Tuned In

Mad Men Character Study: The Education of Sally Draper

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Michael Yarish/AMC

Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka)

Is it possible that Sally Draper is the secret protagonist of Mad Men? Her dad and his associates get more screen time, and they’ve done plenty to keep our attention this season. But it’s not uncommon for stories of the ’60s to be told from the perspective of the Baby Boomer kids who lived them–see The Wonder Years, e.g.–and though Matthew Weiner himself was born in 1965, a year late for the Boom, she’s arguably the character who’s closest to representing his generational perspective in the show. (Baby Gene just can’t carry that kind of narrative weight yet.)

At the least, it’s always an interesting shift in perspective when we get a Sally-centric episode. If season 5 so far has been largely about characters getting what they want yet not being happy, or almost getting what they want and therefore being miserable, Sally’s experience in “At the Codfish Ball” was more like getting a glimpse of what you want–in this case, the glamour of adulthood–and finding out that it’s creepy, grotesque and corrupt.

Throughout the series, Weiner has used Sally to present a dark but believable view of growing up, as the gradual revelation of the world’s mystery, horror and shame. This goes back before this season: Betty and Don’s breakup seems to hit Sally hardest of all, and even before that, her antennae seem finely attuned to the bad vibes in the air at home. She has ugly battles with her mother Betty, even though (or because) in some ways they’re deeply alike. (Both, for instance, develop a kind of connection with the creepy Glen, who breaks into the Draper home but leaves Sally’s room unscathed in a Christmastime episode.)

It feels as though Betty in particular uses Sally as a way of externalizing and projecting her own issues and shame; she sends Sally to therapy in season 4 as treatment/punishment for an incident in which she’s caught masturbating at a friend’s house. Don, meanwhile, is a beloved but distant figure whom she has to court, before and after the divorce. (There are a number of scenes where she essentially tries to play housewife to him, whether it’s learning to muddle an Old-Fashioned or accidentally improving on French toast by replacing the syrup with rum.)

Betty has been less present this season because of January Jones’ pregnancy, but in a way that accident of scheduling has underscored how adrift Sally is. She’s like a foundling, being raised largely by a step-grandmother she hates, and increasingly rudderless. (When grandma injures herself tripping over Sally’s phone cord, Sally easily shifts blame to Baby Gene.) But she’s also getting older, which is where “At the Codfish Ball” comes in. She’s spent her life in a context where only adults really matter. Now she’s so close she can almost touch it—to the glittery grown-up life where she can be beautiful, empowered, worthy of attention.

And it turns out, adulthood is disgusting.

Like a lot of Mad Men episodes this season, “Codfish Ball” hits that theme multiple times, just to make sure it sticks. (The storytelling this season has been powerful and confident, but sometimes a little overengineered.) But it does so with fantastic, memorable images, like Sally showing off in the Nancy Sinatra outfit Megan bought her—which, not unlike Megan’s “Zou Bisou” performance, wows the room and horrifies Don. As in a lot of things involving adolescence, the dress-up is about testing the borderline between childhood and sexuality, and the makeup and boots cross a little too far for Dad’s comfort. (Don’s new father-in-law Emile delightfully makes the subtext into text by saying that the time is coming when Sally must “spread her legs and fly away.”)

Still: so far, so good; Sally cleans up, dresses down a bit, and gets to go off on a delightful pretend-date with the charming Roger Sterling. Roger gets women—in more ways than one—and he sees that what Sally needs here is a night of Shirley-Temple practice adulthood, while he needs a partner in crime for his attempts to drum up business.

But then things start to go awry: a little, and then a lot. First, Roger goes AWOL for the entree, which—after we were told Sally doesn’t like fish—turns out to be a glistening dead cod with its head attached. Seriously, oh my God that fish—it’s like something from a Freudian dream or a Buñuel movie, summing up everything that’s corporeal, horrifying and gross about real-as-opposed-to-play adulthood, on one slimy plate.

The entree, though, turns out to be only the appetizer. After Roger excuses himself with Megan’s mother, Sally leaves for the bathroom, and even if (like Mrs. Tuned In) you saw the next scene coming a Canadian-football-field away, it’s just as unsettling. I’m not going to use a euphemism, because a tween girl opening that door doesn’t see a euphemism: she sees, as the physical end result of all the play flirtation she got to experience with Roger, a middle-aged lady with an old man’s penis in her mouth.

The scene itself recalls Sally’s very first scene in season five: walking down the unfamiliar hall of her dad’s new apartment, opening a door to see his new wife, the bedsheets artfully revealing the small of her back. But even that introduction to adult sex was aestheticized and in its way sexy. This, man: it’s a dead fish on a plate.

Kiernan Shipka does a great job here as she has throughout the series, especially since much of her work consists of reacting to what she’s seeing. But she manages to show us so much of Sally’s disillusion and determination—and really, bravery, because what Sally has to do is try to negotiate her way into adolescence either alone or with questionable adult guidance. (Worried about sexual predators and a crazy world? Here, honey, have a Seconal!)

Sally ends “Codfish Ball” somewhere exactly on the cusp between childhood and adolescence: she’s child enough to be mortified by sex (her phone buddy Glen is farther along on that subject than she is, making their phone calls another kind of practice relationship for her), but adolescent enough to be disappointed in all the adult phonies around her. The episode ends on her one-word summary of the city—”Dirty”—but I don’t know if it’s a rejection. Where else is she going to go, if not ahead into the grown-up land of makeup and fish heads? It’s a dirty world. But it’s the only one Sally’s got.

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