Mad Men: season 5, episode 8

Sneaky calls, the Beatles and fake couples/kitchens/whipped cream.

If "Lady Lazarus" was a concept episode based on Revolver it would have begun with Pete putting down Pynchon to discuss taxes - rather than insurance - with his commuter buddy, Howard. Still, the episode's closing shots and credits rolled out to "Tomorrow Never Knows", the trippy final track of the 1966 Beatles album. Like Don we may wonder: "when did music become so important?" In Mad Men we've watched the artistic trends of the late Fifties give way to The Sixties in fashion and design - think Roger's office furniture, Megan's minis - but we've seen and heard less, until recently, of the counterculture affiliated so strongly with the decade. Suddenly it's not only young wives listening to psychedelic rock and trying LSD: advertising clients are specially requesting the Beatles - though they, like Don, don't know the Beatles apart from a boring pop band whose thirty-year-old song makes Ginsberg feel he's being "[stabbed] in the fucking heart".

Michael's curse may be a covert reference to suicide, and if so then it's one of at least a couple more. Pete brings up the killing-himself-clause of his life insurance plan in the first minute of the episode (it kicks in after just two years!), and Don almost steps into an open elevator shaft that is gaping for a Time-Life/SCDP employee to throw themselves down it. It's the episode's title that makes these thin references potent: the haunting poem from Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965) about her previous attempt to kill herself and near-death experience as a child, written shortly before her death by suicide at just 30.

Could this be a forewarning about Pete's spiral into depression? The season's fifth episode was largely dedicated to his misery and unsatisfaction. Pete's unremitting attempts to live privately and publicly like Don have failed. In broader terms, despite his successes at work Pete has been emasculated and humiliated time and time again. Earlier it was the failure to fix a tap, being turned down by a teenager and losing in a fist-fight against a Brit. Now there's still his pathetic mishaps - grappling with sporting gear, driving like a nervous youth - but it's his inability to sustain an affair with a dejected suburban housewife that thoroughly undermines Pete's manlihood. For Trudy's sake (at least before those two years are up), let us hope they fix that lift.

Megan's behaviour over the Heinz pitch and her father's life advice had us wondering last week whether her passion still lied in acting rather than advertising. Well, it does. Peggy shouts at both Drapers in this episode: first at Megan in the office toilet, incredulous that the talented junior copywriter would consider foiling her work to get fired: "You know people are killing to get this job. You're taking up a spot and you don't even want to do it?" We can't miss a comparison of each woman's relationship with Don. "I cannot lie to him," Peggy tells Megan. She's up all night because of that and can't bring herself to pick up the phone when he inquiringly rings back the office (or "Pizza house!"). Megan - although she wakes and tells him the next evening - did sleep fine that night and presumably the nights before; she actually had a first audition at the weekend. The small lie is not the problem - even though Megan's sneaking around to make a payphone call mirrors Pete marital betrayal, when he uses the same phone booth (rather than the office line) to call the woman who is not his wife.

The problem now between the Drapers is that Don isn't exactly sure who he married. "Sweetheart, you can't choose where your talents lie. What you did with Heinz . . ." "I don't want to do it," Megan tells him. "You don't want to do it?" If Peggy doesn't believe this - later she wonders to Joan whether she'd put too much pressure on her trainee - then Don is confused to the hilt. His face says it all. Megan tells him "I love you, you're everything I hoped you'd be." Don frowns and keeps frowning. What starts, though, as misunderstanding moves on to delusion and the blame-game. "You didn't want her there, you were threatened by everything about her!" Don charges at Peggy - ridiculously. It's not true, of course. "I spent eight months defending her. She thinks advertising is stupid." "She thinks the people she works with are cynical and petty." If Megan ever said this, it's not the reason she quit. Don is rightly nervous that without his wife it will be obvious his advertising career has peaked: he's out of ideas and is far more charming nowadays as part of a young couple than solo. And with all those far-off looks we have to question the longevity of his marriage. Roger can be a wicked truth teller and a great line of his should be heeded this week: "I gotta say, I can see her as an actress. Not that she's insincere, but, you know . . .?"

Again, Roger brings us back to this generational divide that seems so crucial in Season Five (see "Far Away Places"). Don says he has "no idea what's going on out there" in terms of music. Roger's advice to him - via Mona's dad, an even older generation but closer to Don who did grow up "in the Thirties" - "Go home, let her know there's a routine. It'll keep you both out of trouble". But at home Megan with her youthful ponytail is on the way out to her new evening class. And unable to "turn off [his] mind, relax and float down stream", whether because he's unimpressed or uncomprehending, Don turns off the record and walks stiffly from the room. 

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That non-dairy whipped topping: Just taste it! (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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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.