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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle