Mad Men: series 5, episode 5

Oh, what a fight.

Ah, the Pete episode. It’s the one we’ve been waiting for, and what twisted joy was on offer as Matthew Weiner steered us from the Campbells’ suburban hell of a dinner party, to a Manhattan brothel, to a fist fight in the boardroom. Pete, as Lane Pryce observes just before he challenges the young pretender to a scrap, has become a monster of late, drunk on power. Roger and Lane, the ageing partners, feel it most acutely and they've both perfected that look: the one that says, with a twinge of sadness, who the hell does this punk think he is, and when did I get so old? Pete’s scorn has become his trademark, but it’s fuelled by desperation. He’s hungry for recognition, for success, for the sexual attention of a teenage girl he meets at a driving safety lecture – but more than anything he’s desperate for Don, for his friendship and approval. Pete’s tears in the lift, spilling out of his quickly blackening eyes, are the tears of a child exhausted by humiliation.

Friendship threads through the episode – Don’s lack (Megan points out that she was forced to invite his accountant to his birthday party); the revelation of a pact between Ken and Peggy, that if one leaves the firm the other goes with them; Joan carrying a bucket of ice into Lane’s office post-fight (only for him to ruin their moment of solidarity by lunging like a fool). All these little alliances and kindnesses fill in the sad picture of Pete’s isolation. He is lost in the suburbs, his wife enamoured by a new baby, and he is friendless at work, where everyone who he’d call a friend loathes him. He consoles himself by role-playing with a prostitute (she gets it right when she calls him a king), and trying to seduce a teenager – all ways of pretending to be the alpha male he wishes he was. But neither works: he is furious with drunken shame after the brothel visit (where Don abstained) and watches helpless and humiliated as the teen falls for a kid her own age (called Handsome).

Poor Pete. That Weiner can retain our sympathy for a character so slippery and loathsome is testament to his writing, and the skill of the actor, Vincent Cartheiser. In the first series, I remember finding the performance absurd, false and posturing. But Pete’s unravelling, in the hands of Cartheiser, has been slower and subtler than most, and his scenes of true revelation – the agonising meeting with his father, or when Peggy tells him about their baby – show the tenderness beneath all that tortured swagger.

And oh, what a fight. There have been a few punches, or near-punches, in Mad Men – Don thumping Jimmy Barrett, Don trying and failing to thump Duck – but I don’t think there has been a fight quite as agonisingly prolonged and hilarious as that between Lane and Pete: two skinny men with their fists raised, making sure their ties are out of the way, rocking on their feet in their smart office shoes. It’s undignified, and a great comic skewering of macho business culture (listened to, disbelievingly, by Joan and Peggy through a wall). You watch Mad Men for scenes like this: high drama, an element of farce, a sense of something fundamentally shifting beneath the surface. Saying that, there are still scenes which seem a little overstated – did Don really have to rip off his shirt to tackle Pete’s broken kitchen sink in a Superman frenzy of manliness as Pete rifled forlornly through his toolbox? We get it: Don’s still got it, and Pete, poor Pete, is a shadow of a man, grasping at a life.

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Vincent Kartheiser as Pete in Mad Men

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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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