Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 7–At the Codfish Ball

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 7 YET.

“It’s the future. That’s all I ever wanted.”

MadMenDrapers

After all the detailed character studies and complex dramatic structures of the last few weeks, Mad Men was back to being a relatively straightforward (though still high class) drama this week. Probably just as well; last week’s twisty non-linear narrative was bold, but that sort of experimentation week after week would get in the way of the actual plot.

There was definitely a Big Theme this week though, as has been a trend with Mad Men episodes. This episode’s Big Theme was parents and children, or perhaps more accurately family generations, and was nicely evoked by the penultimate scene’s exquisitely framed shot of three generations of Don’s family sitting at a formal table and looking (typically for Mad Men) less than content. It was also at the core of Megan’s surprise hit idea for the new Heinz campaign – families eating beans through the ages.

Family was obviously much on Don’s mind this week. Not only did he have the dubious pleasure of hosting a visit from Megan’s fractious Quebecois parents, he was also lumbered with looking after his own children after Sally accidentally caused Henry’s dragon of a mother to break her ankle. Sally being Sally, she lied about the cause, claiming it to be one of baby Gene’s toys rather than the cord of the phone she’d sneaked into her room.

Kiernan Shipka, another child actor of amazing range and ability, is a joy to watch as the increasingly unhappy Sally. That’s presumably why she’s stayed the course since the show’s beginning, while her brother Bobby has been recast three times. Conversely, it’s also why Bobby never gets any actual storylines. It was notable that, after arriving with his sister at Don’s, he seemed to just vanish – where was he while all the grown ups and Sally were at the award dinner, just sitting in the apartment alone playing with matches? I do wonder whether Matthew Weiner regrets having given Don a son as well as a daughter, since he’s turned out to be a dramatic spare part.

Sally, though, does get the meaty storylines, usually geared around her precocious desire to prematurely grow up. Isn’t that what all kids want? But Sally is from a very dysfunctional background, with her cold, often absent mother, her philandering father and her empty existence in the affluent suburbs. Small wonder that she became close friends with fellow misfit Glen (played by Matthew Weiner’s real life son Marten), who she was on the phone to when Pauline tripped over the cord. Their relationship is rather sweet, despite their burgeoning puberty. They’re clearly very close friends, but not boyfriend and girlfriend; in fact, they can discuss those relationships with each other openly.

That kind of frankness is clearly lacking from other areas of Sally’s life; not to mention all the adults in the show, who continue to lie, cheat, and be generally evasive with each other. Megan’s father, a card-carrying Marxist, doesn’t much care for Don or his business, though what father ever truly approves of the man who steals away his little girl? And her mother doesn’t get on too well with her father either. Fortunately they have the advantage of being able to lapse into French whenever they want a screaming match, or when Emile Calvet wants to insult Don. No wonder Don’s shown poring over a Berlitz ‘Learn French’ book – he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on around him.

Megan, though, turns out to be far more clued up than we – and Don – thought she was, particularly on a professional level. She comes up with a far better idea than anyone else has had for the Heinz campaign (which conveniently echoes this week’s Big Theme), and Don’s surprise, while undoubtedly complimentary, is also incredibly patronising. He employed his wife as a copywriter, and now he’s genuinely surprised that she’s talented at it?

Not only that, but she‘s got Roger Sterling-style smarts on actually hooking the clients too. Getting early warning at one of the show’s frequent expensive dinners that bean supremo Raymond is about to dump the agency, she expertly prompts a clueless Don into doing the pitch for her idea right then and there – and passing it off as his own idea to give it more traction. The girl’s a natural. Unfortunately her father is utterly contemptuous about her choice of career.

Her mother is similarly contemptuous about her father, especially after discovering his affair with a young grad student. As a result, poor old Sally gets yet another unwelcome lesson in sexuality when she stumbles over her stepmother’s mother giving the ever-charming Roger Sterling a blowjob in a back room. And just when Roger had spent the previous scenes brandishing his newfound empathy to all and sundry in the wake of his consciousness-expanding acid trip! It looks like the old Roger is still there under all the empathy. No wonder Sally looks so shell-shocked when rejoining the dining table, and no wonder her expressed opinion of the city is simply, “dirty”.

Peggy was being “dirty” too – at least in the mind of her strictly Catholic mother. After a nervous dinner with boyfriend Abe, she discovered that he wanted to move in with her – not to get married, like nice 60s folks do, but to ‘live in sin’. This didn’t sit well with Peggy’s mother. Bad enough that her good Catholic daughter has had a child out of wedlock and is dating a Jew, now she wants to have regular pre-marital sex and live under the same roof as that Jew.

This came out at another of the supremely awkward dinners that Mad Men does so well. Abe was conspicuously bending over backwards to downplay his Jewishness, even asserting that he loved glazed ham. But it wasn’t enough for Mrs Olson, who frostily declared that she was leaving, and advised Peggy that if she was lonely, she should get a cat. Chalk up another inter-generational conflict for this week’s Big Theme.

At least Peggy got to have a good heart to heart with Joan, as always the office den mother. Worried that Abe was going to break up with her, she requested a stress-relieving cigarette while unburdening herself to Joan. In fact, though, she learned more from Joan than she bargained for. It seems like Joan’s breakup with her husband isn’t common knowledge yet, and she’s plenty bitter about it: “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you – until you insist on a declaration of hate.”

Presumably Joan is still depending on her own mother to look after her baby, and she’s plainly not happy. We could hope for some happiness with Roger, with whom she shares genuine chemistry; but Roger’s hardly the dependable sort, and I doubt Matthew Weiner would let his creations off so lightly. It’s one of the things the show excels at – making you care about characters, then making them suffer as much as possible.

Overall, it was a good episode, albeit one of the more obvious and conventional ones. It was notable that this was the first script this season not to bear the name of Matthew Weiner as at least a co-writer, and I think it showed. Some of the usual attention to detail seemed a little lacking – the way Bobby was treated as an afterthought, or the way the irascible and perceptive Dr Calvet was so easily taken in by Pete’s faux flattery at the dinner. But the cast made it as compelling as ever. The only major criticism I have is that this is the second week in a row without a brain-cripplingly hideous checked sport coat on display…