Mad Men: season 5, episode 6

Orange sherbet, purple candy, LSD.

"Far Away Places" did not stray us all that far from Madison Avenue, though two journeys were at the centre of the episode. On a literal trip, Don and Megan head to a Howard Johnson's hotel in upstate New York, an orange roofed “destination spot” says Don; to Megan, “a place you go to on the way to somewhere else”. At the end of "Far Away Places", their relationship has indeed moved onwards; whether to more disarray or solidarity, we can’t yet tell. But if at the end this couple lie on their apartment floor distraught and breaking apart, earlier Roger and Jane, lying similarly together, are calm - their relationship decisively broken. For the viewer it does feel (as to Roger) like some kind of epiphany: a rare Mad Men moment where resignation flows from an untapped mouth, honest and clear: “Because it’s over. It’s dead. All I think about is having an affair.”

Perhaps here - in Season 5, Episode 6 - we’ve truly entered the Sixties, that Sixties, the decade we think we know.  Who would ever have guessed (even with his Bridget Riley-inspired office artwork) that Roger Sterling’s LSD trip - of all characters' - would welcome us to the decade? Here's the episode's second journey: we’re taken along on Roger's ride (not exactly seeing the World Series in his bathroom, though feeling unnerved by the "PLEASE HELP ME" note), into the recesses of his mind, among his playful thoughts (hearing glorious music sound when a liquor bottle opens!), and even sharing in the drug's sensorial weirdness. When an illusory Don - who himself has made a young, second wife of his former secretary - tells Roger in the mirror, “You are ok,” we believe him - for the moment. But is it Roger who we really want to share 1966 with? Even The Beach Boys sing out, in the psychologist's living room, “I just wasn’t made for these times”. 

How starkly his psychedelic trip contrasts with Don and Megan’s geographical one, so like that of a late-1950s nuclear family: in Don’s memory of them driving home Sally sleeps in the back seat, Megan wears the outfit of a kept and genial wife. Thinking about this generational gulf (compare the new Mrs Draper to Betty of Season One) may bring us close to the crux of Don and Megan’s troubles. How could she possibly care a damn for orange sherbet? Megan should be dropping acid! And his horror as she wolfs down the dessert reminds us how traditional (Midwestern and conservative) Don can be. Second-wave feminism is being explored here, though not overtly - not what's happening on the streets - but inside family cars, the domestic setting and in the workplace. Megan wants to be Don's employee as much as his wife.

In this episode Peggy, of course, is very straightfowardly a victim of sexism. In various ways her actions are typically masculine (remember that fear of hers in episode 4?): take her Draper Jr. sequence involving a drink, the cinema, a sex act, and falling asleep on the office couch (note the clean symmetry, so typical of Mad Men, of Dawn waking up Peggy), or Abe telling her she says things his dad would. But Peggy equally plays, or is expected to play, the female child: to Burt Cooper she's a "little girl", to the Heinz man she can be condescended to as he would his daughter. Where does Don's purple candy fit into this? Is it merely a good luck charm or something more convulted? And what of Don's anxious search for Megan: is it not more like a parent's panic for his lost child than a man's for his wife? Worrying she's gone off, as the waitress suggests, with "those kids"? Here again is this generational antagonism which Peggy expresses so powerfully that beans are the last thing on our minds: "You have to run with this," she demands of the grey-suited, middle aged man. "It's young and it's beautiful." 

Possibly the shortest and most beautiful scene is another on missing parents/missing children. In it we learn, as Ginsberg addresses Peggy through a mirrored window, that he was born in a concentration camp and found at age five in a Swedish orphanage. So earlier we find Peggy watching Born Free about an adopted lion cub; Peggy, herself, who gave up a baby. This is more than likely one of the reasons she's so touched by his Martian riff: “We’re a big secret, they even tried to hide it from me . . . And then I get this one communcation, a simple order: stay where you are.” Possibly this, his Mars, is the (titular) farthest away place. Not another planet, not a drug-trip destination, but the nightmare of the past.

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"It's going to be very expensive." Roger and Jane Stirling, re-becoming Siegel. Photo: AMC

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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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution