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.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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