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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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