Class: Series 1, Episodes 3 and 4

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Episode 3 – Night Visiting

One of the real strengths of Patrick Ness’ writing for Class is its emphasis on character. Yes, each week’s central menace is whatever alien nasty has plunged through the Hellmouth Rift to Shoreditch this week; but each time, the plot is driven by how these developing characters, with continually developing back-stories, deal with it. After ep2’s focus on traumatised jock Ram, this week focused on Tanya, and her still-unresolved grief over the death of her father, established last time. Continue reading “Class: Series 1, Episodes 3 and 4”

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 4–Mystery Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2–The Night Lands

“Another king. How many is that now?”

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With the season premiere having firmly planted the pieces in place, Game of Thrones’ second episode sees the plot beginning to really move. Taking in fewer of the players than last week, series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss were able to focus more closely on those we did see, giving us some meaty conflict between the well-drawn characters, and giving depth to some of those who’d previously had little attention.

Most notable of those was Theon Greyjoy, who had so little to do last year that you could have been forgiven for wondering why he was there. Having been held hostage since childhood by Ned Stark against his rebellious father’s good conduct, this episode saw him returning to his ancestral home of Pyke on the Iron Islands, introducing yet another player into the game.

But before we reached the Iron Islands, the viewer would need some instruction as to the culture of yet another region of Westeros. How best to explain the Ironborn’s rugged, seafaring ways? Ah yes, the show’s tried and trusted ‘sexposition’ tactic. Lest we get bored with Theon’s explanation of how his culture works, it was delivered while he was busy having sex with the daughter of the captain of the boat taking him there. You had to admire Theon’s power of concentration at being able to deliver a sociological lecture while having some pretty vigorous sex.

It’s easy to have a teenage smirk whenever the show does one of these scenes, and they certainly do seem like titillation, but they’re very much part of the show’s established style now. The main problem, I suppose, is that the more frequent they are, the more the show runs the risk of slipping into self-parody. It’s not there yet, though, and this viewer at least was happy to be titillated by the surprisingly buff Alfie Allen as Theon. I seem to recall that last year, he was one of the only main male cast members to appear full frontal nude. Which was nice, given that the other one was Hodor.

Anyway, having arrived at the Iron Islands, we got some faithfully recreated scenes from the book as Theon was reunited with his family – in the case of his sister, quite unknowingly. Yara Greyjoy (renamed from the book’s ‘Asha’ lest she be confused with wildling Osha) is plainly another formidable player in the game, and not above some fairly dirty ttactics. Having been flirting unwittingly with her as they rode to the castle, to the extent of having a hand in her pants, Theon looked pretty queasy when he realised who she was. It was blackly amusing, as if Luke and Leia from Star Wars had done far more than kiss before realising they were siblings.

We also met Theon’s father, the bitter and formerly rebellious Lord Balon Greyjoy. As played by Patrick Malahide, Balon’s an unforgiving, harsh, proud man, who’s less than happy with the seemingly soft, spoiled boy Ned Stark has turned his son into. It’s clear that (unsurprisingly) Balon Greyjoy is not going to forget the past and ally with Robb Stark, the son of the man who ruthlessly crushed his rebellion and killed Theon’s brothers. Catelyn’s advice to Robb in that regard was spot on. What’s less clear is exactly what Balon is intending to do with the fleet that Yara’s been put in command of…

Over at Dragonstone, ships were also much in the minds of Stannis Baratheon and Davos Seaworth. As in the books, Stannis is a cold, remote figure, and hard to empathise with. This is why his more moderate, sensible aide Davos is more usually given screen time, and Liam Cunningham has already established him as a much more likeable character.

Davos and his son Matthos (Kerr Logan) meet with flamboyant pirate Salladhor Saan, in the hope of gaining his ships’ support for an attack on King’s Landing. Salladhor is one of the book’s most memorable characters, despite being fairly minor, so it was nice to see the writers giving him a pretty good amount of screen time as he declared that his condition for agreeing was to be allowed to “fuck the queen”. Not ‘rape’ – actor Lucian Msamati made it clear that this likeable rogue believes he can charm anyone into sex. As he remarks to the uptight, unconvinced Matthos, “I haven’t tried to fuck you yet.”

It was a good scene, that did much to establish the history and nature of the relationship between Davos and Stannis, despite the latter’s absence; but I did think the sudden switch from the bleak seaside locale of Pyke to the bleak seaside locale of Dragonstone was potentially a little confusing for viewers. The locations were so similar that it only remembering which characters were based where made the distinction clear.

Not much scope was given this week to Daenerys Targaryen and her small tribe of Dothraki over the Narrow Sea, but their one scene continued to show their privations in the Red Waste. Dany was dismayed to receive the severed head of the faithful Rakharo, which caused much lamenting from her handmaids that the manner of his death barred his entry from the Dothraki afterlife – the Night Lands, from which the episode’s title was drawn. Rakharo’s death is a significant deviation from the books, where he lasts a good deal longer; but it works because he’s made a much more significant character here, so his death has a lot more resonance. As he plays no particularly notable part in any of the books’ plots, it’s a good gambit for the screenwriters to build him up and then kill him off, yet another sign that nobody is safe in this game.

Given similarly short shrift were the Night’s Watch, still quartered with the loathsome Craster in the North beyond the Wall. Deftly signposted last week, this episode showed us more of Craster’s fearful daughter Gilly, and her fear as to what would become of her soon-to-be-born baby if it was a boy. Gilly is played by Skins’ Hannah Murray, who I’m glad to see back on the screen after a long absence to, presumably, finish her education. There’s the beginning of a nice relationship between her and loveable ‘coward’ Sam Tarly, as he first rescues her from Jon’s impressively realised direwolf Ghost then lends a sympathetic ear to her troubles.

The normally heroic (but fallible) Jon is less than eager to help, presumably remembering the earful he got from the Lord Commander last week about pissing off Craster, but it doesn’t take long before he’s reverted to heroic type and off to nose around the woods as Gilly’s baby is born, getting clobbered by Craster for his pains. This is a small but important plotline in the book, so it’s good to see it getting a fair shake of screen time – even if viewers might be impatient for the Night’s Watch to get a move on with their mission of investigating the sinister happenings in the snowy North.

Those concerns are also echoed in King’s Landing, as Cersei summarily dismisses an urgent message from Lord Commander Mormont, pleading for more men to help with the cold, blue-eyed walking dead. She thinks it’s all just superstition, and Tyrion must be a fool for giving it any credence.

But Tyrion’s no fool, as this episode again makes clear. We got a terrific scene between him and Varys (Conleth Hill), as the softly spoken spymaster implicitly threatens to reveal the presence of Tyrion’s whore Shae to his disapproving father. As Tyrion reminds Varys (and us), unlike Ned Stark he is no honourable man, and smart enough to see how the game is being played. Having already banished City Watch commander Janos Slynt for his part in Joffrey’s slaughter of the innocents, Tyrion makes it clear that if Varys threatens him, he can expect something similar or worse. Varys, typically, is unfazed, and points out his continued survival when so many more visible players in the game have fallen. It was a powerful scene between these two most devious, cynical men, reminiscent of Varys’ more veiled exchanges with Petyr Baelish last year.

Lord Baelish himself got one of the episode’s other great scenes, as he dealt with young Ros’ grief over last week’s slaughter of one of the brothel’s babies. At first seeming uncharacteristically sympathetic, his soft tones belied the increasing harshness of the story he told; of how an unhappy whore is, for him, a pretty bad investment, and one that can be easily disposed of by pandering to some of the clients’ scarier sexual peccadilloes. No fool herself, Ros got the message. She’d get a day off to grieve, and then be back at work – and happy. It was a cracking scene, one of those created solely for the screen version of the story that work so well; a similar highlight last year was the temporary truce and neutral discussion of their relationship by Robert and Cersei.

Arya Stark, meanwhile, was still headed north with Yoren’s Night’s Watch recruits, and we got to see her first encounter with the mysterious Jaqen H’gar, a caged charmer played by German actor Tom Wlaschiha. As Arya, Maisie Williams is one of the show’s best child actors, and it’s god to see her continuing to have such a prominent role. We also got to see more of Gendry, the fugitive bastard son of the dead king, who’s realised his travelling companion Arya is really a girl – and is soon informed that she’s a noble to boot. Not that being addressed as “my lady” pleases her very much. Arya and Gendry look to be shaping up into another of the show’s effective double acts, and it’s nice to see another Skins alumnus, Joe Dempsie, getting more to do as Gendry than he did last year.

It was another great episode from a show that shows no sign of flagging in quality. The pacing is excellent, with the plot beginning to move but still not too fast; there’s still plenty of time for the character building scenes that Benioff and Weiss do so well. The writers have also taken it upon themselves, as last year, to take some of the books’ more implicit plots and make them explicit; last year, it was the relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, this year it’s the sexual coupling of Stannis and Melisandre. This has been a divisive tactic for some of the books’ fans, but I think it works well and is justified in this different medium of storytelling. Check back next week for, likely, more fulsome praise.

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

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Those who know me know that I’m very keen on Charlie Brooker. It was, in fact, mainly down to his TV crit column in The Guardian that I started this blog in the first place – though I’ve never been able to capture his unique blend of vitriol and surrealism, ending up with a style of my own.

Brooker long since stopped reviewing TV – as he said, it’s difficult being a TV critic when you’re appearing on it so often you might end up having to review yourself. But alongside his increasingly frequent appearances on BBC4 and his growth into a stalwart of TV satire, he’s also been having a stab at being a screenwriter. His first effort, an imaginative combination of zombie apocalypse horror with Big Brother called Dead Set, was a perfect blend of the tastes he has, which I mostly share with him – I actually loathe Big Brother, but there was a lot of fun to be had with a zombified Davina McCall tearing people’s throats out.

And now he’s back with three part anthology series Black Mirror, though apparently only the first two stories are by Charlie himself, the third being the work of Peep Show co writer Jesse Armstrong. This being Brooker, I was looking forward to his usual dark, misanthropic preoccupations. And I wasn’t to be disappointed. The basic premise of this first story, titled The National Anthem, was simple but as twisted as we could expect from Brooker – a popular Royal (the fictional ‘Princess Susannah’, basically a neo-Diana) has been kidnapped, and the hostage video uploaded to Youtube for all the world to see. The kidnapper has but one demand, which must be met to the letter of a list of specifics – the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig. At 4pm, live on every British TV channel. No fakery allowed, and the PM must take the act to “full fruition”. Only then will the Princess be released.

It’s a typically dark, blackly humourous concept for Brooker, who frequently uses his columns for long tirades against the debased nature of society in a way that mirrors the more publicity shy Chris Morris. And it was the debased nature of society that was on display here, too. With that premise, this could easily have been a black comedy romp in the style of The Comic Strip Presents. What we got was far more interesting. Directed with some panache by Faren Blackburn (recently responsible for about half the episodes of The Fades), The National Anthem was played dead straight, almost as a thriller in the vein of Spooks or House of Cards. After all, when you’re starting from an absurdist premise, the best way to exploit it is to play it naturalistically.

So the story progressed as PM Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear as a believable modern Blair clone) tried every avenue he could think of to rescue the Princess without having to resort to the humiliation of acceding to the kidnapper’s demand. The secret services are trying desperately to find the source of the uploaded video, tracking it down to a deserted college campus. This turned out to be a misdirection, but felt like perhaps a comment on the current government’s gutting of higher education. But I didn’t get the impression that Brooker was aiming his satire at any political party; Callow was noticeably not given any stated party affiliation, and his advisers referred simply to “the party”.

No, if anything the satire was aimed at society in general, and particularly the ways that modern media make us all complicit in truly horrific acts. Top of the list of course was social media, and the way it renders governments powerless to control the flow of information the way they used to. Of course, this can be a good thing, as in the Arab revolutions earlier this year. But it can also lead to some truly horrible bullying, as Brooker highlighted with the case of the Twitter abuse of (admittedly fairly awful) Youtube singer Rebecca Black.

An avid user of Twitter himself, Brooker made the social media instrumental to this twisted tale. Downing Street were trying to hush up the kidnapper’s demand with D notices served to news organisations, but of course that’s totally ineffectual these days. Inevitably, the demand was trending on Twitter worldwide, and eventually fictional news organisation UKN became the first to break the wall of official silence already being ignored by the non-British media. All this was (presumably intentionally) reminiscent of the recent wave of ‘super injunctions’ that failed to avoid their subjects being embarrassed even more when their identities were leaked on Twitter, inadvertently making them even more notorious than if they’d just ‘fessed up.

There is an argument that that’s hardly fair, and celebrities are still entitled to privacy too – one of the many subjects currently being debated by the Leveson enquiry into press ethics. This was touched on too, as UKN reporter Malaika had a direct line to a smitten aide inside No 10, gaining access to classified information by sending iPhone pictures of her tits at him. It felt like a bit of poetic justice when she was caught up in the Special Branch raid on the abandoned college and ended up shot in the leg as a result of her prying – a moral judgement perhaps?

More ambiguous morally was the role of Britain’s populace as a whole. Brooker cleverly used different groups of people watching the story unfold as a chorus, then as representative of society as a whole. We watched as the opinions of the online mob were swayed first this way and then that way by the news media – particularly timely at the end of a week which has seen the media crucifixion of Jeremy Clarkson. After an abortive attempt to fake the bestial deed arranged by frosty aide Lindsay Duncan is exposed on Twitter, the kidnapper sends what seems to be the Princess’ severed finger to UKN. Realising the danger to the Princess, opinion polls swing radically to the view that the PM must accede to the demand, and even his own party and aides are counselling that this is the only way left.

I have to applaud Brooker’s balls in actually following through with the premise. In most black comedies of this kind, there’ll be a last minute save to prevent the insane demand of the terrorists being met; not here. Here, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom eventually had to have sex with a pig in front of the whole nation.

Obviously that was going to be difficult to actually show even on Channel 4, but it was cleverly handled. And again, it was played dead straight, as something genuinely horrific. Once again, the population/mob were seen to be in thrall to the media, as streets all over the country were shown to be deserted, everyone glued to their TV sets. Despite an attempt to put people off watching by broadcasting a tone that could cause nausea, the mob remained jauntily baying for their leader’s blood as the characters we’d seen earlier treated it as a genuinely funny spectacle.

And then it actually happened, and we saw the people’s faces turn to looks of disgust, horror, pity and finally sympathy. Confronted by the horrifying reality of what they’d asked for, they were shown shamed as the act played out – for over an hour, as the Viagra-dosed PM couldn’t easily ‘finish’. But even then, they couldn’t bring themselves to switch off. That’s horribly plausible, and puts the viewer directly in their shoes – what would you do?

The horror of the act itself was cleverly conveyed through close shots of Rory Kinnear’s sweating, crying face, then later by his lengthy vomiting into the studio toilet. Then the final indignity happened – the Princess was released, totally unharmed (even the severed finger hadn’t been hers). And she’d been released half an hour before the deadline; the kidnapper reasoning, quite correctly, that everyone would be too swept up in the hysteria to even notice. It was quietly agreed that the PM must never, ever be told. But with the unrestricted flow of information we’d already seen, you had to wonder how long it would be before it did come out.

The fickle nature of the mob was on show again as the credits rolled over a news montage from one year later – Callow was more popular than ever for his ‘sacrifice’, and had been re-elected with an increased majority. But his wife can’t even bear to look at him any more – the true human cost of all this. Meanwhile, the kidnapper – a failed Turner Prize entrant who hanged himself as he realised what he’d done – is being lauded as having created the first great work of art of the 21st century.

This was comedy of the blackest order, and massively thought provoking. There are no easy answers to the issues raised; the internet and social media can be a tool for great good or great evil, and Brooker’s cynical view seems to be that society being what it is, it will tend more to the bad than the good. But it also places the viewer in the position of being one of the onlookers – and can anyone really say that they would have acted differently in this situation? Much as I loathe David Cameron, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t demand he be so thoroughly removed of all human dignity. But would I have thought that way before watching this? And if the situation truly came to pass, would I stick to my lofty principles or get swept up with the mob?

A very good start to the series then, which as its title references, is a ‘Black Mirror’ of modern society – on this evidence, at its worst. Next week’s offering (starring the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya out of The Fades) shows a dystopian future dominated by exploitative TV talent shows. Again, this doesn’t seem so far removed from the truth. But on the basis of this first episode, I’m guessing that it will be another dark distortion of something loathsome from the present.