Mad Men: season 5, episode 10

Old names and faces and a masterclass in flirting.

We knew there was friendship there. We also knew - from an aside remark way back in Season One – that he’d never tried it with her. But my goodness, Don and Joan. What sexual tension, what a thrill! “God, you’re irresistible,” she tells him. From the jukebox sweet Doris Day sings “A Christmas Waltz” (the episode’s title), but the real dance is taking place at the bar. Take note: this is how it looks when Mad Men’s most sexual creatures try and out-flirt each other. “You want to dance?” . . . “You and me, in Midtown? You with that look on your face?” “What look, baby?” Irresistible. 

It’s a seductive quality both characters possess in abundance that we haven’t seen for so long. And we reminisce along with them: Burt Peterson and Freddy Rumsen, their standing argument that Joan was a lesbian. We remember those names and faces, those Sterling Cooper days, too. Elsewhere in the episode Paul Kinsey, absent since Season Three, reappears. As does Bobbie Barrett, that alluring old flame of Don’s, in his use of her phrase “I like being bad and going home and being good.” While the affair was “a disaster,” Joanie knows better, purring at him “You enjoyed every minute of it”. 

But it truly was a disaster – his car accident with the comedian’s wife lead, eventually, to the collapse of his marriage with Betty. At the end of the scene Don leaves the bar unsettled and a little upset; Joan has touched a raw nerve. Some men are just promiscuous, she says. Or can’t be satisfied, or recognise what they have. Driving the Jaguar at top speed, shifting gears to accelerate, Don’s inner turmoil has been stoked. Earlier he tells Joan the car does nothing for him. “It’s because you’re happy; you don’t need it,” she replies. But he is turned on by the car, isn't he?

The Jaguar E-type is of course more than a car. It’s the most beautiful car of all time, an export, glossy red – the perfect symbol of consumerism. If there’s a clear theme to the episode it’s this. Paul Kinsey returns as a Hare Krishna – he “rejects the material world” – but really what he wants is his woman and some money (maybe a farm, though even that requires of him “a little less recruiting and a little more working,” Harry notes). There are others cheating and spending: Lane forges Don’s signature (a double-fake of the Draper identity) for an advance to cover himself against the taxman; Roger offers to pay Kevin (his baby son with Joan) through college, though it’s a “short term” attempt to fix their relationship.

And there’s the play, America Hurrah: “I like to have a can of beer in my hand as I watch the beer ads,” declares the actor. But TV makes him sick - every channel on it. "It’s about the emptiness of consumerism," says Megan. But Don’s job is to encourage people to buy things. He’s selfish, she says, and smashes her plate of spaghetti with as much force as Joan, upon receiving her divorce papers, smashes the model Mohawk. 

Nostalgia and materialism – the two themes in play here – weave so cleverly. With three episodes in Season Five remaining, Don may have reached a crossroads where his work and marriage diverge (doesn't Megan seem more and more a catalyst than a character?). “This time last year,” Don tells his colleagues, the company was at crisis point. Now they must sink or “swim the English channel” to “drown in champagne”. It’s an inspiring speech, one we haven’t heard him deliver in years, and the car, and worldwide recognition, is the prize. At the beginning of the episode Don tells Pete the Jaguar pitch “sounds like a lot of work", before going to nap on his office couch. Now he’s taking off his jacket. If Draper's back, is Megan out?

Read the Mad Men series blog

Joan as Rita Hayworth, Don as Aly Khan? Photo: AMC

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

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.