Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.7
"Home/Work: Some Things Never Change"
Guest Writer: Michael Berube

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

[The sixth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men, posted prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]


"Home/Work: Some Things Never Change"

Written by Michael Berube (Penn State) 


First things first, let me say how great it is to see so many French-Canadians on the show. And such lovely people! It’s about time, and it makes me proud.

OK, now to business. From the moment Peggy uncorked the phrase “basket of kisses,” Mad Men has been about the women. It has been about other things as well– like, say, advertising and ad men, particularly that Draper fellow – but in “At the Codfish Ball” the professional drama with SCDP and Heinz and the American Cancer Society is but a backdrop to the stories of Megan, Peggy, and Sally ... and Joan and Marie.


We open and close with Sally on the phone to Glenn; we learn within minutes, upon Sally’s arrival in New York, that Sally is quite good at public relations. Indeed, Don has to coax her into explaining how she was the hero of the day, calming her grandmother Pauline, calling the police, elevating her ankle and getting an ice pack for her after she broke her ankle tripping on one of Gene’s toys. Gone is the phone cord that Sally stretched into her room, causing Pauline to fall; in its place is a Sally too proper and too shy to tell everyone how good she was. Megan will offer a grownup version of this crafty self-fashioning at the Heinz dinner, converting her parents’ chilly and chilling dinner with Don into a heartwarming tale of families, love, and beans through the centuries. Gone is the drunken Marie passed out in bed with a lit cigarette still danging from her hand; in its place is a doting mother serving good warm Heinz beans while Don looks on in awe and gratitude.




We will return to Sally, and to her go-go boots, later on. But on our way to the codfish ball, first we are presented with two tableaux of home and work: first, Peggy and Abe on the orange couch, Abe growing increasingly uncomfortable at the banter about the Playtex campaign – and, more important, about Peggy’s ability to banter lightly and wittily with the boys. Abe is visibly threatened by this, and he’ll spend the rest of the episode controlling Peggy ... inviting/ordering her to the Minetta Tavern at 7, even though Peggy has to work and he knows it, and then tenderly offering her his hand in ... cohabitation. (Peggy does get to say “I do,” but it is only in response to the question of whether she still wants to eat dinner after the proposal.) Whatever home/work arrangement Abe is offering for the future, it’s clear that it’s not going to work for Peggy. One hesitates to agree with Peggy’s mother, who feared that her daughter would be “living in sin” from the moment she moved to Manhattan and who now tells her daughter that she’s just the warmup act for Abe’s eventual wife and family; but Abe has let us know that this partnership will be all about his needs and desires, and despite Joan’s chipper encouragement (“I think you’re brave”), Peggy wouldn’t be so crushed upon her mother’s icy departure if she didn’t fear that her mother is right. Perhaps for Peggy, some things will never change.


Meanwhile, Megan is totally fabulous with extra awesome sauce. The fabulous part is her Heinz brainstorm and her charming, hesitant, compelling pitch to Don, complete with a tag line that’s better than his: “Heinz Beans: some things never change.” It’s brilliant – it combines the nostalgia Don evoked for the Kodak Carousel with the moon Don never managed to give Connie Hilton. And Don is stunned: “my god.” (He will say this once more before the episode is done – when he sees Sally in her outfit for the codfish ball.) He’d opened the scene by dismissing and sexualizing Megan’s request for “a minute,” telling her she can have five if she locks the door, but by the time Megan is done, he’s genuinely impressed and delighted. And after Megan saves the Heinz dinner – not only tipping off her husband that they are about to be fired, but deftly coaxing him into making the pitch as if it were all his idea – Don is in love as we’ve never seen him before. “You’re good at all of it,” he breathes to her as they tumble into the back of a cab after the deal has been consummated. But there is no way they can consummate their evening at home with the kids and in-laws, so ... what else? They head back to the office for late-evening sex.

Earlier in the day, when Roger strode into Don’s office and saw Don and Megan redoing the Heinz campaign, he quipped, “Oh! You two are actually working!” Yes, they were. Don was no longer on what Cooper had called “love leave” – and everything about their relationship is working. Gone are the elaborate sex/office games of “A Little Kiss,” the season’s premiere; gone is the corrosive drama of “Far Away Places,” where their work/romance relationship was twisted by Don into something dark (and yet strangely orange!). Last week, Lauren asked if Don could ever consider Megan a colleague like Peggy. This week, the answer is yes, and then some: for a moment, it looks as if this marriage can really be a working partnership after all, complete with a romantic interlude in the office after hours. And Megan is the only woman at the Heinz dinner not shushed by her husband....

Because ultimately, that’s her father’s job – to shush her, to take her brilliant PR work at the Heinz dinner and reduce it to a “big bean success.” At the moment, we don’t know enough about Emile to know whether his disappointment in his daughter is sincere: it may be that he truly believes she has given up, chosen a life of unearned luxury over the life of struggle in pursuit of her dreams (and these would involve acting, we presume? or something else?).  Or it may be that he is a bitter, pompous, financially comfortable old man who hides his misogyny and his anger behind a veneer of leftist clichés. My money’s on the latter. Megan is a fine actress: she has already played all the roles, from unflappable mom to smoldering sex kitten, necessary to land Don and keep him at her side; now at the Heinz dinner she has demonstrated a talent for improv, and for inspired lying, that would make any performer proud – or any fiction writer.

Emile’s response to Pete’s explanation-by-performance of what an accounts manager does all day has tipped us off that Emile, like anyone who’s just gotten a manuscript rejected, is susceptible to a little simple flattery. And Emile’s remark at the outset – that Don’s manners are “studied” – lets us know that his brand of leftism does not prevent him from inhabiting the position of the aristocrat who can sneer at the arriviste. So I’m reading Emile skeptically for now. But we do know this much: for some reason, Megan couldn’t fully inhabit her smashing success with the Heinz pitch, much to Peggy’s puzzlement. Surely Emile is that reason. For Megan, apparently, some things never change.

So Peggy’s narrative gives us a tense home/work relation we know is not going to work for her; we already know that patriarchy isn’t working out for her in general, as her mother’s “three cats and then you’re done” life plan for spinsterhood reminds her that for traditionalists, there is no legitimate form of coupledom outside of marriage. Megan’s narrative seems to be an unqualified home/work triumph that wins the heart – and the respect – of her husband, but turns out to be a prelude to her deflation by her father, who seems driven to direct vitriol at the women in his life (and to sob over the phone to his latest mistress, a graduate student). Joan, meanwhile, reminds Peggy that the marriage license can be trumped by other pieces of paper; indeed, the last time we saw Greg, Joan was ordering him out of her life and reminding him that he had raped her in the Sterling Cooper offices. And Marie ... Marie drinks herself into oblivion in her first scene, and goes down on Roger as payback for Emile’s affair in her last. Marie’s only pleasure seems to come from her repartée with Roger, who has become only more charming – and grounded! – after his acid trip.


That leaves Sally ... and her shining moment as the princess of the ball. No sooner does she appear in her new outfit than Emile reminds Don that “your little girl will spread her legs and fly away,” hiding the vicious barb behind the assurance that it will be written off as a non-native speaker’s misunderstanding of the idiom. (It is. But Don knows very well where it’s aimed, and of course Roger laughs.) Clearly something is fishy about this ball. There’s no staircase, Sally notices. The princes are captains of industry; over there, Roger points out, is the head of Dow Corning: “they make beautiful dishes, glassware, napalm.” The entree turns Sally’s stomach. But the after-dinner trip to the bathroom is worse.

Sally had begun the evening in go-go boots and makeup. Her father nixed those, later assuring her that someday she will wear makeup – but not tonight. But by the end of the evening, when Sally has reported to Glenn that the city is “dirty,” one imagines that she is somewhat less eager to take her assigned place in the sexual economy of adolescence and adulthood.


As for the SCDP backdrop: Roger too has romantic hopes for the ball, long before he meets Marie. As he tells Don, “you’re going to be an Italian bride – people are going to be lining up to give you envelopes.” His own role, he thinks, will involve more labor than love: “we are being lowered in a bucket into a gold mine – I’m going to bring my ice pick and crack something off the wall.” Alas, the wall is uncrackable, as Ed Baxter explains to a crestfallen Don – no one here will work with him after what he did to Lucky Strike. They won’t marry him, they won’t cohabit with him, they won’t even date him. It’s a matter of trust, you see.


And so our narratives of home and work do bring us a big bean success. But the final tableau is one not merely of deflation but of complete devastation: Emile, Marie, Megan, Don, Sally, each more crushed than the other. Across town, Peggy cries in the hallway. The city is dirty, the spirit is crushed, the game is rigged. But tomorrow morning we will wake up and play it anyway, because some things never change.

22 comments

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22 comments:

Unit for Criticism said...

Welcome to Kritik. We welcome comments from "anonymous" commentators but ask that you please "sign" your comment with a made-up name or initials so that we do not end up with several anonymous comments in the same discussion. Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

As an anonymous fellow person with a Quebecois last name, I too am psyched about the further play that Megan and her family are getting in the series--even if this means her pretentious father gets to veil his misogyny in would-be leftism, as Michael Berube rightly points out. In reference to Lauren's comment about collegiality and whether Megan will get to be a Peggy to Don, however, I think that her father's would-be leftism calls attention to how the more legitimate left criticism of Megan ought to come from Peggy--and Joan. In fact, it already has,albeit behind closed doors: Joan points out, after the marriage announcement, that Don is certain to promote Megan to something like Peggy's position, just because he's sleeping with her--and, he does. And, whereas Don criticizes Peggy for using "everything" he has "given" her as an "opportunity" for advancement in the workplace--including Peggy's claiming of credit for ideas Don has used in ads (the "Glo-Coat" ad and award)--Megan's position deftly proves that the collegiality game is "rigged" in favor of a wife (rather than a single female colleague), who will be granted opportunities in the workplace that the single female colleague had to tediously wait and go begging for (office space,an assistant). Her father's misogyny unintentionally hits one accurate mark: Megan's love for Don allows her to avoid acknowledging the wealth AND workplace opportunities she receives, as his wife but also as a more cultured, college-educated and artfully deferential version of Peggy. As the celebration over Heinz indicates, Megan will be given public credit and acknowledgment, because she makes open collegiality with a woman agreeable to Don, as his wife; she gives him credit for the idea she came up with, in exchange for getting points for her PR skills--just the sort of skills that Peggy lacks, as in her unintentionally hilarious shouting at the Heinz-guy about how nobody can say anything as beautiful as a campfire about beans. Just on a sidenote: I find it interesting, too, that in the development of "Stan the office asshole" as a character, he's the one man in the office unphased by Megan's beauty (he calls her Jethro, which I guess is in reference to her teeth). As the Team Peggy and Team Megan sides evolve, in terms of the series' treatment of workplace advancement for women as colleagues, I actually prefer the idea of Stan, and the new guy "from Mars" whom Peggy just hired, as Peggy's grudging allies, against the Don and Megan team.

cindy said...

On the subject of things never changing I find Sally to be a particularly fascinating character because we can get a peek at how all these disillusioned people may have appeared at an earlier time in their lives. At times wide eyed and innocent still, Sally is clearly in the process, on the cusp if you will, of becoming "dirty." As Michael points out she is already manipulative enough to blame her brother's toy for Bluto's fall. Roger playfully treats her as an adolescent in training.The final proof of the limitations of the adults who inhabit her environs is her accidental viewing of Marie's liaison with Roger. The experience is part of her coming of age. It shakes her as she bears witness to the hypocrisy of the Codfish Ball. We see her soaking up the life around her like a sponge. Like the fish on her plate, it stinks.
What MM does so elegantly is to allow us to meet the parents of all its important characters so that we may understand exactly why they have to struggle to survive. In this episode Peggy's mother and Megan's parents take center stage as paragons of what not to be as parents. They undermine their children's ability to feel safe, to feel hopeful, to be content or proud of their accomplishments. Instead we are provided with the replacement vision of Sally's spreading wings with Sally's spreading legs.In past episodes as the parents of the other major characters made their appearance we were similarly informed.
We have heard discussed before, in this exchange " the compulsion to repeat" and with Michael's observation that nothing changes we are seeing the repetition borne out.

Lauren said...

Great post, Michael and some v. interesting comments as well. A colleague who likes to "lurk" (do people still say that?) is curious whether you think the characterization of Emile as a Fr-Canadian socialist is realistic. We both agreed that socialists would be around in greater numbers in many places so that Canadianness was not necessarily being adduced as the basis for this character's politics. But the colleague felt pretty certain that in this and in several other respects, Megan's Fr-Canadian family was telegraphing "French" rather than "Canadian" to an extent far greater than is warranted. Thoughts?

Michael Bérubé said...

First of all, I want to point out that “anonymous” is not a Quebecois name. More seriously: I don’t have a dog in the Don-Megan / Peggy-Stan-Ginsberg opposition, but I do want to point out that Megan’s advantages are a bunch of double-edged swords. Yes, Peggy and Joan are right at the outset– of course Megan leapfrogs the office hierarchy as Don’s wife ("there have to be some advantages..." from last week's episode...). But until Megan comes up with the Heinz idea, she isn’t taken seriously; remember, she has to say, “no, pervert, this is about work” before launching into her pitch, and even when Don says “my god– come over here,” she has to reply, “no, I don’t want to change the subject.” She constantly has to negotiate the roles she’s played so far– this week, and last week, that negotiation has meant insisting that her work be taken seriously. She didn’t want to be pulled off Heinz for a cozy lovers’ weekend at HoJo, and she doesn’t want five minutes on Don’s couch– just one minute as a creative. Likewise, the way she claims and doesn’t claim credit involves very fine negotiations: at first she worries that Stan and Ginsberg will hate her for changing the Heinz campaign at the last second, and asks Don to take credit for the idea. When Don asks incredulously if she really wants to do that, her unfeigned, toothy “no” is really quite charming. (Think also of Stan questioning whether it really was her idea ... as he admits that it's better than anything they've had so far.) And yet at dinner, she knows that she will have no credibility with Raymond Heinz except as a server of beans– and Don, crediting her with the moon idea, is actually being rather gracious in context. All in all, yes, Megan has enormous advantages– but those advantages detract from her credibility. Until now.

Cindy, thanks for linking my post to the theme of repetition compulsion! I wrote it before reading Lauren’s post from last week (didn’t want to be unduly influenced, yknow), but I think this week’s “some things never change” picks up quite nicely from the remarks of Jane’s psychologist friend. And thanks for linking my post to the theme of repetition compulsion!

Lauren, I admit to some ignorance here– I have never been asked to serve as a judge of French-Canadian mimesis. I think the Calvets are read as French– think of Don brushing off Marie’s touching him at dinner (“six times,” Megan says; “she’s French,” Don replies; “that’s not what that’s about,” Megan insists), and of course Emile is your generic stuffed-shirt Left Bank leftist professor, straight from central casting. But I will add this: you know what’s going on in Quebec during this time? The Quiet Revolution. Quiet as it’s kept, the Quiet Revolution was ... quiet. But somehow, between 1950ish and 1970ish, Quebec was transformed from a backward, medieval, Catholic-traditionalist (the term “priest-ridden” comes to mind) province to the most hip, modern, secular place in the Great White North. How did that happen? No one knows. The Quiet people aren’t talking. I have been trying to patent the process and import it to the US, but with no success thus far. Point is, it’s entirely possible that socialist, philandering French-Canadian professors had their part to play....

John M said...

Nice summary. I'd been wondering too -- as we have over at the Guardian -- about the Frenchness of the Calvets and was going to ask you. Someone there pointed out that when Megan first spoke, she said her mother was French.

A simple interpretive, ah, hook regarding the title: Roger gets Sally a Shirley Temple kiddy cocktail (grenadine and 7-Up). The Codfish Ball is an old Shirley Temple number. So, not just fishy, but cod, ergo, ersatz. The American Cancer dinner is the embodiment of Oscar Wilde's old objection to charity: it is immoral to use the proceeds of private property to correct the horrible ills created by private property. And it's the fulfilment of Bert's remark in The Gold Violin back in S2: 'Philanthropy is the gateway to power.' You use the money from making napalm and cars to make yourself look like a saint without whom society cannot do, a tradition that, as Zizek and others have pointed out, goes back at least to Andrew Carnegie. That's what's really dirty about Sally's experience.

Jez B. said...

Funny and smart blog and good comments as always. I felt sorry for Megan; she may be good at it and her father may be mean but there was something else going on when Peggy tried to be nice and congratulate her. The father was only part of it IMO.

Helena said...

John M, to repeat myself a little from our Guardian blog, Roger's dating game with Sally also introduced her to that world, telling her who is who and how it all works. Some might see that as a social advantage but others as a kind of corruption.

There was a program on BBC Radio 4 on how to make business more sustainable and still advertise without encouraging over consumption - not entirely convincing One of the examples was just like Peggy's Topaz ad about only needing one pair.

cindy said...

I was struck with how nice the women were to each other in this episode. Peggy could have been jealous and mean spirited (as Megan expected her to be). Instead she was happy for her. She was able to identify with Megan's success as a reminder of her own. Maybe it was hard for Megan to accept because, as she points out to Don, her mother is so competitive.
Joan was especially nice to Peggy in refusing to be critical of Abe's invitation to live together rather than propose marriage. I was proud of Peggy and Joan. Their behavior was admirable.

zina said...

Two older women are indicating to Megan alternative futures : Lady Heinz, a good work wife who plays perfectly the woman behind the great man; Mama Calvet, the bad work wife who thinks that the man is not that great, fights and takes sexual revenge. At dinner, Megan performs number one. We know however that she has been fighting (dirty) with Don even during their honeymoon; sexual revenge may be yet to come.

Two women defined by their men. And then there is Peggy, who has struggled and will have to keep struggling to define who she is all the way, but still seems happier than Megan, even on the day of her success.

After the disastrous campfire presentation, Stan told Peggy that she was surprising to him, because women are usually pleasers. Well, Megan is a pleaser. She pleases both Mr Heinz (who wanted to hear Don sell him a campaign, not some "little girl" as Bert said), and Don, who can take some credit for landing the account and justify his corner office. BTW Don has still done nothing for the firm this season (except scaring clients away, according to Ken's FIL).

Megan is conflicted as to her ambitions (included the mysterious one mentioned by her father); she may feel deflected because her success is in the end essentially a wifely success, and she used to dream of more. Some things never change, indeed.

Helena said...

Another thought about the cancer dinner. When Don and Roger are discussing it beforehand, Roger talks about how no one knows why people do good things and makes the hilarious point that perhaps Jesus was pitching for the bread and fishes account (more fish). It seems they are incapable of imagining doing something for selfless reasons, that everything is a business opportunity (remember that ghastly funeral a while back).

John M said...

Helena, yes, I had a chat with a friend once about the idea of an ethical ad agency. We ended up agreeing it was as impossible as overcoming the laws of thermodynamics. This episode was a good indicator of why.

cindy, the kindness of the various women to one another, was, I thought, motherly. There was a sort of chain of mothering, from Joan to Peggy to Megan to Sally, which was paralleled by the generational chain in Megan's ad concept. Perhaps, however, part of the problematisation of the heavily sugar-coated concept is that relations with real mothers in the episode are not nearly so sweet.

Michael Bérubé said...

John M -- yes, couldn't agree more that that's what's so dirty about Sally's experience. And with the mention of napalm, we're not in Andrew Carnegie territory so much as Shaw's Major Barbara....

Helena said...

And these same 'philanthropists' are, we know, exerting their pressure on governments. Mad Men hasn't been too involved with politics although we can be sure that there are political fund raisers to go to as well as award ceremonies, if there's any real difference between the two.

John M said...

Michael, have never read or seen that play, which is odd because the nefariousness of the arms industry is a longstanding obsession. Wikipedia parlays this interesting piece of information:

Shaw wrote a preface for the play's publication, in which he derided the idea that charities should only take money from "morally pure" sources. He points out that donations can always be used for good, whatever their provenance, and he quotes a Salvation Army officer, "they would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God's".

So Shaw's view was diametrically opposed to Wilde's.

Helena, Bert was talking about a Nixon comeback episode before last. Nixon suddenly got very media savvy for his comeback Presidential run. Could be a taste of things to come, SCDP supporting the campaign of what will turn out to be one of the dirtiest presidents in history.

Lauren said...

Such interesting comments: I wish I could pause to say more but I am just stopping in to remind you that SC already supported Nixon (in Season 1) during his failed race against Kennedy in 1960.

Lauren said...

PS Arms-wise wasn't the company that wanted to do the background check on Don some kind of defense industry outfit (began with an N and may actually have been a real company). If so that contact allegedly went back to end of S2 when D. left P. at poolside in So Cal.

John M said...

Thanks, Lauren. I remember it well. Am currently reading Rick Perlstein's brilliant Nixonland, which is really a book about the sixties, so a great companion to MM.

John M said...

Ah, we cross-posted.

Yes, Don and Pete had gone out to LA because of the numerous aerospace companies setting up out there and it was one of them, though I can't recall the name. I guess if background security checks are the order of the day, it may be a blessing in disguise for Don that he can't get signed by Dow. Besides, give it a couple of years and Dow's ad agency will probably be being firebombed by hippy protesters.

Helena said...

The arms company account became a problem for Don in 4.10. Pete had finally won North American Aviation but Don had a panic attack over the security check. His way out was to tell Pete to dump NAA with the excuse that 'we want Martin Marietta or Hughes'. It was said so fast by Don that I remember having to listen to the clip several times, just like Ken's reference to the Fair Packaging Act that I've been nagging about on the Guardian blog this week. I love the way MW hides these Easter egg lines, often only a sentence.

mrs. harris (the mother) said...

thank you for a good summary. have nothing to add, other than I consider it was a grave mistake on the part of the episode creators to invite for the role of a dysfunctional family's mother such a grand dame as Julia Ormond. She stole the show. She did not give an appearance of a desperate housewife at all... rather intensified Bunuelesque's sense of travesty and grotesque of the situation...

with respect

Lauren said...

Thank you Helena for that useful refresher. (And thanks also to zina for your comments which are always so much fun to read!)

I confess that I did not love the panic attack of 4.10 and am very happy to see Don's Batman plot--which AFAIC reached a beautiful conclusion at the end of S3--given a rest this year.

Mrs. Harris (are you often mistaken for the fille btw)--I know what you mean about Ormond and, yes, definitely most Bunuelesuqe. Though given that Sally always steals the show (this time sharing the honor with Marie, to be sure) I'm not sure the effect wasn't desired. I don't think Marie is supposed to be desperate (mind you, I may be missing your reference since I've never seen the television show you might be referring to). I don't get the feeling this is a new kind of situation for her: she seems quite settled in her ways, down to the end of her cigarette ash. She may go up in smoke one day but if so she'll die by the sword she lived by.

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