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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage