Monday, April 30, 2012

Parents and Children

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Seven, "At the Codfish Ball"

I didn't know what "codfish ball" referred to. A Bing search revealed that it's the title of a song Shirley Temple sang in a movie about a poor orphan who finds out she's really a rich child; the identity she thought was hers turns out to be false. The lyrics are goofy, sort of Shel Silverstein-ish, about the large variety of fish who are dancing at the bottom of the sea. The song ends with the comment that "there won't be a hook in sight" at the codfish ball. Like the Mad Men characters, these fish are dancing away in their own worlds, unaware of what's above the surface where those fishing boats are lurking, ready to drop the hooks at any moment. The closing image of the Cancer Society dinner was fabulous and chilling with the line-up at the table of Megan's father, her mother, Megan, Don, and Sally: all of them having just had an encounter that challenges their identity and/or perception of their world, sitting so close together and yet each seeming an island to him or herself. The "hook" has struck; the psychic puncture wounds are clear on their faces. In these and in other challenging encounters of the episode, the "hook" comes from parent (or parent-type figure) to child. And, it's left to the quickly growing and maturing adolescent, Sally, to be able to articulate what's wrong with the sea in which these people swim: "it's dirty." Her closing line--and the last word of this installment--refers not just to the illicit sex scene she walks in on between Roger--her father's friend/partner--and her step-grandmother, but also to the manipulations, deceits, and layers of behind-one's-back maneuverings that make up this grown-up world she's entered for the evening. Don wanted to keep her from growing up too fast by making her remove the make-up she had on before the dinner. But, the very event itself caused an awareness and a growing up more profound than that represented by make-up. And, the only person she has with whom to process it all is the creepy Glenn: two kids trying to make meaning out of the crazy world their too-often neglectful, preoccupied parents and other adults have made for them. During the last episode in which Sally appeared, she was left on her own to try to figure out what a mass murder/sexual assault of eight women meant; this time, she has to figure out what the often-narcissistic misbehavior of the adults in her world means.

What I liked most about this episode was the shift in Don's and Megan's relationship. While last week, Don was the authoritarian, verging-on-violent, older husband to a very-young-in-some-scenes Megan, this week they became equals: both as creative copy-writers and as insecure children looking for the approval of her parents. I've been wondering if Megan has any talent or just had dreams and the ability to sleep/marry her way into the job opportunity she was granted. Turns out she not only has the seeds of good ideas in her head, but also the ability, timing, and political savvy to sell them. Don clearly didn't know if she had talent either, since he seemed pretty surprised when she expressed her concept of the beans campaign. When she offers an alternative tagline, he says, "That's actually better." Later on--after the dinner with Heinz--he tells her, with amazement in his voice, "You're good at all of it!" And, it's a turn-on to him. To his credit, he's not threatened by a wife who shows promise in his own field. It's clearly good for his business and good for their sex life. Yet, Megan is after not just Don's approval, but also that of her parents, particularly her father. And, her intellectually Marxist father doesn't like her husband, his money, or their chosen professions. So, Megan is a bit stuck. At the end, she's pushed by her father to shift her loyalty to his ideals: "This apartment, this wealth that someone gives you. This is what Karl Marx was talking about. And it's not because someone else deserves it. It's because it's bad for your soul." He claims to have hoped she'd follow her dreams and wonders if advertising is really her "passion." These are not unreasonable questions. And Megan clearly needs to figure out what SHE really wants to do, regardless of what these two important men in her life think. Yet, there are a lot of things that are bad for the soul and Megan's father is clearly not one who lives a life of proletarian struggle. Growing up with parents who fight, have affairs, drink to the point of passing out with a lit cigarette in hand, and engage in what appear to be petty sexual one-upmanship exercises to spite the other are not good for a child's soul. Sally and her step-mother apparently have something in common here. Megan's "soul," if you will, has been "hooked" at the end, torn between her father's vision for her, that of Don, and the question of what she herself really wants from life.

For Don, the "hook" comes from the authority figures that sit on the board of the American Cancer Society. They know that he wrote his letter about quitting tobacco for cynical reasons; he knows he wrote it for cynical reasons; yet, as ACS Board members, they give him an award--since on the surface his letter represents their ideals--while at the same time, as individual business people, they withhold their trust and their business from him since they can't trust someone who "bit the hand..." Don is stunned at this "hook." What he thought had saved his business is shown to have limited it. And, the approval that Archie Whitman's son is always searching for--even while Don Draper scorns it--is withheld. He has what turns out to be just another empty award, a talented wife who is questioning her role in his world, and a daughter deeply disillusioned by it all.

Then, there's Peggy--who has long struggled with issues of work and possible marriage/children. It was sad to see her get so excited about a possible marriage proposal. I didn't know how she'd react when Joan brought up that possibility. Likely, she didn't either. She was clearly disappointed, but partly because she, too, as independent as she is, looks for the approval of others like Joan--and of her mother. I ached for her while her mother was chastising her for her choice. Her posture and facial expression were so demoralized. Yet, as much as I dislike her mother, she made some good points in 1966--as Megan's father did to her. Like Megan, Peggy needs to figure out what she really wants to do--beyond what Abe and her mother want from and for her.

And, finally, there's Sally, who is, once again, left on her own to figure out things she shouldn't have to figure out by herself after she--for the second time this season--looks for a bathroom and instead finds grown-ups in a space that isn't for her to see. Don and Megan were at least in their own bedroom and not actually engaged in a sex act when Sally saw her naked step-mother there in the season's first episode. Hedonistic Roger and Megan's mother (who I'm assuming was largely out to spite her husband, but I don't know her character well enough to confidently assert motivation) co-opted what's really a public space for their indulgence. The authority figures here are not behaving like good authority figures and so she's left to turn to Glenn--who still creeps me out. It will be interesting to see how Sally negotiates through her growing up years.

And, finally, though on a somewhat different note, I just have to give a shout-out to Peggy for her congratulations to Megan. It was heartening to see a successful woman supportive of another when so often, on this show, they don't behave that way.

No comments:

Post a Comment