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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism