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.”

GameOfThronesTyrionVarysJoffrey

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.”

MadMenBetty

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:

MadMenGinsberg

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

MadMenWeightWatchers

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.”

GameOfThronesJaime

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?

ScreenShot001

“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.

DaleksController

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…

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 8–Lady Lazarus

“It’s so simple when it’s someone else’s life, isn’t it?”

MadMenDonMegan

In a week when I’ve failed to get an interview for a job I’ve actually done before, Mad Men’s existential angst, and particularly Don Draper’s increasingly obvious obsolescence, seemed particularly redolent for me. This week’s was a somewhat lighter affair than the sturm und drang of recent episodes, with a less compressed timescale and focus; more , in fact, like the high quality soap opera it really is. But even a comparatively frothy episode like this one, written by series creator Matthew Weiner, had plenty of moments of acute and often painful character observation.

We got to see more of the Don/Megan dynamic this week, a recurring motif this season as Don looks increasingly antediluvian next to his young, with-it new wife. Trying to find some music for a Chevalier Blanc ad campaign that would satisfy the clients, Don was baffled by the trendy stylings of the Beatles: “When did music get so important?” He had, in fact, no grasp of contemporary music at all, and it’s telling that for anything ‘new’ he has a default plan – “I’ll ask Megan, she’ll know.”

But Megan, it turned out, was less than happy with her new role as cultural zeitgeist barometer for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She may be a talented copywriter, but she doesn’t like the job. She thinks, in fact, that it’s pretty worthless in the overall scheme of things, and has been secretly going back to her original ambition – acting. This became clear after she spun two separate lies to first Peggy then Don, to cover her attendance at an audition.

The tenacious Peggy was the first to find out the truth, in a scene where Elisabeth Moss made her seem terribly fierce. Dragging the facts out of Megan in the women’s bathroom, Peggy was shocked that Mrs Draper would want to do anything else than copywriting. It’s an interesting insight into Peggy’s character, and one that came up previously in her late night chat with Dawn; having struggled so hard to get where she is, she makes the erroneous assumption that every woman wants the same thing. It’s almost a distillation of some of feminism’s more tyrannical directives, that a woman can’t be happy unless she’s struggling to be where a man is. Thankfully, I think feminism has more or less moved on from that kind of assumption these days, but then, Peggy’s in 1966.

So naturally, Peggy was furious that Megan would so carelessly toss away a career that she herself has struggled to achieve for years. It made for an uncharacteristically bitchy relationship between the two, though in truth that’s been brewing since Megan so effortlessly snagged the Heinz account. It seems, basically, to be jealousy of someone who got such an easy break into the business and then has the affront to be genuinely good at it. Can it be that Peggy too is beginning to feel the bite of younger people snapping at her heels?

If we once thought Peggy might be a bright future for the agency, Pete Campbell always looked like the promise of a dark dystopia. Thankfully, his general ineptitude made him seem less of a threat. So it proved again this week, as he embarked on what, for most characters, would be a torrid and scandalous romance with the wife of his philandering morning train buddy.

But this is Pete, and Don Draper-style affairs never work out for him unless he pays for them. Hence, after one night of torrid passion, his incessant badgering of the oddly philosophical Beth seemed to totally put her off. She didn’t want to talk to him on the phone, she was totally freaked out when he turned up at her house with her husband on a totally contrived pretext, and she failed to show up at the illicit tryst Pete organised, leaving him once again fuming at his lack of success. But as the episode ended, with the two of them leaving the station in separate cars, she drew a little heart at him in the window mist. Might he not have failed as utterly as usual? One crumb of comfort – at least he’s finally passed his driving test, though he appears not to know what a Stop sign means.

Don, meanwhile, spent the first half of the episode in blissful ignorance of his wife’s impending career crisis. When she finally told him, he spent the rest of the episode in denial about it, pretending everything was fine. And yet it clearly wasn’t; Don’s never seemed so ill at ease than when discussing Megan’s departure with Joan, who seems to be becoming the office Wise Woman (if she wasn’t already). As if his discomfiture wasn’t enough, he had the misfortune to almost stumble into a massive Existential Metaphor, as his call to the elevator resulted in the doors opening on the yawning chasm of the empty shaft. Even Don seemed to recognise the enormous significance of… whatever this represented, looking as disturbed as a character in a particularly traumatic Twilight Zone.

Don being Don, all this pent up emotion had to result in an explosion at a not entirely appropriate moment. And so it proved, as Peggy, substituting for the now-absent Megan in a pitch to Cool Whip, flubbed the crucial line that was meant to be the big ad hook, and Don blew up in her face in front of several General Foods employees. But Peggy’s going from strength to strength these days, and she gave as good as she got, telling him that it wasn’t her he was angry with (as was obvious to everyone but Don). Don, in return, told Peggy a few hard truths – Megan left not because she disliked the job but because she disliked the kind of people that did it. People like Peggy. It was a heavy scene masterfully topped off with a genuine belly laugh, as the GF employee sternly told a visibly astonished Don something I don’t think he’s ever hear before: “I’m sorry, you can’t smoke in here.”

Actually there were quite a few laughs this week, reflecting a script that was as frothy (and yet tellingly artificial) as Cool Whip. Roger, often the source of much of the show’s humour, wasn’t around much this week, but his old rivalry with Pete surfaced as he presented the younger man with a complimentary set of skis from a client. “Are they going to explode?” Pete enquired nervously, making me laugh so hard I almost spilled my tea. Still, beware Roger bearing gifts; who knows what his motive is there? Later, bugged by Don’s incessant calls to the office where she was working late, Peggy made the unfathomable decision to pretend to be a wrong number: “Pizza house!” (yelped in an unidentifiable accent).

And to top things off, after a couple of weeks’ absence, the eye-burningly hideous checked sports coats were back in evidence, courtesy of Stan and Ginsberg, who seem to have affirmed their acceptability as office wear at SCDP:

MadMenStanGinsberg

However, even they couldn’t compete with a new style of hideous sports coat, as worn by the flamingly gay member of the Chevalier Blanc group, which seemed to be made out of a deckchair:

MadMenRick

I guess the Summer of Love is almost upon the denizens of SCDP – as was made abundantly clear by a final montage of the gang’s angst, soundtracked by the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. As with the recent use of ‘Time is on My Side’, a perfectly apposite choice, and one flecked with irony; earlier,  Don had been discussing how the Beatles never allowed ads (or TV shows) to use their work. Which used to be true. And this week’s episode of the TV show Mad Men ended with a Beatles song. For an episode so heavily freighted with philosophy and symbolism, that was so meta it was perfect.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 6–The Old Gods and the New

“Don’t trust anybody. Life is safer that way.”

GameOfThronesTheonRodrik

Things continue apace in Westeros, in this week’s workmanlike but exciting episode of Game of Thrones. The season’s momentum is really starting to build up as it enters the second half, as long-hatched plans come to fruition, and unforeseen events throw meticulous planning to the winds.

Directed by genre veteran David Nutter, this week’s episode threw us straight into the fray, opening amidst Theon’s hinted-at attack on the defenceless Winterfell. Donald Sumpter as the thoughtful Maester Luwin got to show that he could be a man of action too, frantically sending out a raven message even as the Ironmen battered down the door. But Theon’s troops were too strong, and poor little Bran was forced to yield the castle to him. Isaac Hempstead-Wright was again brilliant as Bran this week, veering from his usual solemnity (“Theon, did you hate us the whole time?”) to a profoundly realistic child’s sobbing as Theon beheaded Ned Stark’s faithful castellan Ser Rodrik.

In keeping with Theon’s general ineptitude, it was a wince-makingly incompetent beheading, similar to that of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors (purportedly a true event). Even I could tell that Theon’s sword wasn’t the ideal choice for slicing a man’s head off, and so it proved as he hacked away at Rodrik’s neck, eventually having to kick the head off what remained of it. Even offscreen, it was brutal, and set the tone for an episode that didn’t stint on the violence throughout.

Similar violence dogged the Lannisters in King’s Landing, in a faithfully nasty recreation of the book’s memorable riot. Having sent Princess Myrcella off to Dorne as Tyrion planned, Cersei made a disturbingly convincing vow that she would take great pleasure in depriving Tyrion of someone he loved; plainly a nasty bit of foreshadowing regarding the still-hidden Shae. But all the family bitching took a back seat as the royal party tried to make their way back to the Red Kepp, and the populace of King’s Landing got a chance to show their new king quite how unhappy with him they are.

It was a well-done scene, though the number of rioting extras seemed to fall short of what was required to send half the city up in flames, as in the book. Nevertheless, it served its purpose dramatically in showing just how hated Joffrey is already. And he gave the crowd ample further proof as, after having been hit by a thrown cowpat, he demanded they all be executed.

The inevitable riot that followed had yet more truly nasty bits of business, particularly the visualisation of the High Septon being literally ripped to pieces. It’s mentioned in the book, but here we got to see it – well, some of it at least, as a baying crowd bore him down then held his severed arm aloft. It was enough to make you genuinely fear for Sansa as she was separated from the fleeing royals, but fortunately for her, the Hound turned up in the nick of time to prevent a nasty rape by disembowelling Sansa’s attackers. You don’t get that in Lord of the Rings.

The odd but touching relationship between the Hound and Sansa has been well-played by both, with Rory McCann playing the scarred mercenary’s hidden passions almost entirely through looks and Sophie Turner, a real damsel in distress, showing how her initial revulsion has softened into sympathy and an unwilling respect. The relationship between the two is one of the more interesting and understated in the books, and I’m glad it’s translated faithfully to the screen.

Jack Gleeson continues to be reliably loathsome as Joffrey, whose reaction to the riot was to order more slaughter until dissuaded by yet another slap from Uncle Tyrion. Joffrey’s an eminently slappable guy, but given his Caligula-style tendencies, you have to wonder how long Tyrion can get away with that kind of thing. Peter Dinklage made him believably furious, but I wonder how unwise he’s being in not keeping his usual level head when dealing with the capricious boy king: “We’ve had mad kings and idiot kings before, but this is the first time we’ve been cursed with a mad idiot king!”

A rather better monarch was in Qarth, over the sea, as Dany Targaryen continued her seemingly futile quest to win arms and ships from the slimy, double-dealing Qartheen merchant kings. Emilia Clarke got to give yet another fiery, impassioned speech as she begged the unconvinced Spice King (a suitably oleaginous Nicholas Blane) for ships, with little to trade.

Descendant of the Mad King though she may be, Dany’s looking to be by far the best candidate for the throne of Westeros – if she ever gets there. She suffered yet another setback this week as more of her Dothraki followers were slaughtered by a mysterious hooded figure who went on to steal the three baby dragons. Poor old Dany, you can’t help thinking she deserves better luck occasionally.

Somewhat luckier was Arya, still stuck pouring wine for Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal, and plotting her revenge on all who’ve done her wrong. Building on last week’s electric scene between them, Maisie Williams and Charles Dance look to be forming another of the show’s unlikely double acts. They play well off each other, as she manages to conceal her true identity even while they talk almost as master and protege.

That secret was almost broken this week, when Lord Baelish – who knows very well who Arya is – popped in for an unexpected visit. This led to another tense scene which combined that tension with exposition; as Baelish discussed alliance plans with Tywin, Arya was obliged to pour the wine for them, and Baelish kept giving her curious glances, as though she was somehow familiar but he couldn’t quite place her. Given what was at stake, the tension was heart-pounding, though I must admit to being a little unconvinced that the normally astute Littlefinger didn’t ultimately recognise her.

Still, the whole scene was another example of something the TV show does very well – inventing little dramatic set pieces that were nowhere present in the books. Indeed, this season in particular has been a little more liberal in its adaptation, omitting some quite lengthy subplots – such as Cat Stark’s return to her ancestral home on the way back to to Robb – and significant characters like Reek and the Reed children.

This probably annoys purists no end, but I’m glad that the TV writers have taken the opportunity of the different medium of storytelling to make their still-convoluted plot more economical. After all, one look at the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen shows the danger of sticking too faithfully to your source material at the expense of utilising the medium you’re working in.

Another departure from the books is the addition of Robb’s love interest, the pretty Volantene nurse Talisa. Or perhaps I should say ‘substitution’ – she plainly fulfils the same narrative function as his love interest Jeyne in the books. But whereas the books didn’t present Jeyne to the reader until long into her and Robb’s relationship, here we get to see that relationship developing from its first flowering. It’s arguably more appropriate to the story that Robb should fall for someone he met on the field of battle, and Oona Chaplin as Talisa has been given some suitably thoughtful, yet flirty dialogue. Still, as his mother reminds him, Robb is technically already betrothed, to one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Could be trouble on the way there…

Jon too was getting a love interest in the snowy but picturesque Frostfang mountains beyond the Wall. Finally encountering some actual wildlings to fight, he found himself tasked with executing the lone survivor of the fight, a defiant young lady with flaming red hair named Ygritte. Jon being the heroic type, he couldn’t actually go through with it, and consequently found himself chasing his escaping prisoner until they were well out of reach of the rest of the Night’s Watch party.

Another favourite of mine from the books, Ygritte is played by a suitably fierce young lady called Rose Leslie, who’s nevertheless also flirty in a rather suggestive way. Bedding down with Jon for the night, she couldn’t help, rubbing her posterior against the hunky Ranger’s groin, much to his frustration. It was another blackly comic scene, as Jon is of course sworn to celibacy, and just the type to follow his vows to the letter. But it doesn’t take a genius to predict that there’ll be something going on between the two afore long. After all, it’s the classic love/hate/love relationship, and if you’ve ever seen any soap opera you’ll know what comes next…

After last week’s rather scattershot episode (necessitated by the advancement of so many plots simultaneously) it was nice to have a return to a tighter focus this week as the pace of the story ramps up. It was a massively violent episode, perhaps even more so than usual, with blood and guts flying all over the place. Yet as ever, character drama wasn’t neglected amid the gore, with Arya and Tywin’s scenes being a particular highlight.

Not much in the way of sex this week – Theon got some, offscreen, with former wildling Osha, who at least did a full-frontal to keep the flag up (as it were). But with the pace of the war ever more hectic, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sex is kept to a minimum for the rest of the season. Whether you think that’s a good thing is probably entirely subjective; but as the sex goes down, I expect the violence will go up. After all, it looks like the war may be building to a series of ever more brutal confrontations – and that’s something this show does very well.

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

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

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

MadMenDrapers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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