Mad Men: season 5, episode 3

Oh Betty (and why Jon Hamm shouldn't be allowed to direct again)

Let’s blame it on Jon Hamm. The second episode in the series was the first to be directed by the show’s lead actor. It was also the first to be shot, so perhaps nerves played a part. Either way, I only dare whisper, it wasn’t that good.

We knew it was going to be Betty’s episode from the pre-credit flashbacks (“Laaaast week on Mad Men”). There she was in the fourth series, the Grace Kelly lookalike, a cold-hearted mother-from-hell, sylph-like and beautiful, and here she is now – her children struggling (and failing) to zip her into a dress. Betty is fat. The impossible has happened. And my, did the show tell us a hundred different ways. We see Betty eating crisps, we see Betty’s fat mother-in-law tell her to get herself in shape, we see Betty’s even fatter and highly unrealistic body double clamber out of a bath. I don’t know if it was the bad fake fat they loaded on to her face - her features were sandwiched in prosthetic - or the frequent mentions of the fact that she is fat, or Henry Francis’s plaintive cries that he doesn’t notice the fat, but the fat theme seemed too un-Mad Men in its obviousness and the way we were asked to gawp at Betty shovelling ice cream into her pillowy face (having just gazed at willowy Megan in her slick little outfits).

There was a serious side to the fat, of course. Betty, possibly, had cancer. A disease which was still taboo (you’d never tell the kids you had it) was also a death sentence in the sixties, and the idea of spoilt, childlike Betty, of all people, having to face her imminent mortality was fascinating. But the script let down its subject. It’s so unlike Mad Men to over-explain, to lose its enigmatic distance, that it feels almost sacrilegious to criticise it for doing exactly that. I mean, seriously, a dream sequence with the kids swathed in black, Sally upturning Betty’s empty chair, and Betty invisible to them all? Dream sequences are wincey at the best of times – but compare that to the brilliantly strange one in the last series where she floats down the corridor in a sort of psychedelic trance. The death dream, by contrast, took a baseball bat to subtlety – she might as well have written a list of her innermost fears, in alphabetical order, and recited them to the camera.

The episode was dominated (in more ways than one) by poor Betty, but there were brief detours for a new hire (wild, Jewish, a Peggy-provoker: potential excellent) and a Rolling Stones gig, which Harry and Don attented in a ludicrous attempt to persuade the band to star in a Heinz commercial. It was supposed to be a comic setpiece – but Harry has become too hateful and cartoon-like to be actually funny. Pete also had a moment of gloating glory after signing the Mohawk airlines account, to which he patronisingly assigned Roger. (And there it was again – Mad Men betraying its true self, as Roger stomped out of a meeting and moaned to Don, barely able to offer up a wisecrack).

Let’s just put it all down to first-night nerves and Hamm’s dodgy direction, console ourselves that last week was a joy, and pray that next week the show will return to its artful, unexpected best. 

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Betty Francis played by January Jones

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era