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Mad Men Recap: Oedipal Undertones "At the Codfish Ball"

“At the Codfish Ball” references a Shirley Temple dance number in the movie “Captain January.” The surface story is innocent, a lighthouse keeper saves a small girl from storm and raises her. The story’s subtext, heightened by the premature, creepy coquettishness of Shirley Temple, can be read with an Oedipal tint. Sally attends a ball, tries a cod fish for the first time and drinks Shirley Temples. Like the drink and the actress, she appears more sophisticated but is not quite an adult.

As expected from the title, the episode focuses on queer familial relationships. Those can be horizontal between peers or vertical between parents and children. The episode is best epitomized by Dr. Calvet’s brilliant line: “No matter what, your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.”

Peggy wrestles with her relationship status, which is complicated. Abe schedules a weeknight dinner with her at Minetta Tavern. First, she prepares herself to be dumped. Joan convinces her he’s proposing marriage. Abe offers a proposal (to move in with her), which was not the proposal she anticipated.

She’s still caught in a transition phase, both personally and historically. As seen often this seaon, Peggy transcends the past generation, yet remains a product of it. She got dolled up before dinner, hoping for the traditional certainty and clarity she perceives marriage as providing. She gets thwarted. Joan recasts it for her in a positive light, though Peggy has trouble selling it to herself, let alone her mother.

Peggy tries to land blows, calling up her bigotry and pointing out her closer relationship with her deceased father, but her mother lays her flat, touching on her innermost insecurity. We see a parallel undercutting of Megan by her father.

We meet Megan’s mother who is shattered by her unfulfilling marriage and her husband’s philandering, emotionally and potentially physically, with his graduate student. Jealous and driven to despair, she lashes out at others. She sees her daughter as a threat and flirts with Don. She sees Sally as a threat and goes after Roger. Like Peggy in the movie theater, it’s through taking the purportedly subservient role in a base sex act with a stranger that she assumes some measure of control and independence.

Then there’s Sally who carries on her illicit friendship with Glen over the phone, that is taking on a slightly more adult tone. She has a father/daughter moment with Don where she tries to be Megan to impress her father by wearing the “adult” go-go dancer like outfit and the makeup. She’s also the unfortunate sponge, still being imprinted by everything around her. She wants to be an adult and go to the ball. Adulthood, she finds out, is not quite the romantic pictures she envisioned.

We see unsuccessful partnerships, but we also see successful ones. Roger gets back on his game by reconnecting with his first wife and enlisting her aid to help him get clients. Don – resuming a more proactive role in his work life (reconnecting with pop culture by reading James Bond) and his home life (trying to learn French) – resolves the Heinz debacle but only through Megan’s intervention, both furnishing the commercial idea and saving the account through decisive action.

The episode ends perfectly, with everyone at the dinner table staring forward in collective yet isolated anguish. Then it continues, with an extra scene with Sally calling the city “dirty.” It’s a cheap double entendre, but it’s a sign Sally, once passively assimilating what’s happening around her, is now processing it.

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