like an adult with her, and be treated like one in kind – but Mrs. Olson only confirms Peggy’s fears about both Abe and their frayed mother-daughter relationship.

(*) If this had been earlier in the series, I might have wondered if Joan was just messing with Peggy. But I think they’ve reached a level of mutual respect – if not actual friendship – and in light of recent events in Joan’s own life, I took her advice, and her acknowledgment of trouble in her marriage (if not the whole story) as genuine. Where other characters are dumping on the ones who want approval, Joan declines an opportunity to be catty with Peggy, just as Peggy does with Megan, and both give a full-hearted, generous endorsement. Peggy’s shared joy for Megan was, in fact, about her only moment of pure happiness in the hour. 

Don and Megan spend quite a bit of time scrambling in this episode, starting with when Sally and Bobby have to come stay with them at the same time Megan’s bickering parents are in town. But other than the Heinz pitch, nothing quite works out how they envisioned it. Megan is a hero at work, but her socialist father has utter contempt for the advertising business and for his rich new son-in-law, and nothing Megan does or says will change that. To Dr. Calvet, she’s not a woman who just closed a huge account for her husband’s firm; she’s his little girl who has sacrificed her own dreams for those of a loathsome man in a loathsome industry.

Sally also wants to be seen as a grown-up, and to have a grown-up experience, by going with Don to the American Cancer Society shindig. But Don’s not having his little girl in make-up and go-go boots just yet, and the dinner is one disappointment (no grand fairy tale staircase) after another (the codfish), leading up to the horrifying – and far more grown-up than Sally wants to be at this point – image of Megan’s mother gratifying Roger(**) as a way to get back at her disappointing, philandering husband.

(**) Okay, so maybe Raymond isn’t the only one who gets everything he wants in this one.

And though Don downplays the possibility of using the awards banquet to land new business for the agency, it’s clear how surprised and disappointed he was to hear Ken’s father-in-law tell him that while he’s won the respect of all the titans of industry at that dinner, none will ever hire him for fear of being the subject of another full-page New York Times ad.

Though the episode actually concludes on a brief, darkly amusing coda where Sally tells Glen Bishop that the city is dirty, its proper conclusion is that beautiful shot of Megan’s parents, Megan, Don and Sally sitting around that fancy table, some combination of disappointment, pain, betrayal and disgust washing over all their faces. This isn’t how anyone expected this trip, or this night, to go. Sometimes, you get everything you want. Other times, you get infidelity, cruel parental lectures, and a fish with the head still attached.

Some other thoughts:

* Sally’s concluding line to Glen inspired me to finally goof around on Tumblr (I apologize that it delayed the review by about 7 minutes, most of which was spent making the picture, as Tumblr is fast to set up). Enjoy Who Watches the Mad Men?, in which only Sally Draper and Rorshach can see the city’s true face. (And, yes, I owe a debt to Ron Sworshach) I’m open to submissions (surely there’s a perfect “GIVE ME BACK MY FACE!” image, and the “human bean juice” exchange with Nite Owl is a natural given the Heinz arc), which you can email me for now. 

* While I’m having brilliant Sally-related ideas, who wants to start writing a “Roger Sterling: Professional Babysitter” spin-off pilot script? We know John Slattery has great chemistry with everyone – including his own wife in real life, Talia Balsam, in a welcome return as the first ex-Mrs. Sterling – but until I saw him with Kiernan Shipka, I hadn’t realized the enormous possibilities of putting Roger in a room with children. Wow.

* Roger was on fire in general with this one. I thought his surprised response to seeing Don and Megan actually working in his office was going to be the tops, but then we got “For all we know, Jesus was trying to get the loaves and fishes account,” and then his every interaction with Sally and then with Marie.

* This was only Jonathan Igla’s second “Mad Men” script credit to date (he co-wrote “Tomorrowland” with Matt Weiner), and also the first episode of the season where Weiner didn’t have either full or partial credit.

* Julia Ormond and Jessica Paré are only 17 years apart in age (if IMDb is to be trusted with actor ages, that is), but I suppose you can age Ormond up just enough to make it work.

* I assumed when the show briefly introduced Ray Wise as Ken’s father-in-law last season that we were going to see more of one of the most reliable character actors in the business. And he didn’t disappoint in his big scene tonight with Jon Hamm.

* Pete hasn’t had a lot to do in these two episodes since Lane gave him a good thrashing, but I quite liked him demonstrating to Megan’s father just what an account man does. (And, like so many other moments in the episode, it let Dr. Calvet get his hopes up for a moment, only to have them crushed with the realization of what was really happening.)

* How many times is that white carpet going to suffer? First the sloppy guests at Don’s surprise party, and now Bobby not quite keeping all the fountain pen ink on the newspaper.

* Also, as the seventh hour of the season, this is technically the mid-point. The season premiere counts as two episodes, so there are only 6 more to come.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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