Television: A terrific beginning of the end as ‘Mad Men’ reaches the 1970s

Review: ‘Mad Men’, ‘Code of a Killer’ and ‘Vera’

Period flair: Elisabeth Moss as Peggy and Christina Hendricks as Joan in the seventh season of Mad Men

Period flair: Elisabeth Moss as Peggy and Christina Hendricks as Joan in the seventh season of Mad Men

 

‘Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee sings in Mad Men (Sky Atlantic, Thursday). It’s the plaintive anthem of unfulfilled middle age, and it bookends the episode in which Don, Peggy, Joan and Ken glimpse what might have been.

In 2007, when the series started, it was 1960, and Don Draper – one of the most vivid, intriguing characters in television drama – was 34 and hiding a dark past, his ambition creating a suave persona that was irresistible to women, with a creative talent that would go on to make him rich.

Mad Men has been nearly as much about style as it has been about character, its authentic look mirroring a changing United States. But Don has always looked pretty much the same. Here, as the seventh season of the show reaches the 1970s, he’s a little more jowly, but, unlike Roger, he doesn’t bend to fashion with a kipper tie around his neck and a hairy-caterpillar moustache sneaking across his upper lip.

In his first scene he oozes sleaze as he talks models through a casting session. That’s who he is now. Hearing that Rachel Katz, an old lover whom he rejected, has died has an almost hallucinatory effect on him: he sees her in a dream, and a waitress in a grubby diner reminds him of her. In previous series that waitress would have been charmed by his attention – there would have been cocktails and glamour. Instead she charges him $100 for a quickie in a grotty alley. Later he visits Rachel’s apartment, where her family are sitting shiva. “She lived her life the way she wanted to live. She had everything,” Rachel’s sister pointedly tells Don. The screaming implications are that it has turned out exactly the opposite for Don and that it’s his own fault. Matt Weiner, the writer of the episode, isn’t subtle now, as if there’s no more time for that.

Peggy and Joan’s opening scene sees them at a client meeting, talking marketing strategy: they’re powerful career women now. At a later meeting with three ad men – “Catholic Irish Micks” – from McCann, their parent agency, they’re treated disgracefully, the air thick with overt sexism. They remain dignified: they’re used to it.

Peggy has a date, and they share a drunken fantasy of running off to Paris, but her passport, like her life, can’t be found in her apartment – it’s in her office – so that chance passes. Joan, enriched by the agency takeover – as with the other partners, all her material needs have been taken care of, raising the question of what next – soothes her upset after the meeting by shopping for a dress in a boutique where an assistant recognises her as having worked there years before.

Ken, the account executive – but, since the first series, really a frustrated writer – talks yearningly about the “life not lived”. Then, when he’s fired, and it looks as if he might fulfil his dream, he’s sucked back in and takes a job at Dow Chemical.

There are six more episodes to go in the final series of this influential, compulsive drama that has made stars of all its leads. Weiner has said that each will be like a finale. The opening one has been a terrific beginning of the end.

Viewers of UTV Ireland scanning the listings for something new and half decent to watch this week may have felt some frustration. Code of a Killer (Monday), a tantalising drama, was available on UTV in Northern Ireland and near the Border. UTV Ireland viewers had to make do with another creaky repeat in its place.

The two-part drama is an interesting mix of TV types – the academic biopic and the police procedural – with a top cast. More intriguingly, it’s based on a true story.

In 1984 a university scientist named Alec Jeffreys (John Simm) discovered DNA fingerprinting. His technique got its first use in a criminal case soon afterwards, when a veteran detective chief superintendent, David Baker (David Threlfall), spotted an article about the discovery in a local newspaper and saw its potential. Their collaboration resulted in the apprehension of a double murderer in Leicestershire.

In this week’s first part the stories of the hunt for scientific discovery and the hunt for a killer run separately. Simm does well with a fairly two-dimensional character. With heavy-handed exposition via his long-suffering wife, Jeffrey is every beardy bit the cliched distracted scientist. She phones the lab to tell him that his dinner’s in the dog, and there’s that well-worn shorthand for a work obsessive: he misses his child’s school play.

He explains his work to his students – and to viewers who aren’t, in fact, so clueless about DNA – in the simplest language. Inside everybody there’s “a secret code”, he says. “They look like those supermarket bar codes.”

The policing part of the story is on familiar retro-drama territory. Through a fug of cigarette smoke in the incident room – a 1980s signpost like the snatch of Karma Chameleon and the Ford Capri – Baker is failing to find the killer of a teenage girl. He is dogged and decent and hit hard when the killer strikes again. Threlfall presents a nuanced character, revealed best when talking to the dead girls’ parents.

The two men don’t properly come together until towards the end of the episode, which is a good call by its writer, Michael Crompton, otherwise Code of a Killer could have spun into a standard senior-copper-and-his-sidekick drama.

Even though I know how it ends – it’s a landmark case – I want to see next week how the story moves along, with these two fine actors playing characters I haven’t seen them play before. The catch-a-killer tension missing from part one will also, presumably, kick in. There’s a fine supporting cast, including Lorcan Cranitch as Baker’s tetchy old-school colleague.

Fans of Vera (Sunday) who were also switched to UTV Ireland will have been disappointed that the new series began without them on UTV. Others will be happy to avoid the improbable police drama, which has, puzzlingly, been recommissioned. Brenda Blethyn’s eccentric chief is back with even more stare-eyed stomping-around theatrical tics than last season. Vera is such an unbelievable character: could such a woman ever make it to the top of a police force? This jars in a drama that presents itself as very real.

This first episode concerns the investigation of a murder in a caravan park. The plot is so rambling and flabby that when the killer is revealed I’m so bored I can’t make myself care.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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