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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear