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.

Show Hide image

Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

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