Mad Men: season 5, episode 4

Cinderella, rape, and a murder dream we wish was real.

Oh Red, we knew you had it in you. If “Tea Leaves” was dominated by Betty’s blubber, episode four ventured deeper – historically, socially and more subtly – into female physicality. Mad Men doesn’t get more triumphant than this: Joanie, all woman, ridding herself of her scumbag husband in one stoical swoop. Never have we forgotten that crude, heartbreaking scene from Season Two where Greg overcomes his fiancée on Don’s office floor. Now, finally, Joanie vindicates herself that awful act: “You’re not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about”. Was it inexplicable from the show’s start that Ms Holloway would be our feminist heroine? Now a single mother and, presumably, returning soon to work (note Peggy's referral to “Joan’s office”), her attempt to take charge of both whilst handling her mother (a traditionally subservient wife) and miserable-in-marriage Roger will be fascinating to watch.

Rape, of course, looms over the entire episode. On the surface is the 1966 Chicago nurse murders; Peggy’s friend Joyce presenting the gruesome photos (the story did indeed make the cover of TIME) so salaciously that Ginsberg’s disgust has us sweet for him. As important as these overt political references are - and increasingly will be as the show moves through the latter part of the decade - Mad Men’s beauty lies in its poetic allusions to current affairs, its ability to tap into the nation’s climate through the intimate and personal. So as the ninth nurse escaped death by hiding under the bed, so the dream corpse lies on the carpet beneath Don, her Cinderella foot exposed; Sally sleeps fast on the livingroom floor underneath the sofa. There’s actually a lot of women struggling to sleep in the second half of the episode: Dawn on Don’s couch; Joan on the bed with her mother; Sally under the sheets, horrified by the newspaper story. 

Our other troubled sleeper, then, in Don. What is this dream sequence fad? Unlike Betty's funereal breakfasting vision, Don's nightmare is quite (a)rousing. Don't you rather wish it were true - Don sweaty, fevered and adulterous? There's not too much to analyse here, though. What do we learn about our protagonist we didn't know already? Probably most interesting is Andrea's (read: Don's subconscious) passing comment on his interior decoration skills, "Everybody probably thinks she did this but I know it was you."

To Peggy: it's taken us four episodes but here she finally is in all her nuanced glory. What many marvellous things has Peggy become? Let us count the ways: the pithy copywriter, the teamplayer, the attempting mentor, and – most thrillingly – the player's player (does "the racist" really fit in here? How believable was that handbag suspiciousness?). Peggy won’t be taken for granted at SCDP, least of all by Roger, and counting her bills with nervous glee we know she's thrilled, too. This self-respecting and playful act can't be what leads her to wonder out loud to Dawn whether she behaves like a man. Why this concern, Peggy?

A final note on the episode title which neatly plays off the innocence/ experience theme. A TV commercial for the boardgame Mystery Date plays in the livingroom while Sally, intrigued by Grandma Francis's gossip, wonders exactly what happened to the Chicago nurses. A young girls’ game about welcome/ unwelcome men behind doors recalls not only the murderer Richard Speck but cobbled alleyways, a stranger's hand on a shoulder, and a Butler glass slipper for a princess.

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Ditching Harris: Joanie's back. From Mad Men episode "Mystery Date"

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition