Television: ‘Mad Men’ back on song, and hard times in ‘Happy Valley’

A peak performance by Peggy Olson, Bafta beckons for Sarah Lancashire, and John Lonergan shows his mettle as a mentor

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

Mad Men (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday) has split its seventh, final season in two, so this week’s satisfyingly complete, unexpectedly sentimental and poignant episode is the midseason finale. We’ll have to wait until next year to learn the fate of Don Draper and, more intriguingly, of Peggy Olson, who has emerged as the most important character in this back-on-form series.

Somebody dies, which is unsurprising in a finale – or a hiatus, as this should be more properly billed – and it could be any of them. Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s creator and head writer, likes to keep his characters on such uncertain trajectories.

It isn’t obvious that it’s to be eccentric old Bert Cooper, the agency’s founder and the last of the old generation. “Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon you know they’re going to die,” says Roger – and, as if the baton has finally been passed, he snaps out of the tipsy-jester role he’s played all season and brokers a takeover deal that secures his and Don’s jobs, makes the partners millionaires and wrests the agency back to its creative roots, away from Jim, the account man, and his infatuation with computer technology.

In this first bout of man versus machine – the 197Os are coming – man wins. Don finally acknowledges that Peggy, his protege, has professionally come of age: it has been a long time coming, and he lets her pitch to a new client. And Megan and Don, floating throughout the series, amicably end their vague bicoastal marriage by phone. There’s a sense of roles firming up, of solid ground forming after a season in which all the characters have been in flux.

A signature theme of Mad Men is the role of television. One’s always on somewhere, to reference cultural milestones and establish the date – key in a retro-set series – so we watch the characters watch the 1969 moon landing. The national mood is optimistic, and the upbeat finale has a sense that everyone is now where they should be – particularly Don and Roger, back in charge of the agency.

In the inspired final scene Don hallucinates and sees Bert in the office corridor, singing and dancing to The Best Things in Life Are Free. It’s as anti-consumerist a message as you’re likely to hear at an ad agency. This is a firm and tantalising foundation for next year.

Devastating

violence The violence in last week’s bleak

must-see crime series, Happy Valley (BBC One, Monday) was stomach-churning and shocking. Uncompromising straight-up Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine (Sara Lancashire) rescues kidnapped girl Anne (Charlie Murphy of Love/Hate) but gets beaten to a near pulp by one of the kidnappers. The cliffhanger showed her lying, maybe dead, on a street, and as one female copper has already died a gruesome death, her exit wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.

But after the noise and the chase, this week’s penultimate episode of Happy Valley slows down and quietens to reveal the devastating impact of the violence on all the characters involved.

This superbly realised contrast highlights why this series – which was written, like Scott & Bailey, by Sally Wainwright – will be hard to beat as the British drama of the year. That and Lancashire’s performance, which is a long way from her TV debut as Raquel on Coronation Street. You can’t take your eyes off the screen when she’s on it. This is an odds-on Bafta-winning performance.

Lancashire has to be the least vain actor on television – the camera is merciless in its close-ups of her post-traumatic lethargy. “Is she mental now?” her grandson asks. Her condition nearly sunders her relationships with her son, her ex-husband, her colleagues and her sister Clare (a superb Siobhan Finneran – their dialogue throughout the series is natural sisterly shorthand).

It’s all in contrast to the fizzing panic of the bungling kidnappers. And there’s the further contrast, running through the series, between the beautiful Yorkshire valley, often filmed from the air, and the bleak drug-fuelled hopelessness on the ground that the police deal with every day – or, as Catherine puts it, sympathetic and frustrated at the same time, the “numpties off their face on skunk”.

This episode is like a pause for breath, setting up next week’s finale, primarily by letting one of the kidnappers, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), emerge from being a two-dimensional raping, murdering psycho into a damaged man you’re never going to care about but with enough about him to make you wonder. It’s gripping stuff.

The Family Project (RTÉ One, Monday) is one of those series where the idea is so cringy on paper that you’re tempted not to bother. It’s described as a series were “celebrities” – we’re not talking Kim and Kanye: they’re Irish celebrities, which could mean anyone who’s been on the telly a few times – “help parents help their kids learn in a fun way”.

But because it’s sponsored by Nala, the organisation that supports literacy, you know its heart is in the right place.

TV producers here fish in a very small pond, and the first celebrity mentor is John Lonergan, who’s not exactly media shy and who has already done this sort of thing – in RTÉ’s John Lonergan’s Circus.

But working with 15-year-old Aaron, from Inchicore, we see why he was chosen: he’s a natural at interacting with teenagers. Aaron has Asperger’s syndrome and dyspraxia, so his social skills aren’t great, classwork is difficult and his concentration wanders.

“It’s absolutely crucial for parents to accept the reality of their child,” says Lonergan, a former prison governor. “Everyone is good at something.” Not a bad message for parents and students in the week before our insanely pressurised Leaving Cert.

Aaron can be obsessional, and his big thing is 20th-century Irish history, so Lonergan turns that passion to the lad’s advantage and suggests he try out as a tour guide at Glasnevin cemetery. It might also give him an idea of a career and more of a reason to get the head down at school.

Walking the talk

Aaron gets huge help from his fantastic mother, grandparents, aunt and his teachers in a mainstream school. (I think this is where the Nala message comes in, although this isn’t clear.) Lonergan’s role is as a motivator: his belief that imparting self-esteem in a child is the most vital lesson.

In the end, Aaron delivers a talk for his family at Éamon de Valera’s graveside perfectly, with eye-contact interaction, the lot, so his “journey” is lovely and worthwhile, much like the series.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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