Mad Men recap – 5×07: ‘At the Codfish Ball’

Courtesy of AMC

It’s been noted that this season of Mad Men has been more explicit compared to its early, subtler seasons. This week it looks like we return to the old format, with the exception of one eye-opening scene.

Let’s break it down after the jump.

This week the focus was in favour of the women. That’s not to say that men didn’t have their fair share of moments, I just found the women’s predicaments much more ambivalent and therefore, intriguing. Since there’s a lot going on in this episode, I’d like to focus on Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in this recap. Since she never ended up at the titular ‘Codfish Ball’, I feel like her story might not get as much attention as it should.

We open with Peggy having a Chinese take-out dinner with Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) and boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) in the SCDP offices. Abe is clearly the odd man out as Stan playfully teases Peggy about her role in the Playtex bra account. Abe is visibly uncomfortable about other men talking about his girlfriend’s breasts and swiftly exits. The following day, he insists that Peggy meet him for dinner despite her telling him that weeknights are really busy. He drops the dreaded “we need to talk” bomb, which initially freaks her out. This prompts her to visit Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) office for a “help-prepare-me-for-a-break-up” talk. Joan imparts her womanly wisdom and prepares Peggy for a marriage proposal instead. You see, men hardly take the time to breakup with you, instead they “just ignore you until you demand a declaration of their hatred.”  (Side Note: It’s unfortunate that Joan’s sentiment is still very true even in 2012.)

Peggy gets all dolled up and meets Abe at the restaurant. But he doesn’t propose; instead asking that they move in together. Moss plays this scene brilliantly. Her face doesn’t immediately deflate as you might expect. She still wears a smile, which feels equal parts forced and genuine. Peggy continues to say words like “Yes” and “I do”, hoping Abe will go one step further in his proposition, but of course, he doesn’t pick up on this and the scene closes with Peggy’s disappointed grimace. I must admit that during most of the scene I couldn’t really tell what Peggy was feeling. Even with her ending frown, it was hard to tell whether or not she was truly upset or actually okay with this consolation prize, as either way her relationship is moving forward.

The next day in the office, Peggy tells Joan that she’s not engaged, and much to Peggy’s surprise, Joan is still in her corner. Joan encourages, “It sounds like he wants to be with you no matter what, ” which almost convinces Peggy that she hasn’t been given the short end of the stick. The ‘sisterhood’ sentiment continues as Peggy congratulates Megan (Jessica Paré) on her successful Heinz idea, which Peggy herself couldn’t come up with. She genuinely tells Megan that she’s happy for her, even though she should be seething with jealousy. But does Peggy mean these things that she’s saying? Moss performs these scenes with such natural ambivalence, it’s impossible to know for sure, and it’s classic Mad Men. We’re given nuggets in these scenes, allowing us to slowly piece together Peggy’s motivations, but not without question.

It seems like Peggy needs a bit more convincing. She invites her mother over to dinner to announce the big move in, only to have her mother berate her for “settling”. She very pointedly states “He will use you as practice until he’s ready to get married and start a family.” Peggy fires back, “Do you want me to be lonely?” and finally we’re given some concrete insight into Peggy’s conflict. Herein lies a very prevalent issue that resonates with many women today.

Let’s take a moment to question the institution of marriage. We’ve seen countless marriages on the show fail miserably; in fact, the show has yet to depict a single successful marriage. Yet why does Peggy (read: most women), a character that we’ve seen defy gender norms throughout the series, essentially revert back to a need to marry as a form of validation? The issue here is that it isn’t just black and white. Even if Peggy were to fully integrate with the “Dons” (Jon Hamm), “Rogers” (John Slattery) and “Coopers” (Robert Morse) of the world, she wouldn’t be able to kick the fact that she does indeed want to be married. Peggy wants it to combat the fear of being “lonely” and by all accounts, by accepting Abe in this way, she is settling. Unable to truly believe that she can be a happy without a man (ala Joan – or Peggy’s perception of Joan) Peggy’s conflicted with the prospect of being alone or settling for something that is less than what she wants (or deserves).

Courtesy of AMC

Consider the costuming through her scenes as indicative of her conflict. Generally, we see Peggy washed out in drab and muted colours, mostly beiges and tans. But when she anticipates a proposal, she’s the picture of femininity in a modified baby doll dress, with a big bow, in bright red. Returning to the office the next day, unengaged, she’s drowning in beige clothes again – wearing a shapeless trench coat and an ill-fitting hat. In the final dinner scene she’s couldn’t look more matronly in a heavy, dark dress with a neckline that could practically be a turtleneck. Again, Mad Men‘s strength is its ability to give us visual cues to further punctuate the narrative, in this case, Peggy’s internal struggles.

It also is quite clear that Abe’s proposition was motivated out of jealousy. Funny how quickly he exited the opening dinner scene when Stan started to flirt with Peggy. He doesn’t want to commit his life to Peggy, but he doesn’t want her to stray either. Perfect solution: keep her close and in-check by moving in with her without the promise of marriage. I don’t think Peggy is blind to this, but she’s too wrapped up in getting to that finish line to see it.

It’s unclear what Peggy will do by episode’s end, but I very much appreciated the complex depiction of her struggle and the larger (and still relevant) issues it raises.

Courtesy of AMC

Other Observations:

  • In the interest of brevity, I can’t really get into Megan’s storyline, which provided deeper insight into her character. Quick synopsis: She proved herself a rockstar by pitching the winning Heinz idea to Don, and then seamlessly prompted him to deliver an informal pitch that ended up winning the account. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to impress her Dad, Emile (Ronald Guttman) who’s visiting the Drapers with her Mom (Julia Ormond!). No, Megan’s Papa is disappointed that Megan “gave up” and took the easy way in life. Marrying Don allowed her to bypass the struggle and go straight to the top – to a life of wealth and empty success. But what exactly did Megan “give up on”? We don’t know, so we’ll mark this storyline ‘To be continued…’
  • As mentioned, Julia Ormond shows up and gives what will likely be an Emmy-winning guest performance as Megan’s mother, Marie. The makeup department did a great job of convincingly aging her, because there’s no way Ormond would ever pass for Paré’s mother in real life. She flirts with Roger, ending up in the aforementioned, most shocking scene of the night – orally pleasuring Roger in an empty ballroom. After witnessing some explosive blow-ups with her husband, it’s clear that Marie does this to get back at Emile.
  • Sally (Kiernan Shipka) might have been forced to stay in childhood when Don orders her to take off her makeup and go-go boots, but she’s thrust right back into the “dirty” adult world when she accidentally witnesses the shocking sex act between Roger and Marie. Will this poor kid ever catch a break?
  • After his depressing stint a couple of episodes ago, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) pops up quickly in a couple of scenes. He may be a pathetic man, but he’s a damn good Accounts guy. I loved how he  illustrates to Emile what he does by swiftly stroking his ego at the ball.
  • Best line of the night: When Emile tells Don that no matter how much he wants to maintain Sally’s innocence, eventually she will “..spread her legs and fly away.”

So what did you think Mad Men-ers? Did you find Peggy’s story and interesting and nuanced as I did? Think this episode was truer to traditional Mad Men form than the other episodes this season? Sound off in our comments section!

Mad Men airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC

About tvangie

Angie is a TV addict currently pursuing a PhD in media studies. A freelance researcher and writer on the side – she really misses talking about her favourite shows because none of her friends watch them. Help her out.

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