Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 3

Warring speeches and mass complicity.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching Mad Men Season 6 on Wednesdays on Sky Atlantic. Don't read on if you haven't seen it yet - may contain spoilers!

How "The Collaborators"? As everyone, presumably, I watch a Mad Men episode without knowing its title, and enjoy having my responses challenged and reactivated when I discover it later on. Some titles are pithy or merely descriptive: think of season 3's "The Grown-Ups" (when JFK's assassinated) and "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" (one with the lawnmower, also an homage to The Sopranos). Other titles feel essential, gesturing at or building allegories within the episode (take "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword", after the infamous Japanese culture study, that cleverly weaves the Honda clients' storyline to Sally's chastisement at being caught masturbating; or "Lady Lazarus" with its haunting symbols of suicide). Naming in Mad Men is purposeful and sophisticated.

So why, why "The Collaborators"? Unless it refers to a minor remark that alludes me, the title has to be ironic. What decent behaviour other than Bob Benson buying Pete's toilet roll? Campbell will need it in his dour city apartment now that he's banned from relieving himself within 50 miles of Trudy for "throwing in a hotdog" to the neighbour's wife. Trudy's assertion that he leave - she's proud and controlled - is thrilling, really the highlight of the episode. Who ever expected the lines "I refuse to be a failure . . . I will destroy you" as Trudy Campbell's? 
 
There's more rhetoric of combat, with genuine television and radio reports from Korea (of the Pueblo incident) and Vietnam (Tet Offensive) playing out like background music. Peggy's friendship with Stan, their delightful phone banter, has been a minor joy of the new season - and seems doomed already. "He's the enemy ... This is how wars are won," raves Ted over the potential keptchup account. A coming battle over the Coca Cola of condiments between SCDP and CGC - Don and Peggy at the creative helms - is an obvious call. Though how to top the bean ballet?
 
Other moves towards collaboration and shared confidences are grossly undermined. Devastated, Megan tells Sylvia how she has suffered a miscarriage. But her husband's mistress has stunted empathy and Mrs Rosen, also brought up Catholic, understands only so much of her guilt. She is, after all, receiving "cookie jar" money from Don; a seemingly inessential detail in the arc of their story. The detail signifies more, though: prostitution, as plainly elsewhere in the episode Joan encounters Herb Rennet (whom she sold herself to) and in a series of flashbacks young Dick Whitman arrives at a whorehouse and pretends to drop pennies so to watch Uncle Mack "help all the hens". 
 
Unable to enter his apartment and slumped on the floor, Don appears deeply troubled by his new/old gigolo role. Like the Germans in Munich he gets everything he wants and still isn't satisfied, he still wants more. And we know how the war ends.
Elizabeth Moss in episode 3 of the new series of Man Men. Image: AMC.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496