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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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