Mad Men: Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2

It's back! Feisty wives, the Don of old and lots of dodgy facial hair.

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!

So, no great surprises. Though what were we after? That existential question, echoing on from Season Five's conclusion to this new opener - "are you alone?" - hasn't been answered. It's rhetorical, after all: identity and death are Mad Men's central themes, and in that regard the first Season Six (double) episode was standard - or classic.

It's hard to imagine any more allusions to death could be crammed in here. More interesting, perhaps, are the varied responses to all this dying. Sandy's backseat of the car declaration - "my mom's dead!" - elicits laughter; Don vomits during the eulogy to Mrs Sterling, and even Roger finally weeps only when holding a brush from his deceased shoeshiner's kit. Less explicitly there's a "cool" coffin-like violin case, the porter's seeing-of-the-light and Don's lame, drunken hounding about "hot tropical sunshine" at the end of the tunnel. Later on, his pitch for Hawaii as the "Jumping Off Point" fails to excite the client - unsurprising given the argument that "Heaven's morbid! Something terrible had to happen for you to get there!"

Oh, plus Inferno. Dante gets to heaven in the end but not until he's rejected sin. If Season Five had a cliffhanger it was over Don's future fidelity, and our shock at finding him in bed with the doc's wife is relatively mild. Still, the episode's arc is clever: there's an inversion here of the series' pilot, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", where we meet Draper first alone in a bar, then at the apartment of his bohemian girlfriend Midge, and onto the office - before, quite startlingly, he returns home to suburbia, a wife and kids. In another moment reminiscent of countless others we find Dick Whitman staring and troubled in thought, the wrong soldier's lighter in hand, as the photographer tells him: "I want you to be yourself".

In comparison Betty's behaviour of old - her feistiness - is uncomfortably exciting. Rape jokes in bed to her straight-laced husband, making goulash in a flophouse, deriding the threats by a sinister squatter. Becoming a brunette is the tamest of Elizabeth's exploits.

But as often in Mad Men, the greatest joys lie in the smaller details and developments. There's Peggy and Stan's continued friendship, her repeated expletives and funky white knee-high socks. Sally's ever-more sophisticated teen angst. An intriguing reference to iciness between Roger and Joan (Joanie, we long to hear how you are!) The eager, new (and handsome?) account man, Bob Benson, is already suggestively grating. And in her new soap opera role, Megan has to "radiate evil, be a lying cheating whore". Not to forget 1968's hairstyles of note: in a marvellous re-introduction we find Pete posing on the stairs, his head dashingly turned to show off some quite extraordinary new sideburns. Abe's grown a fine mop and Ginsberg a wicked 'stache, while Stan's gone suitably grizzly and poor Harry... I fear Austin Powers comes to mind.

A final word on the episode's rather dull title, "The Doorway"; a reference to Roger's lament in the shrink's office. Life, he waxes, is a series of doors/windows/bridges and gates that all "open the same way and close behind you". Likewise, Mad Men's penultimate season seems to be off on the same-same track of pace, content and tone. It's slick, slow and brooding as ever. Question is - are you glad of that?

Cheers from Megan and Don. Photo: 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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era