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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism