This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That’s the point. If you haven’t watched the episode in question, please come back when you have.
There were a series of gears seamlessly interlocking in “At the Codfish Ball,” an episode of Mad Men that very creatively dissected the way men talk to and interact with women and women talk to and interact with each other.
It was a nuanced play on generations that also – separately – was funny, sexy and had a very intriguing idea dropped so casually into the mix it could easily have gone unnoticed. Let’s start there first: What if it’s true that companies don’t want to work with Don? That they don’t trust him, since he burned the cigarette business? Notice how they didn’t say SCDP, just Don. Mohawk airlines is on board and Jaguar flirted with them, and in this very episode Don took Megan’s idea for beans and nailed the Heinz account when it was pretty clear it was walking out the door. But if this notion is true – and great series rarely raise an idea without answering it soon after – this could be more to the point that Pete and Peggy (and maybe even Megan) will be the future, while Don will trail closely behind Bert and Roger as they all fade away.
It’s just something to monitor. Because Don had that sour look on his face. And that's never good.
But “At the Codfish Ball” had other big ideas on its mind. It was interesting to watch how Megan’s parents Emile and Marie spoke to each other – the hallowed out long-term relationship that now is propped up solely by recrimination as a game.
Sally and Glen connected (apparently not for the first time) and flirted over the phone, their bonded hatred over Pauline literally being the element that brings her down.
Stan and Ginsberg joked with Peggy in a familiarly flirtatious way that Abe seemed put off by – which might have been one reason he proposed that he and Peggy move in together (which wasn’t the proposal that Peggy, to her own surprise, was really looking for). Abe's looking to lock things down.
I’m not sure Peggy and Abe even know what they’re doing together. One minute he’s feeling used by her -- someone she pulls out of a drawer at work when she’s finished for the day (or after she works late, wiping out their plans). He doesn’t appear to be too concerned that she’s a kind of career trailblazer for women (in fact, when they first met, he was extremely sexist in that way while touting the importance of his own job). Mr. Alt Weekly can cover riots, wars or whatnot, but he seems less brave as a man. Moving in with Peggy may not mean Abe’s going to practice on her before getting a wife, as Peggy’s mom noted, but it sure seems like a smart financial move. On the other hand, Peggy used to seem annoyed at Abe when he became annoyed about her all-encompassing work habits. He's the one who seemed like a pest about the relationship. Peggy only seemed to remember it, as Don often did, when it most suited her. Peggy's swagger and confidence at work means she can leave at noon to watch a movie, smoke some pot and give a stranger a hand-job, but the sexual revolution hasn’t completely wiped out her mother’s-era notions about marriage (the look of veiled disappointment on Peggy’s face said it all – and as it evaporated from a tortured smile to almost a sneer, maybe that’s when she was angry at herself for being all-dolled up for a proposal from a guy she’s not that in love with).
One episode removed from an enormous, toll-taking fight, Megan and Don found themselves on par for maybe the first time ever. She helped explain to the often-clueless Don things he clearly missed – that her own mother was flirting with him and that when her father was crying on the phone to one of his female grad students, he should have been seeking solace with his own wife. And their grand connection was Megan’s idea about generations of families sharing meals together, an idea that not only fixes the Heinz problem but elevates her work in Don’s eyes (after all, he nearly dismissed her whole work situation and importance in the last episode). He even admitted to Megan that her tagline was better than his. This surprisingly new level of respect cemented itself at dinner when Megan took the information she gleaned from Raymond’s wife – just a few women talking amongst themselves at the bathroom mirror – and used it to immediately shift gears at the table (allowing Don the lead, something he graciously told her previously that she should do), and he used it to seal the Heinz account man-to-man (since it was pretty clear earlier that Raymond might not have been comfortable with a woman steering his company’s business).
Don is so excited about Megan’s deft moves that he’s almost apoplectic and wants to devour her right there in the cab ride home, as he’s simultaneously proud of her and sexually provoked by her potential/possibilities. Don has rarely seemed so happy.
If that improved balance between the sexes wasn’t hopeful enough (if you really want Don to improve himself), then his handling of Sally was an equally significant eye-opener. Did he like her in make-up and go-go boots –no. And no father would have. The fear of what that might mean, manifested through time, is coarsely phrased (purposefully, it seems, rather than a malaprop) by Emile, when he says to Don: “One day your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.” Credit Don with coming back to Sally later in the evening, saying she’s a beautiful girl who will one day wear make-up, but not at this point in her life. Contrast that with Emile’s interactions with his own daughter Megan – who he’s disappointed in for marrying both Don and his Don’s money, but also for getting into advertising, the spawn of capitalism. We don’t get precisely what life goals Emile believes Megan gave up on (she was trying to be an actress), but it’s assumed that they are the goals he wanted for her, not necessarily what she wanted for herself. That was a fine scene of generational discourse (and I have to believe the “spread her legs and fly away” line was Emile’s cruel disappointment/renunciation of Megan, not tossed in to the script as a one-off joke).
Roger, who keeps coming off as the luckiest guy in the world, had three exceptional discourses with women. He was mature, open and comfortable with Mona, which was not only nice to see, but counts as progress. He was fantastic and funny with Sally all evening, partly catering to her desire to experience the grown-up world, especially after she’d gone shopping for a dress with Megan and Marie and then providing a jokey diversion to her total letdown about grown-up food like codfish. (And yet, Sally’s foray into the adult world ends up “dirty” when she inadvertently saw Marie blowing Roger in a back room). Roger’s other conversation was indeed with Marie – when she could actually talk – and it not only catered to her ego, allaying some of her Emile-fueled self-esteem issues, but also reaffirmed, post Mona-discussion, that Roger really fits best with a woman more his age.
Marie was also interesting for the things she represented in this episode (and also for the fact that she fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and ended up holding it just like Don does in the Mad Men logo). When we meet Marie, she seems to be suffering the withering cynicism and rage of her husband, Emile (which she is). That’s why her desire to get what she desires in life, be sexual, be wanted, etc., manifests itself in her dalliance with Roger. Her actions, contrasted with the advice of Peggy’s mother, Katherine, about women who fear being alone – “get a cat” – are certainly more progressive and sensible. What Marie is saying is, no, I won’t be left on the side while Emile has affairs – I’ll partake. Or loosely translated from the French: A cat won’t solve anything.
But where Marie is certainly more aligned with Katherine, is her treatment of Megan. It’s made clear (by Megan) that there’s friction because her mother always believed Megan was a favorite of Emile, and thus Marie – a beautiful woman in her own right – has been competitive with Megan probably all of her life. And if Megan knows that her mother has touched Don six times (eight is apparently the problem number) this is not a healthy mother-daughter situation. Neither is Peggy’s, of course. And Joan seems to have a mother who’s part Marie (flirting with men in Joan’s life) and Katherine (the old-school societal notion that the man comes first in everything and it’s a slight on the family if anyone finds out you’ve taken actions contrary to that belief).
As for women and how they relate to and converse with each other, Joan was clearly the surprise here. In many ways she’s like Peggy – they have one foot in the past and the other in the present. Joan’s focus since Season 1 was to use her wily feminine charms to get a man and get married (if it didn’t work out, she was at least progressive enough to call it a fun time and not wallow in guilt). But when she finally gets what she wants, it’s Greg. Rapist, bad doctor, guy with such low self-esteem he re-enrolls in the military because he’s “needed” and has rank. So Joan is more sympathetic to Peggy’s current predicament than expected, because marriage isn’t all that (although she flashed the old Joan when she told Peggy to go out shopping for a dress).
And in a later scene, Peggy was the true embodiment of a groundbreaking woman who wanted to add to the club. She was the first to make it so her conversation and congratulations with Megan was important. She was confident enough to congratulate Megan on a great idea and the Heinz presentation concept, plus smart enough to know that the men in the room wouldn’t go out of their way with that atta-girls for Megan. It was a bonding moment. Compared with Marie’s competition with Megan and Katherine’s contempt for her sinning daughter, this exchange between Peggy and Meghan was, if not a spark of feminism, then at least a mark of sisterhood in the workplace.
People talking with each other is a far more complicated idea than it sounds. A great series can highlight this in so many ways. "At the Codfish Ball" had so many nuances about the way the genders -- sometimes divided by generations -- communicate with each other. It was just lovely to listen to.