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.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit