Mad Men: season 5, episode 10

Old names and faces and a masterclass in flirting.

We knew there was friendship there. We also knew - from an aside remark way back in Season One – that he’d never tried it with her. But my goodness, Don and Joan. What sexual tension, what a thrill! “God, you’re irresistible,” she tells him. From the jukebox sweet Doris Day sings “A Christmas Waltz” (the episode’s title), but the real dance is taking place at the bar. Take note: this is how it looks when Mad Men’s most sexual creatures try and out-flirt each other. “You want to dance?” . . . “You and me, in Midtown? You with that look on your face?” “What look, baby?” Irresistible. 

It’s a seductive quality both characters possess in abundance that we haven’t seen for so long. And we reminisce along with them: Burt Peterson and Freddy Rumsen, their standing argument that Joan was a lesbian. We remember those names and faces, those Sterling Cooper days, too. Elsewhere in the episode Paul Kinsey, absent since Season Three, reappears. As does Bobbie Barrett, that alluring old flame of Don’s, in his use of her phrase “I like being bad and going home and being good.” While the affair was “a disaster,” Joanie knows better, purring at him “You enjoyed every minute of it”. 

But it truly was a disaster – his car accident with the comedian’s wife lead, eventually, to the collapse of his marriage with Betty. At the end of the scene Don leaves the bar unsettled and a little upset; Joan has touched a raw nerve. Some men are just promiscuous, she says. Or can’t be satisfied, or recognise what they have. Driving the Jaguar at top speed, shifting gears to accelerate, Don’s inner turmoil has been stoked. Earlier he tells Joan the car does nothing for him. “It’s because you’re happy; you don’t need it,” she replies. But he is turned on by the car, isn't he?

The Jaguar E-type is of course more than a car. It’s the most beautiful car of all time, an export, glossy red – the perfect symbol of consumerism. If there’s a clear theme to the episode it’s this. Paul Kinsey returns as a Hare Krishna – he “rejects the material world” – but really what he wants is his woman and some money (maybe a farm, though even that requires of him “a little less recruiting and a little more working,” Harry notes). There are others cheating and spending: Lane forges Don’s signature (a double-fake of the Draper identity) for an advance to cover himself against the taxman; Roger offers to pay Kevin (his baby son with Joan) through college, though it’s a “short term” attempt to fix their relationship.

And there’s the play, America Hurrah: “I like to have a can of beer in my hand as I watch the beer ads,” declares the actor. But TV makes him sick - every channel on it. "It’s about the emptiness of consumerism," says Megan. But Don’s job is to encourage people to buy things. He’s selfish, she says, and smashes her plate of spaghetti with as much force as Joan, upon receiving her divorce papers, smashes the model Mohawk. 

Nostalgia and materialism – the two themes in play here – weave so cleverly. With three episodes in Season Five remaining, Don may have reached a crossroads where his work and marriage diverge (doesn't Megan seem more and more a catalyst than a character?). “This time last year,” Don tells his colleagues, the company was at crisis point. Now they must sink or “swim the English channel” to “drown in champagne”. It’s an inspiring speech, one we haven’t heard him deliver in years, and the car, and worldwide recognition, is the prize. At the beginning of the episode Don tells Pete the Jaguar pitch “sounds like a lot of work", before going to nap on his office couch. Now he’s taking off his jacket. If Draper's back, is Megan out?

Read the Mad Men series blog

Joan as Rita Hayworth, Don as Aly Khan? Photo: AMC

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game