Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 11–The Other Woman

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 11 YET.

“Don’t fool yourself. This is some very dirty business.”

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With just three episodes left this season (including this one), Mad Men continues to impress, this week presenting one of the most powerful, heartrending instalments the show’s ever done. With perhaps a tighter focus than usual, this week’s episode directly addressed one of the themes that’s been ever-present throughout the show’s run – the gender politics of its 60s setting, and in particular the thoughtless, unjust treatment of women that even good men – like Don – just don’t understand.

The script focuses almost exclusively on the travails of Joan, Peggy and even Megan to make its point. Not that the male characters are absent; indeed, they get as much screen time as the women, with some telling character points of their own. But they’re primarily there to demonstrate just what a bad lot in life women – even massively capable ones like Joan, Peggy and Megan – got in 1966.

It was an angry script by writer Semi Chellas (with the usual input from showrunner Matthew Weiner) that accomplished its aims fairly straightforwardly, but not without some real dramatic inventiveness. Ostensibly, the ‘story’ – fitting neatly into the show’s current arc – was about the progress of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s bid for the Jaguar account. But in every way, the story was used to reflect the injustice to which women were routinely subjected at the time.

The script set out its stall fairly early on, with a business dinner between Pete, Ken and Jaguar Dealers’ Association head Herb Rennet. Herb, a slimy, pudgy sort of fellow, doesn’t mince words; he’ll give them his vote, conditional on the promise of a night with the ‘stunning redhead’ who showed him around the office – Joan Harris. Initially, this looked like the sort of thing the show often does, setting up the inherent sexism of the period for being knocked down fairly quickly. We know Pete’s a spineless, unprincipled wanker, but surely even he would baulk at pimping out the formidable Joan for a fast buck?

But no, despite Ken’s immediate reaction of “no way”, Pete not only didn’t rule it out, but made a hilariously hamfisted attempt to make this indecent proposal to Joan as ‘indirectly’ as he could. At this point, the plotline was still funny enough to provoke laughter, with Pete’s clumsy attempts at obfuscation more than matched by exactly the kind of frosty looks you’d expect from Joan. But the humour rapidly began to dissipate as Pete took her at her word – “you couldn’t afford it” – and convened a partners’ meeting to discuss exactly what they could afford to offer her.

As I say, the script had stopped aiming the idea at humour, and what replaced it was outrage. To be fair, Don at least had the decency to walk straight out, saying that if this was what it took, he didn’t want the account. But none of the others had the decency to rule out the idea – not Lane,who recently tried to kiss Joan, not Roger, who’s actually fathered a child with her, not even the usually principled Bert Cooper. Dazzled by the promise of a prestigious auto account, they were all prepared to ask a woman they’d worked with and respected for many years to prostitute herself to further their business.

Lane at least did seem to demur, which almost gave him a shred of decency; but it was clear that he was terrified of offering Joan the prospective $50,000, since he’s already fraudulently obtained that on company credit to pay off his own tax debts. That plotline, clearly hanging over Lane’s head, was what encouraged him, via a conversation made almost entirely out of obfuscation, to give her the idea of asking for a partnership instead. Let’s be clear – Lane wasn’t against pimping out this woman he has feelings for. He just didn’t want it to happen if it revealed that he’s been embezzling the company. That’s far from a high-minded declaration of principle.

Even then, I couldn’t see Joan agreeing to do this. She’s been one of the most self-assured, capable, principled characters on the show since it began. Surely she wouldn’t agree to sell her body in order to further her career? And yet the script gave us a plausible scenario as to why she would give in to the idea of sleeping her way to the top. With her husband divorcing her, her baby to bring up, and now her refrigerator breaking down with no money left to fix it, she’s at her wit’s end. What’s being suggested is horrible – but pragmatically, can she afford to reject the idea? So she went to Pete, and forthrightly declared that she’d do it – in exchange for the 5% partnership, and no negotiation.

The prospect of a character you’ve come to like having to stoop to such depths was truly horrifying, but even then, I found it hard to believe she’d go through with it. When Don found out what the other partners had agreed to in his absence, he hotfooted it straight to Joan’s apartment to play Knight in Shining Armour and talk her out of it. But, as if to prove that Don’s good intentions don’t matter a jot, and that he doesn’t really understand the position Joan’s in, he was too late.

Not that this was immediately clear. At first, it seemed like he’d arrived in the nick of time, and Joan was having second thoughts. But then, Don’s pitch to the Jaguar panel – not coincidentally describing the XKE in the most misogynist terms of femininity – was cleverly intercut with the sequence of Joan having visited the loathsome Rennet the night before. It was heartbreaking to see the self-loathing on Joan’s face as she turned to allow him to undo her bra.

Even then, the intercutting of the sequence kept us guessing. Surely Joan would have second thoughts, politely tell the pudgy car dealer she couldn’t go through with it, and leave? But no, as Don came to the climax of his pitch (tellingly, it was “Jaguar – at last something beautiful you can truly own”), we realised that Joan had gone through with it after all. As she lay naked in bed with the less than attractive Rennet then turned away from him in discreet loathing, it was hard to hold back a tear. And then we went back to the scene of Don arriving at the apartment, realising then that he’d arrived after Joan had gone through with it. No wonder she was about to take a shower.

Was Joan right to do what she did, from a pragmatic viewpoint of a much overdue furtherance to her career? It’s hard to judge, given the presumably accurate portrayal of the attitudes of the time. Certainly, her expression at the partners’ meeting – when Jaguar confirmed their acceptance of the proposal – was all steely business, feeling suppressed. But her telling exchange of looks with a horrified Don showed there was more under the surface than just pragmatism and acceptance. It was a masterful performance from Christina Hendricks throughout, and given Joan’s bonding with Don last week, I wonder if the two are about to have a long, soul-searching chat again.

For all Don’s well-intentioned chivalry though, the far more lightweight (but still angry) plotline about Megan’s audition showed that he’s just as much of a sexist dinosaur as his colleagues. He may not want women to debase themselves (not that this has always bothered him), but he just doesn’t get that the women he knows might want to succeed on their own terms, without his ‘gentlemanly’ help. Certainly when Megan reveals that, should she get the role, she’ll be off touring for months on end, Don’s immediate reaction is to abandon his previous tolerance and forbid it outright. Megan’s angry assertion that he only allowed her to follow her dream because he expected her to fail looked dead on the money to me.

I’m still doubtful over Megan as an ongoing character. As commented on this blog a couple of weeks ago, she’s often seemed too perfect, lacking the flaws of the rest of the characters and acting more as a foil for Don than a person in her own right. But Semi Chellas’ script made me genuinely feel for her. First she had to endure the realisation that her husband had no confidence in her abilities (despite that he still wants her advice about the Jaguar pitch). Then, in a brief but telling scene, it became obvious that her audition callback was less about her acting ability than the shape of her rear end. And for all that Don was ready to be the Comforting Husband, you got the impression that he still didn’t understand.

But when it came to Don Just Not Getting It, this was small fry compared to the episode’s other big storyline – his treatment of Peggy. In the stress and furore of recent weeks, he’s been consistently treating her more like a doormat than a protege, and this week she’d finally had enough.

The last straw came when, having pitched a brilliant proposal to Chevalier LeBlanc perfume in Ginsberg’s absence (and after having refused to be described as his subordinate), Peggy found Don’s first reaction to be that he’d hand the idea straight to Ginsberg as soon as he was finished with Jaguar. And then, to add insult to injury, he took Peggy’s aggravation as a sign that she just wanted the account to get a free trip to Paris. Peggy, to her credit, immediately decided that she was worth more than that, and went out looking for better opportunities with the competition, where she might be recognised as worthy on her own terms.

Not surprisingly, Don’s old nemesis Ted Chaough was more than willing to make her an offer – in fact, he was prepared to exceed her original demand by $1000 a year. It’s nice to hope that he did this out of recognition of her abilities (and that probably was a factor), but given the way we’d seen women treated throughout the episode, my first thought was that he was making the offer just as a way to stick it to Don.

Peggy’s been an integral character to the show since episode one, and initially I didn’t believe she’d leave SCDP. But in a shock moment, leave she did. And as if to cement the episode’s portrayal of the well-meaning Don Just Not Getting It, his initial assumption was that she was just fishing for a raise, which he was more than prepared to give. He finally Got It when it became clear that, no matter what he offered, his former protege was off to pastures new; as he realised, and both reflected that this was really the end for them, the scene became genuinely tearjerking.

Don’s voice cracked as he refused to let go of Peggy’s hand, his face crumpling; Peggy herself had tears rolling down her otherwise controlled face. It was a hugely emotional scene, brilliantly played by both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. As Peggy walked out of SCDP for the last time amid furious partying, unnoticed by all (except, significantly, Joan), it became clear that she really was going. And perhaps now is the right time for that. As has recently become clear, she’s basically already become Don, albeit a female version, and the show doesn’t need two of them. Nonetheless, she’ll be missed.

An incredibly powerful episode overall, that gave Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in particular a chance to shine, and made me mark Semi Chellas as a writer to look out for. It’s easy for a man, if he’s liberal, to intellectually grasp how badly women were treated in the 60s; it’s quite something else to make him understand it on an emotional level. By rubbing our faces in the injustice suffered by likeable characters we’d known for some time, this episode succeeded at doing just that to an extent that I don’t think even Mad Men has managed before.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9–Blackwater

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 9 YET.

“We’ve got brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”

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Finally, after weeks of moving pawns from place to place, the endgame of Game of Thrones’ second season is here – in the form of the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the most fondly remembered set pieces from the book. After the vast majority of battles in Westeros’ civil war taking place offscreen (and cheaply), this was clearly the one the showrunners had been saving up the budget for. A sumptuously mounted, exciting and massively gory conflict, it took up the entirety of the episode, a necessary focus largely absent in recent weeks of jumping from plot to plot. And yet even in the midst of all the carnage, there was room for plenty of the character depth the show is justly renowned for.

Even with the obviously large amount of money spent on staging the battle, book purists may be a trifle dismayed to see some fairly substantial changes in the meticulously described military tactics of Blackwater as described in the original novel. Firstly, and most significantly, the whole battle takes place at night, while it was clearly described as a daylight battle in the book. Night battles were very unusual (though not unheard of) in medieval warfare. Yet it fits in with the general visual style of the show this year. I must say though, the show’s insistence on having so many scenes take place in (authentically dimly lit) darkness has meant that I’ve found myself squinting at the screen to make out what was going on on more than one occasion!

Tyrion’s defensive tactics were also much simplified, perhaps because the lengthy, complex description of the battle in prose would have taken far longer than the one hour of screen time it was allotted here to show. The ruse of allowing Stannis’ fleet entry to the bay virtually unopposed, then cutting off their exit by raising a giant chain across the bay’s mouth, and raining fire on them was completely absent. And while the tactic of destroying the fleet with fireships full of wildfire was present and correct, it was only one fireship that accomplished this, rather than the flotilla of the book. Yet that one ship was more than enough to blow a huge amount of ships out of the water in a superbly realised green inferno; gods know how much wildfire Tyrion stuffed into it, but it went off like a jade mini-nuke.

That, if anything, showed the visual logic of having the battle take place in darkness. The terrifying green explosion, and its subsequent orange fires as the ships began to burn, stood out starkly against the darkness of night in a way it never would have in daylight. It’s indicative that the changes made in the script recognised that this is a different storytelling medium with different requirements both visually and in the structure of the drama. And if book purists have a problem with those differences, they could try taking it up with the screenwriter – one George RR Martin. Internet flame wars aside, I think it’s safe to say that the author of the books knows what he’s doing.

The clever structure of this episode made it clear that Martin is no slouch when it comes to writing for television. We were shown the buildup to the battle (from both sides), then as the fighting got into full swing it was neatly intercut with scenes of the pessimistic Cersei holed up with Sansa and the other palace ladies holed up in the holdfast and fretfully anticipating the outcome. Meanwhile, outside, Tyrion, Bronn, the Hound and even Lancel got to show their true mettle as the carnage progressed.

That said, I did wonder about a bit of intrusive Author Voice in the exchange between Davos Seaworth and his son Matthos as Stannis’ fleet approached the city. Matthos confidently asserted that “the people of King’s Landing did not choose the false king Joffrey Baratheon. They will be glad to see his head on a spike”, to which the older and wiser Davos contended, “the people won’t see us as liberators. All they’ll see is that we’re trying to burn their city.”

While true enough, this felt like a somewhat hamfisted attempt to parallel Stannis’ imminent attack with recent ’wars of liberation’ which have found the US welcomed less sympathetically than they expected. As an allusion, it works well enough; but I’ve already had enough of real historical wars being paralleled with US adventures in the Middle East, in the recent BBC Robin Hood and the movie Kingdom of Heaven among others.

Still, that’s just a personal view; it wasn’t out of character for either Seaworth to express those views. And the rest of the characters were written as well as you would expect from the man who created them. Bronn and the Hound in particular were well-served this week, as the setup of their initial antagonism (nearly leading to a barfight to the death) led to a hair-raising moment mid-battle as the pyrophobic Hound was charged by a knight who was literally on fire, only to be saved at the last minute by an arrow from Bronn.

Rory McCann as the Hound was superb here, his usual embittered cynicism pushed sharply to the fore by his disillusionment with the King he serves and also by his understandable terror of fire, so plentiful in the battle raging for King’s Landing. This was neatly foreshadowed by his flinching every time a flaming torch came near, leading to the payoff of him fleeing the battlefield with the bitter declaration of, “fuck the king”.

He’s finally, properly deserted now, off to the North perhaps. But before he left, he got another of those tantalising scenes with Sansa, highlighting their weird little relationship. Popping up in her bedroom, he invited her to come with him, promising to take her ‘home’ to Winterfell. Of course, with Winterfell currently held by Theon Greyjoy, and her brothers ostensibly dead, Sansa chose to stay. But the wounded look as the Hound stalked out was almost heartbreaking, like a man who’s just had his last little bit of honour cruelly refused.

Sophie Turner as Sansa got some of the episode’s most thoughtful scenes, mostly paired (as she has been many times in the past) with Lena Headey’s brittle and increasing fragile Cersei. Cersei’s plainly finding power not as rewarding as she expected, as she’s more or less admitted in recent weeks. Now she finds herself cowering, increasingly drunk, in a holdfast as she depends on men to sort out the problem outside. And she’s not optimistic either; those scenes were hovered over by the baleful presence of grim-looking, mute King’s Executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, on hand to spare the women rape by killing them should Stannis prevail.

Cersei did seem to have an increasing despair, as shown by Headey’s bitter smile and sharp tongue. Yet despite her apparent fragility here, we were shown that she’s still very much a force to be reckoned with. Noticing Sansa’s surprisingly lowborn handmaiden Shae, the Queen recognised her as oddly out of place an began to question her with a suspicious and determined look in here eye. Given that we know Cersei’s been torturing Ros in the mistaken belief that she is Tyrion’s whore, there was a lot of suspense here with the possibility that she might discover her mistake.

Fortunately, Shae found herself saved by the bell; or rather, by the arrival of the ever-wet Lancel Lannister, bringing news of the apparently losing battle outside. True to form, Lancel was fairly rubbish throughout. He fled from the battlefield after an arrow hit that seemed less than incapacitating, then cravenly agreed (after a halfhearted objection) to the Queen’s proposal to remove Joffrey from the battle. Yet even Lancel got to display a bit of courage as he eventually tried to tell the Queen that this might well destroy the Lannister chances, only be met by a punch in the chops from the aggrieved Cersei. Safe to say he won’t be returning to her bed any time soon, having made the mistake of underestimating her venom under pressure.

In the thick of the battle itself, Tyrion once again got to show that he can hold his own not just as a politician and tactician, but also as a soldier. With the jittery looking Joffrey having fled to the dubious safety of his mum, it was up to Tyrion to make the inspirational speech that would give the men the heart to follow him into battle. This was nicely done, very much in the style of the classic example, Shakespeare’s Henry V. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion may tend more to the scatological than Shakespeare’s Henry, but the intended effect was the same. Having finally won the attention of the demoralised troops, he goaded them into action with self-deprecation as he strapped on his armour: “I’m only half a man. What does that make those who refuse to fight?”

Stannis too was in the thick of the fray. Unlike Joffrey, he’s clearly not afraid to lead from the front, and was in the thick of the action as his troops stormed the walls of the city. Said action was increasingly and massively drenched in gore; heads were chopped off, throats were slit, viscera were spilled, and at one point the Hound actually cut someone in half diagonally. Stannis experienced the gore as his mouthy lieutenant, next to him at the wall, had his head pulped by a falling stone from the battlements. It didn’t put him off though, and he was among the first up the siege ladders.

The blood-drenched spectacle of the battle was truly impressive. Apparently showrunners Benioff and Weiss had to convince HBO to up the budget to actually show it, with the original intention to have more of a bottle episode told from the POV of  Cersei and Sansa cowering in the holdfast. I’m thankful that HBO agreed; much as the show is great character drama, the absence of onscreen battles in a show centred on a civil war was becoming increasingly conspicuous. That the battle as seen was so exciting should give huge kudos to director Neil Marshall, who started his career with low-budget werewolf horror Dog Soldiers. As that film showed, Marshall is clearly adept at producing the maximum spectacle for the minimum of money.

The battle ended suitably abruptly (as such battles often do) with the surprise arrival of reinforcements led by Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell. The tension and atmosphere of doom for the Lannisters had, up till then, been ratcheted to breaking point; Cersei was just about to poison her son Tommen (and herself) as Tywin burst into the room to declare the battle over. Good thing for Tyrion, who’s been dealt a nasty blow, only to be saved by callow squire Podrick. I must say, the slash across his forehead and cheek looked considerably less severe than the injury described in the book, which left him with only half a nose; but then Dinklage has always been a better looking man than the Tyrion the books described.

All told, a massively exciting episode with a nearly faultless script from the author of the books and tight, spectacular direction from Neil Marshall. It was great to hear Lannister anthem of power ‘The Rains of Castermere’ finally, at first raucously sung in a bar, then in a beautifully mournful tone over the end credits. Like Lord of the Rings, the books are full of songs (though they’re less twee than Tolkien’s), and they’ve wisely been kept to a minimum in the show. But this song’s notable for its frequent occurrence, and if composer Ramin Djawadi was to set any of them to music, I’m glad it was this.

With the whole episode forming a set piece of the battle, next week’s ‘epilogue’ is going to have a heavy workload catching up the rest of the plot before season’s end. We’re still awaiting resolution for Dany in Qarth, Robb in the Riverlands and Jon beyond the Wall, to name but a few. It’ll probably be a crowded episode, without the tight focus of this one. But that’s not really a problem; if the season has a climax, it’s the Battle of Blackwater, and thankfully this was no letdown.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 10–Christmas Waltz

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 10 YET.

“People buy things because it makes them feel happier.”

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It’s December 1966 for the guys and girls at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and with Christmas around the corner, what better time for a meditation on all things materialistic and consumerist? For the cash-strapped Lane Pryce and newly single Joan Harris, it’s a meditation about money, but for the not-seen-for-ages Paul Kinsey it’s a literal meditation – he’s joined the Hare Krishnas.

With so many episodes recently having centred around Don and Megan, Peggy and Ginsberg, and Pete and Roger, it was a nice change to have the focus changed to other characters, some of whom have seemed rather neglected of late. Lane and Joan in particular, after having been quite prominent early in the season, have been rather pushed to the background in recent weeks.

Lane, who seems to have brought English reserve to a new level in not acknowledging his depressing life, is finally having the financial meltdown hinted at early in the season. With Europe in 2012 undergoing a similar meltdown, it’s tempting to see Lane’s predicament as a timely comment on current events, though with the caveat that the script must have been written quite some time ago.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a fellow Englishman, but I like Lane, and found his desperate efforts to avoid personal ruin while hiding his money worries even from his own wife simultaneously comic and uncomfortable. We already knew that he’s having problems paying for private school for his son Nigel (a name that telegraphs Englishness for American screenwriters but is far less common here than they think). Now it seems that Her Majesty’s tax office is rather keen to get its hands on the $8000 of back taxes Lane owes. Like, right this minute.

So Lane finally blew his English cool at his wife (“Get back to bed right this minute!”), then proceeded to spend the rest of the episode desperately trying to get the firm in which he’s a partner to pay his tax bill. Plan A was to borrow $50,000 on the firm’s account, then tell the partners that the firm was ‘unexpectedly’ better off than they’d thought to the tune of that amount. Thus, everyone could get an immediate Christmas bonus, Lane’s own being the amount he needed.

That’s some dubious stuff right there, but that plan stalled (like economic growth under David Cameron) when Don, Roger, Pete and Bert weren’t that bothered about getting a bonus so soon. So, it was off to Plan B – forge Don’s signature on a company check. OK, you could see that as an ‘advance’ on Lane’s bonus, but I think it’s basically embezzlement.

And the whole plan was totally torpedoed when Mohawk Airlines temporarily withdraw their business, and all the other partners ‘heroically’ decide to forego their bonuses so the rest of the staff could have some. Lane’s obviously going to be in big trouble quite soon, when he has to explain that he did get a bonus, on a check Don didn’t really sign, from a $50,000 windfall the company didn’t really have. Lane might be in the advantageous position of Chief Finance Officer, but he’s going to be lucky to get away with all that.

Jared Harris was, as ever, excellent as Lane throughout. I particularly enjoyed his sly method of persuading his wife that they didn’t need that Christmas trip to England that he couldn’t afford, and his increasingly badly repressed desperation as his plans went awry and he was reduced to actual thievery from his own company.

Still, with the renewed possibility of business from Jaguar cars, Lane might – just – be able to balance the books before he’s caught. It actually took me a few seconds to figure out what new client Pete was so joyful about, due to the American insistence on pronouncing the name “Jag-wah”, rather than the British “Jag-you-er”. Still, as a classic car enthusiast, their inclusion meant I was blessed with a visit to a New York Jaguar showroom boasting the latest 1966 models.

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With Pete having foregone the chance to drive a Mark 2 (just as well considering his inability to drive even an auto transmission American car), it was up to Don and Joan, masquerading as a married couple, to take a test drive. After having spent the last few weeks as an agony aunt for everyone else in the office, it was clearly Joan’s turn to have a horrid time. That’s what happens to any character in this show when the scriptwriter decides to focus on them – it’s never good news.

For Joan, the bad news came in the form of being served divorce papers on behalf of her nasty estranged husband. I thought that was what she wanted anyway, but no, she went ballistic at the (admittedly incompetent) receptionist who allowed her husband’s lawyer into the office, chucking the model Mohawk plane at her. After Lane’s outburst earlier, this was a chance for another normally collected character to explode. Lucky for her, it was Don who was there to pick up the pieces, and off they went to the Jag showroom where the desperately unhappy Joan, quite sensibly, espoused the ‘family car’ Mark 2 in favour of the gorgeous XKE (“also known as the E-Type”, the salesman explained, accurately).

Sadly, we didn’t get to see the XKE cruising the streets of 1966 Manhattan (perhaps its real owner wouldn’t allow that). But it did take Don and Joan to a nearby bar, and one of those trademark Mad Men character revealing discussions. Turns out Joan’s furious at the divorce papers because it’s Greg divorcing her, not the other way round – as though the breakup of the marriage was somehow her fault. This led to an interesting discussion on the merits (or otherwise) of marriage, and Joan’s dating chances as a newly divorced single mother.

Along the way, the theme of materialism, so crucial to the show, was touched on in a big way. Don’s not impressed with the XKE, and Joan thinks it’s because he’s happy (has she been watching the same show I have?). The implication is clear – as Don says, “people buy things because it makes them feel better”. Because in the world as Mad Men sees it, there’s always enough unhappiness to keep consumerism chugging along.

Some people, though, choose to fill the void another way – with religion. A large part of the show was devoted to a slightly less weighty subplot in which Harry Crane had to deal with the return of Paul Kinsey, left behind when the original Sterling Cooper was taken over by McCann Erickson. Kinsey’s been drifting ever downward since, and having hit rock bottom is the perfect target for hip new religion/cult, the Hare Krishnas.

Harry’s usually very much a background character in the show, and it was nice to see him get his own little subplot. The scene of him caught up in a Krishna chantalong was hilarious – and historically interesting, as presumably the ‘Swami’ in charge was the cult’s original founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. But this subplot had its serious side too, once you got over the hilarity of the perma-smiling Kinsey done up in Krishna robes.

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Paul’s at rock bottom, and he needs Harry to try and sell a spec script he’s written for Star Trek. Only trouble is, the script, cringingly entitled ‘The Negron Complex’ (“the twist is that the Negrons are white”) is terrible. How can Harry tell his erstwhile friend that his dreams of TV writing are never going to come true? And on top of that, Kinsey’s prospective Krishna girlfriend, the manipulative Lakshmi, then goes and has sex with Harry in his office, to try and ensure that Kinsey’s dream of a return to commercialism will never come true. What’s an embarrassed married ad exec meant to do, refuse?

In the end, Harry came up with the face-saving tactic of telling Paul that “a reader” had loved his script, but they couldn’t take it on. And then giving him $500 to hotfoot it off to LA and live his screenwriting dream. It’s hard to tell whether this was a selfless gesture on Harry’s part to get Paul out of the Krishnas’ (and Lakshmi’s) clutches, or whether it was just a payoff to make sure that the increasingly embarrassing Paul never bothered him again. This being Mad Men, I’d tend toward the latter theory.

So quite a low key episode this week, that nonetheless had things to say, and gave some welcome plot advancement to some characters who’ve been sadly neglected of late. Clearly Joan’s beginning to go through the same kind of existential crisis that Don permanently lives in, and Lane’s more concrete problems seem set to come back and bite him some time soon. With only three more episodes left to savour this season, I’m wondering which of these aspects is going to ramp up in time for the season finale. OK, Mad Men is more restrained than, say, Game of Thrones, but even Mad Men usually ups the dramatic ante for the end of the season. I can’t help wondering whether Lane’s short sighted desperation is about to lead to a crisis for the whole of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Finally, this week’s Hideous Checked Sport Coat count: zero. But Roger more than made up for it with this tasteful shirt:

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Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8–The Prince of Winterfell

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 8 YET.

“The day will come when you think you’re safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth.”

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After last week’s thoughtful, introspective episode of Game of Thrones, this week’s seemed to move at breakneck speed as we caught up on literally every plot strand. It had the feel of an endgame, moving players into position for a final battle that will surely come next week.

With so much to catch up on, it was an episode driven more by plot than by the character examination that was so much the centre of the script last week. Each vignette of where the characters were felt more like a snapshot, and with so many to squeeze in, few plotlines got more than a cursory glance. Yet even in all this breathless plot advancement, one or two characters got a little more space for some of those nicely deep dialogue scenes – in particular Robb and Talisa, Stannis and Davos, and Tyrion with both Bronn and Varys.

It was good to see a number of characters who’ve been noticeably absent for quite a while this season. Bronn in particular has been rather missed, his earthy, pragmatic views a perfect counterpoint to Tyrion’s shrewd scheming. It’s clear that King’s Landing is holding its breath for the imminent arrival of Stannis’ feared battle fleet, and each character in the city was preoccupied with this impending doom. So we caught up with Tyrion and Bronn as Tyrion pored over books of strategy while Bronn got bored and cleaned his fingernails.

It was a good scene, with the comic confusion over how to pronounce the name of the ancient maester who wrote the book nicely counterpointed by Bronn’s vivid description of how things would be if the city came under siege. He’s clearly been busy in his new capacity as Commander of the City Watch, rounding up all known thieves in the city. “For… interrogation?” Varys asked silkily, to which Bronn merely replied, “no.”

Yet again, he’s got the more pragmatic view; if it comes to a siege, the most valuable currency will be food, and any canny thief will immediately hoard as much of it as possible. So, get rid of the thieves before they get the chance. Even Varys had to concede the wisdom of this. Bronn’s sledgehammer tactics might lack subtlety, but they’re right for the circumstances.

But Tyrion had more to occupy his mind than just the imminent battle. The ever-vengeful Cersei seemed to have discovered his secret love/whore Shae – except, it turned out, she’d got the wrong whore. Lena Headey was magnificently loathsome as Cersei here, all horrible self-satisfaction with her scheme to hurt her brother; but Peter Dinklage played it well too as Tyrion played along with the mistake in a heartbeat, pretending the captive Ros really was his lover. As Ros, Esme Bianco got only one line, but it was heartfelt: “Remember me.” It gave the sense that she’s not likely to survive this; but then, after her experiences with Littlefinger and Joffrey, she’s plainly discovered that being a whore in the big city is far harder than it used to be in the wilds near Winterfell.

Joffrey himself popped up briefly to be reliably loathsome, surveying the siege preparations with Varys and Tyrion. He’s determined to lead his army into battle (which Cersei sees as a foolhardy move prompted by Tyrion), and both Varys and Tyrion seemed slyly amused at the prospect. But as Joffrey stalked off, these two master manipulators got a nice exchange about the game at which they’re both so good. “I’d like to stay alive and keep playing it,” was Tyrion’s attitude. As Varys said, he’s a far better hand than Jon Arryn or Ned Stark, because he doesn’t let his honour get in the way of how the game is played.

Ned Stark’s shadow hung heavily over the show this week. Robb, bonding ever more closely with Talisa, got to tell of his respect for his father: “he told me he walked with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear at night”. It wasn’t too surprising that Robb and Talisa finally got it on this week, in a sex scene that was far more modest than usual for this show.

This time, the sex wasn’t for titillation, or to enliven an otherwise dull bit of exposition; it was crucial to the plot, and genuinely romantic rather than the usual lustful, animal couplings favoured by most of the characters. But lest we forget the rather large stumbling block that Robb is already betrothed to one of the Frey daughters, in exchange for access to a vital bridge, the dialogue reminded us of this several times. Again, it’s clear that Robb’s romantic choices are likely to come back and haunt him…

Robb also had to deal with the knotty problem that his mother had set free his most valuable captive. After last week’s cliffhanger, it turned out that Catelyn Stark had actually released Jaime Lannister, as an attempt to get Cersei to release her daughters. I must say, this decision rang truer in the book, with Cat’s maternal instincts equally matched by her political levelheadedness. Here, it seemed a little out of character that the normally pragmatic Lady Stark would sacrifice such a valuable hostage out of such an emotional motive; a fact hammered home when Robb reminded her of the losses of others, and how much was at stake. A misstep in characterisation, perhaps, though a forgivable one. At least it meant that we got a new double act, as Jaime and Brienne sniped and bitched at each other as they made their way south.

One of the other good double acts was split up this week, as Tywin Lannister finally left Harrenhal to head for battle. In the book, he wasn’t there for anything like as long; but in the show, he’s built up an excellent rapport with Arya, who was now frantic to find Jaqen H’gar and have him off the departing Lannister before it was too late.

Unfortunately, Jaqen was off on patrol, and by the time he returned, Tywin was long gone. But he still owed Arya one death, and she masterfully played him by demanding that it should be his own. Honour bound, he had to follow through on that unless Arya released him – which she would only do if he helped her, Gendry and Hot Pie escape from the castle. Jaqen paid up in full, slaughtering the guards offscreen so the trio could simply walk out of the castle.

But, again, the need to cram so much in left a lack in motivation – it’s pretty hard to understand why Gendry and Hot Pie would want to escape, given that they both had menial jobs that kept them alive and off the Lannister radar. Again, their reasons were fleshed out in the book. It’s a long book, and I can understand the need to compress its often verbose complexity, but I think this episode in particular skipped too much, making some characters’ choices hard to fathom.

Just to remind us that Stannis is fast approaching King’s Landing, he and Davos Seaworth got one of the better dialogue scenes aboard his flagship at night. Davos’ reasons for his loyalty have only been hinted at up till now; here, we got the whole backstory of how he’d smuggled food to the besieged Stannis during the civil war against the Targaryens. It was well played by Stephen Dillane and Liam Cunningham, whose Davos is one of the more likeable (and honest) characters in the show. And it also neatly counterpointed the fears of those in King’s Landing – Stannis’ account of his siege, as his men gradually ate the horses, then the cats, then the dogs, served to underline the points Bronn had made earlier.

Siege may well be on Theon’s mind too. His sister finally turned up, to tell him he was a fool and should abandon Winterfell before the Northmen strung him up for killing Bran and Rickon. Well, “fool” wasn’t the word she used – it was actually “cunt”. The show has infrequently used this ultimate weapon of obscenities before, but here it was flung about with casual abandon by plenty of characters, even Cersei. Tyrion got the best use of it, exclaiming, “why are the gods such vicious cunts? Where’s the god of tits and wine?” As a crude Englishman, it’s a word I tend to enjoy for its blunt shock value, but I know that for Americans it’s the ultimate taboo – I wonder how they’ll take to its liberal use here?

Swearing aside, Theon was revealed to have not killed Bran and Rickon after all, but rather the two farmer’s sons from that farm the young Starks chose not to hide at. I’d wondered how long the writers would play the bluff out and let us believe the boys were dead; in the event, it was only for the length of this episode. Probably about right, I think. Still, the fact that those charred corpses weren’t the people we thought they were doesn’t let Theon off the hook at all; if anything, he seems even worse for having killed two children who had no involvement at all. And clearly Bran, overhearing Osha telling Luwin this, is going to be burdened with the kind of guilt Theon seems incapable of.

With all this going on, the script still had time for a few snapshots of plots elsewhere. Catching up with events beyond the Wall was significant, as Jon Snow discovered that star Ranger Qhorin Halfhand had been captured too, and all his men killed – because they were searching for Jon. Clearly Bran’s not the only one who’ll be bearing a burden of guilt. A few miles away, the other Night’s Watch party were digging latrines in the snow, and Sam Tarly (good to see him again) managed to unearth a cache of ancient weapons – knives of ‘dragonglass’ – or obsidian, as we know it. Clearly these are going to be important, but the scene in which they were discovered was still a joy of character dialogue between the lowly latrine diggers of the Watch.

Somewhat less well done was the scene in Qarth, catching us up with Daenerys and Jorah as they debated whether she should flee or accept Pyat Pree’s dubious invitation to the House of the Undying. The whole scene felt perfunctory; no characters were delved into, no plot was advanced. It was as if it was there solely to remind us of what’s happening in this plotline, something the show hasn’t felt the need to do before. Previously, we’ve had multiple episodes go by before returning to a crucial plot point. Why couldn’t that have been done here? Personally, I would have preferred to use the runtime to more adequately explore the motivations of Cat Stark or Gendry, which felt flimsy at best.

A lot went on in this episode, but it almost felt like a holding pattern while the characters were moved to where they need to be for the Big Finale. If anything, the writers tried to cram a little too much in, at the expense of the show’s usually impeccable character depth. That said, this was still pretty good TV; the action and intrigue were compelling. I just wish there’d been a slightly more measured pace, and more judicious decisions about which plots to include or leave out. Still, I gather this will be the last season in which they try to adapt one of Martin’s increasingly lengthy books in its entirety; from hereon in, even an increased episode count wouldn’t allow these massive tomes to be covered in one season each. So this is probably the last time we’ll see an episode that has to feel so … rushed.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 9–Dark Shadows

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 9 YET.

“I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no one else has anything better.”

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Less portentous and existential than last week, this week’s Mad Men still offered another slice of angst in the lives of a selected few characters. Don’s increasing insecurity (not to mention Peggy’s) in the face of new young competition came up, along with the repercussions of Roger’s recent decision to end his marriage. But the lion’s share of the episode belonged to the little-seen-recently Betty and the way her own unhappiness is blighting the lives of everyone around her, including Don and especially Sally.

January Jones was on formidable form this week as Betty, increasingly frustrated with her unsuccessful attempts to lose weight after ballooning between seasons. Having established that her chubbiness is a result of psychological unhappiness rather than illness, Betty’s taken to attending Weight Watchers, then in its infancy as a New York-based therapy group. It has to be said, none of the women in Betty’s group looked particularly fat by today’s standards; a knowing comment, perhaps, on the increasing levels of obesity since the 60s?

Either way, Weight Watchers doesn’t seem to be making Betty any happier. Despite her strict diet of burned toast and grapefruits (plus fish five days a week, to her husband’s annoyance), she’s still not losing much weight. And when Betty’s unhappy, she takes it out on those around her. As has so frequently been the case in the past, those first in the firing line are daughter Sally and ex-husband Don.

Despite occasional cordial relations with Don, it’s clear that Betty’s never really got over the breakup of their marriage. This was made abundantly clear as she stopped by Don’s swanky new penthouse apartment to pick up the kids. You’d think the palatial mansion she lives in with Henry would be enough to keep her happy, but no, she’s clearly salivating with jealousy at Don’s hip furnishings and view of the Manhattan skyline. As if that wasn’t enough, she catches a glimpse of his new model wife Megan getting dressed, with that perky figure Betty herself no longer has.

We kept returning to Betty’s increasing frustration throughout, and it finally boiled over when she found young Bobby’s drawing of what appeared to be a harpooned Moby Dick (a symbol for Betty’s fruitless quest for happiness perhaps?) Discovering the rather sweet note from Don to Megan on the other side of the drawing, Betty’s jealousy and annoyance led her to try and torpedo the perceived happiness her ex and his new wife lived in. In doing so, she once again found herself using poor old Sally as a weapon, ‘innocently’ asking why her daughter’s family tree didn’t include Don’s (ie Dick Whitman’s) first ‘wife’ Anna.

That’s a nasty tactic by any means. Sally was plainly unaware of her father’s tortuous history, and it would be pretty complicated to explain to an adult, never mind a twelve-year-old. So she immediately blew up at Megan (another effect Betty was aiming for, perhaps) for lying to her. Stuck in the middle of an obviously bitter row between Don and Betty, poor old Megan couldn’t really deal with this.

It was only when Sally overheard Don and Megan having a flaming row over the matter that she realised what so many children from ‘broken homes’ have before her – she was being used as a pawn between two bitterly estranged people trying to hurt each other, with no regard for her own feelings. Again, Kiernan Shipka’s performance was astoundingly mature as Sally played an absolute blinder; when ‘innocently’ asked by Betty how her questioning of Don had gone, she simply shrugged and made out that it had been no big deal at all. I couldn’t help laughing and exclaiming, “well played, Sally!” That’s how much Mad Men draws me in sometimes.

Back at the office, we had two big plots going on. Don found his alpha male status increasingly threatened by the talent of young Ginsberg, and Roger tried comically to adapt to acceptance of New York’s Jewish community in order to screw over Pete Campbell by nabbing another account.

Of these two, the Roger storyline was the more obviously funny;  you can always rely on Roger for a few laughs. Witness his frustration at having to secretly bribe yet another copywriter in his attempts to damage Pete, and his awkward attempts at acceptance of Jews. Ginsberg handled it well though, and Roger’s enough of an old smoothie to still manage to charm his Jewish potential client.

This was in no small part thanks to the help of his now-estranged wife Jane. There was a comical moment when Bert Cooper (who we don’t see often enough), found out that Roger had separated; he looked at his watch and harrumphed, “what, already?” But Roger needed Jane (she’s Jewish, remember) to show the clients how accepting he is. She certainly charmed wine magnate Rosenberg’s handsome son Bernie – I wonder if that will go anywhere in later episodes?

Perhaps not, because she ended up back with Roger. It’s clear since their acid trip that she’s not as sanguine about the end of their marriage as he is; now we realised that he’s not entirely over it either. So he dragooned his way into the new apartment he’d bought Jane so she could be free of the memories in their old one, and took advantage of the presumably drunk Jane to have his way with her. The man’s incorrigible, and certainly doesn’t learn lessons.

It was a bitter conclusion to an otherwise amusing plotline, as a repentant Roger was told by the tearful Jane that he’d just made her new apartment as painful to be in as her old one. One of the things that makes Roger likeable despite the horrible things he does is the obvious fondness behind his thoughtlessness; we saw last week how fond he still is of former wife Mona, and it now seems Jane is another he bears no ill will towards. Whether she feels the same is uncertain. But she knows Roger. He does what he does because he has no thought for the consequences of his actions; and based on the last five seasons, he’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Don, as usual, had the slightly more serious storyline. Stumbling over Ginsberg’s copybook on his way out of the office, he realised how talented the younger man was – talented in a way that Don himself doubts he is any more. So he stayed in the office (missing Betty’s awkward visit to his apartment) running through some frankly hokey sounding proposals for something called ‘Sno Balls’ (these might be a real product, but as a non-American I’m completely unaware of them).

After figuratively sweating blood over it, Don came up with a half decent proposal, but in the pitch meeting, Peggy and Rizzo seemed to prefer Ginsberg’s. Ginsberg himself probably compounded the problem with his amusing surprise that Don still “had it”. And with that, the fight was on – not that Ginsberg even knew. Don was threatened, however much he denied it, and after being frustrated in his every attempt to gain the upper hand, resorted to the downright sneaky tactic of simply leaving Ginsberg’s proposal in the cab when he went to pitch to the clients.

I don’t think we’ve seen Don resorting to this kind of underhand strategy out of desperation very often before. It led to a marvellous two handed scene in the elevator (increasingly where characters in the show go to have frosty exchanges). Ginsberg, having realised he’d been screwed over, nettled Don with his own youth and potential: “I’ve got millions more ideas. Millions of them”, following that up with a zinger: “You know, I feel sorry for you.” To which Don coldly came back with, “I don’t think about you at all.” But that wasn’t an argument-winning line because Don – and the viewer – knows that it’s a lie.

So if there was a theme at all in this week’s angst-ridden drama, it was denial. Betty’s denial of her own obvious unhappiness; Don’s denial of his obsolescence; Roger’s denial that he still has feelings for his ex-wives. And even Pete’s denial that his affair with Howard’s wife is over – in one of the more comical scenes, he fantasises that she’s come to the office wearing a fur coat and little else. Lucky he’s got that couch in his office, he plainly needed a lie down.

A few historical notes anchored the show in 1966. Megan was clearly running lines from classic gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows, which began in June of that year. Given that it ran for five years and is fondly remembered as a cult show, Megan’s assessment of it as “crap” is amusing. After all, it must be well-remembered to have inspired the title of this episode! Elsewhere, Henry’s obviously annoyed that New York City mayor John Lindsay isn’t running in the 1966 State Governor race; that went to Nelson Rockefeller for a second time. Rockefeller would later go on to be Vice President under Gerald Ford. As Henry crossly comments, he’s backed the wrong horse in sticking with Lindsay.

And finally, this week’s Hideous Checked Sports Coat count – low. It’s November, so everyone’s switched to Hideous Checked Overcoats:

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But for a bit of variety, the head of Betty’s Weight Watchers class has a Hideous Checked Housecoat:

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More eye-watering 60s fashions amid the existential angst next week…

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 7–A Man Without Honor

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.

“Don’t look so grim. It’s all just a game.”

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After the frantic, relentless action of the last few episodes, this week Game of Thrones seemed to pause for breath and allow those well-drawn characters to relax for a while, and take stock. Not that there weren’t some major plot developments, which I’ll come to soon, but it felt like a (necessary) lull in the action. This made for a thoughtful episode, again scripted by showrunners Benioff and Weiss, which was largely constructed of something the show does fantastically well – introspective, character-driven dialogue scenes, in which the cast are given a chance to truly shine.

Up at Winterfell, Theon was revealed to be even more of a wretch than we thought as he blamed everyone around him for the escape of Bran and Rickon, while somehow missing his own gullibility in letting Osha seduce him as a distraction. Of course, as soon as a nameless underling pointed this out, Theon gave him a good kicking. Nobody’s disputing that he knows how to fight, but he plainly doesn’t know how to lead – nothing was as revealing of his craven thoughtlessness as his furious comment, “it’s better to be cruel than weak.”

Unfortunately this has been the credo of far too many leaders in the real world, and just like them, Theon’s first thought was to lash out. Dragging Maester Luwin on a fruitless hunt for the boys, Alfie Allen made Theon convincingly loathsome while never – quite – losing the viewer’s sympathy as a fool who’s got in far over his head. It’s a good performance that shows Allen to be more than just a bloke fearlessly willing to display his (admittedly pleasant) naked body week after week.

Down in King’s Landing, we got scene after scene of revealing dialogue-driven interaction. This may have frustrated those who prefer the show’s propensity for masses of explicit violence and sex, but for me, this kind of drama is what puts Game of Thrones head and shoulders over almost every other fantasy-based extravaganza.

Thus, we got yet another glimpse at the odd, almost protective relationship between the increasingly less naive Sansa and the embittered, cynical Hound. Rory McCann invested Clegane with just the right amount of hardbitten cynicism, as he asserted that last week’s ‘gallant’ rescue of Sansa from her would-be rapists was nothing more than an opportunity to indulge in his love of killing. Sansa, trying gamely to thank him for what seemed a chivalrous gesture, seemed less than convinced; something I think we all shared as the Hound asserted that one day, he’d be the only one standing between her and her “beloved king”.

The cruel, capricious Joffrey was personally absent this week, but it was telling that most of the character scenes in King’s Landing revolved around discussion of him. Sansa, terrified that her first period meant she must immediately go to his bed, got a terrific scene with Cersei in which the scheming Queen once again reminded us that she’s also a human being – and a mother. Later, Cersei had one of those truce-like discussions with her brother – and bitter enemy – Tyrion, and in a moment of surprising frankness, all but confessed that she knew her son to be a monster, and wondered if she was being punished for her incest with brother Jaime.

These were brilliant scenes, allowing the talented cast to give their all. Lena Headey has truly mastered playing Cersei as a character who, like Theon, has ambitions that far outstrip her abilities. She’s done pretty well, conspiring to put her bastard son on the Iron Throne, but now she’s realised that she can’t control him. Not for the first time, we got a sense that she feels almost a solidarity with her hostage Sansa, another woman condemned to a forthcoming loveless royal marriage. For her part, Sophie Turner as Sansa – a less showy Stark role than Arya or Bran – got to show the increasing loss of her innocence in the Machiavellian world of the court. No wonder Shae too has appointed herself as Sansa’s protector.

Over at Harrenhal, there was another lengthy scene between Tywin Lannister and Arya, fast proving to be one of the best double acts in the show. Charles Dance and Maisie Williams continue to have a great chemistry together, and their scenes – greatly enlarged from any in the book – crackle with tension. This week, their protracted discussion of Westeros’ history revealed to Tywin that Arya was no lowborn daughter of a stonemason, and there was a breath stopping moment when he disclosed that. Fortunately for Arya, he still doesn’t know which highborn child he’s got his hands on, but you have to wonder if he’ll work it out…

Properly back in the drama this week was Jaime Lannister, still held captive in a muddy stockade at Robb Stark’s camp. In an episode full of memorable scenes, the Kingslayer arguably got the best of them, more than making up for his virtual absence this season until now. The lengthy scene with young Ser Alton Lannister – possibly the longest scene this week – was impeccably played both by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Karl Davies as Alton. It’s one of the things the show does very well, possibly better than the original books – giving the characters detailed, convincing backstories.

In this case, we learned of both characters’ past pugilistic achievements, filling in so much of why Jaime is the way he is. And then a further demonstration of the way he is, as he coldly murdered his loyal kinsman as a mere tool in an escape plan (and really, it’s one of the oldest plans in the book – so much for Jaime’s assertion that the Starks have well-trained guards).

Not that it even got him very far. Jaime was recaptured the next morning, leading to a nasty confrontation with Lord Karstark, whose son had been the inept guard Jaime strangled. This short circuits a much longer plotline from the book, but works just as well, if not better. Catelyn, aware of Jaime’s value as a hostage, is obliged to step in to protect him from her son’s vengeance-hungry bannermen, leading to another excellent scene between her and Jaime in which he bitterly explains that all the vows of a knight mean nothing when they start contradicting each other. How can he protect the King and the weak when the King is busy slaughtering the weak? Cat, though, seemed less than convinced, and the scene ended in a cliffhanger as she pointed Brienne’s sword at the treacherous Lannister.

But there were more cliffhangers to come, as the episode came to several “how will they get out of that?” climaxes. Up beyond the Wall, Jon was being mercilessly mocked by Ygritte for his virginity and vow of celibacy. You could cut the sexual tension with a knife – at least until Ygritte slipped her bonds and disappeared, only to re-emerge with a cadre of wildlings pointing bows at her former captor. How will Jon get out of that?

Over the sea in Qarth, Dany had been looking for her stolen dragons. After yet more none too subtle declarations of feeling from Jorah Mormont, she found herself addressing the assembled Council of Thirteen. Somewhat surprisingly, the culprit owned up almost immediately – it was cadaverous warlock Pyat Pree. It was one of the episode’s genuine shock moments as he revealed that he’d conspired with Xaro Xhoan Daxos to install Xaro as King of Qarth. Even more shocking was the moment multiple duplicates of Pree appeared, slashing the throats of the council and disappearing when stabbed by Jorah, only to mockingly reiterate that dubious sounding invite to Dany. I wouldn’t be so keen to visit anywhere described by a blue-lipped magical murderer as the “House of the Undying”. But that’s where Dany’s dragons are. How will she get them out of that?

The last cliffhanger was probably the most shocking, as Theon revealed to the defiant populace of Winterfell how he dealt with such defiance, hoisting what looked like the charred bodies of Rickon and Bran for them to gasp at. Maester Luwin was devastated. Even in a show in which pretty much anyone can die, the brutal murder of two children is pretty strong stuff. Still, the bodies were charred beyond recognition – will Bran and Rickon get out of that?

So, despite the episode’s brilliant character scenes and generally languid pace, there were one or two shocking plot developments. But taking time out from the increasingly complex interwoven plots to focus on the characters seems exactly right at this point in the series. It’s a breather before the final three episodes, and if it’s anything like last year, that’s the point where all hell will start breaking loose. This is probably the last opportunity this season has for some introspection, and it’s all the more welcome for that.

Coalition of the Daleks

Could Barry Letts, Louis Marks and Terrance Dicks predict the future?

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“It is agreed then. Join us and you can have a referendum on AV.”

Recently I was watching a rather excellent documentary on the DVD of Doctor Who story The Happiness Patrol, which examined the many, none too subtle references to contemporary politics in various Doctor Who stories. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the planet Peladon’s divisive attempt to join the Galactic Federation is actually a comment on the UK’s entry to the Common Market. Or that the environment-trashing, brainwashing global corporation imaginatively named ‘Global Chemicals’ is one in a long line of protests against profit-driven multinationals. And somehow, until a couple of years ago, it seemed that few people had realised that the villain of The Happiness Patrol itself, the tyrannical dictator Helen A was actually a thinly veiled caricature of then current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, Doctor Who has frequently ‘commented’ (usually from a fairly liberal, inclusive perspective) on contemporary politics. But it dawned on me recently, while watching the nifty ‘new’ version of 1972 story Day of the Daleks (now with added CG explosions) that this story achieves a rather peculiar feat in managing to satirise events that, for the writers, would be far in the future. For rewatching the story for the first time in years, it swiftly became abundantly clear that the nightmare future visited by the Doctor and Jo, while it purports to be Earth in the 22nd century, is actually the United Kingdom in 2012.

Before I elucidate on this unlikely assertion, here’s a brief summary of the plot for those unfamiliar with this classic. It’s your basic Terminator-style time paradox story, in which rebels from the dystopian, Dalek-dominated future are trying to change history so that the series of wars which allowed the Daleks to invade never occur. To do this, they must assassinate the man they believe to be responsible, a British diplomat called Reginald Styles who, they believe, started the wars by blowing up a global peace conference.

With World War 3 looming (as it did most weeks in early 70s Who), security arrangements for the conference have been put in the hands of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. This is a rather baffling decision given what happened when they were in charge of security at a peace conference the year before; that didn’t go well, resulting in the deaths of US and Chinese delegates and the theft of a nerve gas missile. Still, somehow this has escaped parliamentary scrutiny, and their involvement means that when time-travelling ghosts from the future try to assassinate the bloke in charge, naturally the Doctor, currently in his frilly-shirted, gentleman’s club incarnation, is summoned to investigate.

The Doctor is sceptical of the guerillas’ assertion that Styles is about to blow up his own peace conference, and rightly so. After both he and Jo, by convoluted means, travel to the Dalek-occupied future Earth, he realises that it’s a bomb planted by the guerillas themselves that killed all the delegates – in typical time paradox fashion, they actually caused the whole mess by trying to stop it happening. Fortunately, the Doctor is a Time Lord, and he can sort out the mess – but not before clobbering and shooting a surprising amount of people for a character who’s supposed to be opposed to violence.

So far, so standard-Who, you may be thinking. And yet, looking at the social conditions and power structures in this nightmare future, I found myself rubbing my eyes in astonishment and wondering at the remarkable precognitive powers of writer Louis Marks, script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts. For clearly, this little science fiction story from 1972 was intended to be a savage satire of British politics in 2012.

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Let’s start with the Daleks. They are, quite obviously, meant to represent the Conservatives. “Ah, that’s too easy,” you may say, “you’re just assigning them that role because you see the Conservatives as villains!” But no, let’s look at what they’re actually doing in this story. For a start, the populace of Earth is only valuable to them as an expendable workforce to obtain commodities. All right, they’re concerned with minerals rather then hedge fund derivatives, but hey, maybe the writer’s crystal ball wasn’t perfect…

More telling is their attitude to workers’ rights in order to achieve the production of these resources. We see underpaid (well, not paid at all – they must have got rid of the minimum wage), rag-clad workers toiling away in factories (well, concrete car parks meant to look like factories) under the relentless whips of security forces who clearly aren’t going to put up with industrial action.

Later, in a meeting with human ‘superior slave’ the Controller, their comments clearly indicate their feelings not just on workers’ rights but on healthcare. Protesting that an increase in production targets is impossible, the Controller declares “But that’s impossible! If we push the workers any further, they will die!” To which the Daleks, with the kind of remorseless logic favoured by the CBI, respond, “Only the weak will die. Inefficient workers slow down production.” And I bet they’re not allowed industrial tribunals either.

As if their philosophy on productivity at the expense of workers’ wellbeing wasn’t enough to cement them in the viewers’ minds as Cameron, Osborne and co, there’s the little matter of their security arrangements. Clearly, Skaro’s public spending in this area is too high, so Dalek security requirements have been privatised and outsourced to what’s plainly the lowest bidder – the incoherent and frankly inept Ogrons, a race of gorilla-like thugs for whom the word “complications” is too complicated to pronounce.

So OK, the Daleks here do seem to be a kind of extreme satire of the Conservative ideology generally. But what makes the story specifically about 2012, and the Tory-LibDem coalition?  That’s where it gets interesting, with the denial-prone, conscience-stricken character of the Controller, a man who bows to the Daleks yet somehow thinks he’s wringing concessions from them. It’s now quite clear that he’s meant to be Nick Clegg.

Just like Clegg, he does dare to argue with the Cons- um, Daleks, and just like Clegg he backs down when it’s clear they’re not listening to a word he’s saying. Yet he’s somehow convinced himself that he’s a moderating force, and that the Daleks’ portrayal of the rebels as “cruel and ruthless fanatics” is accurate – perhaps in an earlier draft, they were also considered to be “terrorist paedophiles”.

Still, again like Clegg, he does do some good. He convinces the Daleks not to kill the Doctor, after all, and tries to persuade the recalcitrant Time Lord that he should help the regime rather than die. But the Doctor’s quite unconvinced that any good the Controller is doing justifies his culpability in doing his masters’ bidding. After all, it looks a bit dubious that he’s quaffing wine with them while the masses toil in starvation.

Controller

Trying to justify his role in the state of affairs, the Controller parrots the usual Conservative homilies, with a look in his eye that suggests he’s not even convincing himself (just like Clegg at a press conference). “There will always be people who need discipline, Doctor,” he states hollowly, before asserting that, “this planet has never been more efficiently, more economically run. People have never been happier or more prosperous.” For a denial of what’s actually going on outside his little bubble, that’s right up there with Danny Alexander insisting that George Osborne’s austerity policies aren’t affecting people’s quality of life.

Later, in the face of the Doctor’s contempt for him (“They tolerate you as long as you’re useful to them.”), the Controller gets defensive. By the time he blurts, “We have helped make things better for the others. We have gained concessions!”, I was half expecting him to follow it up by telling the Doctor that he’d raised the income tax threshold as if that somehow made up for all that nuclear armageddon.

So that’s the Tories and the Lib Dems represented. But where in this incisive political satire are the Labour Party? The obvious candidates to represent them are the guerillas, yet at first glance, that seems a bit unconvincing. OK, butch female strike leader Anat could conceivably be an analogue for deputy leader Harriet Harman, but who’s meant to be the charisma-free school prefect that is Ed Miliband? Surely not the guerillas’ leader, the thrillingly virile Man With the Porn Star Moustache?

ManWiththePornStarMoustache

And yet, if you look closer, the guerillas do share one defining factor with the Labour Party – as an Opposition, they’re completely crap. Not only do they expend a great deal of effort to try and kill the wrong man, most tellingly of all, they’re actually responsible for the whole nightmare situation themselves. Next time Miliband/Man With the Porn Star Moustache lays into the injustice of the ‘oppressors’, he might want to concede the role he played in putting them there – at least in Labour’s case, with a series of unjustified wars similar to the ones that began after the destruction of Styles’ press conference.

The only loose end that leaves is the Doctor himself – where does he stand in all this? The Doctor’s personal political leanings have always seemed a bit fluid, albeit generally biased towards acceptance, tolerance and fairness. Troughton, Tom Baker and McCoy have more than a hint of the anarchist about them, while Hartnell and particularly Pertwee (who hangs out in posh clubs with the likes of Lord ‘Tubby’ Rowlands) seem very much to be Establishment figures.

PertweeWine

There’s a lovely scene in an old Paul Cornell novel in which both the ever-conservative Brigadier and a young anarchist both firmly assert that the Doctor represents their own values. The implication is clear – there can be good in any political leaning, and the Doctor embodies that.

It follows that, in Day of the Daleks, he saves the day precisely because he’s actually apolitical. He’s able to rise above the petty tribal bickering of the factions in Earth’s devastated future and consequently he’s the only one who can see how to untangle the whole convoluted mess. We could do with some thinking like that in the UK right now, rather than the knee jerk tribalism that causes every party to attack the policies of every other simply because they are Other instead of rationally analysing how worthwhile the proposals are.

So, it’s clear from all this that not only were Marks, Dicks and Letts remarkably prescient, they were also masters of political satire with a very clear message to send in this story. Who would ever have thought that what seems like a simple, clunky BBC sci fi show from the early 70s would actually be such a biting, angry satire about the future of the United Kingdom? Unless of course I’m reading slightly too much into it…