Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 7: “At the Codfish Ball”
Written by Jonathan Igla
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
It’s somewhat surprising that Mad Men hasn’t dealt with the following subject matter more overtly, but this week’s episode focuses on the confrontation between tradition and progress. Through the eyes of Sally Draper, we explore a “dirty” world where almost every character is a slave to social traditions and compliance with them.
Sign-posted very early on during Sally’s phone call with her friend Glen (played again by Weiner’s son, Marten), Igla underlines that the youth is very much subservient to tradition. She tells him that she and Bobby are “like…slaves” to Henry’s mother.
What makes the time period such a wonderful vehicle for conflict is the change and insurgence towards what the younger generation viewed as out-dated traditions. In fact, the redundancy of these conventions are understood by even the older characters, such as Don, who admits something even as elementary as the title of ‘Professor’ has its roots in “the middle ages”.
The first moment we see Don, he is lugging his in-laws suitcases into their lavish apartment. Don’s insistence to carry their bags highlights his adherence to social customs. Almost immediately, we detect the disapproval of Megan’s father, directed at their apartment. Labeling it “exquisitely decadent”, Emile cannot separate his political beliefs from ultimate comfort and therefore is enslaved by its praxis. As his wife, Marie notes, “his eyes and his politics are having a fight”. Nevertheless, Emile’s political views represent rebellion, as someone whom Don describes as “a communist”, or perhaps more importantly, a rejecter of the Capitalist norms in the Western world at the time. This character-trait lends his personality and naturally, this episode much needed contrast.
One of last week’s final moments pictured Don on his knees in front of Megan. In hindsight this beautifully foreshadowed his increased adoration and even the esteem he is beginning to hold for her. However, it’s difficult at times to judge whether Don truly respects his wife or if he is simply stunned that she has both sex appeal and brains. It’s enjoyable observing their relationship working once again and even developing. During the Heinz dinner pitch, they work off each other brilliantly. Weiner and his writers seem to be teasing the audience with the ups and downs of their early married life. It’s almost as if they haven’t decided whether this will be a sincerely happy partnership or a deeply destructive one. Of course, to say they didn’t know would clearly not be giving them their due credit.
Megan’s epiphany in relation to the Heinz account is superbly scripted by Jonathan Igla. Not only does it raise the significance of tradition, it crystallises the very nature of advertising and its aims – persuading and figuratively enslaving its audience. Expressing a symbolic lamentation, Megan proposes the line “some things never change”, an idea that is echoed repeatedly across other characters’ sub-plots.
Yet again, Peggy clashes with her conservative mother, who it seems is enslaved by her religious traditions. Upon deciding to move in with Abe, Peggy invites Katherine to dinner, during which she informs her of their intention. Evidently vexed, Katherine condemns their decision as “living in sin”.
Not only is Peggy willing to reject societal taboos against de-facto unions, but she bemoans the patriarchal dominance in her workforce. Joan labels Peggy as “brave”, while Peggy is delighted by Megan’s success, instead of jealous.
In the meantime, Roger is still affected by his LSD trip, but predictably less impacted by his ensuing marital separation. The very act of drug taking and its link with servitude provide a neat slice of symbolism. Like Peggy, Roger additionally offers the episode a further antithetic layer, which balances the focus nicely, without making it overpowering.
Similarly, Sally’s experiences intensify the thematic focus of this episode. As alluded too, she has to deal with a domineering Step-Grandmother. Once at Don and Megan’s, she must then comply with her father’s standards of appearance. This in itself distinctly defines the episode and the conflict present, which is inherent in the show and many of its characters.
So while the seventh episode may not be as polished as the Weiner penned episodes, “Mystery Date” and “Signal 30”, its strong focus and string of poignant character moments maintain the incredibly high standards of what surely must now be deemed, the strongest season of Mad Men.