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?

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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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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