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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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times