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

Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution