Mad Men: season 5, episode 7

Bad writing and behaviour at the codfish ball.

Sally Draper summarises "At the Codfish Ball" all too well with her closing word: Dirty. The episode sitting in the middle of the fifth season is a very mean one, and arguably full of . . . filler material. Whatever glimmered through - Sally briefly funky in go-go boots; hers and Roger's playfulness; his camaraderie with ex-wife Mona - was outshone at the close by a crude-mannered and flagrant sex act. It seemed such an unnecessary encounter; as seemed, for the large part, much of the episode.

Beginning with the sad climax of it: Sally, stripped of makeup, attends her first "codfish ball". The fish is quite good (why will she try this and not Megan's dover sole?), but the adults are hypocrites: members of the American Cancer Society all smoke cigarettes, the industry celebrates Don as it snatches away from him its business (he "bit their hand", as Ken Cosgrove's father-in-law puts it) and bored/married adults give fellatio in the nearest half-dark room. 

There's no clear themes here besides parents behaving badly - nothing new for Mad Men. In some ways this was Megan's chapter, though she emerges more of an enigma than before. If her reaction to Don's demands in "Far Away Places" inclined us to think Megan was channeling the 1966 feminist spirit, we may be mistaken. If a successful career is what Megan wants then it doesn't appear to be in advertising; despite her success this week with the Heinz campaign. To begin thinking about Megan - until now have we been asked, or bothered, to do so? - we must consider her father's early remark to the luggage-carrying Don: "My daughter pretends to find interesting what I find interesting because she loves me". Is this the answer to her behaviour with her husband? Is Emile's comment so telling? (Must we ask, eventually, whether Megan does love Don? My own mother finds her quip at the Howard Johnson's table "Go call your own mother!" - knowing Don's past - too full of spite for it to be true).

Her behaviour throughout the development and selling of the Heinz pitch suggests that Megan neither cares for her work nor for the plight of her fellow female colleague. Megan warns Don her beans idea "Might be terrible!", but why does she take it to him and not Peggy, her unofficial mentor? While Peggy in Season 1 was pioneering as the first woman copywriter in the history of Sterling Cooper, Megan's main concern is "they’ll hate me," and wishes Don would "tell them it was your idea”. After Ms Olson's struggles to be respected, to have due credit granted her work (see Glo-Coat just a year previously), Megan's reservations, delivered with a giggle, are a slap in the face to Peggy.

The gulf between the two is most apparent in Megan’s strange disconnect with Peggy’s excited praise. “I know what you did and it is a big deal," Peggy tells her. "I tried to crack that nut. If anything I should be jealous, but I look at you and I think I’m getting to experience my first time again." "Savour it". Peggy can't help but notice the forced smile she receives. After the tense pitch over dinner - where Megan sets him up and Don delivers, to Heinz man's delight - the Drapers choose to reward each other with sex. Is it a stretch to consider it undermining of the work that they have sex in the office? We took for granted at the opening of Season 5 that Megan was now a copywriter, and perhaps she did, too. Does she still want to be an actress . . . or what?

Katherine Olson's disregard for her daughter's happiness is no surprise. Nor is Peggy's temporary unease at Abe's non-proposal: she has always teetered on the edge of traditional/liberal. The only things of note for Peggy in this episode: "Someone dumped you?" - her sweet incredulity at Joan (who speaks the saddest line, “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate,") and the framed photograph of JFK on her apartment wall. We're glad to see the return of Glen Bishop; previously creepy, now a teenager (read: dangerous). And also of scant interest is the newly published novel Don reads in bed: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, where the protagonist forgives his former wife for leaving him. Do we care to read anything in this?

There's little else here. Are we to begin imagining Megan will become her mother Marie, who repeated Mrs Draper's good night to the children in California at the end of Season 4: "Bonne nuit des animaux"? A learnt habit, perhaps. There's certainly no subtlety there. The same writer was responsible for both episodes and that, alone, may be the reason why.  

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Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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