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.