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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times