What if the rightwingers were right?

Feral underclass

The feral underclass, tomorrow.

In the wake of David Cameron’s recent kite-flying statement about cutting off housing benefit for everyone under 25, the whole subject of welfare reform – and the demonisation of welfare recipients – has reared its head again. Displaying his usual stunning lack of empathy in his determination to ‘Con-Dem’ the ‘scroungers’ so berated by Iain Duncan Smith, our glorious leader chooses once again to conveniently ignore a few facts:

  • The vast majority of those claiming housing benefit are actually in work. The paltry minimum wage (£6.08 per hour, fact fans) isn’t enough to live on in many places even if you’re working full time.
  • A large proportion of the benefit bill is composed of working tax credits, claimed, again, by those who already have the jobs IDS is exhorting claimants to go out and get.
  • Removing housing benefit from young people would massively reduce their ability to move to other areas where they could get jobs, even while IDS echoes Norman Tebbit’s “get on your bike” refrain.
  • Forcing them to move back in with their parents would be difficult if their parents have been forced to ‘downsize’ their accommodation (as recommended by that self same government).
  • The artificially (and politically motivated) inflated house prices make it virtually impossible for even those on a decent wage to buy a house, while buy-to-let landlords, free of any kind of regulation, are able to raise already exorbitant rents as high as they like, knowing tenants have no other choice.
  • And finally, the £10bn Cameron’s seeking to save on the welfare bill is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of unclaimed tax that wealthy individuals and corporations are allowed to get away with not paying. Vodafone alone could pay for more than half that saving if it paid what it actually owed, but has been allowed to ‘negotiate’ with HMRC to pay a fraction of what is due (under Labour, who are every bit as culpable). And that’s just one company.

Cameron and his cronies have this propaganda approach of picking the tiny minority of extreme cases of ‘welfare entitlement’ then somehow managing to tar the majority with the same brush. Anyone who’s been in the position of being unemployed is aware that there isn’t a vast army of ‘entitled scroungers’ who ‘don’t want to work’ and choose benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this view is correct, and there’s a huge ‘feral underclass’ thumbing its nose at the taxpayer while using their hard-earned cash to go on holidays and drive BMWs.

Even if this IS the case, then is simply removing all their income the best way to deal with it? Assuming you favour the ‘stick’ approach of "they deserve all they get" or "they’ll have to get jobs then", you’re ignoring the fact that, according to the ONS, there are only one sixth as many job vacancies as unemployed people.

So the actual effect of cutting off all income from these ‘scrounging parasites’ is to throw them out on the streets to starve. Now, some rightwingers are callous enough about their fellow humans as to say that’s no more than what they deserve. "Survival of the fittest", etc.

But if you can’t appeal to a sense of caring for the vulnerable in society, it’s worth taking a pragmatic look at what effect this would have on them, those ‘hard-working taxpayers who’ve had enough of supporting the ‘idle’. Said ‘idle’ classes will now be starving on the streets, complete with that army of kids you say they’ve had just to get more benefits. Local authorities can’t afford to house them – shouldn’t, by your arguments. So what will this ragged army of former ‘parasites’ now living in boxes under railway arches do?

Well, those least equipped to cope may well simply die – of starvation, cold, exhaustion, all the things that currently ravage the homeless population all the time. Look forward to the possibility of discovering rotting corpses lying unburied hither and yon throughout city centres. At least it’ll create job opportunities in the funerary market, I suppose.

Some might turn to selling themselves sexually – look forward to a vast increase in those street corner prostitutes of both genders, many probably underage. I’m guessing those ‘hard-working taxpayers’ wouldn’t be too happy about that; most of those who espouse such views probably already hate the ‘immorality culture.’

But if the rightwingers are right about the type of ‘entitled’ person that makes up this ‘army of scroungers’ what most of them would do on finding themselves destitute would be to turn to crime. Burglary, mugging, car theft, drug dealing, public disorder – all would increase many times over from their current rates, as the only options left for these ‘nasty parasites’ would be CRIME or DEATH. City police forces, already starved of budgets and resources, would be unable to cope, and even if they could catch any significant amount of this new army of criminals, it would be impossible to squeeze them into an under-resourced, privatised prison system that’s already bursting at the seams for lack of investment.

So, even if you genuinely believe there’s an army of entitled parasites living the high life at the expense of the hard-working taxpayer (which is, of course, bollocks), be careful what you wish for. If these people are the feral, lawless, troglodytes you believe them to be, your fervent desire to cut off their only income could only lead to city centres being besieged by armies of homeless, barbaric, criminal thugs, intent on robbing, raping and selling their bodies to the highest bidder. It would be, effectively, the kind of dystopia the Daily Mail seems to have a disturbing fetish about.

Quatermass1979

And while I hate to bring Godwin’s Law into this, I find it all too easy to imagine what the rightwingers would do if confronted with this dystopia of their own making. “Round them all up”, would be the cry. Followed, inevitably, by a lack of caring as to where they went, as long as it wasn’t ‘here’. With prisons already too full, swathes of land would have to be adapted into makeshift ‘camps’ like those already crammed full of asylum seekers and refugees. But you couldn’t deport your ‘feral underclass’ if they’re British citizens, and you couldn’t release such scum back into society. So what would you do with them? At this point, you begin to hear the sound of ovens being fired up…

Yes, I know this is all exaggerated dystopian hyperbole. More moderate Conservatives certainly don’t want it to come to this. But the particularly extreme, rabid rightwingers who insist on the complete dismantlement of the Welfare State and the abolition of all workers’ rights and protections, clearly haven’t thought through the impact this would have on them.

Fortunately, the majority of benefit claimants aren’t a combination of extras from Shameless and Mad Max, but decent, law-abiding people, many of them actually in work, trying their best to honestly pay their way in a society where inflation and income inequality have made it impossible to do so without state help. Meanwhile, that same state is giving concession after concession to the real ‘entitled parasites’ – corporations and individuals so wealthy that they can afford to shirk their fair share of paying for the country they live in. Tax breaks, HMRC negotiations and non-dom status are of course condemned by Cameron and Osbourne – but only in the case of certain people. Jimmy Carr might be “morally wrong”, but strangely the same judgement doesn’t apply to the Conservative front bench and their friends in the City.

Contrary to the fevered beliefs of many on the left, Conservatives aren’t actually ‘evil’. Nobody sees themselves in that way. They honestly believe they’re doing the right thing, and that by removing state intervention and allowing ‘the market’ to dictate terms they can sort out society’s problems. To some extent, they may even be right. The problem for me is that, even if it works, they’re ignoring the inevitable human suffering and carnage it will cause before it does.

Of course, Cameron’s draconian welfare proposals aren’t actually policy. At least, not yet. The obvious political motivation was to throw a few bones in the direction of his party’s more extreme back benchers, ahead of what’s liable to be a fraught debate about Lords reform this week. Reading the news articles about this, even the right wing press don’t seem to think it’s a good idea – the below the line comments on even the Telegraph and the Mail seem to be generally damning of it. But there’s always a few free market, state-dismantling fanatics who advocate the complete abdication of any responsibility to society as a whole. To them I say – read the above (or perhaps HG Wells’ The Time Machine) – and be careful what you wish for. Because (HYPERBOLE ALERT) treat the poor badly enough and they will eat you.

Morlocks

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 1–We Just Decided To

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 1 YET.

…in the old days, about ten minutes ago, we did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.”

NewsRoomStudio

Any new Aaron Sorkin show is something of a TV event. Sorkin’s one of a growing number of TV writers – including the likes of Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner and David Chase – whose very name is enough to sell a TV series regardless of its stars, producers or network.

Yet Sorkin’s cachet of success rests pretty much solely on groundbreaking political drama The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons (the last three without him). True, both Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip were also excellent shows, but the former was cancelled after two seasons, the latter after just one. While everyone acknowledges Sorkin’s skill as a writer, it seems that the public desire for his work is greater with subject matter that affects everyone – the US government – than self-reflective theses about the workings of the TV industry. Given that, it seems rather brave that Sorkin’s new project, The Newsroom, is yet another meditation on that industry. Whether it proves to have the wide appeal of The West Wing or the more limited appeal of Studio 60 is a gamble that might not pay off.

Compounding that is the problem of familiarity. Series set in TV newsrooms are hardly new; there’s been Murphy Brown, Drop the Dead Donkey, Frontline and Canada’s own The Newsroom, all acclaimed in their day. Not to mention a plethora of movies on the subject – Network, Broadcast News, The China Syndrome, Good Night and Good Luck to name but a few. If you factor in their obvious ancestors, dramas set in newspaper offices, that number gets even higher.

The net effect of this is that there’s already a media shorthand for the structures of such dramas. To be fair, this might be drawn from actual realism, but that doesn’t water down the fact that it’s a hard genre to approach without embracing, essentially, cliche. Despite Sorkin’s undeniable skill with a script, The Newsroom doesn’t really manage to escape the trap of that formula.

The first ten minutes are electrifying – significantly, this prologue doesn’t include any of the TV newsroom elements. Veteran anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), having been pressed for a political opinion at a university debate, finally loses his cool and unleashes an unprecedented torrent of honesty when asked to respond to the question, “why is America the greatest country in the world?”

His speech/meltdown is pure Sorkin, and delivered brilliantly. A profanity-laced, excoriating examination of precisely why America is not the greatest country in the world – but has been, and could be again if its current problems were addressed without intransigent liberals and conservatives butting heads rather than debating the issues. “The first step towards solving any problem is recognising there is one.”

It’s obviously Sorkin himself speaking, through the mouth of his character. But then, that’s what he’s always done, and if you have a problem with that, you’re probably not going to be watching anyway.

Of course, Will’s speech is filmed, put up on the internet and quickly goes viral, leading fictional news network ACN to put him on a three week suspension to ‘rest’. Then, after the title music (the usual Sorkin staple of swelling strings and inspirational piano, courtesy this time of Thomas Newman), we’re into the show proper, and its almost theatrically limited setting, the newsroom.

Turns out that Will’s staff have all jumped ship in his absence, to work on a new 10 o’clock show with his former co-anchor. This gives Sorkin the advantage of introducing the new staff – ie the cast – to the main character and thereby to the audience without masses of extraneous exposition where people tell each other things they must, rationally, already know. As usual with Sorkin, they’re a well-drawn, likeable bunch. But even Sorkin can’t escape the problem of cliche in a subgenre that’s already been almost done to death. His newsroom is actually staffed entirely by cliches. Let’s meet them:

NewsRoomWillThe Veteran Anchor Who’s Become Complacent, Yet Retains the Heart of a Crusading Journalist Under His Cynical, Embittered Shell:
Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, an anchor who’s become a soaring success thanks to his policy of “not bothering anyone”. An obvious analogue for Sorkin himself, he’s portrayed as a brilliant man with passionate views who’s a total pain in the ass to work with (some nice self-awareness, Mr Sorkin). Signals his lack of caring by not remembering any of his staff’s names. In the course of the first episode, he will regain his fervour for news as information rather than filler or political polemic, and gain a newfound respect for his staff that will be signalled by his suddenly remembering who they are.

NewsRoomMackenzieThe Plucky Executive Producer With a Passion for News Who Will Turn the Morally Bankrupt Newsroom Around:
Emily Mortimer as the oddly named MacKenzie MacHale. In keeping with the tropes of this character, she’s an award-laden war correspondent returning to the studio with the hardwon integrity she found in Afghanistan and Iraq. For added romcom value, she’s also Will’s impish, British ex-girlfriend and there’s still a simmering tension between them. Prone to delivering speeches about Don Quixote that are plainly straight from the mouth of Sorkin.

NewsRoomDonThe Asshole Who Wouldn’t Know a Good Story If It Jumped Up and Bit Him:
Thomas Sadoski as Don Keefer. Will’s former Executive Producer, and still nominally in charge when MacKenzie turns up. Ignores the good advice of the improbably professional staff all around him, and is so generally objectionable it’s hard to believe the script’s claims that he’s good at his job.

NewsRoomCharlieThe Crusty Veteran Newsman in Charge Who Wants a Return to the Good Old Days of Actual Journalism:
Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner. A folksy Mark Twain lookalike who dresses as the Eleventh Doctor, Charlie’s been around long enough to remember Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Vietnam. He knows Things Should Be Better, and manipulates his staff accordingly. See also Lou Grant, Perry White etc.

NewsRoomJimThe Bright Up and Comer Whose Unrecognised Nose for News Will Lead to Success for Everyone:
John Gallagher Jr as Jim Harper, a producer whose unswerving devotion to the alliteratively named MacKenzie MacHale has brought him to New York, where it becomes plain that he’s one of the only people on the newsroom staff who can actually spot an important story. See also Peter Parker, Jimmy Olson (which Don actually calls him at one point).

NewsRoomMaggieThe Klutzy, Hopeless Intern whose Hidden Talents Will Lead Her to Greater Confidence and Career Success:
Alison Pill as Maggie Jordan. Maggie’s been promoted from intern to assistant primarily because Will didn’t remember who she was. Spends the first half of the episode comically tripping over things, which unfathomably leads MacKenzie to spot ‘something’ in her and promote her to associate producer for no clear reason. She is of course right, and by the end of the ep, Maggie will be vital to sniffing out news details on the exclusive that will remake the newsroom’s reputation. For added romcom value, also in a faltering relationship with Don into which MacKenzie is trying to insert Jim as a better option.

NewsRoomNealThe Quiet Guy Who’s Always Glued To His Computer, But Will Come Up Trumps With an Exclusive Nobody Else Has Spotted Yet
Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, another Brit whose function is to write Will’s blog (the existence of which Will is entirely unaware of). Employing his usual tactic of likeability, Dev plays Neal almost exactly as he used to play Anwar in Skins, but it will be he who comes up with the breaking story that will Set the Newsroom Back on Track.

To be fair, I’m not knocking Sorkin because these are cliches. It’s actually quite a clever tactic for the scriptwriter to use such instantly identifiable roles to cement the characters in the viewer’s mind, and it’s notable that I felt I knew a lot about these characters already by the episode’s halfway mark. In common with the characters of The West Wing, they’re all improbably great at their jobs (even the asshole realises he was wrong at the end, and apologises) and have a degree of erudition that few people have in the normal workplace. They seem, in short, just a little too perfect.

But that’s Sorkin’s style, and perhaps I’m being a little influenced by having recently watched thirteen weeks of Mad Men, in which all the characters are made of flaws. This is only episode one, and I expect that, as in The West Wing, the flaws in the characters will show up as the season progresses.

And it’s a little novel to set the show in the very recent past, so that the all-important exclusive turns out to be the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s at that point that the grams onscreen give a date – April 20, 2010. At first it seemed a little weird to show this halfway through the story, as I’d naturally assumed until then that it was set in the present. But it was actually quite a clever move. If they’d shown that date at the outset, a keen news viewer might well have sensed what story the script would focus on.

And that advantage of hindsight means that the show can cleverly plunder a plethora of recent big news stories, while allowing the ace staff at ACN to appear preternaturally brilliant by knowing every aspect of a story before any of their competition. It also allows Sorkin to insert yet more righteous sermonising in the mouths of his characters; in this case, obviously, he unleashed his wrath on the incompetence of BP, the corruption of Halliburton and the inadequacy of the US Mineral Survey inspectors.

As I say, it’s only episode one, and it’s perhaps unfair to judge the show as a whole on the basis of that. It’s certainly exciting, and I can understand embrace of cliched characters and situations as a media shorthand to quickly establish the scenario. There’s obviously room to explore them with more depth as the show’s ten episode run progresses.

It has all the hallmarks of a Sorkin show – a mix of brilliance and contrived schmaltz; some electrifying dialogue and performances, but also many idealised, too-perfect characters whose erudition strains credulity. With Sorkin, I often find the positives outweigh the negatives – after all, even the hallowed West Wing was often far from perfect on these lines. But if you’ve enjoyed those in Sorkin’s shows before, you’ll definitely enjoy this – and hope that the flaws will be ironed out later.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 3–Whatever I Am, You Made Me

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 3 YET.

“Seriously Sookie, this is your plan? Pretend none of it ever happened?”

TrueBloodPam

This week’s episode of True Blood continued to restlessly stir the overseasoned pot of plotlines in this year’s supernatural gumbo, with plenty of steamy Southern Gothic soap to enjoy. Bill and Eric continued to be held in the clutches of the vampire Authority, which is increasingly being revealed to be full of unscrupulous, backstabbing political operators with secret agendas. Tara is not adjusting well (to put it mildly) to being a vampire, while Sookie is discovering that burying a corpse doesn’t make all your problems go away.

That last has become a surprisingly major plot point, in a show that often treats such deaths in a fairly cavalier way. Usually, the deaths that result from Bon Temps’ supernatural hijinks are quickly dismissed, but Sookie’s shooting of Alcide’s girlfriend Debbie is plainly coming back to haunt her in a big way. After discovering Debbie’s abandoned car last week, dogged sheriff Andy Bellefleur is making a typically sloppy Bon Temps PD attempt at investigation, but the arrival of Debbie’s parents has upped the stakes a notch. To add to the worry, Sookie’s going to find keeping the death secret rather difficult, given that she’s just turned one of the major witnesses into a vampire who’s none too happy about that.

There was a lot of focus on Tara this week, as her frantic flight from chez Stackhouse has rendered any attempt at keeping her vampirism secret a moot point. She’s really not happy about her new life, and not thinking too clearly; fleeing to Sam Merlotte for sanctuary, she makes him promise not to tell Sookie where she is. She seems to have forgotten that Sookie can READ MINDS, making that somewhat pointless. Add to that the fact that Sam’s ‘resourceful’ attempt at hiding her from daylight amounts to putting her in the diner’s freezer, where anyone could walk in and discover her, and you realise that Tara really didn’t think this through. Perhaps that shotgun blast left her mind more damaged than we thought…

But such are the problems of the newborn vampire, and they’re usually the responsibility of that vampire’s Maker, as Pam found herself unable to ignore however much she wanted to. The script drew parallels with the circumstances of Pam’s own turning, in more of those gradually unfolding flashbacks to 1905 San Francisco. All credit to Kristin Bauer van Straten, she manages to make her performance as the still-human Pam distinctive from the hard-bitten vampire we know today. She’s no less cynical, but still has some idealism about being a vampire; so much so that she forces Eric to turn her, slitting her wrists and declaring, “let me walk the world with you, Mr Northman, or watch me die.”

There was much musing on the making of vampires, and the responsibility of turning one loose on the world. We got to see Bill’s Maker Lorena again, as it turned out that the killer stalking Pam’s brothel was none other than Bill Compton himself. Later, Eric laid down the law about the responsibility of making a vampire, not willing to condemn Pam to that state (or to take responsibility for it).

Pam’s story was intertwined with Tara’s, to make the point that they had more in common than Pam was willing to admit. She may be willing to ignore Sookie’s frantic pleas for help (receiving a blast of fairy magic for her callousness), but when it comes to it, she can’t ignore the vampire she made. At the end of the episode, it was with an exasperated, resigned sigh that Pam put aside her pen to go to the aid of the suicidal Tara, currently cooking merrily away on a tanning bed.

The theme continued amid the Machiavellian intrigue among the vampire Authority, still divided over whether to execute Bill and Eric or take them up on their offer of hunting down Russell Edgington. Each season of True Blood has revealed a little more about the hierarchy of vampire ‘society’; previously, we’d only seen Zeljko Ivanek as the Magister, representing a higher authority. Now, we’re seeing that Authority itself, and while their machinations are fun, I can’t help feeling that we’ve seen them before – in Blade, for a start.

Still, there’s little truly original left for vampire stories to do, so that’s one we just have to take on board. And the bickering Chancellors of the Authority are good fun, especially the commanding performance of Christopher Meloni as hunky leader and Guardian, Roman. Clad in an immaculately tailored suit, it was still obvious that he was pretty buff underneath it; it was therefore no surprise that he finally got naked for a scene with the other most interesting member of the Authority – Salome. Who, as it turns out, actually is that Salome, the one who asked Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a plate.

I said last week that the ‘vampire Bible’ might cause concern for more devout Christian viewers of the show (assuming there are any). The presence of Salome is sure to exacerbate that, as she details the real story of what went on at Herod’s court, as distinct from what is said in “the human Bible.” We’ve already had Godric claiming to have met Christ back in season two, and now here’s another two thousand year old vampire to put the cat among the religious pigeons. She’s an interesting character, wily and seductive, and as incarnated by Italian actress Valentina Cervi is certainly easy on the eye for those who like girls. Bill and Eric obviously think so, as she manages to bed each of them in turn, plainly up to something.

Which, it turns out, is to try and discover whether either really is working with the Sanguinista fundamentalist movement (based on shagging, she concludes that they aren’t). We learned more about these fanatics this week, and it’s looking like they’re going to be the major plot for the season. Their intent is to rule the world, farming humans like cattle (again, we’ve seen this before – Ultraviolet, Daybreakers, Blade again). Not surprisingly, they consider the deranged Russell Edgington a hero (“the vampire Osama Bin Laden”). It’s therefore looking extremely likely that they’re the ones who dug him up and are currently feeding him luckless passersby.

So Bill and Eric are to be sent out as bait after all. But the Authority don’t completely trust them, so they’re equipped with self, destructing, Battle Royale-style “i-Stakes”, an amusing application of modern technology shaped like a crucifix that will administer a lethal pointy bit of wood should they misbehave. As commented by the vampire techie fitting them, “there’s an app for that” – ie, if Bill and Eric don’t do what they’re told, the press of a virtual iPhone button will turn them into piles of goo. I’m betting this will be a crucial plot point in upcoming episodes…

Back in Bon Temps, there wasn’t much of Terry Bellefleur’s mysterious ex-army-buddy subplot this week, just a quick altercation with Arlene as he took off on a ‘need-to-know’ basis with Patrick. Three episodes in and we’re already finding episodes being selective about which plots they feature; a necessary factor when you’ve got this many of them to deal with. Bearing that in mind, I was surprised when yet another was introduced; the tormented Lafayette, his conscience pricked by Arlene’s contempt for turning Tara into a vampire, went to the Dark Side for a mo, his visage turning demonic as he poured bleach into the diner’s gumbo. He recovered quickly enough to pour it away, but this does not look good for his culinary career.

Terry’s cousin, Sheriff Andy, was distracted from his already lackadaisical pursuit of police work by the revelation that his butt was all over Facebook, a result of his dalliance with Holly being discovered by her white trash kids. Touchingly, this made him decide to “go steady” with her – not a result I would expect from this scenario.

Fortunately, Bon Temps’ Police Department still has the razor sharp forensic skills of Jason Stackhouse. But Jason too is distracted this week by his ongoing existential crisis about meaningless sex. Perhaps he’s been talking to Don Draper. As a store clerk memorably comments to Jessica, “God gave him a penis and a brain, but only enough blood to run one at a time”. Actually that seems a fair description of a lot of men, but to give Jason credit, he seems to be realising this. Not that it stops him revisiting his schooldays when the teacher who ‘initiated’ him into sex returns to Bon Temps. He just feels bad about it afterwards.

Bad enough to actually turn down Jessica when she arrives on his doorstep, flustered after an encounter with a pretty young man who ran off when he saw her fangs. Who is he, what is he, and why does he smell so good to her? It’s enough to make her want to sit down and chat with poor tormented Jason rather than bang his brains out, which I’d be tempted to do. Perhaps that “only enough blood” comment applies equally to me…

So, plenty more to bite on this week, with at least two new plotlines – Lafayette’s ‘dark side’ and Jessica’s mysteriously nice-smelling boy – added to the already crowded mix. As I say, there are hints of having been here before with the vampire storyline, but if it’s done well enough that needn’t matter. And the rest of the overheated supernatural melee that is everyday life in Bon Temps has plenty we haven’t seen before to keep us interested as we go.

Concernin’ Pirates.

virgin_media_pirate_bay_block

Virgin Media’s ‘block’ display, shown when trying to access the Pirate Bay site.

Piracy! It’s the hot topic of the moment, with copyright owners worried about losing revenues, and unscrupulous governments seizing on the issue to pass draconian legislation over that uncontrollable global bugbear, the internet.

I’ve posted on this topic (tangentially) before, when the US government was salivating over controlling the internet via the SOPA and RIPA acts. But today it came up as a topic when a couple of friends on Facebook posted this blog piece from David Lowery, lecturer in music economics at the University of Georgia and founder of alt-rock band Camper Van Beethoven. Lowery wrote the piece in response to a post from 21 year old National Public Radio intern Emily White, in which (as he saw it) she seemed to feel free of guilt for having illegally obtained over 11000 songs while only having ever purchased 15 CDs. It’s an interesting piece, with a considered viewpoint from a man who has very good reason to be expert in this field. Take a moment (or two, it’s quite long) to read it.

Back yet? Good. After reading that, I responded with a few brief comments to my friends on Facebook. Brief in the sense that Tolstoy novels are – you’ll be used to that if you’ve read this blog before. But I thought them worth posting here to reach a wider audience, so here goes…

Lowery’s piece has a few thought-provoking points, but he glosses over some of the murkier areas. As it’s written from a US perspective, the specific points about copyright laws and royalty payments ignore vastly differing rules in other territories. As with so many legal/financial issues, the global nature of the internet makes concrete arguments trickier to make.

Secondly, it’s worth reading the original post from NPR’s Emily White that Lowery is responding to – he completely mischaracterises it in his own piece. Far from ‘stealing’ the 11,000 songs in her music collection, she goes into great detail about how she obtained it. Much of it was recorded from promos at the radio station she worked at (‘home taping’ but NOT illegal downloading), and a lot of it was obtained via swapping mix CDs with her friends. Sound familiar? At her age (21) that’s how I obtained a lot of my music. That was in 1991, and it didn’t kill the industry.

Probably her most ‘heinous’ act is receiving a surprise gift from her prom date – he loaded lots of music onto her iPod. OK, that does rob artists of royalties. But who’s to blame there – her, or the boy who copied the music as a surprise gift?

If you read Emily’s post to its conclusion, she’s not asking for ‘free stuff’, as Lowery rather patronisingly puts it. She’s arguing for an online service that can be subscribed to, by which any music can be played at any time. Lowery’s right about Spotify’s miserly royalties to artists, but such a service, with fair payments, is the obvious way to properly monetise downloading/streaming of all media.

It’s already working very successfully for films and TV with Netflix and Hulu. Extrapolated for other media, that’s the obvious way to go. It could easily work for ebooks as well, rather like a library service – either stream the book to your device, or be allowed to download a file that has an expiry date. If you’re paying a fiver a month to such a service, why would you bother searching out illegal, dubious quality downloads and filling your hard drive with them?

I can see why Lowery is so exercised by what he perceives in Emily’s post – she has acquired a lot of music without paying for it (though not by the means he implies). But her circumstances are unusual, particularly the access to free promos from a radio station.
Having read both pieces, neither is spot on in a workable, totally ethical way (though ethics tend to be subjective). But to me it looks like Lowery, like many others, has failed to properly grasp the way the technology has/will affect the issues at hand. Emily White’s post is far nearer the mark.

It’s true that artists – of any stripe – should no more work for free than anyone else. Sadly there’ll always be some piracy, but the problem here is that the pirates have worked out how to exploit the technology first. What’s needed is to come up with a legitimate model of giving content creators their fair share. Lowery does make some good points, but nobody’s found a definitive answer to that one yet.

And it’s worth remembering that music as an art form has existed for millennia, but recording music is a relatively recent phenomenon (c. mid 19th century). Before that, music was all about the experience of a performer and a physical audience. At that point, musicians always got paid what they deserved – even if it was rotten tomatoes! The advent of recording caused a seismic shift in how the ‘industry’ was organised, and we’re currently living through another. Problem is, many people (including, I think, Lowery) are viewing the issues very much from a 20th century perspective.

Indeed, perhaps even the 21st century issues we’re so concerned with are becoming passe now, as the culture of experiencing recorded media continues to shift faster than businesses seem able to anticipate. Apparently, one of the arguments often raised by ‘the pirates’ is that, with the huge capacities of personal media devices, piracy/theft is the only way to fill up all that space if you’re not a millionaire.

That may not be a justification, but it’s interesting to note that the memory capacity of iPods is actually tending to get smaller. Partly this is because spinning hard drives are being abandoned in favour of flash memory, which doesn’t (yet) have the same capacity.
But more significantly, because people are tending more and more towards streaming their entertainment rather than keeping a permanent copy of it clogging up their device’s memory.

That seems to be the future; both media companies and hardware manufacturers are playing catchup, but Apple seem to have figured it out already, with internet-intensive, low-memory devices like the iPad.The only stumbling block is access to the material when outside the range of Wifi networks, but 4G (and the increasing number of free public Wifi services) should help there.

But what about material that (for whatever reason) is deleted and no longer available? What about downloading or free streaming of material that you bought once and then lost in a theft? What about music bought secondhand from a charity shop, where no royalties go to the artist?

I’m by no means an innocent on such issues. I’m keenly aware of the problems caused by depriving content creators of revenue (though David Lowery’s attempt to tangentially link that to two fellow musicians’ suicides is a tasteless attempt at emotional manipulation). As I said earlier, ethics are a subjective thing, and the conscientious have to come up with some code of conduct. The trouble is, until legislators, businessmen, and even artists can come up with a consensus on how best to legitimise downloading and streaming, that code of conduct feels like it’s up for grabs.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 2–Authority Always Wins

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 2 YET.

“..as the beetle nourishes the lark, so shall human nourish vampire.”

TrueBloodAuthority

As it’s still only episode 2, the ingredients of the torrid Louisiana gumbo that is True Blood season 5 are still stirring restlessly in the pot without any clear direction. Having set out the season’s stall in last week’s rather frenetic premiere, this week’s was allowed to simmer slowly as the various plots marinaded in their juices. The result was an episode that felt a little deeper than last week’s even if it moved more slowly, but still managed to address the mass of convoluted plots we’d already established.

First and foremost was resolving last week’s cliffhanger, as the enraged, bestial vampire-Tara burst from the ground lunging instantly for Sookie’s throat. This was not entirely unexpected. We’ve already seen that a newborn vampire always wakes hungry, and is totally lacking in self-control, and this case had the added complication, as Pam pointed out last week, that Tara’s gunshot wound had removed a sizeable chunk of her head. Even with vampire healing powers, would she be too far gone to even remember who she was?

The script played around with us there, as every time the ep returned to the increasingly desperate Sookie and Lafayette, Tara was still unspeaking and feral. Pam was no help; as far as she was concerned, she’d held up her end of the bargain turning Tara in the first place. “But you’re her maker,” pleaded Sookie, to be met with the expected sardonic shrug and acid tongue from Pam: “and I made her. I’ve done my part.”

Pam’s one of my favourite characters, with her dry bitchiness and reliably sharp tongue. I was glad that Kristin Bauer got promoted to the main cast a couple of seasons ago, but Pam’s still not been given any real history beyond occasional hints. We know Eric’s her maker, and she’s unswervingly devoted to him (in one of her rare examples of actual emotion that isn’t bitchiness).

But it looks like we’re going to learn a bit more this year, as this week showed a few flashbacks to Pam’s pre-vampire life in 1905 San Francisco, as a brothel madam plagued by a serial killer. Said serial killer was swiftly dispatched by Eric as soon as he got his hands on Pam (and didn’t Alexander Skarsgard look great in top hat and tails?), after which Eric high speed vamped it out of there with Pam looking lustfully after her mysterious saviour. The flashbacks didn’t go as far as showing her being turned, so I’m betting we’ll be seeing more of these as the season progresses.

Pam only turned Tara to gain Sookie’s help in finding the absent Eric; quite apart from her unrequited love, they’ve got a bar to run. But Eric and Bill were ‘safely’ in the arms of the Authority, and it was this plotline that the episode seemed to spend the most time on. It may be that this will become the main plotline for the season; but it’s still too early to really tell, on past experience.

Authority HQ was nicely realised as a grandiose (underground) office facility, complete with modern-style reception facilities and holding cells that looked suspiciously like redressed sets from last year, in which identical cells were to be found under Bill Compton’s house. Still, I suppose there’s probably a standard design for cells that will hold incredibly strong, near invulnerable supernatural creatures, so I can’t hold the similarity too much against the show.

What the cells also have are nifty vamp torture devices, in the form of UV lights in the roof, which explains the horrific burn scars on Bill, Eric and Nora’s cellmate, a wretched vamp with an insatiable desire to eat babies. In fact, the Authority seem to be dab hands at torturing other vampires, though I guess they’ve had plenty of centuries to refine their methods. Bill and Eric discovered another of these as they were interrogated; IV lines that injected silver solution into their veins. This seemed a bit extreme – since vampires are basically allergic to silver, and can’t metabolise it, this seemed likely to actually kill them.

Still, internal logic is best ignored in a show like True Blood, so I got on with finding out what the Authority were so pissed about. Turns out to be quite a lot. Not only are they rather unhappy about their PR spokeswoman having been staked by one of their captives, they’re also none too keen that one of their own was helping said captives to escape. On top of that, they’re pretty fanatical that their attempts to integrate with human society should succeed, and worried that a fundamentalist sect determined to interpret the ‘Vampire Bible’ literally could derail the whole thing.

This was pretty much a mountain of exposition as Bill discussed this new aspect of vampire society with his deceptively genial inquisitor Dieter. But the script kept it lively, cutting from Bill’s interrogation to Eric’s, and revealing relevant info in a drip feed (while drip feeding silver into our harried heroes’ veins). This ‘Vampire Bible’ (that’s not going to go down well in more Christian viewing areas) predates both Old and New Testaments, and claims that God created the vampire in his own image, then provided humans as food. They even have their own Adam figure, and tellingly, it’s female – Lilith (in our own Bible, the name for a demon in Hebrew mythology).

The Authority seem convinced that Bill and/or Eric know something about the fundamentalists who want to screw up the whole ‘mainstreaming’ process. Which they don’t. Well, unless they do, and it’s going to be retconned in; this is the first we humble viewers have heard of this ‘Sanguinista’ cult.

The Authority are also rather pissed off at Bill and Eric’s general disobedience and untrustworthiness. This suggests an almost complete lack of self awareness, as the show has established that these are some of the defining traits of vampires -  even Nan Flanagan was trying to recruit Bill and Eric to a revolution when they staked her. But still, you can see their point. Bill and Eric have defied orders from everyone at pretty much every turn, sometimes, very very stupidly.

The prime example of which was in not actually killing Russell Edgington – that’s bloody stupid by any measure. Have Bill and Eric never seen the show they’re in? Still, fortunately for them, it gave them a handy bargaining chip with the vengeful (and very angry) Authority council. Russell’s going to be coming for Bill and Eric; if the council want him stopped, they’d better keep their bait alive.

As I said, this was quite an infodump, so it was no wonder the episode had to focus on this plot strand particularly. It looks like religion – and religious sectarianism – may be shaping up to be one of the main themes this year. The script found time to show that from other angles too, as we found that the lovelorn Steve Newlin had ‘come out of the coffin’ to pretty much replace Nan Flanagan as vampire spokesperson on national TV. It’s a good strategy; what could reconcile religious vamp-haters better than a converted Christian?

Amusingly though, Steve may be out of the coffin but he’s certainly not out of the closet, at least as far as TV is concerned. Asked about his ‘significant other’, he referred to a ‘she’. The show may have been making a bit of a point here – middle America is starting to accept vampires, but gays are still a step too far in the True Blood universe!

That’s unfortunate for Steve, since he’s still absolutely fixated on the undoubted physical charms of the none-too-bright Jason Stackhouse. As he gatecrashed Jessica’s keg party and actually attempted to buy Jason from her, it became clear that once again, Steve’s going to be the more comic adversary this year.

With the focus this week mainly on the vamp-Tara and Authority plotlines, the other subplots got little more than a cursory glance, but each had its own little moment. Jason, still (disturbingly) the sharpest mind on the Bon Temps PD, was advising Sheriff Andy on his sex life, when his own came crashing back to haunt him. A teenage boy gave him an almighty thump because Jason’s wayward pecker had caused the boy’s parents to split up (“Is there any woman in this town you haven’t slept with?” asked the exasperated Andy). This caused Jason, ever the sensitive soul, to reflect on the damage he’d done, and try to mend fences with former best bud Hoyt. It was to no avail, but at least led to the comic moment of Hoyt’s dragon of a mom thanking Jason for splitting up her son and “that red-haired slut”.

Bon Temps’ other redhead, Arlene, was getting increasingly worried about Terry, who’s taken to seeing Rambo-style flashbacks of Iraq and making doomy pronouncements in his sleep: “We’re all gonna die. It’s coming for us.” This led to a chat with ex-platoon buddy Patrick, but Terry himself turned up before Patrick could spill the beans as to what it’s all about. But Terry himself did spill some beans – the whereabouts of their former comrade who might be setting those fires. Now what’s the betting that it’s actually Patrick who’s been doing that, and Terry’s just given him the location of his next victim? D’oh!

Elsewhere, there’s shenanigans with Marcus’ old werewolf pack. Alcide, defying wolf law, isn’t going to take over the pack. This is probably just as well, as they all seem to want to kill him. At least Sam’s off the hook, but he and Luna have to contend with Marcus’ mom wanting visitation rights for her grandchild, who given her mixed parentage, could just as easily be a werewolf or a shapeshifter. Comic cliffhanger number one came as Luna discovered which; bursting into her daughter’s bedroom, she found a cute little wolf pup in a nightdress. Awww…

OK, that’s hardly too worrying, but the other cliffhangers might be. After toying with us all episode, Tara finally revealed that her mind’s still there after all. Unfortunately. Because her best friend and her cousin have just turned her into the thing she hates most, and her first words to them are “I’ll never forgive you both”. To add injury to insult, she can’t even storm out of chez Stackhouse without being sprayed with liquid silver. I can’t see that helping her get over it.

Meanwhile, the camera panned across a pile of gruesomely dismembered bodies to finally show us Russell Edgington. He’s not looking too good; covered in nasty looking, chain-shaped scars from the silver used to restrain him, he can barely move. But somebody dug him up, and is plainly throwing victims at him – I wonder, could it be these Sanguinista cultists we’ve been hearing so much about?

Week two then, and the gumbo that is True Blood still simmers in search of this year’s true flavour. Traditionally, each season has started in a mess of mutifarious, overheated plotlines, before settling on one (or sometimes two, but no more) as the main ones on which to focus. Which ones these are are rarely clear so early in the season, and again, this year is no exception. But there’s still plenty to enjoy here, in the morass of simmering supernatural excesses. And I note with approval that Denis O’ Hare is in the opening credits – even if Russell isn’t the main Big Bad this year, it was his extraordinary performance that made the character so memorable, and I’m glad he’s back.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 1–Turn! Turn! Turn!

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 1 YET.

“We are done with all this supernatural shit!”

TrueBloodNoraEric

Rejoice, for True Blood is back! Yes, I know there’s a glut of vampires infesting our TVs these days, but this overripe high camp gothic treat is one of the finest. I know many fans felt that its previous, fourth season had jumped the shark somewhat. The addition of ‘dark fairies’ felt like one supernatural creature too far in a show that already features vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, maenads, shapeshifters and werepanthers. And some felt that reincarnated witch Antonia and her possessee, failed modern witch Marnie, lacked the ‘bite’ of season three’s uber bad guy, deranged vampire king Russell Edgington.

But I enjoyed season four personally. It did take a while to get going – this show’s seasons usually do. But once it did, I thought it worked at what True Blood does best – massively overdramatic, debauched OTT tales of the supernatural, liberally drenched with gore and sex. This is a show that doesn’t know the meaning of the word restraint, and last year gave us some great storylines, including an amnesiac Eric Northman falling for Sookie, Lafayette killing his boyfriend while possessed, and of course Antonia/Marnie’s threat of a vampire Holocaust.

In its normal full throttle style, the show ended its fourth season with a veritable orgy of cliffhangers, and this premiere of season five has its work cut out in addressing them all. The result is an episode that entertains but never really thrills, satisfies rather than grabs you by the throat as some season premieres strive to do. But then, True Blood premieres are usually like that; stuffed so full of new plotlines, creatures and tensions that it takes several episodes for it to settle down into a coherent story. In that, this year’s season opener is no different.

It starts not just where we left off last time, but a little before, as we see again the climactic shooting of Sookie’s best friend Tara, this time with other perspectives thrown in. Bill and Eric are busy cleaning up the mess left behind by their assassination of vampire Authority PR queen Nan Flanagan; as Bill chats on the phone to his vampire ‘daughter’ Jessica, Eric is comically doing a hyper-fast Superman turn behind him, mopping up the blood and slime left from Nan’s long overdue demise. Both sense trouble over at Sookie’s, but since they’ve both just had their advances rebuffed, they do nothing about it. “Fuck Sookie,” is Eric’s growled comment; can we hear denial, boys and girls?

We also get to hear the shooting from Lafayette’s perspective. As Tara’s brother, and already wracked with guilt for having stabbed his boyfriend Jesus while possessed, Lafayette is not having a good time this year, and it’s only five minutes in. No surprise then that when Eric’s marvellously bitchy paramour Pam turns up looking for him, it’s a tearful Lafayette who begs her to turn Tara into a vampire rather than let her die.

Elsewhere, Jason Stackhouse had just opened the door to a foe from two seasons ago, anti-vampire fundamentalist minister Rev Steve Newlin – who’s turned into a vampire himself! Shapeshifter Sam had found himself surrounded by the vengeance-hungry werewolf pack of nasty old Marcus Bozeman, killed by the hunky Alcide Herveaux, whose trashy girlfriend Debbie had been the one to shoot Tara, while aiming for Sookie, then ended up shot herself – by Sookie. A mysterious army buddy of Terry Bellefleur had turned up after dire warnings from the ghost of season one’s serial killer Rene. The enigmatic vampire Authority have it in for Bill and Eric, hence their staking of Nan who’d been sent to deliver them to the true death. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, somebody’s only gone and dug up the silver-restrained, concrete-encased Russell Edgington. Got all that?

As you can imagine, it’s a tall order to try and deal with so much convoluted, overheated supernatural soap in one episode and still set up new plotlines for the upcoming season, but this has a go. It mostly succeeds, but has its hands too full to truly grab you. And I always think it’s a bit of a warning sign when a show starts to trade in on its own past glories by bringing back fan favourites of yesteryear – counting Rene’s ghost from the season finale, that’s three major Big Bads from previous seasons hanging around Bon Temps now. Perhaps they’ll all have to share a lair.

And with all that going on, the episode still finds time to introduce a few new characters, who look like they’re going to be important. Bill and Eric blow their way out of the Authority car trunk, only to discover that the Authority representative (Lucy Griffiths, Maid Marian out of Robin Hood) is on their side. And she’s someone Eric knows well enough to fall straight into a passionate kiss – his sister! Don’t worry, it’s not shades of the disturbing relationship between Luke and Leia; she’s only his sister in the sense that both were turned by Godric. That’s all right then, Eric can get on with shagging her wildly in a cargo container. Which is fine by me, as any excuse for Alexander Skarsgard to get his clothes off is always good.

Ryan Kwanten too got naked – in fact he started out that way, peering nervously round his door at the grinning vampire-Steve. It was one of the funnier scenes as Steve glamoured his way in, then confessed to a tied-up Jason that he’d always loved him (surprising absolutely nobody). Jason, not usually the smartest cookie, actually dealt with that quite sensitively – he’s flattered, but… Unfortunately, the “just friends” gambit doesn’t usually work, particularly with a lovelorn Christian vampire who’s just come out of the closet. Lucky for Jason, he’s still getting it on with Jessica (much to Hoyt’s displeasure), and she turns up in the nick of time to fend off the less experienced vampire. Then disrobes to reveal some sexy undies to the (still naked) Jason. Yep, True Blood is still that kind of show.

Sookie, meanwhile, found herself with corpses to dispose of – Tara is duly buried to await the results of Pam’s vampirising, but Alcide’s girlfriend Debbie is still cluttering up the kitchen. You’d think the logical thing to do would be to let the cops deal with it – open and shut case of self defence, eh? But Sookie, ever honest, can’t help confessing that she killed Debbie not because she had to, but because she wanted to. Time to get out the shovels again then.

And there’s still the corpse of Lafayette’s boyfriend Jesus to deal with, last seen tied to a chair in Lafayette’s living room. But when they get there, his corpse (and the chair) have mysteriously vanished. Has he, like his namesake, risen again? In this show, I wouldn’t be at all surprised – death isn’t usually a bar to your character reappearing. It also means there’s no need to worry the police about that corpse either.

Which is lucky, because right now it seems like Jason Stackhouse is the brains of Bon Temps’ police department, which is saying something. Sheriff Andy Bellefleur, now over his V addiction, is discovered sleeping with witchy waitress Holly – by her two teenage sons armed with guns, no less. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, he’s prone to corruption by the shifty local judge, who wants his son’s speeding ticket “forgotten about”. I’d be seriously worried if I ever had to depend on the Bon Temps police department for any actual law enforcement.

After an awkward visit with Sookie (in which she almost mentions killing his girlfriend but thinks better of it), Alcide was off to stop Sam taking the rap for killing werewolf pack leader Marcus. Basically, Sam and Alcide seem to be having a competition as to which can be the more noble and self-sacrificing. It helps that they’re both pretty easy on the eye; I wouldn’t normally go for one as buff as Alcide’s Joe Manganiello, but he’s got something. And Sam’s always been hot, in a kind of unreconstructed, gentleman cowboy way.

There’s weird stuff going on at the house of Terry Bellefleur and Arlene (well, when isn’t there?) For reasons, presumably, of loyalty to a fellow marine, Terry’s let creepy fellow Iraq vet Patrick stay as a house guest. But Patrick seems oddly interested in talk of their recent fire, having noticed that several of their old platoon buddies have died in similar fires.

Terry, the only man who can make post traumatic stress disorder genuinely funny, tries to tell him that this fire was nothing to worry about – it was just caused by a ghost who turned out to be ok after all when she was listened to. Even so, it looks like someone’s offing members of Terry and Patrick’s old unit. Could one of them be next? Could one of them (well, Patrick, probably) actually be behind it? There’s at least one new plotline to be going on with…

There’s shenanigans aplenty with Marcus’ old pack too – looks like Alcide might end up pack leader by default. Which doesn’t please Marcus’ mother, who promptly turns into a wolf and starts eating her dead son’s intestines. Like I say, that kind of show. Bill and Eric seem not to have escaped the Authority after all (luckily for Eric, who would have struggled with the alias ‘Ike Applebaum’). And lastly, where is Russell Edgington? Everyone’s pretty worried by his disappearance, but he’s nowhere to be seen – yet. It looks like he’s being kept behind closed doors by an unidentified somebody, and occasionally fed (cue blood flying all over a door window).

Plenty to chew on then – in fact, maybe more than you can chew if you were lumbered with writing the script for this and trying to cram all that in. Still, it was entertaining enough, in its usual madly over the top way, and filled with the requisite amounts of eye candy (whichever gender you like), gore and overheated Gothic Southern dialogue. I must admit, I’m a little trepidatious about the show repeating itself if Russell is again going to be the Big Bad; it feels like when Being Human brought back similar king vampire Herrick after a season’s absence. But Being Human cleverly subverted it by having him acting (initially) like a new ‘man’. With what seems to be a feral Russell in the thrall of someone as yet unknown, he may not be this year’s Big Bad after all. Like I say, True Blood has always started in a fever of twisting storylines, but usually comes into focus by about episode three or four. On the (still fun) evidence we had here, it’s business as usual.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 13–The Phantom

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 13 YET.

“It’s a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people.”

MadMenDon

After the high drama of recent episodes – Joan’s prostitution, Peggy’s departure, Lane’s suicide – the finale to Mad Men’s fifth season felt somewhat more low key. It was a chance for the characters to take stock of where they’d been left by the tumultuous events of the year, both in their business and personal lives. It was notable that, this year more than any, there was no major historical event against which to juxtapose the characters, a sign perhaps that the drama itself is now more important than its context.

One of the things the show has often dealt with is the consequences of its characters’ actions, and this finale seemed to take most of its time in dealing with those. Mad Men’s plotlines never have what you could call conclusions, not really, but there were capstones – and consequences – to many of the subplots laid out this year.

Lane’s suicide has obviously affected everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce very deeply (apart from anything else, they’re presumably going to have to rename the company). Yet, in keeping with the show’s usual dramatic subtlety, it was quite some way into the episode before anyone explicitly mentioned the matter. Initially, we got some sideways references to it: Lane’s empty chair at the partners’ meeting, Harry, Bert, and apparently others being less than keen to move into the office where this unspeakable event had happened.

Don seemed to be keeping it together, but from the very start his guilt seemed to be manifesting itself; initially as a troublesome toothache which he refused to see a dentist about, then increasingly with visions of his dead brother Adam. As noted by many Lane’s suicide (probably intentionally) mirrored Adam’s perfectly. Both hanged themselves after having been rejected by Don, and obviously Don (and the screenwriter) is acutely aware of the similarity.

In moral terms, Don’s treatment of Lane is far more defensible than his treatment of his brother, who he rejected to keep his former life as Dick Whitman a secret. As a partner in the agency who’d been found to be embezzling it and forging the accounts, Lane was clearly in an untenable positions, and Don at least did him the courtesy of allowing him to resign while keeping the embezzlement confidential (though this may have had more to do with Don worrying that a police investigation would turn up his own ongoing identity theft). Nonetheless, Don should have little to feel guilty about concerning Lane.

But that’s not how it works when somebody you’re close to kills himself, and the visions of Don’s brother may have more to do with reminding us that he really should feel responsible in that case. It’s a mark of the show’s attention to detail that they were able to hire Jay Paulson to return as Adam after having dispatched the character in the first season. He’s a distinctive enough actor for me to have recognised him immediately as the ‘phantom’ of the title when Don started seeing him out of the corner of his eye, tentatively asking, “Adam?”

These two manifestations of Don’s present and ongoing guilt finally came together as Don relented and wen to the dentist to see about his toothache. Knowledge of the show’s style meant that, as Don went under the gas and closed his eyes, then opened them again, I realised instantly that we were into one of the show’s ‘dream’ sequences. So it proved as Adam turned up, not to berate Don but offer a sad smile and another parallel to Lane: “I lost my job. Because I’m dead.” An unpleasant purple weal around his neck was proof enough of this, and Don pleaded, “Don’t go”. To which Adam’s response – “Don’t worry, I’ll hang around. Get it?” indicates that we’ll likely be seeing more of Don’s increasing burden of guilt when the show returns.

It doesn’t help that Lane’s death, along with a resurgence in business from Mohawk Airlines, has done the company pretty well financially. His life insurance payout is massive, and SCDP are the beneficiaries – shades of Death of a Salesman, which were further emphasised when Don insisted on paying $50,000 of the settlement to Lane’s widow.

The scene of Don visiting Mrs Pryce, and awkwardly trying to offer condolences only to be rejected coldly, was one of those supremely uncomfortable scenes Mad Men does so well. Embeth Davidtz as Rebecca Pryce has had almost nothing to do, acting wise, beyond a blithe ignorance of her husband’s misdeeds; now finally, she got a chance to show her acting mettle.  As the only other thing I’ve ever seen her in was the 1993 Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness, I was pleasantly surprised by how good she was here. Keeping the traditional British restraint about grief, she coldly told Don, “It was wrong of you to fill a man like that with ambition” – probably the most succinct analysis of Lane’s downfall you could get. And she outright told Don that she knew this to be just an attempt to salve his own conscience, and that as far as she was concerned, it did nothing to alleviate his guilt. Ouch.

As this is Mad Men, and everyone has to be having a horrible time, Pete Campbell was doing pretty badly too. Pete’s one of those characters that, while impossible to like, I still can’t help feeling sorry for; as mentioned several weeks ago, absolutely nothing works out for him. His tragedy is that, like Don, he seems to have everything he should want, but like Don, it’s never enough. It’s ironic that this is the one way in which Pete truly is similar to his ‘hero’ Don.

This week, we got a resolution – of sorts – to his attempts to have a passionate affair a la Don, with fellow commuter’s wife Beth. After seeing Beth on the train, he was powerless to resist her invitation for a meaningless shag in the same hotel where she’d stood him up. Then she revealed that this would be the last time it would happen – she was off to have her depression treated (not for the first time) with electro convulsive therapy, and experience had taught her that she would likely not even remember him afterward.

This led to a rather heartbreaking scene as Pete blagged his way in to visit her at the hospital, only to discover that she’d already had the ECT and (apparently) really had forgotten who he was. Cue a long and surprisingly moving speech from Pete as he detailed the travails of the ‘friend’ he told Beth he was there to visit – actually, of course, a summation of his own emptiness and lack of fulfilment. It was delivered brilliantly by Vincent Kartheiser, who constantly manages – for me, anyway – to keep Pete straddling the line between loathsome and sympathetic.

At least one thing seemed to work out for him, though. Ending up in a fistfight on the commuter train with Beth’s husband Howard, he unwisely baited the no-nonsense conductor who broke up the fight, receiving a black eye for his trouble. Turning up battered at home led wife Trudy (Community’s Alison Brie, who we don’t see nearly enough of) to concede that his desire to rent an apartment back in Manhattan was probably a good idea. But what’s the betting that it’s not going to make him any happier?

At least we got a welcome return for Peggy Olson. I wouldn’t expect her to have left the show for good; after all, the very first episode began with her first day at the agency, and she’s been a crucial character since. Here, we saw that life at Cutler Gleason and Chaough may not be much better for her. Ted Chaough dragooned her into taking up smoking so she can work on a prospective Philip Morris account, and it’s no surprise that she followed her old boss’s example once again when times are hard – she went to the movies.

Where, as chance would have it, she met Don himself, also taking refuge from his troubles as he recovered from his tooth extraction (it must have been terrifying for him when the dentist told him he couldn’t smoke for 24 hours). Their scene together was touching; despite Peggy having only left a couple of weeks ago, they hugged like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for ages. The real chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss was again in evidence as both feigned happiness, avoiding the subject of their current worries. At least Don’s regret over her departure was expressed; he seemed bitter and sad but proud when he told her, “that’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” I doubt we’ve seen the last of Peggy (she was highlighted significantly in the closing montage); but I wonder where she’ll be when the show returns. Back at SCDP, or turning into a capable rival for Don elsewhere?

Thankfully, the often-too-perfect Megan was getting a serious dose of her husband’s usual sense of angst and futility. Her acting career is noticeably failing to take off (and her mother is none too sympathetic), and like Don, she took refuge in brooding and getting drunk. Jessica Pare is a perfectly capable actress, but I can certainly understand many people’s objection that Megan has little depth as a character beyond acting as a foil for Don’s insecurities. Here, finally, that mask of wholesomeness was nicely cracked.

After one of her friends begged her for an in with Don to be cast in a new SCDP commercial, Megan basically stabbed her in the back by trying to get the gig herself. Don was initially reluctant but eventually conceded, and in one of the episode’s last scenes, we saw that Megan had got the job. Terrific, perhaps, but a total abandonment of her earlier principled stance that she wanted to succeed on her own merit. She may be finally getting work, but it’s only because of her husband rather than her ability, and she betrayed a close friend to do so. Welcome properly to the world of Mad Men characters, Megan. (And that’s before you even consider that her mother is yet again entwined in the ‘understanding’ arms of Roger Sterling!)

The ep – and the season – concluded with one of its trademark musical montages, this time set to Nancy Sinatra’s hit of that year, ‘You Only Live Twice’. As usual – a highly appropriate choice – Don manages to both recall and subvert the archetype of James Bond as he walks away from Megan’s film set into the darkness. Hanging out at a bar, he was approached by, yet again, a shyly attractive young lady. And her friend. And his unspoken answer to their question – “Are you alone?” – was the cliffhanger on which this season left him. He’s spent the year trying hard to move away from the ‘old’ Don, only to find the consequences of his actions pushing him back into that role ever more. Will he have the strength to resist?

It’s been a great season, which was a relief after having waited nearly two years to see it. Matthew Weiner has, as ever, kept the show’s slow burning moodiness and character depth, so that truly dramatic events, when they come, are all the more shocking for it. It’s sad that we won’t be seeing any more of Lane, who really came into his own this year in terms of deep plotlines both humorous and sad, and Jared Harris deserves a nod for his likeable performance over the last three seasons. And I’m glad to see that Peggy’s departure from SCDP doesn’t mean her departure from the show. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait as long for the next season as we did for this one!