Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Television - Mad Men 'At The Codfish Ball' analysis / review


The fifth season of Mad Men, depressingly already halfway through, has centred around the deepening divide between the older and younger generations of the Sixties. Even as the characters divide into factions, picking which side of history they want to side with, 'At The Codfish Ball' suggests that even at the heart of this era-defining conflict, the basic truth is that each really wants the approval of the other, even if neither are prepared to surrender their instinctive beliefs to do so.

The younger generation, with freedom, equality and liberalism as their bywords, would still like to feel that their parents and elders understand why they are championing a new world and building on what was saved for them by those who fought in the not-so-distant World Wars. The older generation would like to see their work in bringing up those children acknowledged, and have their devotion to tradition and social structure respected. Unfortunately, no-one can have everything they want: the grown-ups have to face the fact that their world is a thing of the past. The children may be shaping the future, but will have to do so without the support of those they love.
  
In the midst of this turmoil, the irony is that on some fundamental level, nothing has changed in how parents interact with their offspring. Every generation seeks to make the world their own, and will always be opposed by their parents. At some point in history, some monkey decided to walk on his hind legs and call itself a neanderthal, and was never given another banana-shaped birthday present again. (Note: this probably isn't how evolution actually happened). The quaint campaign devised by Megan Draper posited the opposite, that mothers have and will always be around to feed their children beans, plays into the narrow-minded view of the Heinz executive, who was on the verge of taking his business away from SCDP because Peggy hadn't provided him with the vision of 'youth' he wanted.

Of course, Peggy's pitch was closer to the attributes epitomising the young generation - independence, love, carefree spirit - than he was able to recognise. He only understands the future as some camp concept (space helmets and moon colonies!) rather than an end-point created by genuine ambitions and hopes. He wants to imagine things will basically stay the same, but with different people. Megan has always been forward thinking in her social life, but finds her greatest success at work comes from playing a game devised by old men. She wants to show Don she's more than a pretty face and deserves to work at the company on her own merits. To do so, she has to tap into the thought processes of the people running the show, who are in their fifties and discontent that the rest of the world is not. She and Don have fallen out a few times already over their discordant views, and it's no shock that he's most excited by her when she's offering him a skill he can recognise, rather than singing Zou Bisou Bisou or making her own way home after an argument.

Unfortunately, for all her success at work, she is unable to win the approval of her bitter, Marxist father. He has little time for monied men like Don (whom he separates himself from as much through language as ideology) and sees Megan's marriage as surrender, a break from the thought processes he tried to raise her with, rather than being happy for his daughter marrying a man she loves and enjoying a growing reputation in a career she has chosen for herself. Where the young are driven by unity and love, the elder generation are divided and angry. If Megan pleases Don, she has to suffer cruel jabs from her father. Trying to please her father would mean giving up on the man and job she loves. No surprise to see that white carpet get stained again, a recurring symbol this season for how the things we hope for never quite go as planned.

One of the hardest lessons of youth is understanding that you can't please everyone, and it's better to rely on your own instincts rather than attempting to second guess other people. Megan's pitch for the Heinz account might have been old-school, but her encouraging Don to break the rules by making a last ditch effort to salvage seemingly lost business over dinner was what gave it the chance to be heard. It's interesting how she seems to be the only one unexcited by her coup, judging by her corridor chat with Peggy, who is delighted to have another woman making an impression around the offices. Megan has helped her husband, but her troubles at home remain the same as ever: her parents still argue, her father remains disapproving, and her co-workers talk about her as though she's getting favourable treatment. Her work victory will be short-lived, but her personal problems cannot be solved with a single solution.

Peggy is also caught in the crossfire between traditions laid down by her parents and her own desire for a more fulfilling life. Having been raised in a fiercely religious family, some desires for a traditional lifestyle still mean a lot to her. For all her pioneering work at SCDP, last week's fight with Abe reminded her that having a man in her life still meant a lot to her. When Joan convinces her that he is about to propose, she realises how thrilled she is at the idea and immediately rushes out to buy a new dress for the big moment. Unfortunately, his proposal is for them to move in together, which by her mother's definition means living in sin.

It's not what Peggy wants either, even though she accepts: her response ('I do') when asked if she still wants to eat is her trying to reconcile the matrimonial fantasy in her head with the controversial future she has just accepted. It's as good as a marriage, she tells herself, only can't quite believe it. She wants her mother to be proud of her, and to have all the things she was told she should want. Her uneasy relationship with traditional concepts of femininity has been uneasy since we first met her, right down to the initial antagonism with the all-womanly Joan Holloway.

Since Joan's marriage went askew (with Greg first going to Vietnam, then getting ditched after deciding to go back), the two have had something in common and become friends. After Peggy's mother gives a nasty little speech suggesting Abe is using Peggy for 'practice', Peggy immediately seeks out Joan's consolation. Both characters would, on some level, like to feel appreciated by their elders (Joan's mother was as unimpressed with her daughter's decision to live as a single parent as Peggy's was with the idea of an unmarried couple living together), but their world isn't spinning that way. They have to find out what matters to them, and fight for it even when it means breaking familial ties.

Poor Sally Draper, meanwhile, had to learn the most difficult lesson of all. Her day started off well, with the literal downfall of her elder guardian, but every attempt to win the approval of her elders was met with disappointment. She convinces Don to let her tag along to his awards ceremony and picks out an outfit for the occasion, only to be told to go and change when she attempts to dress like an adult. Don promises her she'll be able to wear make-up 'one day', although seems unaware that she's already enjoying secret chats with Bobby (her forbidden best friend) and becoming increasingly aware of the world around her.

She wants to be treated as an equal, but her father, much as he loves her, isn't ready to give her that freedom yet. In Roger, she finds someone who does talk to her as a friend and asks that she be his 'date' for the evening, then is subject to the shocking revelation that there's a big difference between what Roger tells her he wants and what he really wants. (Wonderful chemistry between John Slattery and Kiernan Shipka though). She wants to be an adult until she sees what that really means, and her closing line to Bobby on the phone was a funny, but at the same time sad, evocation of how a part of her innocence has been shattered by her peek through the door into adulthood. She's too young to see what she saw, but too old to want to be treated like a child. She's in desperate need of a good role model, and no-one she turns to - Don, Roger, certainly not the long-absent Betty - seem ready to give her the balance she needs.

The dinner didn't go any better for anyone else at the awards banquet: the newspaper ad Don put out after the defection of the Lucky Strike account might have won his agency a prestigious award from the American Cancer Society and the respect of its peers, but none of them will ever work with him for fear of being subjected to a similar humiliation tactic. The appreciation he so clearly enjoyed is worthless because the people whose business he was hoping to win on the back of his courting of the Cancer Society are too rooted in archaic ways of thinking to appreciate the brilliance of the letter, or how Don has positioned his company on the winning side of a battle that will soon see cigarettes tarred (pun intended) with a deeply unfavourable image.

Megan's Marxist father, Emile, meanwhile has the misfortune of encountering Pete Campbell, who tricks him into believing his ridiculous views and intellectual pretensions have been recognised by a member of the younger generation. It's a double sting for Emile because not only is he made to look the gullible fool he is by someone he evidently deems his intellectual inferior, but his desire for approval is left completely exposed.

No surprise he takes out his anger on Megan once she rejoins the table. His publisher doesn't want him, he's forced to watch a congratulatory ceremony for a man he despises, his wife is away giving Roger a blow-job, and his snide attitude towards Pete only resulted in his own embarrassment. Shaming Megan is the last card he has left to play, but in the end, all it does is further broaden the rift between them. The sight of Megan's parents, Don, Megan and Sally sitting silently around the table, all disillusioned in their quests for the approval of generations above or below them, was an unsubtle but perfect mirror to the idea that no matter how times change, it's those kinds of misunderstandings and conflicts which will still be on the family plate in years to come. Beans, not so much.

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