Mad Men: Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2–A Little Kiss

“Something always happens. Things are different.”

Mad Men (Season 5)

 

Rejoice, for finally Mad Men is back! After 17 months of alleged behind the scenes wrangling at AMC TV, thankfully everything was settled in terms of writers, producers, cast and budget (that latter at the expense of The Walking Dead, reportedly). The men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce showed up for business on Sunday night in the US, and straight away we were immersed in the show’s trademark subtle vision of the 60s.

So subtle in fact that, as usual, I couldn’t immediately tell what year they’d moved on to this time. Mad Men is like that; it doesn’t do exposition. You have to work at it as a viewer, because none of the answers are spelled out in dialogue. This is never more true than in a season premiere, where the timescale between seasons can range from months to years, with the concomitant change in the characters’ circumstances. Part of the fun is working it out, and the show doesn’t give an inch. After all, why have a line of dialogue when meaning can be conveyed by Don Draper staring moodily into the middle distance through a haze of cigarette smoke?

Anyway, it’s 1966 (I eventually discovered), and I guess it’s about nine months after the end of the previous season. I know this because Joan has actually gone ahead and had the baby fathered by Roger after their illicit post-mugging liaison in an alley. As she was a couple of months pregnant last time, and her baby looks a couple of months old here, I think an intervening time of about 9 months is the right area.

Thankfully Don has moved on from the dark place in which he spent most of last season, when he lived in a tiny apartment and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Initially he seemed quite happy with new French-Canadian wife Megan, who seemed to have an inhuman level of tolerance with his grumpiness. Said grumpiness was brought on by her staging of a surprise birthday party for his fortieth in their swanky new pad, a surprise that was (typically) blown by Roger turning up with a bottle of champagne just as Don and Megan reached their door.

This season premiere was basically two episodes glued together, and the first concerned itself largely with the party. Don doesn’t like birthdays; he never celebrated them when he was Dick Whitman and he doesn’t want to now. Megan can’t grasp that, and Don ends up fidgeting uncomfortably through what looks like rather a good party.

As the centrepiece of the episode, the party was staged very well. All the major characters were there, together with a lot of young people who were presumably friends of Megan’s. Straight away, Don’s obvious discomfort pointed up what his problem was – he’s getting old. Or at least he feels he is, particularly when surrounded by modern, with-it people almost twenty years his junior, like his new wife. I think this is a theme we’re going to be returning to quite a bit this year.

Meanwhile, we got a flavour of the times as people at the party discussed current events, a good way of setting the scene. Vietnam is just getting into full swing, and already Bert Cooper and Peggy’s beatnik boyfriend Abe are discussing it as an unnecessary war run for profit which maims and kills young men (much to the discomfort of the young sailor standing next to them; “I thought there’d be women here,” he muttered).

Vietnam is presumably going to be a recurring theme this year. Joan’s abusive doctor husband is at Fort Dixie, presumably about to be transferred there. As a result, an unusually flustered Joan is being helped by her acid-tongued mother with caring for the baby. Their bitchy bickering is hugely entertaining, and hopefully we’ll see more of her.

Joan is actually stuck there with no certain knowledge she can go back to her job, as the limited women’s rights of the 60s didn’t include maternity leave. Indeed, the challenge for women’s rights was implicit throughout, catching up with the struggle Peggy’s had since the outset of the show. Don still expects his new young wife to be obedient and submissive, which she’s having none of. He’s plainly forgotten that attitude was instrumental in losing him his last wife (well, that and the constant infidelity and lying). And Joan’s mother is startled that Joan might defy her husband and return to work rather than care for her child full time. Peggy might have got in early, but by 1966 Women’s Lib was getting into full swing, and I imagine it’s a theme the show will return to frequently.

I suspect another driving theme of the times is going to be the Civil Rights movement. We were plunged into this straight away, as some foolish young execs from rival ad firm Y & R got into racial trouble by water bombing a protest march from their office window. This led to an amusing sniping war, as Roger took out a gloating ad for SCDP in the paper calling them an “equal opportunity” firm. The joke backfired towards the end of the episode, as it had been misinterpreted as a vacancy ad, and suddenly the all-white Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was besieged with eager black job applicants. “Why is the office full of Negroes?” enquired a flustered Roger.

Indeed, Roger’s racial attitude summed up the time period. When it was suggested they take one of the black girls on as a receptionist, he snapped, “we don’t want one of them out there!” The all-pervading racism of the 60s has been an ongoing subtle theme in the series, and it looks like this year it’s going to be pushed more to the front. It even hangs over little moments; why else would Lane, having discovered a lost wallet in a taxi, not trust the (black) driver to return it to its owner?

The wallet, in fact, led to another amusing subplot that may or may not be continued. Discovering a picture of a beautiful young lady in it, Lane called her to enquire about returning the wallet (which belonged to her boyfriend), and ended up flirting outrageously with her on the phone. It was a funny scene, well-played by Jared Harris. But it might spin out into something more serious. Plainly Lane’s marriage is not going that well; beneath their English reserve, you can tell that neither he nor his wife are happy. He was disappointed when it was the wallet’s owner who turned up at the office to collect it rather than the beautiful Dolores. But since the wallet’s owner had an Italian surname and was almost a stereotypical Mob hood, Lane may be getting himself into trouble if he goes after Dolores.

Elsewhere, the ever-uptight Pete is as unhappy as ever, and the script chose to emphasise that he has dandruff and is starting to go bald. I’m glad the dialogue spelled that one out, as actor Vincent Kartheiser seems to have a perfectly full head of hair. But he was as excellent as ever as the perpetually unsuccessful Pete, whose rivalry with Roger has been stepped up a notch for some more humorous scenes. Roger has taken to sneaking glances at his calendar to steal his leads; so Pete responds by setting up a fake meeting with a big client at 6am, which Roger gullibly goes off to.

Harry Crane is unhappy too, having expressed his lust for Don’s wife while the lady was actually standing right behind him. This led to one of the funniest scenes in the episode, as Harry was carpeted by Roger and immediately assumed he was being fired for the incident. But all Roger wanted to do was convince him to trade offices with Pete, whose tiny cupboard of an office had a big post in the middle of it that Pete managed to walk into hard enough to make his nose bleed. Pete had made a fuss about wanting a better office, but he was still furious; as Roger had correctly worked out, it was Roger’s office he really wanted.

All this, as usual, moved at a pretty leisurely pace. In terms of actual plot, not a great deal happened. But then, in Mad Men, plot has a way of creeping up on you incrementally. At the end of the day, even with a period setting, it’s basically a very classy soap opera, which depends on you being invested with the fates of its characters. This opening instalment set out its stall very well for the coming year in that regard. Interestingly, while watching I tried to imagine what it would be like if this was the first episode I’d seen, with no knowledge of the characters’ tortuous back stories. And I was surprised to decide that it was actually still just as accessible as a jumping in point. Only the business about Don’s former identity, knowledge of which he’s entrusted to his new wife, might have confused fresh viewers.

Again as usual, it looked great; it’s almost worth the frustration of The Walking Dead being stuck on a farm all year to justify the expense in bringing this to the screen. Don and Megan’s new apartment is the height of 60s chic (though its white carpet can’t stand up to an eventful birthday party). The clothes, too, are as well observed as ever. Don, Roger and the old guard remain as impeccably suited as ever, but the younger guys are wearing casual clothes in the office; and Pete turns up at Don’s party sporting a jacket that’s surely a crime against the eyes of humanity.

Pete's Jacket

So, the stage is set. We know where most of the characters are, and where they’re trying to go. No sign of Don’s cold ex-wife Betty yet, but I’m guessing she’ll show up next week. On the evidence of this opener, it was worth the 17 month wait to have the show back. Creator Matthew Weiner’s writing is as sharp, subtle and humorous as ever, and the top notch cast are still superb at the subtle acting style the show demands (though my absolute favourite is John Slattery as Roger, who’s often far from subtle). Over the next few months, I’m fully expecting Mad Men to be as compelling a drama as it always has been.

Skins–the party’s over

“Everything’s ending. And it’s fucking scary.”

SkinsGeneration3

So farewell then Skins, which wound to a largely unheralded end on E4 last night. It’s not completely the end – there’ll be a coda of three ‘mini movies’ next year which promise to catch us up with the doings of some of the shows previous characters since they left. But Skins as we know it, the teen drama/comedy composed of hour long episodes which changes its cast every two years, really is over.

When it began, Skins was in many ways a groundbreaking show. Its unconventional approach was to tell a teen drama story with none of the compromises that usually bedevil such a show; swearing was allowed, and sex, and enjoyable, consequence-free drug use. In short, it treated teen drama like adult drama, which was reflected in its late night timeslot.

It also took the unconventional approach of employing actors who really were teenagers, unlike so many US teen dramas where the high schoolers are plainly in their twenties. And it went further, with teen writers added into the mix along with series creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain. Consistent with its cutting edge ‘yoof’ approach was an aggressive online marketing campaign on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, with the characters receiving their own pages and interacting with the show’s fans.

It seems old hat now, but back in 2007 this all felt startlingly fresh. The result was a teen drama (with a lot of comedy) that purported to be a truly realistic depiction of what modern teenagers get up to. In this it did itself something of a disservice; given that episode one featured the gang trashing a posh house party, stealing a Mercedes and then crashing it into a river causing the loss of a huge bag of weed, it’s fair to say that its portrayal of teenage life was more than a little exaggerated.

This aspect of the show has always polarised opinion among viewers, whether they be teens or not. Some (noticeably those from large cities) tend to say, “yes, things like that have happened to me”, while others (seemingly from suburban and provincial towns) think it’s glamorised wish fulfilment. A common criticism in latter years has been that teen comedy The Inbetweeners, with its hopelessly awkward quartet of teenage boys, was a far more accurate representation of teenage life past and present than Skins with its impossibly good looking cast, hedonistic sexuality and mad, drug-fuelled parties.

And yet Skins did catch some of that feeling of what it’s like to be a teenager. All the way through, there’s that air of self-doubt, insecurity masquerading as confidence and a mixture of anticipation and fear about what the future holds as you begin to move into the ‘real world’. For me, it always caught that atmosphere really accurately; certainly well enough for me to forgive the show its many other excesses.

And excessive it certainly seemed, at the beginning. It was trailed with some well-remembered promo shoots of an insane party at which gorgeous, scantily clad teenagers shagged, boozed and did drugs while trashing what looked like an ordinary house. This led to a minor craze of ‘Skins parties’ publicised on Facebook and later by the Daily Mail as they invariably led to the near-destruction of whichever hapless teenager’s house they were held at.

Initially, I expected the show to be like that all the time. I must admit, I tuned in initially out of titillation; those were some very nice looking boys I’d seen in the trails for the show, and it looked like they wouldn’t be wearing much. But I stayed because I got sucked into the drama and became emotionally attached to the characters, even when (as in the Russian school trip episode) the comedy was sometimes so puerile as to be a turnoff.

And it really surprised me with its second series, as much of the comedy was toned down and it became one of the most thoughtful, perceptive dramas around at that point. This was best exemplified by Nicholas Hoult’s beautiful but manipulative and unlikeable Tony Stonem, who basically spent the entire first series having his selfish cockiness demolished until he was ultimately run over by a bus. For him, the second series was all about rebuilding his life, and he became so much more likeable as a result.

The other characters too spent the second series dealing with the consequences of the events in the first. Geeky Sid (Mike Bailey) abandoned his on-off relationship with flaky but fun Cassie (Hannah Murray) to fulfil his longstanding crush on Tony’s girlfriend Michelle (April Pearson). Anwar (Dev Patel) was having a hard job reconciling his Muslim faith with his best friend Maxxie’s homosexuality. All of this was written and acted with amazing sensitivity. For me, the emotional high point was the death of Sid’s dad (a terrific sweary turn from Peter Capaldi), and his final reconciliation with his former best friend Tony; as both embraced, weeping, it was hard to keep a dry eye. Though running it a close second was the unexpected death of loveable party animal Chris (Joe Dempsie).

At the end of that second year, fans were surprised to learn of the bold but logical decision that the entire cast were to be replaced by a new gang of sixth formers at the college. This was a risky step but made sense; when a group of friends finish their A Levels, they do tend to go off into the world in their own separate ways, and keeping the gang together would have been ridiculously contrived. The loss of characters the audience had come to love was offset by the freshness of a bunch of new ones – it was like Grange Hill without the casts overlapping (much).

Each successive ‘generation’ followed the two-series template laid down by the first. Their initial series would be comparatively light, but with the drama ratcheting up throughout; the next series would be much heavier stuff, usually involving the shock death of one of the major characters.

The problem with this approach was that, by the just-departed third generation, it had come to seem pretty formulaic. And the heightened drama was becoming increasingly implausible, even for Skins; the nadir, most fans agree, was the bizarre ending to the second generation’s time as Effy’s (Kaya Scodelario) love-crazed psychiatrist beat her boyfriend Freddie (Luke Pasqualino) to death with a baseball bat.

And while (some of) the later characters were undoubtedly likeable, for me they never quite reached the level of emotional investment I got from the first gang. Generation 2’s love story between emergent lesbians Naomi (Lily Loveless) and Emily (Kathryn Prescott) was heartwarming and touching; but the tedious love triangle between Effy, Freddie and the charismatic but obnoxious Cook (Jack O’Connell) quickly became annoying. It also recalled, unnecessarily, the love triangle between Tony, Michelle and Sid from the first generation, and the fact that this plotline recently got yet another rerun with the third crew was perhaps one of the clearest signs that the show really had run its course.

The third generation at least toned down some of the increased madness of the previous plotlines with some much more low key drama. More than ever before, it focussed on the misfits; with androgynous Frankie (Dakota Blue Richards) as its lead character, and even its seemingly brainless ‘popular’ characters like Mini (Freya Mavor) and Nick (Sean Teale) being unravelled to become more complex and insecure than they at first seemed.

But it’s difficult to keep something so immediate and vital fresh for long, and the show was starting to look tired with its formulaic approach. It didn’t help that its undoubtedly deep influence on youth drama was spawning fresher competitors; it’s probably fair to say that without Skins, we wouldn’t have Misfits or The Fades, which take the Skins formula and graft elements of the fantastic onto it. It was no real surprise then to learn that this third generation would be the last. Skins, once so original, was now old hat, and was being retired.

It’s always been patchy, but never less than compellingly watchable; for me anyway. And along the way, its casting technique of mixing professionals with untried members of the public has launched the careers of some terrific young actors. Nicholas Hoult has gone on to use those gorgeous cheekbones in movies like A Single Man and X Men: First Class; Dev Patel did rather well with Slumdog Millionaire; Jack O’Connell has been in acclaimed TV dramas like Dive and United; and recent superb BBC3 fantasy The Fades boasted no less than three Skins alumni: Daniel Kaluuya, Lily Loveless and Joe Dempsie.

It also had a peculiar but successful stunt casting approach to the adults, with most of them being played by comedians or comic actors. As a result, we’ve seen some surprisingly good performances from the likes of Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, John Bishop, Ronni Ancona, Ardal O’Hanlon, Chris Addison, and even, amazingly, Danny Dyer. Enfield even went on to direct two episodes, including the excellent, hallucinatory second series one with the convalescing Tony attending a surreal opening day at a university.

Last night’s finale, unlike the previous two generations, felt like a proper ending. Frankie, thankfully decided that she wanted neither of the two insipid brothers who’d been chasing her all year, who then reconciled their rivalry. Mini settled down to have her baby with unexpected love interest Alo. And sweet-natured metalhead Rich finally seemed at peace with the death of his beloved Grace. It all climaxed, in true Skins style, at a big, hedonistic party; but it was as the party wound down that it ended. And the series finished with Rich, for me the most likeable of this bunch, looking straight up to the camera and simply saying, “bye”. Ostensibly it was to the now departed Grace; but also, perhaps cheesily, it felt like it was to all of us too. And I couldn’t help but well up a bit. It’s been a great party, with some good people, but now it’s over.

And now, in memoriam, I’m going to indulgently list my fave characters through the years:

Sid Jenkins (Mike Bailey)
Sid Obviously. I have a huge thing about cute, geeky guys with glasses. But Sid was also sweet, insecure, and the voice of reason. In many ways he was the heart and soul of Skins’ first generation.

Cassie Ainsworth (Hannah Murray)
CassieFlaky, bright and cursed with a variety of mental issues like depression and eating disorders, Cassie was the perfect love interest for Sid.

Chris Miles (Joe Dempsie)
ChrisBecause you can’t not like Chris. Unflappably cheerful and likeable even when his world is falling down around him, you have to feel for him as every decision he makes ends up disastrous. Sleeping with his teacher: mistake. Opening his house to a party full of destructive strangers: mistake. Attempting to pee while still dosed up on Viagra: big mistake!

Naomi Campbell (Lily Loveless)
NaomiIncredibly smart but seemingly humourless at first, Naomi was the dry wit of the second generation. It helped that Lily Loveless is an incredibly charismatic screen presence. Her blooming relationship with Emily was the best plot that gang had.

Freddie McLair (Luke Pasqualino)
FreddieBecause I also have a thing about skater boys and stoners. Freddie was the sweet, sensitive one of the second generation boys, and I liked his insecurity despite being incredibly good looking.

Kieran MacFoeinaiugh (Ardal O’Hanlon)
KieranNaomi’s ‘mentor’ at Roundview College. Initially almost unrecognisable as the guy who was Father Dougal, O’Hanlon made Kieran funny, fallible but still somehow profound.

Rich Hardbeck (Alexander Arnold) and Alo Creevey (Will Merrick)
RichAloTogether because they’re basically a double act. These two music loving potheads and outcasts were the most likeable of the boys in the third generation. Rich’s metal snobbery and Alo’s bizarrely tasteless outfits were highlights for me.

Shelley McGuinness (Clare Grogan)
ShelleyBecause it’s always great to see the real Kochanski out of Red Dwarf in anything. Grogan was brilliantly feisty as Mini’s take-no-prisoners mum.

Alex Henley (Sam Jackson)
AlexActually Alex was a bit annoying, with his pretentious dice-decision-making affectation and shallow sex life. But my goodness, I could look at him all day.

So fare thee well boys and girls – till we meet again…

It’s my party, and you can buy it if you want to…

CameronDementia

We’re barely into a new week, and already the Conservative Party is embroiled in yet another controversy about being the party paid for and answering to the super-rich. After the passage of the free-market bonanza NHS bill, then the “fuck the poor” spectacle of a Budget that considered cutting taxes for the wealthy its most important priority, now it seems that if you give the Conservatives £250,000 or more, you get to have dinner with David Cameron and tell him what to do.

Seemingly keen to hasten their electoral demise by rushing headlong to the state of sleaze and scandal it took them years to reach by 1997, it seems the Conservatives have been allowing party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas to promise that every donor of £250,000 or more will have a private dinner with Cameron at the Number 10 flat. This, it was heavily implied, would allow such donors a significant input into party policy – suddenly the reasons for the cutting of the top tax rate seem clearer.

Cameron, of course, said he’d known nothing about this (to quote Christine Keeler, “well, he would, wouldn’t he?”). In the wake of a Sunday Times video clearly showing Cruddas making this offer, the hapless co-treasurer instantly resigned, without the usual days of Cameron offering his “full support”. Clearly, even for the Tories, this wasn’t going to be one they could brazen their way out of.

Not that they’re not trying. Cameron seemed to immediately withdraw from public view, leaving hopeless Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to vainly defend Cruddas’ actions on Radio 4’s Today programme and in the Commons. Maude was onto rather a sticky wicket trying to defend a policy that everyone had suspected existed, but for which there had previously been no proof. “But,” protested Maude, “it’s not like this is new. Everyone knows you can buy the Conservative Party!”

OK, those weren’t his precise words, but that’s more or less what he was saying. And do you know what? He’s actually right. A quick glance at the Conservative Party webpage concerning donations reveals exactly what level of access you can get, and for how much.

  • £50 a month gets you the title of ‘Party Patron’ and, presumably, a glowing sense of well-being.
  • £250 annually (less money, oddly) gets you into ‘Fastrack’ (I like my racks fast), where you meet “like-minded supporters of the Party” at “social events”.
  • £2000 annually gets you into the anachronistically named ‘Team 2000’, and here things start to look decidedly fishy. These guys are, apparently, “The principal group of donors who support and market the Party’s policies in Government, by hearing them first hand from the Leader and key Conservative politicians through a lively programme of drinks receptions, dinner and discussion”.
  • £2500 gets you into the ‘City and Entrepreneurs’ forum, at which you have “discussions… in the West End”. On what, I wonder?
  • £5000 gets you into the ‘Front Bench Club’, and you get to “debate with MPs at a series of political lunches”. Presumably without ever telling them that your donations will stop if they don’t do what you want.
  • £10,000 gets you into the ‘Renaissance Forum’, at which you “enjoy dinners and political debate with eminent speakers from the world of business and politics”. “Debate” as in “bribery”?
  • £25,0000 gets you into the ‘Treasurers’ Group, at which you will be “invited to join senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”. Hmmm…
  • And lastly, for this list, £50,000 gets you into the ‘Leader’s Group’, in which you can look forward to being “invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”.

The price list stops there, but it’s reasonable to assume that, just as Cruddas said, increasingly high donations will get you increasingly exclusive access (for a couple of amusing suggestions as to what exactly, check out Millennium Dome’s blog). So, just as Maude says, this was hardly a secret. Well, maybe this level was, but it was easy enough to work out from what they’d actually put in the public domain.

Thus it was that a shaky looking David Cameron finally emerged from the shadows this lunchtime for a previously booked gig he couldn’t duck out of – an address to the Alzheimer’s Society on increased dementia funding. The sight of him delivering his excuses beneath a banner advertising the society may not have pleased them (and invites some tasteless jokes which I’ll refrain from here), as he relegated their cause to second place after addressing the whole wretched ‘corruption’ issue.

He insisted that all this was news to him, but admitted that there had been private dinners with some high flown donors. It was all above board, he insisted, and there was no question of impropriety or undue influence on government policy. That’s all right then. Presumably these billionaires just wanted the undoubted delight of the Camerons’ company, and in no way did the fact of their massively high donations hang over the dinner like a looming sense of obligation.

Still, Cameron promised to publish the details of all these dinners – “something no Prime Minister has ever done before”. It’s a revealing list of plutocrats, hedge fund managers and financial brokers, all of whom, given their net worth, presumably donated significantly more than £250,000 each to the Party. Still, I’m sure the possibility of displeasing those who financially prop up his party by disagreeing with their aims never once entered into our incorruptible Prime Minister’s head.

And with that, he promised an internal investigation into the affair and proceeded to lifelessly deliver his planned speech on dementia. Afterwards, he slunk off without taking any questions from the assembled journos, and is conveniently absent from Prime Minister’s Questions at the House for the next few weeks, leaving his whipping boy Nick Clegg to take the flak. Being for once blameless, Clegg could have a lot of fun at his master’s expense here – I wonder if he’ll have the nerve?

Labour, of course, leapt on the revelations with glee. Ed Miliband, with the air of a school debating society captain who’s won a petty victory, fumed that it was a bit mad to have an internal Tory party investigation into allegations of corruption into the Conservative Party. In this he has a point. The old “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” question could debatably apply to any political party, but it’s certainly pertinent when the party in question is actually in government and passing legislation. Still, when the calls for an independent inquiry are led by “cash for peerages” Labour Lord Levy, the words “pot” “kettle” and “black” instantly leap to mind.

Because it’s not like Labour have never done this kind of thing. Apart from Levy, and the odd coincidence that big Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone was exempted from the ban on tobacco advertising for his Formula 1 hobby, the Labour website too lists ‘benefits’ for their donors. Admittedly, their menu is rather more modestly priced, and tops off with the exciting sounding ‘Thousand Club’ which confusingly costs £1200 to join. This doesn’t get you an intimate dinner with Ed Miliband, in the unlikely event that you should desire such a thing, merely “exclusive events” and a free pass to the Party Conference, the Glastonbury for Labour supporters. But it’s the same kind of thing as the Tories. And besides, Labour don’t need big donations – they get those already from the Trade Unions.

Which brings us to the whole vexed question of party funding, and how it influences policy. It’s an odd coincidence that in a recent Deputy Prime Minster’s Questions, Clegg was called on to answer what was being done about the undue influence of unaccounted for lobbyists on each party; at the time, I caught myself thinking, doesn’t that include all those funding donors, like the unions funding Labour and the City providing more than half the funding for the Conservatives?

With the issue thrown so thoroughly into the public eye, Cameron fell back on some old policies, stating that donations to parties should be capped at £50,000 annually. Now, there is some merit to the idea that donations should be capped, to prevent the donors effectively ‘buying’ their own compliant government (as seems to be the case in the United States). But £50,000? That’s still £250,000 over a five year Parliament. Which is quite a lot.

No party (except maybe the Lib Dems) has been keen to really address the issue of party funding, for the obvious reason that any reform to the present system would stand to lose them quite a bit of money. As it stands, the Labour Party is largely funded by huge Trade Union donations, and the Conservative Party by City firms and plutocrats. As a result, each is obliged to take a stand on fairly narrow, sectional viewpoints. This is actually the very antithesis of democracy and the embodiment of corrupt self-interest, but because it’s such a longstanding arrangement, few people question it any more.

Not coincidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Tories tend to do well despite representing, basically, businesses and the rich. They have a massive financial advantage that allows them to sweep in with a barrage of donor-funded publicity in any constituency where they might be threatened. Labour have the wherewithal to stage at least something of a fight back, but the Lib Dems, whose funding is far more modest, have never had a chance. With a much more limited supply of financial resources, they’ve had to concentrate on seats they have a good chance of winning, and simply abandon the rest as a lost cause. And they’re more leery than their counterparts of large donors, after their one big contributor, Michael Brown, turned out not to actually own all the money he gave to them.

This is clearly a corrupt state of affairs – but when the leading parties are the beneficiaries, why would they challenge it? But interestingly, a 15 month inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended some pretty sweeping reforms when they reported last November. The report recommended a much lower cap of £10,000 per donor, which would bring things down to a much more level playing field for all three major parties. Of course, this wouldn’t go far to funding a big political operation for any of them. Which is why the report proposes using £23million of state (read ‘taxpayer’) money to make up the shortfall, and give all three major parties the same amount of money to deal with. Hey presto – at a stroke, the Tories would be stripped of their City-funded financial advantage, Labour wouldn’t have to be a slave to the unions, and the Lib Dems might approach something like credibility in comparison.

There are moral and pragmatic arguments against this – why should the taxpayer fund political campaigning (particularly when austerity is cutting real incomes left, right and centre), and how could this get voted through when the two largest parties stand to lose advantages because of it? As a result, we’re unlikely to see anything like this happen, which is sad, because as the Committee said, it would be “ the only safe way to remove big money from party funding”, and claw something like democracy back from vested interests who can currently buy representation in ways the ordinary voter can only dream of.

But on the flipside, even with austerity, this amounts to a contribution of 50p annually for each taxpayer. And £23million may sound like a lot, but it’s pocket change compared to what’s being slashed from the NHS and the benefit system while billionaires are getting tax cuts. Isn’t it a price worth paying to buy back your representation from self-interested billionaires and trade union demagogues? With the issue certain to be debated, this report is bound to be called on – by the Lib Dems if nobody else, since they have least to lose. That’s assuming they’ve paid the requisite £250,000 to get the Prime Minister to listen…

Being Human: Series 4, Episode 8–The War Child

“Leo once said we were on the outside of humanity so that we might guard it. He made it sound like a privilege rather than a burden.”

BeingHumanAnnieAlex

And so, the transformation is complete. With this explosive series finale, it’s become clear that this year’s entire run was an exercise in reinventing Being Human, changing the format while still trying to tell a gripping and entertaining story. Did it succeed? Well, that very much depends on how well you’ve taken to the changes. To the new characters in particular, since we’ve now lost the only link to the lineup we came to know and love. The question is, was it those characters that made the show so effective, or the premise and the mythology that built up around them?

From the online comments I’ve been reading since this series began, I think its original fans are still polarised about that one. The mythology is potent, certainly, but in a lot of ways not really very original. So much of the charm of the show was the characters Toby Whithouse created to reject the supernatural world that spawned them. I can accept that ending up with an entirely new trio in the same scenario comes across as a little contrived; but I’m still enjoying it precisely because I do like these new characters. Others aren’t, and I can sympathise. It takes a lot to let go of fictional characters you’ve become so invested in, and these newcomers haven’t had anything like enough time to build up the same kind of fan affection – yet. Still, I think it’s worth sticking with the show, because I can certainly see the potential.

With all that said, how good was the episode itself? Previous series finales of Being Human have been emotional rollercoasters and thrillrides. With Toby Whithouse again on scripting duties, this one was no exception; and yet, somehow, it did have a feeling of over familiarity to it. I was gripped, sure, but there were some nagging nitpicks. And, emotional though Annie’s farewell was, I think tis is the first time I’ve come away from a Being Human series finale without having shed a tear.

There was some good stuff though. In particular, the dialogue was excellent, dripping with Whithouse’s customary dry wit – nowhere more so than in the cutting lines given to Mark Gatiss’ vampire Old One, Mr Snow. I loved his withering putdowns of Cutler’s inexplicably failed plan – “thanks to you, breweries the world over are safe from pissups”.

Mr Snow was the centre of the episode really, which was a good thing and a bad thing. Gatiss’ trademark stylised ‘performance’ actually worked quite well to convey a being who’s literally thousands of years old, and who’s more disconnected from humanity than any other supernatural we’ve seen. The pale, veined skin, stained teeth and dirty fingernails gave him an unsettling appearance that contrasted nicely with his urbane dress sense and sibilant, whispered line delivery.

He set out the stall of his nastiness perfectly in the opening sequence, as a Nazi-like vampire supremo in the nightmare future. His interrogation of hapless resistance agent Isaac was straight out of a war movie (Inglourious Basterds’ opening sequence came to mind), but his method of execution certainly wasn’t. We saw him literally disembowel Isaac with his bare hands, in a truly nasty bit of effects. After that, we didn’t really need to see him kill anyone else. The threat – implicit or explicit – was enough, together with Hal’s fear and deference to him. Their two handed scene in the cafe cemented this perfectly, Snow confident that Hal would come back to him and conveying his immense age by commenting that Hal’s 55 years lying low was just “the afternoon off”.

But while Snow was an effective chief villain, I thought it was a shame that his arrival so immediately put Cutler into the shade. Andrew Gower has made Cutler a much more interesting baddie than the traditional vampire master that Snow basically is. All modernity, self-doubt and shades of grey, he’s been permitted an enjoyable fallibility that most chief villains don’t have. He has, in fact, been so likeable that more than once I found myself wanting his schemes to succeed.

So it felt a little wrong for him to be usurped by such a ‘trad’ vampire, even if Gatiss’ stylised acting made Snow quite interesting. Cutler did at least get a brilliantly dramatic demise, as wracked with hatred for vampirekind after his humiliation at Snow’s hands, he forced his way uninvited into Honolulu Heights to kill Eve and by extension his entire species. “I always knew I’d make history,” was his final, despairing cry – just before Annie poltergeisted a stake through his heart.

Because Cutler had been more or less shaped up as the main baddie this year, this scene actually felt like the climax of the episode. It was marvellously gruesome; now we know what happens if a vampire tries to get in without an invitation. Cutler’s gradual burning as he painfully forced himself to Eve’s crib was a triumph of make up effects.

And with the plot carefully constructed so that Eve’s death is the only way to avoid the vampire-dominated future, the scene was very tense. I didn’t know if the show would have the guts to actually kill the baby, or to find some cleverer, more elegant solution that would allow her to live. But if the baby was going to die, I thought at least that Whithouse would shy away from having Annie do it, and Cutler seemed the perfect way to avoid that. So I genuinely thought – for a moment – that he would succeed. Until Annie’s staking of him left only one option.

Hal and Tom, meanwhile, were running around trying to find alternatives of their own, accompanied by new ghost Alex. I said last week that it looked very much as though Alex was being groomed as a new member of the team, and that as a result, Annie looked to be on her way out. As it turned out, I was right, which many fans may find the final nail in Being Human’s coffin. But, as with Hal and Tom, I found myself really liking Alex. Kate Bracken’s spiky, amusing performance in some ways takes us back to how Annie used to be, before ‘Dark Annie’, and before she ended up with the fate of the world on her shoulders.

I don’t know if I missed something though – after last week’s nailbiting cliffhanger of Hal alone in the nightclub with the transformed Tom, this week we cut straight to the three of them on a hillside, having apparently escaped in a van. The expository dialogue revealing that Hal had somehow lured Tom into the van and driven off felt a little lame compared to actually showing that happening, I thought.

Still, that aside, Tom and Hal got some nice moments this week. Like the tormented soul that every ‘good’ vampire has to be since Anne Rice’s Louis, he was having problems staying off the blood. Snow referred to his ‘cycle’ of being bad, then good, then bad again, as a ‘every fifty years’ kind of thing, meaning that we’re about to enter another ‘bad’ phase. Damien Molony’s almost forlorn struggle against this, contrasted with his hissing nastiness as he occasionally succumbed, was an affecting performance.

Tom, for his part, was knocking up an improvised suicide bomb, completing the last part of the plot’s necessary inventory. Reverting back to his old, vampire-killing ways made him seem less of a comedy fool than he has been at various times this year. Of all the new characters, it’s seemed that Tom is the one the writers have a handle on least; but with Whithouse writing, he gets the balance of humour and drama just right.

Like every Being Human finale before it (see a pattern here?), the episode climaxed with double and triple cross betrayals. First, Tom surrendered Eve to the Old Ones, on the advice of their mysterious werewolf henchman Milo (Michael Wildman, who I think we’ll be seeing again). Aware that the vampires wanted Eve kept alive, Tom was prepared to risk humanity’s future rather than endanger the child he’d come to love.

Then Hal turned up with the bomb, ready to kill all the vampires, including himself (“If you blow anything up, it tends to die”). But he couldn’t resist Snow’s compelling power, and reluctantly took his place at the Old Ones’ side.

So, inevitably, it was left to Annie to sort it all out – just as the plot had been building up to. Annie’s been rather ill-served this season, varying from absence to an exposition repository to, occasionally, bad sitcom character. But this was her Big Exit, and the script did Lenora Critchlow proud. With the blazing blue eyes of Dark Annie, she threw the vampires hither and yon before reminding Alex that she could ‘Rentaghost’ Hal out of there. With Tom already outside (did Milo know what was going to happen?), and with baby Eve in her arms, it was Annie who triumphantly, finally, hit the switch on the bomb, sending the vampires, and the baby, off to real death.

I wasn’t at all surprised, with the hints we’ve had recently, that Annie’s Door appeared, and it was off to the afterlife for her, where she discovered baby Eve waiting. She got an emotional farewell scene with future Eve, who gradually unravelled as her timeline was erased. But I did think it was rather a shame she was hustled off to the afterlife without a farewell scene with her new friends; much as I felt George was rather peremptorily dispatched in episode one. It felt dramatically unsatisfying somehow.

Still, there was a touching moment as another Door – that looked rather like the one from our heroes’ old house in Bristol – appeared in the corridor, and future Eve told Annie, “they’re waiting for you”. Lenora Critchlow’s smile of delight sold the moment; but if, as implied, “they” were Mitchell, George and Nina, I can’t imagine George and Nina are going to be too happy with Annie showing up holding their now-dead baby…

All of which left our new heroes together at last in Honolulu Heights, with Hal strapped down as Tom and Alex prepare to help him resist another turn to evil. And it did feel like a return to the old days when Hal asked Tom why he’d do this, and Tom, having mocked him mercilessly earlier, simply replied, “because you’re my best mate”. That’s a restating of the mantra the show had right from the start – these guys may be ‘monsters’, but they’re also friends.

It’s as much a reboot as anything else, restarting the show from scratch albeit with an established, and ever more complex mythology. This was added to by the late arrival of the mysterious Mr Rook and his grey-suited compadres, who seem to spend their time hushing up the existence of supernaturals. They’re not supernatural themselves, because they couldn’t see Alex. So who are they? Some sort of government agency? (Rook does comment that he’s off to a meeting with the “Secretary of State”)

At least they answer the point I made a few weeks ago, about how supernaturals are still secret despite having shown a lot of ineptitude at keeping it that way. Though it also makes you wonder why Herrick and his successors needed to infiltrate the police to cover up vampire doings; these shadowy men may be unknown to the supernaturals, but they can’t have failed to notice the evidence of their misdeeds repeatedly disappearing.

Still, all of these are questions for next time, I suppose – and it’s been confirmed that the show will be back, albeit with a shorter, six episode run. Whether you’re back with it depends on how much you took to this year’s reinvention, and the new characters that came with it. For me, I think the format has the potential to survive with new ‘people’ – some may not. But I’ll definitely be watching when it returns. In the mean time, I’ll be enjoying the surprisingly good American ‘re-imagining’ of it, now reaching the end of its second 13 episode season – proof that I can enjoy it with yet another different set of characters!

A tax is the best form of offence

One of the ‘joys’ of living through an ongoing economic crisis is that suddenly, everyone is an armchair economic pundit. Forget Robert Peston – you’ll hear a hugely diverse (often misinformed) range of opinion on this arcane, complex and, quite frankly, dull topic these days in every pub in the land. Not to mention a spectrum of political viewpoints all over the internet.

This week, the armchair economic pundits have mostly been talking about George Osborne’s typically divisive 2012 Budget. According to whose take you read, it’s a terrible budget, or a great budget, or an unmemorable budget, or an attack on the poor, or a much-needed shot in the arm for the business sector. As an armchair pundit myself, what I see in this Budget is a politically incompetent attempt to drive through more of the increasingly hardline Conservative ideology that’s been a signature of most Coalition policies since the Conservatives and their junior partners (or “human shields” – thanks for that one, Owen Jones) the Lib Dems got into power.

Poor little rich boys

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Osborne called it “a Budget to reward hard work” in his Commons statement, but a not particularly close look is needed to tell that this only applies to very well-paid hard work. Key to this is the much pre-publicised dropping of the top, 50%, tax rate for very high earners to 45%. No amount of (not especially well-done) spin can disguise the fact that this is, essentially, a bonanza tax cut for the very rich, who in these straitened times are  precisely the ones who need a tax cut least.

This is standard Conservative ideology. Osborne claims in one breath that it will remove a disincentive for those ‘wealth creators’ to shift their businesses to the UK, while in the next he says that the tax take from said ‘wealth creators’ will rise by five times due to other measures contained in the Budget. Well, which is it, George? If the 50% tax rate was putting them off coming here, how will other means of raking in even more money not do the same thing?

Shifting to another tack, the Chancellor and the Treasury point to a not-especially reliable ‘Laffer curve’ showing that this higher rate of tax actually decreases the overall tax take from the very rich. This, according to the Treasury, is because when the tax rate is too high, the rich find increasingly more ways to avoid paying it. Therefore, the theory runs, you’ll take in more tax at a lower rate, because those upstandingly moral wealthy people will happily pay all they owe, if that amount is generally lower.

This is an interesting perspective. “We can’t make the law work,” says the Chancellor, “so we’ll remove that law”. Interestingly, this is one of the most persuasive arguments to abandon the utterly ineffective prohibition of drugs; but somehow the same chain of logic isn’t applied there. It would be more in keeping with the government’s hardline stance on the drug laws (not to mention with Osborne’s stated aims on tax avoidance) to make more strenuous efforts to make sure the law is followed, not only to the letter but also to the spirit. But then that wouldn’t win all that goodwill from the very rich people who form a core part of the Tory voter base (not to mention donating about half of its party funds).

Laffer curves are a very subjective thing. The idea that the ‘peak’ tax rate after which revenue from taxation begins to decrease is at exactly 45%, or 50% for that matter, is mathematically simplistic. It’s also entirely theoretical until long term, reliable data has been gathered at varying tax points to make the comparison.

But Osborne claims to have this data. He points to the revenue gained from the 50% rate as being far less than the £3billion Labour claimed it would net when they introduced it in 2010 – less than a third of that, apparently. What he neglected to mention (but must surely be aware of) is that there is only data from the first full year of the tax. And because Labour gave a nice long term warning that the tax rise was going to be happening, many of those who would be affected chose to pay themselves dividends early, to avoid the new rate.

This had two big effects – it made the tax revenue for Labour’s last year in power artificially high (not that that could save them electorally), and made the first year’s takings at the new rate artificially low. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, had the new rate been maintained long enough, it might have brought in far more. And that’s presumably including the anticipated avoidance. If Osborne’s promised crackdown on tax avoidance happens, who knows, it could have brought in even more.

No, none of the Chancellor’s justifications for this tax cut being pragmatically and morally the right thing to do hold any water at all. Perhaps if they had someone with the skill of Alastair Campbell doing their spin, they might have. But they don’t, and this looks like exactly what it is – naked Conservative ideology, which clings to their traditional idea that the rich deserve to keep their hoarded wealth at the expense of the poor.

As if to prove this, Osborne also announced a further ‘crackdown’ on benefit fraud. So, if the poor (even the tiny fraction of them whose claims are fraudulent) flout the law, they must be severely punished. If the rich flout the law, that must mean the law is inconvenient and should be removed. Think about the message that sends – far from ‘detoxifying the Tory brand’, the current Cabinet seem intent on raising the age old spectre of ‘the Nasty Party’ – now with added Nastiness. Electorally this may not be a wise plan.

Gran, can you spare £10 billion?

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And neither are the methods being used to make up the predicted shortfall. Most prominent among these, and causing howls of outrage among even the right wing press, is the so-called ‘Granny Tax’ – an apparent £10 billion tax raid on the pensions of the elderly.

This is not big or clever politically. The Chancellor is always seen as ‘Mr Nasty’; he’s the killjoy that makes it more expensive to drink, smoke, or drive your car. But mugging the elderly to give more money to the hyper-rich, that’s a new low. What next, raising tax revenue by stealing candy from babies?

Again, this could have been handled better with a little thought about the message. It’s actually tied in to the Lib Dems’ much vaunted increase in the tax free personal allowance – their manifesto pledge was that, in time, this would be raised to £10,000, benefitting everyone, but particularly low earners. A big step was taken towards that in the Budget, with the threshold being raised quite considerably to £9205.

There’s a rather nasty viewpoint that says pensioners have had it too easy during the savage cutting back of austerity, and it’s time for them to pay their fair share. That’s tied in to jealousy, plain and simple – the elderly have managed to buy houses and get good pensions – things that are rapidly becoming impossible today. So why should they get the nice stuff by virtue of having lived in easier times? Let’s drag them down to the same low standards the rest of us have to put up with!

Put like that, it actually seems a most un-Conservative policy – the elderly have worked hard for their assets, and surely standard Tory mantra would be that they should keep every penny. But this is New Conservatism, steeped in class prejudice that would make Thatcher (a grammar school girl) blanch with horror. What Osborne is doing will, predictably, only affect lower ‘earning’ pensioners. Their tax-free threshold, which normally rises with inflation, will be frozen at £10,500 for the foreseeable future. New pensioners will have it even worse – their threshold will be stuck at £9205. Not coincidentally, the same as the new tax free threshold for working people.

So the logical – and less politically explosive – thing to have done would be to make clear that it was this parity they were trying to achieve, and juggle both tax free thresholds until they were equal. Yes, some pensioners would lose out, but less than with what’s actually happening. And there might be some justification in that anyway, if spun right – which it wasn’t. It’s hard to fathom the reason for any experienced politician to handle it this way – it’s like Osborne’s actually trying to throw away the next election.

Corporation’s what you need

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Perhaps he was hoping to use it to disguise yet more tax relief for large corporations – being panned for mugging the elderly might be the lesser of two evils compared to pandering to those all-purpose bad guys of unrestrained capitalism. In his quest to bring the level of Corporation Tax – on corporate profits – down from 28% to 22% (lower than almost every developed country), the Chancellor made another leap for glory by shifting it down to 24%.

On top of that, there’s an arcane rule about shifting corporate money from one tax region to another. If a UK-based company shifts profits from, say, Ghana to Switzerland, it currently has to pay the Treasury the standard corporate tax rate on the money made by doing so. Well, guess what? Not any more! Perhaps George was willing to take the hit on mugging grannies to keep that little wheeze from becoming more widely known.

This, of course, fits in with the Tory mantra that private industry will make everything better. Bring down the burden of corporate tax, the theory runs, and businesses will flock to the UK, bringing all that lovely money with them. Except, of course, they won’t be giving any of it to the state, because in Tory-world, only the free market can handle money responsibly.

This ignores two fairly well-proven things. Firstly, corporations exist to make as much money as possible. That’s their very raison d’etre. Do you really think they won’t still attempt to hoard as much of it as possible? And if they do, how will that help the economy? And secondly, it’s hard for a business to make any money in a consumer economy where the consumers have no money to spend – largely because they’re losing it all in tax to fund corporate tax breaks.

The fate of the Nice Ones

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But what about the Lib Dems, and their much-claimed moderating influence on the ruthless, money-hungry class warriors of the Conservatives? Nick Clegg has been lamely pointing to a few measures that could, on the surface, look ‘nice’. Chief among these is the raise to the personal tax free threshold, which leaped much closer to the target figure of £10,000 by going up to £9205. That’s got to be a step in the right direction, surely?

Well, sorry Nick, but it’s not as good as it looks. For a start, the raising of the tax free threshold is accompanied by a lowering of the threshold for the higher, 40% rate – this has been frozen and will fall to £41,500 by 2014, meaning that more and more people will find their tax bills getting higher. Also, it doesn’t do much to help the truly poor, who may be below that threshold already.

And this policy won’t do much for the low earners it lifts out of tax either, because of a nifty little benefit technicality pointed out by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. If you’re in that low-income bracket, chances are you’ll be claiming Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. Well, these benefits taper off the more you earn, and here’s the thing – that’s net earnings, ie after tax. So while the new thresholds give £220 with one hand, the increased earnings mean that they take £187 right back. Leaving those low income households with the princely extra sum of £33 a year. Put like that, it doesn’t seem quite so generous, does it Nick?

OK then, how about the other measures, the ones that Simon Hughes claims make “the rich pay their fair share”, and Cameron says will bring in five times the revenue of the 50% tax rate? There are a couple of these, and on first glance they look quite good. Unfortunately, they’re basically fudged versions of the much more effective mansion tax originally proposed by Vince Cable, who shiftily tried to make them look good on last night’s Question Time with the haunted look of Dr Faustus discovering that his deal with Mephistopheles wasn’t as good as it looked.

These measures are to do with stamp duty, and initially appear to be a creditable attempt to tax assets rather than earnings – because they’re, sort of, a tax on property. Henceforth, stamp duty on properties worth over £2million will rise from 5% to 7%, but even more significantly, for properties bought by the tax dodging wheeze of using shell companies rather than individuals, it will go up to a whopping 15%. And there’ll be an annual duty on residential properties already owned by shell companies (though the rate for it has yet to be determined).

While this “mini mansion tax” is nice, the other rises have one basic flaw – they depend on the property actually being sold. It seems sheer madness to make confident estimates of the money you’ll make from property transactions, as there’s no guarantee of them happening at any predictable level. Hell, what if the rate of property purchase drops because of this measure? Where will the money come from then? Well, just maybe from the further £10 billion to be slashed from the welfare budget – at precisely the time more and more people are falling into poverty.

Nick Clegg is shiftily trying to claim that these measures constitute the ‘tycoon tax’ he so unexpectedly called for at the recent Lib Dem conference; despite the fact that what he outlined sounded nothing like this. He’s also saying that a proposed cap on tax relief fits the description (a good policy, nonetheless).

But I have to wonder what backroom deals were already in place with the Tories before he made that announcement. The Lib Dems attempts to spin this Budget as being anything less than naked Conservative ideology completely at odds with their own is sadly lacking here. Of course, the Conservatives’ spin isn’t too great either. The difference is that everyone expects the Tories to be nasty, even if they may have overreached themselves this time. Once again, though, I think we expected better of the Lib Dems. They’re beginning to appear almost powerless in the Coalition, and their leader’s constant attempts to defend extremely right wing policies are beginning to make him personally look like Vidkun Quisling.

Nothing in the world can stop them now?

Lib Dems aside, this should still be electoral suicide even for the Tories. Well, if they had any sort of worthwhile opposition, anyway.

Labour seemed to do all right out of the Budget. This is largely because opposing Budgets is easy, and opposing one this nasty was child’s play – even for the charisma vacuum that is Ed Miliband. But Labour still seem to have no coherent idea of what they would do instead. Vague promises are floated one week, then discarded the next. And the best their Shadow Chancellor can come up with is that he’d do more or less the same things – just more slowly.

There are three years to go before the next election, which might give both Labour and the Lib Dems the chance to shape themselves up into some kind of credible opposition to the Tories. Let’s hope so. Because right now, the fact that the Tories have the sheer gall to put through a Budget this mercenary and selfish seems to indicate that they think no-one can challenge them. And on the present evidence, they may well be right.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 13

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!

Beside the Dying Fire

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So this is it – after thirteen weeks, it’s the culmination of The Walking Dead’s ‘difficult second album’. This has been a patchy season after the compressed, high-octane drama of the first. With more than twice the number of episodes for apparently about half the budget, the first half of the season was frustratingly meandering and slow-paced, with a restrictive claustrophobic setting that worked to the detriment of the drama, and a little too much post-apocalypse soap opera.

The show’s return after its mid-season break found a massive increase in quality. Its settings opened up to take in the town near Hershel’s farm, and most importantly we got a return of the show’s proper USP – zombies. After their near absence for most of the season’s first half, recent episodes have sated the audience with horde after horde of stumbling revenants, reminding us that this is a post-apocalypse scenario far more hazardous than that of, say, Survivors. Not that the character drama has been neglected for zombie action, mind – the two episodes prior to this finale have had some heart in mouth moments of tension with no zombie involvement at all. They’ve also had, it’s fair to say, a number of whopping great plot contrivances that don’t hold up to close scrutiny.

This mostly excellent finale had its share of those too, though I’ll come to those later. But with original comics’ creator Robert Kirkman co-scripting with new showrunner Glen Mazzara, this was for the most part a thrilling, gripping piece of TV that might almost redeem the uneven pacing of the season as a whole.

After last week’s cliffhanger ending of a horde of walkers stumbling towards the farm, this week’s cold open cleverly didn’t pick up right from there. Instead, cleverly, it eked out the tension with an epic sequence of how this previously unanticipated horde came to be there. Starting out in a city (presumably nearby Atlanta), they’d taken to following that helicopter we’d all forgotten about from way back in the first season. As in the behaviour described in the comics, more joined them and they continued to stagger in the same direction, gaining numbers as they went, until long after the object of their initial interest had been forgotten. Until, now numbering in the impressively visualised hundreds, the gunshots from the farm caused them to turn in a new direction. Seeing the end of last week’s episode, this time from their point of view, was an excellent lead in to the credits and the action proper.

And action it certainly was. Taking the climax of most classic zombie movies as an inspiration, the episode showed our heroes’ refuge being overrun by a horde of ghouls so large it was quite simply unstoppable. Most of the episode’s first half was a frenetic melee of chaos as the farm was overrun, with the characters scattered hither and yon across the fields as they took to the cars in an attempt to shoot and then distract the herd.

Rick and Carl, for their part, were left hiding in the barn as they found themselves unable to make it through the hordes to the farmhouse. Everyone else being unaware of this, they had to fend for themselves by setting the barn – and the walkers Rick rather fearlessly let in – ablaze, in a set piece that surely consumed a fair chunk of the season budget.

With all the shooting, burning, and mad driving, the script took the opportunity to kill off those characters who’ve been a complete waste of space since the season began. Jimmy, the mostly mute teenage boy who was on the farm for some reason or other, perished after foolishly forgetting to lock the door of the RV, letting in some hungry corpses; catching light from the barn, the RV – so closely identified with the now-deceased Dale – is now toast. Back at the house, Otis’ wife Patricia, who’s uttered barely a word since her husband died, was dragged away from Beth for some chowing down.

These deaths provided some welcome gore – this is a horror story, after all – but served to underline how badly these characters have been served by all the scripts since the season began. Were they introduced solely with the intention of becoming zombie chow in the last episode? Even if they were, some kind of character description might have made us care, like we did about Dale and even Shane last week. As it was, I simply shrugged and considered the show well rid of them. It might have had more impact to have lost at least one of the main characters; but I suppose having killed off two in as many weeks, the writers didn’t want the action undercut by that kind of trauma.

This elongated sequence provided some memorable moments. Hershel, futilely blasting away at the unstoppable horde approaching the house; Lori, screaming for Carl and being dragged away to the pickup truck; Glenn blasting away out of the Hyundai’s window as Maggie drove like a lunatic. Some excellent direction from Ernest Dickerson gave the whole thing a real sense of urgency and tension; more than once, I found myself pointing at the screen and yelling, “behind you!”

Eventually though, everyone had the good sense to realise that this wasn’t a battle they were going to win, and to get the hell out of there. Along the way, Daryl rekindled the spark he has with Carol by sweeping heroically in on his bike to rescue her from pursuing walkers. Elsewhere, Rick, for a wonder, managed to convince the stubborn Hershel that the farm was lost, and there was no point dying for it. Even T-Dog finally got some actual lines, as he drove Lori and Beth away in that tatty old pickup that shows not all the vehicles in the show are product placements. Having all, independently, made the decision to flee the farm, these separate groups all, independently, decided to head back to the highway, and the place they’d left supplies for the missing Sophia way back in episode 2.

And this is the whopping great plot contrivance I had trouble with. Yes, it might have been annoying to spend the first few episodes of the next season with the group trying to find each other. But for all of them, independently, to have decided to meet up there having made no prior rendezvous arrangement? That, I’m afraid, is just not believable. I could have accepted it if some of them did that; hell, even if most of them did. But all of them? Er, no, I’m not buying that.

A similar thing happened way back in episode 8, when Rick guessed that the missing Hershel was in the town bar (and he was), then Lori, having no knowledge of this, correctly came to the same conclusion when she set out to find him. I appreciate that sometimes you just want to move the plot along to a certain point, but for heaven’s sake do it in a believable way that actually makes sense!

Having ranted about that, I’m bound also to say that the second half of the episode, with the action over, was much more slowly paced. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as our heroes have to pause to take stock, count their losses, apportion blame, and so on. Dramatically it makes sense. But perhaps less so in a season finale, when you’re wanting to stoke the thrills to fever pitch and leave your audience hanging in eager anticipation of the show’s return.

That said, there was some good character drama in this latter part of the episode, as the group’s morale plummeted and Rick began to seem increasingly unhinged in a way that might have made Shane seem preferable. Carol’s all for splitting up; T-Dog just wants to head ‘east’; and Lori, having been told that Rick killed Shane “just to get it over with” finds it hard to even touch her husband.

To add to that, we finally found out what Dr Jenner whispered into Rick’s ear at the CDC last season. As we suspected after the last few episodes, it was, “you’re all infected”. That Rick had known this all along and not told anyone did not go down well; but it looks like, for pragmatic reasons, they’re willing to sullenly accept him as leader. For now. It can’t have helped when he declared that, “this is no longer a democracy”. Having killed Shane, it seems like he’s rejected Dale’s way of thinking and adopted Shane’s anyway.

This is an unusual way of developing your ‘hero’, but it shows that The Walking Dead is not going to make compromises about how nasty even the best of people can be. The Rick in the comics developed along similar lines, his worldview hardening in light of the circumstances. He’s hardly recognisable now from the clean-cut cop at the story’s beginning. The development is unsurprising with comic creator Kirkman on scripting duties, and Andrew Lincoln rose to the challenge well, managing to make us angry with Rick while still sympathising with his viewpoint.

And speaking of the comics (which I’ll try not to spoiler too much), we finally got the much-anticipated arrival of one of their most popular characters. As the abandoned Andrea, finally having run out of bullets after fleeing the walkers all night, was pounced on by a huge ghoul, it looked like the end for her. Until, that is, its head was unexpectedly sliced off by a sword, wielded by a mysterious hooded figure accompanied by two chained, armless, jawless zombies. Without wanting to give too much away, comics readers will know exactly who this is, and may, like me, have punched the air at that point.

Back at the camp, the arguing over, the episode climaxed with an impressive crane shot. As the camera panned up, and across the river, we saw something else familiar from the comics – a massive, fenced prison complex in the near distance. Again, without wanting to give too much away, it’s not hard to guess where this is going, particularly after the group’s discussion about finding a ‘safe place’. And given the major comic villain we now know will feature next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was accompanied by the popular TV character of Merle Dixon too.

The show is back “in the fall”, though I’ve seen no firm date for its return yet. Apparently season 3 will have 16 episodes, giving more scope for storylines. We can only hope that AMC will be generous enough to give it a commensurately higher budget, to reflect its undoubted popularity; and that the showrunner manages to keep up a better balanced pace across the season, with rather less of the endless chit chat that characterised the first half of season 2. Still, uneven though the second season may have been, its second half more than made up for its first, and I’ll certainly be back to watch when it returns.

Being Human: Series 4, Episode 7–Making History

“Sooner or later, we always go back to being the monsters we truly are.”

BeingHumanCutlerHal

We’re into the endgame now, and series creator Toby Whithouse is back for the first time since episode 1 to pen the penultimate episode of Being Human’s new format. Not surprisingly, this is a very good thing – good as some recent episodes have been, nobody understands it – and writes it – as well as its creator. And yet even then, I had a few reservations. I’m gripped, sure, but I have an odd, nagging feeling that we’ve been here before.

With the concentration on the Big Plot as the series moves towards its finale, the characters were like chess pieces being moved into place. Cutler’s propaganda plan to use Tom as a werewolf warning to humanity was moving towards fruition, while the Old Ones’ slow boat was now very nearly there, and Hal’s suspicions as to what was going on hardened into certainties as he investigated ‘Stoker Imports and Exports. Meanwhile, Annie took a sidestep in time with ghost-Eve through a convenient Door, to discover a desolate future in which Nazi-like vampires rule the world and humanity is all but extinct.

It’s that latter part, I think, that gives me that nagging feeling of familiarity. Vampires subjugating humanity and ruling the world – wasn’t that exactly the Big Plot of the very first series, with Herrick’s plan to achieve just that being thwarted by Mitchell and George? Here it is again, only this time it’s worked out for the vampires. Whithouse seems to have taken some lessons from Doctor Who colleague Steven Moffat on how to do a twisty turny time paradox to both show a nightmare future and then prevent it.

Not that it wasn’t well-realised.  Future Eve’s chilling description of the events that led to the desolate landscape Annie was seeing was perfectly pitched, and underscored nicely by barely heard echoes of crying and screaming. The focus on little bits of humanity’s detritus – a lone shoe floating in the bay, and a smashed doll stuck in a bush – took on a deep significance unusual for such commonplace found objects, given the context.

There’s an obvious budgetary consideration in simply describing such massive events rather than actually showing them – I don’t think a BBC3 budget would stretch to the scenes of mass exodus, slaughter and genocide that Eve was describing. But it’s a tried and tested dramatic technique for characters to report massive events rather than showing them to the audience; Shakespeare did it all the time, mainly because it’s not really practical to stage a full scale battle onstage. It was done well here, with other nice hints such as the sign over the ‘concentration camp’ gate – “Through me you pass into eternal pain” – and the Obama-like poster of ruthless future Hal subtitled “Show No Mercy”. Though the Nazi-like banners either side of that served to remind us just how much of a long shadow these all-purpose, real-world baddies have cast over genre drama since 1945.

It also worked well to have Annie – nice, conscience-led Annie – as the audience’s identification point in this. She asked all the right questions to prompt the torrent of exposition, but prevented this from being too clunky dramatically by retaining her usual spirit of normality and humour. In the face of all the horror she was hearing about, it was perfectly Annie to focus on whether she’d been a good mother, and what had happened to her friends. Given the show’s weighty mythology, Lenora Critchlow’s an old hand at dealing with this kind of exposition, and so it proved here as well.

It wasn’t just the future we got to see though. In what I think was the best aspect of the episode, we got to see Cutler’s origin story, and how he was intimately tied in with Hal. Turns out Hal was the one who converted him to vampirism in the first place, back in  1950; as a result, Cutler has a peculiar worship/loathing towards him.

The scenes set in 1950 showed us what a nasty bastard Hal used to be – a necessary reminder, I think, as he’s been played so much for comedy that this aspect of his character has been rather neglected apart from one previous flashback to the 18th century. This time we got his forced conversion of Cutler, followed by his sneering contempt when Cutler couldn’t kill anyone, least of all his wife, and lastly a really nasty moment as he revealed the blood he’d been feeding Cutler was actually from his butchered wife, taken care of by Hal personally.

These scenes were cleverly interwoven, line by line on occasion, with the scenes between Hal and Cutler in the present to underline how their roles have been almost reversed since 1950. Now Cutler’s the powerful one, with his big plan, and Hal’s the reluctant killer. And yet Cutler still worships him; he can’t stand to see his former hero begging on his knees, becoming almost physically sick at the sight. But he still can’t let go of his anger. He loves Hal, but he hates him too for making him what he is.

This all culminated in the ultimate cruel reversal, as Hal discovered that his reawakened blood thirst was being slaked by the blood of his butchered prospective girlfriend Alex. These scenes were brilliantly played by Damien Molony and Andrew Gower, each showing how easy it is to lose your humanity and become a monster – and in Hal’s case, how hard it is to get your humanity back. As he spat at Tom, however much they try to ‘be human’, the monster always re-emerges.

With such dark goings on dominating the episode, Tom was left to deliver what humorous moments there were. Unsurprisingly, Toby Whithouse got the balance of his character better than most other writers this series; yes, he’s naive and trusting, but he’s uneducated rather than stupid. His ineptly delivered pre-rehearsed speech to Cutler, and his inability to put on a tie, were nice comic moments, counterpointed by real drama as he realised the victims Cutler wanted him to kill weren’t the Old Ones after all.

Which brought us to the climax of the episode, as Cutler’s plan came to fruition – but not exactly as he’d wanted. With Alex’s ghost having freed Hal from the locked storeroom beneath the club where the slaughter was to happen, she also prevented any actual killing by unlocking the fire exit for the screaming patrons to flee through. But not before, as Cutler planned, the shocked youngsters did exactly what any modern person would do on being confronted by a strange, terrifying creature – got their phones out and started filming it.

Director Daniel O’Hara dealt with the limitations of a low-budget werewolf well, showing us occasional glimpses of it, its own viewpoint, and blurry phone images rather than any lingering shots of the beast itself – a wise move, as it would have been rather obviously a man in a furry suit. Instead, it was a genuinely tense and terrifying scene. With future Eve having told Annie that Tom had never recovered from accidentally killing some humans, you really weren’t sure if he was going to do just that. But with ghost Alex having helped them escape, the only one really in jeopardy was Hal himself.

It was a good cliffhanger for next week, particularly when you remember how werewolf George tore Herrick limb from limb at the end of the first series. But there was one last cliffhanger to pull out of the bag, as the Old Ones finally showed up after what must have been the slowest boat ride in history. As it turns out, they’re led by a pale and creepy looking Mark Gatiss, using his trademark sinister smile to good effect.

And yet I’m not sure about the wisdom of casting Gatiss. He seems to be on a mission to appear on every genre show made in Britain, but I still can’t properly dissociate him from the comic/horror persona he established in The League of Gentlemen. Being Human may be another blend of horror and comedy, but the emphasis here is far more on the horror aspect. Still, let’s see from next week whether Gatiss can be truly scary without also being a little too funny. He tried it in Doctor Who story The Lazarus Experiment, and it almost worked there…

So we’re almost at the end of this radical new series of Being Human, and I’m eager to see how it turns out – and if it works well enough to come back for more. In the mean time though, this episode did leave me with a number of nitpicks. Why would the Old Ones, after hundred and perhaps thousands of years, suddenly change their MO from lying low to conquering the entire planet? Didn’t Mitchell say they’d be pretty annoyed with Herrick for trying just that? And their plan doesn’t really make sense, either; if, as future Eve says, most of humanity has been killed, what will the vampires feed on? After all, predators must always have a vastly greater number of prey in order to survive.

And what’s happening with the ghosts? As I recall, in earlier times it took Annie many episodes to become tangible enough to make a cup of tea. Yet last week, Emrys was able to read the paper and play at poltergeist within hours of his death, and this week ghost Alex could open doors mere minutes afterwards. And after Annie’s traumatic entrapment within the afterlife, why are the Doors now little more than convenient portals to any point in history the plot needs?

Mind you, I did really like Gina Bramhill as the spunky, funny Alex. With last week’s talk of Annie’s Door, and her seeming acceptance this week that she might have to kill the baby, I wonder if Alex is being groomed as a potential replacement? It could be that next week will see the departure of the very last original cast member. If so, will it be the final nail in the coffin for Being Human, or will this new format have taken well enough to survive another cast change? Next week will tell…