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. 

Read the Mad Men series blog

Betty Francis played by January Jones

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era