Mad Men: Some Things Never Change

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Mad Men S05E07: “At the Codfish Ball”

Originally, “At the Codfish Ball” was a brief dance routine between Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen in the 1930s film Captain January, notable mostly for the criticism Graham Greene layered on the then eight-year-old Temple and the studio for presenting her as a young “coquette” flirting with inappropriately older men beneath a thin veneer of innocent storytelling.

Needless to say, Fox Studios and the Temple family were not amused by those allegations and Greene got the pants sued off of him.

Flash forward thirty years and Sally Draper was ready (or so she thought) to join the adults. Her flirtatiousness was wrapped in innocence as well, and she was uncertain of what her own motives were, obediently removing the makeup and the go-go boots that Don balked at before the big American Cancer Society dinner, giggling over illicit phone calls with Creepy Glen but unperturbed when he didn’t give her a straight answer to whether or not they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Sally improvised her way through the script that she clearly only had half the lines to, and while her performance was a success to the audience and her father, her own sour disposition after walking in on good ol’ Roger getting a blow job from Megan’s mom—and her later statement to Glen that the city was “dirty”—betrayed the childlike understanding of the world that she still clung to.

She’ll get there, assuming she didn’t inherit her mother’s inability to mentally mature past the age of thirteen. There’s always the danger that she could perpetuate that cycle. “At the Codfish Ball”—the episode, not the dance routine—dealt largely with the daughters on Mad Men and their attempts to break whatever cycles they were part of.

The lyrics of “At the Codfish Ball” are almost childishly silly:

Come along and follow me
To the Bottom of the sea
We’ll join in the Jamboree
At the Codfish Ball

Lobsters dancing in a row
Shuffle off the Buffalo
Jelly fish sway to and fro
At the Codfish Ball

In a way, they’re utterly mindless, the kind of silly (but catchy) song that a child would sing. But mentally, it’s hard to hear the tune or read the words without picturing some endless parade of sea life. The song never mentions what happens before or after the Codfish Ball, only what transpires during it. And those events are not exciting in the least. The lobsters dance. The catfish dance. The minnows and tunas dance. And since we don’t know what the minnows and the tunas do afterward, and no one thought to include a stanza hinting at a life outside of the Codfish Ball, the fish themselves are trapped in a cycle of mindless dancing.

Peggy attempted to break her own family’s cycle of domestic complacency by accepting Abe’s invitation to “shack up.” It wasn’t a marriage proposal, but the arrangement offered the sort of permanence that Peggy sought, without all of the baggage that she has come to associate with marriage. She is still her own person and in a way, since the couple decided to co-habit Peggy’s apartment rather than Abe’s, she retained a sort of superiority over Abe. If things go south in their relationship, she is in a much better position to sever ties. It’s really only a matter of saying, “Get out of my apartment.”

Of course, an unmarried couple moving in together wasn't a particularly common occurrence in 1966, at least not traditionally, and that was reflected in Peggy's mother’s response to the big news. Considering Peggy’s long history of chronically disappointing her prim and proper mother, it was not surprise to me that the woman met Peggy’s news with venom and rudeness. She insinuated that Abe would leave Peggy eventually, that he was just “practicing” on Peggy until the right woman came around, and instructed Peggy to get a cat if she was so lonely, just like every other lonely woman in the world.

It’s hard to break a cycle, but Peggy's done it before, making the jump from secretary to copy writer. Last night, in a small scene with Megan, she surprised me by also breaking the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce tradition of being an ass to co-workers who accomplish something great.

Megan proved her worth as a legitimate copy writer and worker by not only coming up with a great pitch for the Heinz people, but by pinpointing the perfect moment to unveil it. When Heinz’s wife revealed to Megan that he was planning to drop SCDP from the account, she and Don tag-teamed an impromptu pitch that, miraculously, changed the bean peoples’ minds. When she heard the news, Peggy seemed legitimately happy for Megan, calling a victory for Megan, a victory for Peggy as well, since their roles in the workplace were still very much a source of consternation among certain powerful men. I thought it was interesting to note that despite the Heinz pitch being entirely Megan’s idea, and despite Don openly crediting her for it, Megan encouraged Don to actually make the pitch. Given Heinz’s reaction to Peggy’s treatment of him last week, the problem being not so much her tone, but her tone combined with her gender, I wonder if it was an intentional strategy on Megan’s part. Probably. She’s a smart one, that Megan.

The idea itself was far from the hip new concept Heinz had previously insisted he wanted. While looking after the Draper children, Megan made them spaghetti, and realized that her own mother often made her spaghetti in place of “adult” meals that she wouldn’t eat. She theorized that her own mother was probably served spaghetti by her mother, and so on and so forth, backward until the age of the dinosaurs. Theoretically, the cycle would continue forward as well, past Megan, with Sally serving her kids, and those children growing up to make spaghetti for their own children, right up until spaghetti dinners on the moon. All she did was change spaghetti to beans and voila, Heinz was hooked, with the slogan “Some things never change.”

But it seems that Megan herself DID change, at least, according to her father. Megan’s parents came to town to watch Don receive his award from the American Cancer Society for the infamous “Why I Quit Tobacco” letter. From their introduction, it was plain to see that they were a miserable couple. Megan’s father, disappointed in his career, was consoled by graduate assistants who apparently doubled as mistresses—an ongoing tradition, according to Megan. His wife seemed to harbor resentment toward him for his private and professional failings, which he, in turn, took out on Megan for turning her back on her ideals. Of course, when he called them “her” ideals, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were ever actually hers at all, or if Mr. Calvet was simply bitter over a daughter who managed to break her own cycle, ditch the mindless dance, and embrace ideals of her own creation.


Questions:

1. Still no Betty this week. Does anyone else suspect that the next time we see her she’ll be miraculously svelte again? Maybe she and Henry’s constant traveling has been to an assortment of militant fat farms?

2. While I don’t think Abe is using Peggy as a practice wife, I’m not entirely convinced that the two are destined for happily ever after. What are your thoughts?

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