We know before the episode airs that “the Codfish Ball” is a Shirley Temple dance number from 1936. But there are other, earlier references to fish dancing undersea:
“This evening we are going to have a court ball.” It is one of those splendid sights which we can never see on earth. The walls and the ceiling of the large ball-room were of thick, but transparent crystal. Many hundreds of colossal shells, some of a deep red, others of a grass green, stood on each side in rows, with blue fire in them, which lighted up the whole saloon, and shone through the walls, so that the sea was also illuminated. Innumerable fishes, great and small, swam past the crystal walls; on some of them the scales glowed with a purple brilliancy, and on others they shone like silver and gold. Through the halls flowed a broad stream, and in it danced the mermen and the mermaids to the music of their own sweet singing.
— The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (1836).
With the episode’s title referring to fish dancing in a ball-room, is it not hard to think of Sally as the little mermaid? In this case her love object is not a prince but her date, Roger. She enters the living room with a proud “Good evening everyone” and all the adults are taken aback and compliment her on her beautiful attire.
In a parallel scene from The Little Mermaid:
At last she reached her fifteenth year. “Well, now, you are grown up,” said the old dowager, her grandmother; “so you must let me adorn you like your other sisters;” and she placed a wreath of white lilies in her hair, and every flower leaf was half a pearl. Then the old lady ordered eight great oysters to attach themselves to the tail of the princess to show her high rank.
The concept of an undersea world is as old as mythology itself. We all know about Atlantis and Donovan’s haunting song from 1968. There are other sources like the magical order Dragon Rouge who believe the undersea world represents the dark side or subconscious. They have a magic symbol, the Clavicula Noctis, or key to the night. Of it they say “it is composed by Atlantis symbol – a trident placed into a circle. The trident, symbol of Neptune, Shiva and also devil, symbolise unconsciousness, the circle represent consciousness. Clavicula Noctis is a symbol which means process of turning unconsciousness into a consciousness. It is a psychological meaning of Atlantis myths.”
If there are no coincidences it Matt Weiner’s universe, what is he trying to tell us with this undersea motif?
When Shirley Temple performed her dance number, she was tiptoeing between more than Buddy Ebsen’s dance shoes. She presented a delicate balance of childlike innocence and a Lolita-like image. In a post appearing on IMDB.com, Vanessa Berben writes of that scene and the eponymous MM episode, “At the Codfish Ball (is) not so much a nod to the actual movie but more an allusion to the drama behind the scenes. After the film’s release, critic and novelist Graham Greene wrote a scathing review of Temple, suggesting that her popularity stemmed from her pedophilic appeal.
“Drawing on Temple’s past roles (especially Charles Lamont’s 1932-33 satirical series Baby Berlesks where a 3-year-old Temple plays sexualized characters under the guise of “It’s cute to use toddlers to make fun of adult-stars”) he found Captain January ‘a little depraved,’ saying she had ‘an oddly precocious body as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s.’ Temple was only eight when Greene made these statements, and in 1938 he found himself embroiled in a lawsuit with Fox and the Temple family.”
Another site makes the connection between mermaids and sexuality: “The mermaid/siren symbol was used by the Medieval Church as embodying the lure of fleshy pleasures to be shunned by the God-fearing. The mermaid became a victim of the repressive sexual attitudes of the Christian Church. Mermaid carvings figured prominently in church decorations in the Middle Ages to symbolically serve as a vivid reminder of the fatal temptations of the flesh.”
Sally is approaching the threshold of adulthood with her party clothes and makeup, but Don sees this and makes her remove both. (Notice how often boots and shoes carry heavy meaning in children’s stories: Cinderella, the Old Woman in the Shoe, Dorothy’s red slippers.) “Take off the makeup and the boots” Don admonishes, “or you can stay home.” Dad clips Sally’s legs to prevent her from flying away.
At the banquet the actual scene does not match her fairy-tale imagination. Roger points out that there is a handsome prince as Pete approaches, then quashes it with a “Nah.” Sally asks who the other guests are and Roger gives her the run-down. He adds, “Where’s your purse? You’re going to be my date.” and instructs her to store all the business cards he gives her in her purse and reinforce his hunting with a “Go get ‘em tiger.” In true Sterling fashion, Roger creates a conspiracy between the two of them. Sally is part of the team and again moves towards full, if bootless, adulthood.
The Little Mermaid:
“When you have reached your fifteenth year,” said the grand-mother, “you will have permission to rise up out of the sea, to sit on the rocks in the moonlight, while the great ships are sailing by; and then you will see both forests and towns.”
When the sisters rose, arm-in-arm, through the water in this way, their youngest sister would stand quite alone, looking after them, ready to cry, only that the mermaids have no tears, and therefore they suffer more. “Oh, were I but fifteen years old,” said she: “I know that I shall love the world up there, and all the people who live in it.”
The little mermaid swam close to the cabin windows; and now and then, as the waves lifted her up, she could look in through clear glass window-panes, and see a number of well-dressed people within.
Of course Sally is not fifteen yet but her desire to belong is clear, as in this snappy dialogue:
Roger: Oooh, Baked Alaska! Isn’t flaming, but they probably don’t want to wreck the speeches.
Sally: You’re wrecking the speeches.
Roger: You’re a mean drunk you know that? Shouldn’t I be at his side?
Sally: Go get ‘em, tiger.
But like the Little Mermaid and the Prince, Sally and Roger inhabit different worlds and as much as she wants to, Sally cannot cross over. When Roger disappears with Marie, they go somewhere Sally cannot follow. When she stumbles through those double doors, she realizes this.