Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 7–At the Codfish Ball

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 7 YET.

“It’s the future. That’s all I ever wanted.”

MadMenDrapers

After all the detailed character studies and complex dramatic structures of the last few weeks, Mad Men was back to being a relatively straightforward (though still high class) drama this week. Probably just as well; last week’s twisty non-linear narrative was bold, but that sort of experimentation week after week would get in the way of the actual plot.

There was definitely a Big Theme this week though, as has been a trend with Mad Men episodes. This episode’s Big Theme was parents and children, or perhaps more accurately family generations, and was nicely evoked by the penultimate scene’s exquisitely framed shot of three generations of Don’s family sitting at a formal table and looking (typically for Mad Men) less than content. It was also at the core of Megan’s surprise hit idea for the new Heinz campaign – families eating beans through the ages.

Family was obviously much on Don’s mind this week. Not only did he have the dubious pleasure of hosting a visit from Megan’s fractious Quebecois parents, he was also lumbered with looking after his own children after Sally accidentally caused Henry’s dragon of a mother to break her ankle. Sally being Sally, she lied about the cause, claiming it to be one of baby Gene’s toys rather than the cord of the phone she’d sneaked into her room.

Kiernan Shipka, another child actor of amazing range and ability, is a joy to watch as the increasingly unhappy Sally. That’s presumably why she’s stayed the course since the show’s beginning, while her brother Bobby has been recast three times. Conversely, it’s also why Bobby never gets any actual storylines. It was notable that, after arriving with his sister at Don’s, he seemed to just vanish – where was he while all the grown ups and Sally were at the award dinner, just sitting in the apartment alone playing with matches? I do wonder whether Matthew Weiner regrets having given Don a son as well as a daughter, since he’s turned out to be a dramatic spare part.

Sally, though, does get the meaty storylines, usually geared around her precocious desire to prematurely grow up. Isn’t that what all kids want? But Sally is from a very dysfunctional background, with her cold, often absent mother, her philandering father and her empty existence in the affluent suburbs. Small wonder that she became close friends with fellow misfit Glen (played by Matthew Weiner’s real life son Marten), who she was on the phone to when Pauline tripped over the cord. Their relationship is rather sweet, despite their burgeoning puberty. They’re clearly very close friends, but not boyfriend and girlfriend; in fact, they can discuss those relationships with each other openly.

That kind of frankness is clearly lacking from other areas of Sally’s life; not to mention all the adults in the show, who continue to lie, cheat, and be generally evasive with each other. Megan’s father, a card-carrying Marxist, doesn’t much care for Don or his business, though what father ever truly approves of the man who steals away his little girl? And her mother doesn’t get on too well with her father either. Fortunately they have the advantage of being able to lapse into French whenever they want a screaming match, or when Emile Calvet wants to insult Don. No wonder Don’s shown poring over a Berlitz ‘Learn French’ book – he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on around him.

Megan, though, turns out to be far more clued up than we – and Don – thought she was, particularly on a professional level. She comes up with a far better idea than anyone else has had for the Heinz campaign (which conveniently echoes this week’s Big Theme), and Don’s surprise, while undoubtedly complimentary, is also incredibly patronising. He employed his wife as a copywriter, and now he’s genuinely surprised that she’s talented at it?

Not only that, but she‘s got Roger Sterling-style smarts on actually hooking the clients too. Getting early warning at one of the show’s frequent expensive dinners that bean supremo Raymond is about to dump the agency, she expertly prompts a clueless Don into doing the pitch for her idea right then and there – and passing it off as his own idea to give it more traction. The girl’s a natural. Unfortunately her father is utterly contemptuous about her choice of career.

Her mother is similarly contemptuous about her father, especially after discovering his affair with a young grad student. As a result, poor old Sally gets yet another unwelcome lesson in sexuality when she stumbles over her stepmother’s mother giving the ever-charming Roger Sterling a blowjob in a back room. And just when Roger had spent the previous scenes brandishing his newfound empathy to all and sundry in the wake of his consciousness-expanding acid trip! It looks like the old Roger is still there under all the empathy. No wonder Sally looks so shell-shocked when rejoining the dining table, and no wonder her expressed opinion of the city is simply, “dirty”.

Peggy was being “dirty” too – at least in the mind of her strictly Catholic mother. After a nervous dinner with boyfriend Abe, she discovered that he wanted to move in with her – not to get married, like nice 60s folks do, but to ‘live in sin’. This didn’t sit well with Peggy’s mother. Bad enough that her good Catholic daughter has had a child out of wedlock and is dating a Jew, now she wants to have regular pre-marital sex and live under the same roof as that Jew.

This came out at another of the supremely awkward dinners that Mad Men does so well. Abe was conspicuously bending over backwards to downplay his Jewishness, even asserting that he loved glazed ham. But it wasn’t enough for Mrs Olson, who frostily declared that she was leaving, and advised Peggy that if she was lonely, she should get a cat. Chalk up another inter-generational conflict for this week’s Big Theme.

At least Peggy got to have a good heart to heart with Joan, as always the office den mother. Worried that Abe was going to break up with her, she requested a stress-relieving cigarette while unburdening herself to Joan. In fact, though, she learned more from Joan than she bargained for. It seems like Joan’s breakup with her husband isn’t common knowledge yet, and she’s plenty bitter about it: “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you – until you insist on a declaration of hate.”

Presumably Joan is still depending on her own mother to look after her baby, and she’s plainly not happy. We could hope for some happiness with Roger, with whom she shares genuine chemistry; but Roger’s hardly the dependable sort, and I doubt Matthew Weiner would let his creations off so lightly. It’s one of the things the show excels at – making you care about characters, then making them suffer as much as possible.

Overall, it was a good episode, albeit one of the more obvious and conventional ones. It was notable that this was the first script this season not to bear the name of Matthew Weiner as at least a co-writer, and I think it showed. Some of the usual attention to detail seemed a little lacking – the way Bobby was treated as an afterthought, or the way the irascible and perceptive Dr Calvet was so easily taken in by Pete’s faux flattery at the dinner. But the cast made it as compelling as ever. The only major criticism I have is that this is the second week in a row without a brain-cripplingly hideous checked sport coat on display…

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5–The Ghost of Harrenhal

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 5 YET.

“Men win wars. Not magic tricks.”

GameOfThronesArya

It was another catch-all episode of Game of Thrones this week, as almost every one of the season’s multifarious subplots was advanced, bit by bit. With the characters already so well-drawn, there’s no real need to focus so tightly on any one, which is fortunate; there’s so much going on now that the show has a lot to pack in over the next five episodes.

Nevertheless, there did seem to be a bit of a theme in this week’s script by series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss – the increasing return of magic to the lands of Westeros and Essos. Aside from Melisandre’s murderous shadow wraith, we saw Dany’s dragons again for the first time in ages, and she met the mysterious Pyat Pree, head of Qarth’s warlocks. At King’s Landing, Tyrion and Bronn were dubious about the King’s (meaning the Queen’s) method to defend the city against the forces of Stannis Baratheon – a strange green substance called wildfire, capable of burning so hot it can melt flesh. Up at gloomy Harrenhal, Arya finds herself making a pact with the enigmatic Jaqen H’ghar to take three lives in return for the three she saved from the burning wagon. And at Winterfell, Bran’s seemingly prescient dreams are getting more foreboding, as he tells Osha of a vision of Winterfell swamped by the sea and full of floating dead men.

That’s a lot of magic, for a show that has, until now, very much sidelined this traditional aspect of fantasy stories. And yet it still doesn’t interfere with the sense of grimy medieval reality that the show has already established. We already knew that there had been magic in this world; but as Maester Luwin contended a couple of weeks ago, it had long since vanished. Its apparent return cannot bode well – and presumably is tied to the return of the unstoppable White Walkers, as this world’s deadliest winter approaches.

It wasn’t all magic, of course, as the struggle for the Iron Throne continued apace. No sign of the loathsome Joffrey this week, though a ranting street preacher made clear the people’s dislike for their sadistic new monarch. Poor old Tyrion found himself lumped in with the hatred as the King’s Hand; “I’m trying to save them,” he grumbled to Bronn. As ever, Bronn was a marvellously sardonic sidekick for Tyrion, and continues to inject notes of realism about what war is really like. The role is a real opportunity for Jerome Flynn to reinvent himself from the housewives’ favourite crooner that he was in the 90s, and he’s seizing it with both hands, playing the part with relish.

Tyrion extracted the truth about Cersei’s plan from the pathetic Lancel, who’s such a wimp he’s not even fun for Tyrion to wind up (though it’s plenty of fun for us to watch). In the latest cameo by a genre veteran, a nearly unrecognisable Roy Dotrice popped up as Pyromancer Hallyne, eager to show off ‘the substance’ that his Order makes. It’s not clear (and neither is it in the books) whether wildfire is magical or a straightforward chemical weapon – I tend to the latter idea, likening it to the Byzantine incendiary known as Greek Fire. Either way, Bronn’s misgivings about its use make clear that this is very much an Ultimate Weapon, and one that could easily backfire uncontrollably on its deployers. Lucky Tyrion’s taking charge of it…

The reason for such drastic measures is that Stannis has now gained the upper hand in numbers, after using Melisandre’s deadly shadow to assassinate his own brother. That scene was genuinely creepy, Catelyn and Brienne watching in horror as the well-realised wraith crept up behind Renly and impaled him on an insubstantial blade. It’s a shame to lose Renly, whose war was over before it really began. But it does simplify matters somewhat that there’s one less pretender to the throne to keep up with. As Renly, Gethin Anthony was genial and likeable, but these qualities are hardly useful in a savage civil war. If nothing else, though, I’ll miss his role as eye candy and his dalliances with the pretty Finn Jones as Ser Loras.

Loras and his sister Margery were spirited away before Stannis arrived to take charge, presumably by Littlefinger, who popped up to work his schemes on them. It’s clear that Margery is the one with ambition in that family; Natalie Dormer did well as she steelily declared, “I don’t want to be a queen. I want to be the Queen.” I wonder where that will take her?

Also on the run from Renly’s camp were Catelyn and Brienne, who look to be forming another of the show’s well-judged double acts. There’s quite a few of these already; Tyrion and Bronn, Stannis and Davos, Varys and Littlefinger… It’s a good dramatic device, and one wonders if the showrunners took a bit of a lesson from classic Doctor Who scribe Robert Holmes, whose scripts always included at least one good double act.

Brienne and Cat are the only ones who know the truth of what happened to Renly, but they’re also suspects. They’d obviously do well to stick together until they reach safety. Gwendoline Christie, given more to do as Brienne this week, is looking like an excellent casting choice for this fan favourite from the books, and I look forward to seeing her adventuring with Lady Stark.

Up beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch has moved on from Craster’s House of Incest and into the mountains, where they’ve met up with Qhorin ‘Halfhand’, a legendary Ranger. The change of setting is profound; previously, all the scenes beyond the Wall had been in claustrophobic snowbound forests. The breathtaking vistas high in the mountains give a much greater sense of scope to the wilds beyond the Wall – and the snow looks rather more convincing too. I wonder how much of these vistas are real, and how much CG?

At this point, Sam got to remind us of the actual threat the Seven Kingdoms are facing, in a discussion of the First Men with Jon – “I think they were hiding. And it didn’t work.” Sam also reminded his fellow Watchmen that three blasts on a horn herald the arrival of White Walkers, a signal unused for so long that it’s little remembered outside of history books.

But there was little time to dwell on such forebodings, as Qhorin duly turned up and announced a commando raid on the HQ of former Watchman-turned-wildling-leader Mance Rayder. We’ve heard a lot about this guy so far, but have yet to actually see him. I presume that next week, that may change…

In the rather warmer environs of Qarth, Dany was teaching one of her dragons how to breathe fire – that’s surely not going to work out well when they grow bigger. As an honoured guest, Dany was rather surprised to find herself beset by ‘romantic’ proposals. Her host, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, made an offer of marriage, to be paid for by providing her with the means to take back the Iron Throne; meanwhile, Ser Jorah made a speech of adoration for her leadership that can only be a declaration of love. The ever-reliable Iain Glen played the speech well, his eyes welling up with obvious restrained passion.

Dany also met the disquieting Pyat Pree, a cadaverous blue-lipped warlock seemingly capable of appearing in two places at once, who offered a less than tempting invitation to the ‘House of the Undying’. It’s definitely getting a bit mystical over in Qarth. But the city’s vague, undefined exoticism makes it an interesting addition to the story’s universe, especially after that barren desert.

Barren in a colder way are the Iron Islands, where Theon yet again proved that he’s a bit rubbish at being a leader of men. Stung by the contempt of his sister and his prospective ship’s crew, it’s believable that he would hatch an over-ambitious plan to ‘show them all’. And so it proved, as on the advice of his conniving first mate, he abandoned the ‘plan’ to raid an inoffensive fishing village, and instead invade a prime piece of Stark real estate. Whereupon, as he obviously realised, the Stark forces would head out to stop him, leaving the unspoken realisation that Winterfell would be pretty lacking in defences as a result.

The script didn’t spell that out, but it was easy enough for anyone with a basic knowledge of military tactics to work out what Theon’s going to try. Having already betrayed Robb Stark’s trust, he’s going to go the whole hog in the treachery stakes and actually invade Robb’s ancestral seat. I can’t see that going well for anyone…

As Bran’s prophetic dreams have already foretold. Plainly all that imagery of the sea swamping Winterfell is a foretaste of the invasion by the seafaring Ironmen. After last season’s dream of Ned Stark’s death, it’s looking like Bran’s nightmares have a disturbing habit of coming true; yet another sign of magic returning to this world. I like Isaac Hempstead-Wright as the solemn, soulful Bran, but as yet he’s not had much to do this year, occasionally popping up as a placeholder to remind the audience that Winterfell is still there. Thankfully, it looks like he’s about to get a plot of his own, maybe as early as next week.

Also continuing to impress was Maisie Williams as Arya; unlike some shows, Game of Thrones has cast some truly amazing child actors. The scene in which she faced off with the suspicious Tywin Lannister was electric, her eyes burning into those of Charles Dance like two equals rather than a prisoner and captor. It’s impressive that such a young actor can more than hold her own in a scene with an old pro like Charles Dance. And the scene was freighted with threat – Tywin obviously doesn’t realise what a valuable captive he has right under his nose.

Jaqen H’ghar might, though. He seems awfully knowledgeable about everything, by presumably mystical means. German actor Tom Wlaschiha is another bit of impeccable casting as Jaqen, with the solitary streak of grey in his long hair. At the end of the episode, he’d clearly fulfilled the first part of his bargain, and Arya is yet again responsible for a death – the torturer from last week having plummeted from the battlements with his head turned somewhat farther than necks usually allow.

It was a busy episode plotwise, which surprisingly found no time for the usual excesses of sex and violence. You get the feeling that it’s all building up to a positive orgy of killing in the very near future, though. And while there was none of the show’s trademark ‘sexposition’, at least I got some titillation from the surprisingly buff Joe Dempsie all sweaty and shirtless as Gendry:

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Next week, presumably many of the strands set up will begin coming to fruition, and I predict killing aplenty as Theon’s unwise plan starts to unfold and Jaqen continues to stalk victims at Harrenhal. Looking forward to it!

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 6–Far Away Places

“I have an announcement to make. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

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After the last couple of weeks tight focus, this week’s Mad Men continued the trend with yet another episode of detailed character study. It’s a Peggy episode… No wait, it’s a Roger and Jane episode… Hang on, it’s actually a Don and Megan episode… I can’t stand the confusion in my mind!

Actually, it was all three of these, cleverly interweaved in a Robert Altman/Quentin Tarantino non-linear narrative to take place over roughly the space of the same day. Mad Men has played with dramatic form before, but never, I think, so boldly. Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that the tricksy structure of this episode was inspired by French anthology films, but I suspect like most people of my generation, the first thing I thought when I realised what was going on was, “oh, it’s Pulp Fiction.”

And it did take me a little while to realise what was going on. Not until we were some way into the Don/Megan narrative and I saw the same moment of them telling Peggy they were off to Howard Johnson’s, in fact. In retrospect, I was being pretty dumb – though I did wonder why Roger turned up in Don’s office proposing a trip to Howard Johnson’s when I thought he and Megan had just been there. And I did expect that, when Peggy was called by an obviously flustered Don from a call box in the first story, there’d be some payoff to explain his consternation. So, dumb old me was being less than perceptive this week – ironic, in an episode so concerned with people’s perceptions that it featured at its centre Roger Sterling tripping on acid.

But I’m getting ahead of myself (much like the story structure of this episode). In many ways, we were in familiar Mad Men territory here; the script dealt yet again with the relationships between the male and female characters, with a dose of reminding us how difficult it could be to balance those relationships with a professional career. Especially for Peggy, who’s still struggling to be taken seriously in the man’s world of copywriting.

Peggy’s relationship was the first to be subjected to what I suppose would be appropriate to call an acid test. She started her narrative in bed with her on/off boyfriend Abe (and who would have thought he looked so good clad only in a pair of white briefs?). Bur she couldn’t concern herself with such niceties as going to the movies or having sex – she had her long-awaited Heinz pitch to think about.

In many ways, this scene was an amusing gender reversal of common Mad Men moments, particularly from  when Don and Betty were still together. In this case, Peggy was, revealingly, basically a female Don – so preoccupied with work that her frustrated partner eventually angrily asked her if it was over between them. And just like Don, Peggy was too deep in thought about work to even give him a proper answer. No wonder he ended up storming out after saying that he wasn’t like most men in that regard.

The Heinz pitch didn’t go well, with bean supremo Raymond less than impressed with Peggy’s idea even though he’d asked for precisely what he got. The heavy implication, of course, was that he couldn’t take Peggy as seriously as he would Don; he even asked if Don had signed off on the proposal. All credit to Elisabeth Moss for this scene – you could actually see the moment when Peggy reached the end of her tether, and just let Raymond have it in a tirade that was either bold or suicidal – we’ve yet to see which.

And of course, Raymond responded not with the respect he’d have given Don, but by likening Peggy to his teenage daughter. I’m not surprised she was frustrated enough to go and get stoned and give a strange man a handjob in a movie theater. Odd choice of movie though; Born Free has certainly made me crave the former activity, but never the latter…

But the most significant aspect of the Peggy narrative was what she – and we – began to learn about eccentric newcomer Ginsberg. He’s fiercely protective of his privacy, and seems to want to keep his father hidden away, even though his father seems quite a likeable guy. Quizzing Ginsberg on this, Peggy was first told that he was actually a Martian – solemn but eccentric, we thought. Then he revealed that he’d actually been born in a concentration camp, never knew his mother, and was adopted from a Swedish orphanage.

Hard to know if that was trademark eccentricity too, but it had the ring of truth about it. It certainly unsettled Peggy; enough that she had to call Abe over in the middle of the night, like a resource she could summon at a moment’s notice. I wonder if her thing with Abe really is coming to an end – because it looks like there might be something brewing between her and the enigmatic, quirky Ginsberg. If so, good. He seems very interesting. And it shows that Peggy may have a recurring taste in Jewish intellectuals, something I can empathise with.

Roger too was dealing with intellectuals, in the most out-and-out funny section of the episode, which nevertheless was still fraught with significance for his increasingly moribund relationship with trophy wife Jane. In her previous (infrequent) appearances, Jane has shown urges to be taken seriously as an intellectual, much to Roger’s amusement. Now we saw him indulging her with a trip to a very pseudo, middle class dinner party, which took an unexpected turn when the host suggested they leave a discussion until after they “turned on.”

No surprise in retrospect – if I caught the host’s name correctly, he was Dr Timothy Leary. Certainly his obsession with the Tibetan Book of the Dead would fit with that being the case. When it became clear that Roger was grudgingly going to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs, I was – like last week – eagerly leaning forward murmuring, “I really want to see this!”

I also had a moment of dread that Mad Men would lose its usual subtle restraint, and we’d be presented with the usual audio-visual headfuck that most shows seem to think best represents an acid trip. But no – in typical Mad Men style, the trip (shown exclusively from Roger’s POV) was handled with intelligence and subtlety. No swirling colours and Grateful Dead soundtrack here. Instead, we got the Beach Boys and laugh-out-loud moments as the drug took hold.

First, Roger had a few weird auditory hallucinations – a vodka bottle played Russian classical music at him when he opened it, causing him to open and close it over and over again to repeat the effect. Just when I couldn’t stop laughing at that, he got fixated on a hair colour ad with half a man’s grey hair recoloured to black, then took the unfortunate step of glancing at himself in the mirror:

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After I stopped laughing at his resemblance to Two-Face, the trip took a turn for the significant, as Leary, advising him not to look at his reflection, suddenly turned into a calm, authoritative Don Draper. Trip-Don advised Roger to go to his wife, which he duly did, and after a bit of dancing which Roger viewed as out of his body, he and Jane took a cab to continue their trip at home. The sight of the two of them utterly spaced in the back of a NYC taxi was funny enough to start me laughing all over again.

But back at home, the trip took a more serious turn and Roger and Jane ended up having one of those deeply profound conversations you only seem to have when you’re really out of it. And with almost Zen-like calm on both their parts, they came to an amicable agreement that their relationship was over – a firm decision, unlike Peggy’s prevarication on the same issue earlier. It’s just a shame that Jane didn’t remember any of it on waking! Still, she took it well, and it looks like Roger’s footloose and fancy free again (not that he ever let marriage restrain him anyway). Perhaps he’ll finally get together with Joan – she’s the only woman in five seasons he’s ever had any real chemistry with, presumably intentionally.

As the newly Zen Roger arrived at work and suggested a trip to Howard Johnson’s with Don, we were into the final thread of the script (and back to the scene that the Roger narrative had started with – I didn’t realise until then that the LSD party had been a flashback to the night before). Don, who seems to have finally grown up with regards to women this year, eschewed Roger’s suggestion of a weekend of debauchery in favour of a trip with Megan. In hindsight, Roger’s suggestion might have been better.

For yet again, the tempestuous Draper marriage flared up into a dramatic fight. Megan, not too happy at being peremptorily dragged out of work for a trip to a glorified diner, used the ultimate weapon on Don – reminding him that he has no mother. As far as Don’s psyche goes, this is the nuclear option, and he stormed out in his car, leaving Megan in the parking lot.

Of course he calmed down and came back, but by then Megan was long gone, possibly with some reprobates she’d met in the parking lot. Cue a long night of worry for an increasingly frantic Don as he tried to locate her to no avail, even calling her mother; and along the way, making that flustered call to Peggy we’d seen earlier during her section of the episode.

Finally returning to New York, Don was none too happy to find Megan already at home – and with the chain on the door. So he did what any red-blooded alpha male would do – kicked the door in, chased her round the apartment and finally caught her up in a kiss she couldn’t help but respond to. Yep, he’s still got it.

But it’s still not clear how their relationship stands. The frustrated Megan had earlier said that, as far as she was concerned, it was over. That kiss seems to have changed her mind; well, Don is a very attractive man! Still, it’s looking increasingly like he needs her far more than she needs him, yet another indication of the growing change in the formerly dominant Don. Earlier, Roger had wondered if Jane, twenty years his junior, had cheated on him with a younger man. I wonder if, where Megan is concerned, this might become an inevitability – in keeping with the theme that Don isn’t the young man he was, and is becoming more and more conscious of it.

As if to remind him, the all-too-infrequently seen Bert Cooper was waiting to give him a good bollocking at work: “You’ve been on love leave. It’s amazing things are going as well as they with as little as you’ve been doing.” In earlier years, Don could party hard, have a major existential crisis, stare moodily through a haze of cigarette smoke and still turn up at work on top of his game. No longer, it seems…

This was a brilliant episode, I thought, with the usual high class soap opera of Mad Men taken up a dramatic notch by the clever use of the interweaved non-linear narratives. As a former film student, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, especially when welded to drama this good.

As always, the performances were impeccable, with as much told by facial expression and body language as by dialogue. There was also some excellent direction that brought home the similarities of each main character’s dilemmas – particularly notable was the fact that Don and Megan ended up collapsed on the floor discussing their relationship in exactly the same position as Roger and Jane had been earlier. And of course, as a diehard Roger fan, how could I not love an episode with the great man tripping his nuts off with Timothy Leary? ‘Sterling’ stuff, up there with the classic Suitcase episode, and it’s going to be hard to top this one this year.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 4–Garden of Bones

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 4 YET.

“You’re fighting to overthrow a king, yet you have no plan for what happens afterwards?”

GameOfThronesJoffrey

After last week’s tight focus on a handful of characters and plotlines, this week’s episode of Game of Thrones widened its scope to include almost every one of the series’ increasingly complex web of subplots. As a result, it moved like a rollercoaster; but the detailed character development explored in depth last week was necessarily absent. What we got instead was more like snapshots, brief but revealing sketches of characters as the action rattled along at lightning speed.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. This second season has a hell of a lot to pack in in terms of plot; as the War of the Five Kings gathers pace, there’s a lot more to keep up with than there was in the relatively straightforward first season. It follows that you can’t have every episode scrutinising little details when there’s simply so much plot to move along. Still, while we didn’t really learn anything new about the people in the show this week (with a couple of notable exceptions), there were plenty of telling character points amidst the breathless action.

The episode opened with an almost Shakespearean scene of a couple of Lannister spear carriers gossiping about the best fighters in the realm, unaware that Robb Stark’s army is about to fall on them like wolves. It was a nice intake of breath before the action began in earnest, seeing these two lowly soldiers, the most ordinary of people, and getting to know them a bit before they ended up ripped to pieces by Robb’s direwolf. The ensuing battle, as previously, wasn’t actually shown – possibly an indication of budgetary restrictions even on a show this expensive. Equally probably though, it simply wasn’t considered important enough with so much plot to get through. We need to know that Robb won the battle; showing the spectacle is really incidental.

The aftermath was predictably bloody, with eviscerated bodies scattered hither and yon. It gave some real sense of how it must have been after a medieval battle, as the victors looted their fallen foes for their boots, coup de graces were delivered to the mortally wounded, and grisly impromptu amputations were carried out.

The amputation we saw was performed by a pretty young nurse called Talisa, with Robb’s stoic help. There was clearly a spark between them, and I’m guessing she’s going to take the place of another character from the books who served as Robb’s love interest. It’s a little uninspiring to see the cliched approach whereby she is a stern critic of what he’s up to but you could cut the romantic tension with a knife; but their little scene, as she poured scorn on his lack of an endgame plan to justify the slaughter, was still rather good. Her comment about him not knowing what he’ll do after overthrowing Joffrey felt pointed, but hopefully it wasn’t yet another example of a TV show trying to comment on current events in the Middle East. Mind you, there’ve been so many of those recently that I might be seeing such allusions where none are intended!

But there wasn’t time to linger on the theme of ordinary people caught up in a war of their rulers’ choosing. There was far too much to pack in. Aside from the continuing intrigue in King’s Landing, this episode caught us up with Dany Targaryen in the desert; Arya and Gendry at Harrenhal; both Renly Baratheon and his brother Stannis’ war efforts; and the machinations of Stannis’ sinister Red Priestess, Melisandre.

It was all well done, but we found ourselves racing from place to place with dizzying speed as the plot and events interweaved to affect each other. At King’s Landing, Joffrey was continuing his descent into full-on cruel tyrant mode, much to Tyrion’s consternation. With so much authority vested unquestioningly in the King, Tyrion showed quite some nerve remonstrating with him after he had Sansa beaten in retaliation for her brother’s actions. He got away with it though, with the ever-sardonic Bronn to back him up. It’s always good to see those two on screen as a double act; discussing whether a bit of sex would cure Joffrey of his sadistic tendencies, Bronn pithily opined, “there’s no cure for being a cunt.”

Perhaps Tyrion should have listened. This week’s only sex scene was a revealing glimpse of quite how twisted Joffrey was, as we saw how he planned to enjoy himself with the two whores Tyrion had sent him. It was a nice bit of continuity to see Ros again; but her involvement in every scene involving the local prostitutes does make it seem like King’s Landing has a rather limited supply.

Still, she might reconsider her profession after Joffrey had her first beat fellow whore Daisy then violate her with an eye-wateringly jagged and wide royal sceptre, Joffrey’s intent being to get his sadistic jollies then send the result to Tyrion as an object lesson. Whether this actually killed Daisy was unclear, as even this show wasn’t going to put sexual violence of that level on the screen. It was a genuinely nasty scene to watch; Esme Bianco as Ros conveying the terror of having to obey the hideous orders of the capricious king, and Jack Gleeson being every bit the salivating monster as the spoiled boy king.

With so much to pack in, the script didn’t follow up by showing Tyrion’s reaction to Joffrey’s ‘message’. Perhaps it’ll be followed up on next week; but then, I suppose both we and Tyrion already know what a monster Joffrey is, and reminders aren’t really needed. Besides, Tyrion was busy intimidating his cousin Lancel, who turned up with an order from Cersei to release the imprisoned Grand Maester Pycelle. Lancel was really no challenge for Tyrion, who’s dealt with far more sophisticated operators than this dim prettyboy. Once Tyrion revealed that he knew (and might tell) of Lancel’s dalliances with the Queen, Lancel was putty in his hands, easily malleable into a useful little informant.

It was another scene dominated by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Eugene Simon is pretty enough as Lancel, but the boy is, basically, an idiot. He’s obviously a poor replacement for the Queen’s real lover, her brother Jaime.

And it was negotiating for Jaime’s release that brought Littlefinger to Renly’s camp this week, where Catelyn Stark is still hanging out trying to negotiate an alliance with Robb. We saw tow sides to Lord Baelish this week; his usual smooth political facade crumbling as he impulsively tried to grab Catelyn, confessing his long term love for her. It was just a moment, and he soon regained his composure, but it was a revealing glimpse into Littlefinger’s insecurity beneath that controlled veneer. It was another great little scene, well played by Aidan Gillen and Michelle Fairley; the latter’s warrior queen facade cracking too when presented with the bones of her dead husband.

Outside, Littlefinger was back to his usual smooth self in a heavily freighted discussion with Renly’s wife Margery Tyrell. His thinly veiled comments made it clear that Renly’s relationship with her brother Loras is very much an open secret about court; but Margery, as shown in the series, is a canny political operator herself, and was giving nothing away. As a fan of The Tudors, it’s hard to see Natalie Dormer in a bodice and not think of her turn on that show as Anne Boleyn, but Margery Tyrell is a far cleverer woman than Henry VIIII’s doomed lust object.

Over the Narrow Sea, we caught up with Dany Targaryen and her starving Dothraki followers as they finally reached civilisation in the form of the city of Qarth. This led to a brief vignette as Dany was faced with the ruling Thirteen of the city, who were less than keen to let her and her “Dothraki horde” in. But Dany showed some real fire (appropriate for the ‘”Mother of Dragons”) as she boldly stood up to them. Emilia Clarke was as impressive as ever, as was Nonso Anozie as her eventual guarantor Xara Xhoan Daxos, and the gates of Qarth eventually opened to display a breathtaking CG vista of a releif from the baking desert. Still, as CG vistas go, I’m not sure Qarth (either its interior or its high walls) is up there with the best the show’s done.

Rather better was the realisation of Harrenhal, where Arya and Gendry found themselves imprisoned this week. A grim, forbidding half-ruined giant castle, Harrenhal was a place of terror where prisoners were taken one by one to be sadistically tortured to no real purpose other than their captors’ sadistic satisfaction. The torture was imaginatively nasty; the prisoners had a rat in a bucket strapped to their chests, whereupon the bucket was heated and the maddened rat would have to chew its way out through the terrified torturees’ bodies.

It all looked bleakly nasty, with Arya and Gendry held ina cold, wet cage outdorrs, awaiting their turn for torture. But just as Gendry’s turn came, they were saved by the unexpected arrival of Tywin Lannister, making a welcome first appearance this year. Charles Dance is magnetic in the role of the Lannister patriarch, and I must admit I’ve missed him onscreen so far this season, so it was as much a relief for me to see him as it was for the prisoners.

Tywin may not be a very nice man, but he’s not wilfully cruel. To him, it makes far more sense to put the prisoners to work than sadistically torture them to death. He’s also not stupid; he spotted immediately that Arya wasn’t a boy, and she found herself appointed as his cupbearer – an ironic place for Ned Stark’s heir to be. Tywin might have recognised her to be a girl, but not which girl. That could be interesting…

Just when you thought the episode couldn’t pack in any more plotlines, up popped Stannis, having arrived at Renly’s camp in a futile attempt to get his little brother to abandon his claim to the throne. Renly, who’s got a nice big army, was having none of this, so it was time for Stannis’ back up plan – Melisandre and her tricks from the Red God.

After Liam Cunningham got to fill in Davos Seaworth’s back story in another revealing vignette aboard Stannis’ ship, he was sent off to row Melisandre into a handy nearby cave, and it was time for one of the show’s rare depictions of actual magic in its fantasy universe. It seems that the queasily uncomfortable coupling between her and Stannis has indeed borne fruit. Carice van Houten, a veteran of Paul Verhoeven movies, got to do yet another full frontal nude scene as she shed her robe to reveal that she was about as pregnant as you can get. But it wasn’t a baby she moaningly gave birth to; it was a scary looking smoke monster that kept taking and then losing human form. As Davos cowered against the wall, it was an excellent place for this week’s cliffhanger.

There was so much packed into this episode (admittedly of necessity) that, while it was breathtakingly exciting, it was actually a bit hard to keep up with. About the only plotlines not covered this week were events north of the Wall, and what the Greyjoys are getting up to on the Iron Islands. The twists and turns of the intricate, interweaving subplots were great, but I have to say, I missed the longer, more detailed skulduggery so much in evidence last week. Still, from memory of the book, there’s still a heck of a lot to pack in in the remaining six episodes, so this breakneck pace may be more of the norm as the season progresses. If so, it’ll be a shame to lose so many of the thoughtful, lengthy character scenes, but a necessary progression of pace for the story. Still, excitement is always good, right?

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 5 – Signal 30

“Things seem so… random, all of a sudden. And time feels like it’s speeding up.”

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Poor old Pete Campbell. It’s easy to dislike the obnoxious little toe rag – and kudos to the likeable Vincent Kartheiser for achieving that – but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Maybe it’s karma, but nothing, absolutely nothing in his life ever works out the way he wants it to – chiefly, of course, his rather sad desire to be just like Don. Pete was front and centre in this episode – shamefacedly attending a stereotypically gruesome Driver’s Ed film at the opening, perhaps feeling like getting his drivers license would make him feel more of a man; and crying in a lift before crawling into bed with his unsatisfying wife at the end. In between, as usual, Pete’s life was a symphony of chaos as he tried and failed to be more of ‘a man’ than he is.

Not that it was all about Pete, though we’ll come back to his catalogue of disasters in a while. Like last week, the episode kept a focus on just a few of the characters, and what they had in common; their jobs and their seemingly empty marriages.If last week’s theme was The Long Dark Night Of The Soul, this week’s was Great Men (and Pete) And Their Wives. As Rod Serling might have put it, “Picture a series of hollow men… their lives unfulfilled at home, seeking empty solace in their work. Portraits of marriages on their way to Signal 30… in The Twilight Zone.”

The marriages in question were those of Pete, Don, Lane, Ken (nice to see him getting something to do again) and even, tangentially, Roger. Along the way, we learned some surprising things about a few of them, impressive for characters we thought we’d known for nearly five years. Ken, it turns out, has been quietly keeping up with his stories and making a bit of a (false) name for himself as a writer of pulp sci fi (hence the Twilight Zone reference). Now a publisher wants to collect twenty of his stories into an anthology, something he’d rather keep quiet.

Unfortunately for him, his proud but unthinking wife Cynthia had to go and blurt it out in front of Don and Pete at an uncomfortable soiree in Pete’s suburban home. And when Roger hears about it, he’s none too pleased about one of his best men moonlighting. After all, for Roger, the job is enough; but as Don tells Pete later, “Roger’s unhappy. You’re not.”

Still, Ken’s marriage to Cynthia seems pleasant enough compared to the hidden emptiness his coworkers are feeling. We know about Don, of course; yet again here, he seemed like yesterday’s man in his relationship with Megan. She wants to go out and have fun with their (read, “her”) friends; he wants, as he admits in a drunken moment of honesty, to “have babies”, something she’s plainly not ready for.

Lane, on the other hand, was finally letting his rather stereotypical English reserve slip to reveal the bottled up passion underneath. It started as he unwillingly let his wife drag him to a Manhattan ‘English pub’ to watch the 1966 World Cup Final (historical references abounded this week). Presently, we were subjected to the rather astonishing sight of Lane, roaringly drunk, cheering the winning England team and slurring his way through “God Save the Queen”.

Bizarre enough, but more was to come, as we saw Lane attempting to woo (in a business sense) the CEO of Jaguar US, who’d offered to bring his business to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I must confess, as an Englishman used to seeing American TV misconceptions of my culture, I was watching all of these scenes like a hawk, just waiting for the usual slips in dialogue or setting. But no, all was pretty accurate, as you’d expect from a show as meticulous about its detail as Mad Men. The pie and mushy peas in the pub looked real enough, the English accents sounded real, and even Lane’s statement about Jaguar’s imminent merger with the British Motor Corporation was spot on. Well done, Mr Weiner!

Lane’s unexpected snagging of a major advertising account threaded through the episode, entwining the scripts’ examination of our heroes’ professional lives. Roger in particular got a great scene in which we were reminded that he’s far more than a boorish, drunken buffoon; he’s actually a master at his work. The scene in which he educated Lane about his technique of faking drunkenness and using psychological tactics to win over clients showed why he’s a partner in the agency, and revealed him to be far more clever and subtle than we’ve seen of late. Intriguing that this should come up in an episode directed by John Slattery, the man whose portrayal of Roger makes him quite my favourite character.

The other side of the story, our heroes’ marriages, was encapsulated in the centrepiece of the episode, a magnificently strained social evening at Pete and Trudi’s Cos Cob home as he tried vainly to demonstrate to Don and Ken (his former rival) that he was “the man with everything”.The infighting for the position of alpha male began almost immediately, with Pete vainly trying the tactic of showing off his giant radiogram: “It’s like having a miniature orchestra”. Then Don turned up, and it became a contest for who could wear the most eye-burningly hideous checked sport coat (another continuing theme this year):

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Plainly, Don won that one.

Amusingly, neither Don nor Megan could remember the name of Ken’s wife (causing a laugh out loud moment as she realised and involuntarily exclaimed “Cynthia!”). But Trudi was at her most charming, despite Pete’s drunkenly obnoxious ‘gracious host’ turn. Conversation at the dinner table took a gruesome turn as Pete took some relish in discussing Texas sniper Charles Whitman’s university tower shootings.

Then Ken unwillingly told a story that seemed (in a way that wasn’t entirely clear) to sum up the episode’s themes with a sci fi story: ‘The Punishment of X-4’, about a powerless robot whose only means of asserting himself was to remove a vital bolt in a bridge, killing everyone on it. The conversation turned wistful as all discussed what they’d wanted to be whn they grew up, a theme of missed opportunity that also suffused the episode. As Don said, “No one grows up wanting to be an advertiser”. It was a theme we’d return to later.

But the musing didn’t last long, as Pete’s first setback of the episode commenced. His surprising success at mending a leaky tap earlier turned inevitably to humiliation as it burst all over the kitchen, leaving (inevitably, again) the ever-manly Don to do the manly thing that Pete just couldn’t. Ken’s obviously not so worried; he just stood and smirked.

But it was the first in a long line of humiliations for Pete this week, as the script seemed determined to compress all his usual bad luck into a much shorter (and blackly funny) timeframe. His American Beauty-style fixation with a high school girl at his Driver’s Ed class seemed to be going so well… But things don’t go well for Pete, and he was left seething as she spurned him for a beefy high school jock with the all-too-accurate nickname ‘handsome’.

Later, as our heroes helped out with Lane’s recalcitrant Jaguar client, they found themselves in a high class brothel (typically, taken there by Roger), and we got an inkling of what’s really seething in Pete’s rancid little core. Humiliated once again by a prostitute’s faint praise of his biceps, he waited wearily while she tried various turn on techniques; the only one to which he eventually responded was, “you’re my king”.

There’s something desperately sad about Pete and his desire to be, basically, Don Draper; which was reiterated as he turned on a reproachful Don in the taxi home reminding Don of his own former infidelities. And unsurprisingly, given his growing guilt, Don was quick to agree, stating that he’d had everything (like Pete) and let it slip through his fingers. Together with his mellowing towards his ex-wife, this made it clear that he’s more than aware where he went wrong.

But fate (and the scriptwriter’s cruel word processor) hadn’t finished with Pete yet. It turned out that the brothel trip had cost them the Jaguar account; the CEO’s wife had found chewing gum “on his pubis”. Even Pete found that pretty funny, but Lane didn’t, leading to a slanging match (“all the hours I’ve spent on you to make you the monster you are”) and the surprising development of Lane challenging Pete to a fistfight.

Lane might be a steely businessman, but we’ve never had the impression that he was in any way physically tough. Clearly neither did Pete, who ended up on the floor with a bloody nose and a face full of bruises. It was an uncomfortable but irresistibly funny scene; I was with Roger when he commented, “I know cooler heads should prevail, but I really want to see this.”

While Lane celebrated his manliness with an embarrassing attempt to kiss Joan (and thank God she’s back at the office), Pete was reduced to sobbing in the lift. “I have nothing,” he wept at an embarrassed-looking Don. The irony being, of course, that it’s only true because he thinks so. He was summed up by Ken, off screen, narrating a story called ‘The Man with the Miniature Orchestra’, and sounding uncannily like Rod Serling.

This was a blackly brilliant episode. Less dark and intense than last week, it managed to interweave theme, character, and plot in some moments of desperate sadness and laugh-out-loud comedy. Particularly, it was nice to have some focus on Jared Harris as the prissy Lane, and Aaron Staton as the impossible to dislike Ken Cosgrove – the very antithesis of Pete Campbell.

If I have any complaints, it’s just that two episodes in a row with such a narrow character focus felt like the wider ensemble of the show was being neglected somewhat. Still, if Matthew Weiner keeps taking this approach, he could end up with, week by week, some acutely observed character pieces about everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. My only request – please, more focus on Roger, and what’s happening with him and Joan.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3–What is Dead May Never Die

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

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Wow. I swear, it seems like this show gets better every week. With the plot well and truly motoring along now, this third episode of Game of Thrones seemed the best yet, for a variety of reasons. Yes, it had the requisite amount of impeccable dialogue, gory battles and gratuitous sex and nudity to liven up exposition that we’ve come to expect from the show. But best of all, it served up a monster portion of what I like best about the show – portraits of Westeros’ devious, Machiavellian characters in all their scheming glory. For that, it’s up there with another favourite of mine, I, Claudius, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find is one of George RR Martin’s inspirations for the books.

King of the schemers this week – taking the crown from Varys – was undoubtedly Tyrion. Having flexed his muscles as proxy Hand of the King last week, with his exile of Janos Slynt, this week he was clearly in his element among the slimy, untrustworthy denizens of the Small Council. In a cleverly scripted and edited scene, we saw him testing,one after the other, Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger as to their trustworthiness. They’re all veteran schemers too, of course, but this was Tyrion’s chance to hoodwink them before they’d got his measure as every bit their equal.

And it worked, too. Having fed each of them separate stories about who he was planning to marry off Princess Myrcella to, then stressed that “the Queen mustn’t know”, all he had to do was sit back and wait to see which story she went ballistic over. In hindsight, it was perhaps no surprise that it turned out to be Pycelle who went running to her; much as I love genre veteran Julian Glover in the role, the character is far less interesting than either Varys or Littlefinger and thus more expendable.

All of this was played beautifully by the actors concerned. Peter Dinklage continues to be masterful as the irreverent, sardonic Tyrion, and Conleth Hill is more than a match for him as sly spymaster Varys. Their scene together, in which Varys smoothly compliments the newcomer (“nicely played".) was one of the highlights in an episode full of memorable scenes. I’ve seen some sceptical reviews of Aidan Gillen’s performance as Littlefinger, but I have to say that he too worked well for me in the scene where he realised he’d been had, only for Tyrion to hook him all over again with the promise of Catelyn Stark.

Lady Stark was back herself this week, and with her we finally caught up with the last – and perhaps least – of the pretenders to the throne, Robert Baratheon’s youngest brother Renly. Renly’s been busy between seasons; not only has he grown a beard, he’s married one – Margery Tyrell, sister of his true lover Loras. Slipping smoothly into a bodice yet again after The Tudors, Natalie Dormer was surprisingly good as Margery. The script here made her out to be a another astute political operator, far more so than in the book. She knows that the true way to cement their alliance, and Renly’s power, is for him to get her pregnant asap.

Unfortunately that may be harder than she thinks. She’s perfectly aware of her husband’s dalliances with her brother – and ruthless enough to suggest he join them in bed, if that’s what it takes – but Renly just can’t get it up for her. Indeed, poor old Renly got most of the gratuitous nudity this week, but was perpetually thwarted when it came to actual sex. He can’t get it up with Margery (is there a Westerosi equivalent of Viagra, I wonder?), and pretty young Loras is in a snit with him. Not that this stopped Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones having some pretty raunchy semi-clad foreplay, ticking a box for those like me who enjoy a bit of man on man action.

The reason Loras is in a snit is his humiliation at the hands of another fan favourite from the books. Yes, Brienne of Tarth – Brienne the Beauty – has finally arrived, clobbering the Knight of Flowers but good in a playful tournament (nobody died). Gwendoline Christie certainly looks the part as Brienne – apparently she took on a monster training regimen to bulk up suitably. But even her almost defensive fearlessness can’t disguise that she’s got the hots for the King she’s meant to be serving. Shame, she’s barking up the wrong tree there.

With all that going on, Catelyn barely got much of a look in, dramatically. But when she did, she was as dour and grim as you’d expect from a woman who’s already lost one fiance and one husband to war. "It’s just a game to you, isn’t it?” she bitterly asked the affable Renly, before commenting on his youthful army, “I pity them… They are the knights of summer. And winter is coming.”

She wasn’t the only one quoting the Words of her House; this week we also got to hear those of House Greyjoy (“We do not sow”), as Theon was faced with a very hard choice by his unyielding father. Would he continue to help Robb Stark, son of the man who’d thwarted his father’s rebellion and held him captive for his entire childhood? Or would he prize his true family over his adoptive one?

It’s a measure of how surprisingly good Alfie Allen is as Theon that I truly felt for him as he first swallowed his pride then betrayed his honour, siding with the bitter, twisted father he’d never truly known, all in the hope of glory. It was another nice visual touch from director Alik Sakharov as the decision was shown without words; Theon, a lone point of light in a vast darkness, choosing to burn the warning letter he might have sent to Robb.

Patrick Malahide is his usual chilly self (albeit more unkempt) as Lord Balon Greyjoy, a hard man shaped by the culture Theon was taken away from. Still, good though he is, I couldn’t help thinking that, visually and in personality, he seems very similar to David Bradley as Walder Frey last season. We haven’t seen Walder yet this year, but when/if we do, hopefully the producers will be able to clearly differentiate the two…

With the focus of the episode firmly on these three plotlines, the script still found time for some vignettes from elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, and even these were replete with rich character detail. North of the Wall, we found out the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, as Jon Snow, having been bashed about the head by Craster, was dragged bloody to the loathsome wildling’s hall.

Lord Commander Mormont was none too happy, after last week’s lecture about learning how to follow; and Jon himself got a Star Trek Prime Directive-alike lesson from Mormont, who turned out to be all too knowledgeable about what Craster did with his unwanted son’s. “The wildings pray to crueller gods,” he muttered darkly, and Jon replied that he’d seen one – that dark figure taking the baby in the wood had been one of the mysterious and deadly White Walkers after all, unseen since the prologue of the show’s very first episode. They’re plainly the greatest of the threats facing Westeros, but as yet they’re in the shadows – perhaps a good thing, as a Sauron-like unstoppable magical threat is less interesting than all the political wrangling going on all over the Seven Kingdoms.

Back at Winterfell, we’re seeing more of the crippled Bran’s mysterious ability to ‘green dream’ himself into the bodies of animals; yet again, his direwolf hunting in the night. Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran got a short but effective scene with Donald Sumpter as the sceptical Maester Luwin. “My dreams are different,” Bran protested. “Mine are true.” But Luwin’s had a go at magic, as an impressionable student, and like Arthur C Clarke with his Mysterious World, doesn’t believe in any of it: “Maybe magic was once a mighty force in this world. But not any more.”

The equally compelling Maisie Williams got a bit of the action too, as Arya heard the backstory of Ranger Yoren. His brother had been killed in front of him when he was a boy, and every night after he’d repeated the name of the killer like a prayer – until one day the killer returned and Yoren butchered him with an axe, fleeing to the Wall. You could see Arya mulling this over thoughtfully…

But not for long. Like in a classic war film, Yoren’s revelation of his hard life was an obvious prelude to him getting brutally killed, as Lannister thug Amory Lorch turned up to assist with the search for Gendry. Yoren took some killing though; even after a crossbow bolt in the chest and a spear through the back, he still managed to take down a few thugs before a sword in the spine felled him for good. Francis Magee turned in another of the show’s great performances as Yoren, and he’ll be missed.

Still, this sequence usefully compressed a much longer – perhaps unnecessarily so – plotline from the book, omitting the escape and subsequent wanderings of Arya, Gendry and a couple of the other recruits. Here, they went straight into captivity, heading for Harrenhaal Castle – but not before Arya, smartly, led the thugs to believe that the hapless boy they’d already killed was Gendry, the conveniently placed bull’s head helmet lending her story credence.

This is epic stuff, but with the fate of kingdoms depending on the whims of treacherous backstabbers, it doesn’t stint on the character portrayal either. Obviously it has excellent source material, but this week’s writer Bryan Cogman expanded it well, with acres of quotable dialogue. It could be argued, again, that making some of the book’s more implicit plots explicit – Renly and Loras’ affair, Margery’s political cunning – was unnecessary for a show with this much intelligence; but I think the overt scheming displayed as a result makes for some hugely entertaining scenes. With all the pretenders to the Iron Throne now in place, and the plot already speeding along, I can’t wait for next week!

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 4–Mystery Date

“You were never a good man. Even before we were married. You know what I’m talking about.”

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In this week’s Mad Men, Don Draper had a cold.

This is a first. As a larger than life character who bestrides the show like a colossus, Don has previously only fallen prey to Big Dramatic Ailments. We’ve seen him struggle with depression and alcoholism, and by extension the terminal cancer of Anna Draper, wife of the real Don, whose identity he stole. But never before have we seen Don brought low by something as mundane as a cold. Not that it stops him from valiantly smoking through it, despite his uncontrollable cough.

It’s yet another chip in Don’s armour, an example of human frailty that’s becoming more and more common in the former king of Madison Avenue. As if to underline the increasing sense that Don’s day in the sun is winding down, he has to cope with a brilliant presentation to some important clients by new boy Michael Ginsberg – the sort of presentation that Don himself used to carry off effortlessly. Obviously shaken, Don is furious, and Ginsberg is almost fired immediately: “Everything I’m about to say to you is followed by ‘or else’… Never do that again.”

Of course, the reason for Don’s discomfiture is that Ginsberg is brilliant, just like Don used to be. He may not have Don’s effortless skill at seduction, but he certainly has an insight into women’s psyches, vital for the shoe campaign he’s working on. But as a more liberal product of the enlightened 60s, he has more morality than we usually see from Don; he’s sickened by the other copywriters’ (including Peggy) ghoulish fascination with the crime scene photos from the Richard Speck murders.

In fact, what with his sensitivity, single status and professed lack of knowledge of women, I wonder if Ginsberg is going to turn out to be gay? If so, it would be an interesting angle to explore in times that have become a little more enlightened since the departure of the show’s only previous gay character, Sal Romano; but times that are still not that enlightened if you’re Jewish, never mind homosexual.

Be that as it may, Ginsberg actually didn’t feature much here, except insofar as piquing Don’s insecurities. The core of the episode was a long dark night of the soul for several of the characters, the sort of thing the show has done before and is very good at. Variously, Joan had to deal with a shocking surprise from her none too nice husband when he returned from Vietnam; Sally had to cope with being babysat by her stepfather’s dragon of a mother; Peggy spent a revealing evening with Don’s new secretary Dawn; and Don himself, being incapable of just having a simple cold, struggled with (apparent) fever dreams in which his guilty history of infidelities returned to haunt him.

That all kicked off with a light and funny scene in the elevator, as a coughing Don and new wife Megan encountered Andrea, one of his old conquests. This led a frustrated Megan to acidly enquire how often this was going to happen, which was amusing; but later it turned very dark as Don was visited at his swanky apartment by Andrea. At first he hustled her out in fear of Megan seeing her; later, after a manful struggle with his conscience, he couldn’t stop himself from having sex with her again. Afterwards, his guilt plainly driving him wild, he sprang out of bed and in a truly shocking moment, strangled her to death before carelessly shoving her body under the bed.

It was a jaw-dropping moment. Obviously it came as no particular surprise when Megan came in the next morning, and told Don of the feverish delirium in which he’d spent the previous night – the whole thing had been nothing more than a fever dream. But that scene felt so shockingly real that, in the moment, you believed it had really happened, just like Don when he checked under his bed the next morning. Of course, if it had happened, the show would probably have turned into The Fugitive, so with hindsight it was obvious that it hadn’t. But it’s still a revealing glimpse into Don’s demon-driven psyche, particularly where his relationships with women are concerned; and a glimpse that he too was privy to.

The other major plot strand concerned Joan dealing with the much-anticipated return of her sexually violent husband Greg from Vietnam. Greg’s obviously under the impression that the baby fathered by Roger is his, but even that’s not enough to keep him by Joan’s side. Like all husbands of the 60s, he expects his faithful, obedient wife to deal with raising the kid, and he’s decided to sign on for another year in the army, much to Joan’s horror.

Not that he has the guts to tell her that, insinuating that it was an order he had no choice in. The truth came out at a supremely awkward dinner with his parents, as even his own mother couldn’t stand his lying to Joan and told her that his return to the army was entirely his choice.

This was a moment of decision for Joan, always one of the show’s strongest characters. She may not be subverting career expectations like Peggy, but she’s always plainly been stronger than the men around her. She showed that here by offering Greg an ultimatum; if he returns to Vietnam, he can’t come home again. It’s no surprise that when he decides just that, Joan seems perfectly happy. She even takes the chance to remind him of his own failings as a husband, his history of marital rape. No wonder she’s happy to be rid of him. But where does this leave her in terms of returning to work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? She still has her catty mother to help with baby Kevin, but it’s looking like her return to the office has just been postponed a bit longer.

Back at that office, Peggy was working late on a piece for Roger, part of his ongoing attempt to subvert Pete Campbell on the Mohawk Airlines account. Satisfied at having forced Roger to part with $400 in return for her secrecy on that, she was about to go home when she discovered (in a scene worthy of a horror movie) that the creepy sounds in the deserted office were actually caused by Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping there.

This led to Peggy offering Dawn a room for the night, and a revealing (for both) open chat about their work. With the increasing focus on racial liberation this year, we got to see a side of the avowedly liberal Peggy that was (unthinkingly) patronising and a bit offensive. She hadn’t figured out that Dawn couldn’t go home because no cabbie would go to Harlem after dark, and that Dawn was worried about riots and racist police rather than being murdered by the nurse killer in Chicago.

They did bond over a few beers back at Peggy’s apartment, with Peggy drunkenly empathising that she knew what it was like to be the only one of her kind at the office. But she was plainly a little surprised that Dawn didn’t want to take the same path and become a copywriter; she’s perfectly happy with the job she has.

And then all their bonding was totally undone by the awkward moment when Peggy, glancing at her purse, hesitated over whether to pick it up and take it with her into the bedroom. To do so, after the obvious pause, would be tantamount to showing that she assumed a black person would obviously steal from her; to not do so would look condescending, as though she was offering some sort of trust exercise. It was another supremely awkward moment, portrayed (as is so common in Mad Men) entirely without words – just a series of glances, close-ups and revealing expressions. Another gem of a scene, it was played to perfection by Elisabeth Moss and Teyonah Parris. Peggy’s crestfallen expression as she found the neatly stacked sheets and terse thank you note from Dawn the next morning was priceless.

The final characters living through this dark, dark night were Sally Draper and Henry Francis’ battleaxe of a mother Pauline. Sally’s been one of the most tormented characters in the show, having to deal with the onset of puberty amidst her parents’ messy divorce and her own mother’s obvious inability to cope with children. It was good to see her to the front of an episode again, as actress Kiernan Shipka has consistently delivered an amazingly mature, wise beyond her years performance.

She was on top form here as usual, showing how Betty has virtually abandoned her into the care of step-grandmother Pauline. Always a little spoiled by Don, she’s now playing Pauline off against Betty, claiming that her mother lets her basically get away with almost no rules.

But Pauline’s no slouch, with her old-fashioned and perhaps not entirely suitable approach to childcare. Admittedly, dealing with Sally’s constant demands must have been wearing. But whether it was out of frustration or a total lack of awareness, Pauline’s way of dealing with Sally’s fears over the Speck murders – telling her every ghoulish detail then revealing that there was a great big knife handy if the likes of Speck should turn up – was probably not the wisest course. Inevitably, that scared Sally even more than the news article did, so Pauline took the interesting choice of feeding her sleeping pills. The episode ended with her huddled – asleep, unconscious or perhaps even dead – beneath the sofa, while the returning Betty called her name.

Dark stuff indeed, this episode, as over the course of one traumatic night a handful of the show’s characters were brought shockingly face to face with their failings in relationships, their attitudes to race and gender, and in Sally’s case even her own mortality. It was a better script even than usual in its tight focus on a small group of the show’s large ensemble; the events may be game-changing for some of the characters, but knowing Mad Men, they may be slow to learn their lessons.