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Mad Men Commentary: Episode 508 Lady Lazarus
Sylvia Plath makes a cameo appearance in this week’s episode of Mad Men, if only obliquely – contributing the title, Lady Lazarus, from a posthumously published poem. Plath died at 30, a contemporary of the younger set at SCDP, separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes. At first glance, the title seems to merely point to Pete Campbell’s state of mind, thwarted once again by an unavailable woman. But the title may also reference Megan Draper’s resurrection from the despair of office work, liberated to once again pursue a career in the theatre.
The episode opens with Pete on his way to work, reading on the train. His friend Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke) takes the seat opposite him and flops down, complaining about a slow month of insurance sales. Pete has been bracing for a pitch from this guy and cuts him off at the pass, letting Howard know that SCDP has taken a policy out on him that pays six times his salary. He tags this with a curious bit of specificity. “After two years, it covers suicide.” Howard assures Pete that the policy isn’t what he thinks, but backs off, leaving Pete to sort it out over some sleepless nights.
Insurance aside, Howard brags about his new mistress, whom he shacks up with in an apartment he keeps in the city for nights when he has to “work late.” Pete, scandalized, asks if he isn’t afraid of getting caught. Howard brushes off the concern. He’s providing a good life for his wife. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Howard has lit the fuse to two of Pete’s major insecurities: a) a feeling of not being treated with respect at work and b) jealousy over not getting what everyone else is getting (in this case, a girl on the side). It’s odd how, on the surface, Pete has everything in the world going his way: an ascendant career, a beautiful wife, healthy child, a nice home in the suburbs. But it’s not enough. Something is missing. Like Don in his new role as happy husband, Pete is doing all the right things, but they don’t satisfy. There’s no authenticity – nothing deep – and thus no real satisfaction.
At the office, Megan receives a mysterious call and sneaks out to talk on a pay phone. On the way out, she passes the conference room, where Don and Ginsberg and Stan are pitching Chevalier Blanc, a men’s cologne. Ginsberg is doing the presentation, a take on The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.
There’s an interesting conversation at the end of the pitch. The client loves the concept, but worries about the music. The Beatles are impossible to get, he’s been told, but Stan says not to worry, that there are a million bands that sound like the Beatles. Matthew Weiner has run into the same issues in clearing music for Mad Men, and in fact, The New York Times reported that Weiner paid $250,000 for the use of the Beatles song Tomorrow Never Knows. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the client leaves, Don and Ginsberg and Stan talk about the music. Don’s worried about finding the right piece of music, but doesn’t speak that language. He asks the guys what they think, and they start listing a string of bands that, to Don’s ears, was as comprehensible as Megan’s mother’s French. He cuts them off and tells them that Megan will tell him what to do.
The sight of Roger Sterling is always a good thing, and he brings a welcome bit of levity to the episode, summoning Pete to his office to offer a gift – two sets of brand new skis, courtesy of Head, a potential new account. Pete doesn’t trust the gesture, and pauses at the door, cautiously testing Roger. “Do they explode?” he asks. Roger explains that the head of the company asked for Pete by name over lunch. “You’re building quite a name for yourself,” Roger says. Still not trusting Roger, Pete asks him why he’s telling him these things. Roger says he’s happy to sit back and count the money as Pete brings in the business. Satisfied, Pete helps himself to Roger’s gift, taking both pairs of skis. Roger, as always, tags the scene. “And I got to see that,” he says, as Pete fumbles with two sets of skis and poles.
Is Roger up to something? Why has he paired Pete up with this “Schmoe from Lutherville, Maryland”? If nothing else, the scene is a perfect illustration of Pete’s infantile nature, and how easily he is swayed from one emotional state (fear & mistrust) to another (pleasure & self-entitlement). It was the great poet John Cougar Mellencamp who once wrote that a man who doesn’t stand for something is “gonna fall for anything.” Indeed.
At day’s end, Megan pops into Don’s office as he’s leaving for a client dinner. He asks her to join him, but she declines, saying she has work to do. “When did music become so important?” he asks. “It’s always been important,” she says. “I mean, jingles, yeah, but everybody keeps coming in, looking for some song. And they’re so specific.” He’s so confused by the cultural shifts that are taking place, exclaiming finally that he has no idea what’s going on out there. Megan shoos him off to his dinner, and as soon as she closes his office door, a worried expression replaces her smile. What else does Don not know about?
Pete is working late. Well, not exactly. He has a drink at his desk, and though it’s never identified, the folio on his desk looks like the details of an insurance policy. I’m betting that Howard was right about Pete’s insurance – that it does more for the SCDP family than the Campbell family. Finally, he gathers his things, as well as his skis, and runs into Peggy on his way out. She teases him about his skis, and he explains that they’re a gift from a client. When Peggy comments that it’s good that a client is giving “us” a present, Pete corrects her. “They’re giving me gifts, and they haven’t even met me.” He’s so insecure.
The moment Pete disappears, Megan strolls into the break room, wearing a different dress from the one she wore at work. “I thought we were working?” Peggy asks. Megan lies, telling her that Don called her away to his dinner. The scene is a small, nearly throw-away moment, but it’s another example of how intricately the pieces of each episode fit together. This moment between Peggy and Megan hits on many dynamics that drive them and the themes of the episode and season. When Megan explains her summons from Don, Peggy snaps back – “There’s nothing I can do about that, I guess.” Megan tells her she can go home, but Peggy is unsatisfied with some copy they’ve been working on. When Peggy complains about it, Megan reminds her that it’s exactly as Peggy dictated. In that exchange, we get Megan’s unhappiness with her job, Peggy’s jealousy/annoyance with Megan’s favored-nation-status with Don, as well as Peggy’s need to overcompensate for any lack of talent with workaholism. It’s well written and well played.
Pete nearly makes it home with his skis when a woman in the parking lot of the train station approaches him. It’s Beth Dawes (Alexis Bledel, from Gilmore Girls), Howard’s wife. She’s there to pick him up, but he’s not coming home. She’s locked herself out of the car, and asks Pete for a ride home.
Pete finds himself in the position of having to cover for his friend, and he does a poor job of it. He also does a poor job of driving, calling back to another awkward encounter with a pretty young lady. Beth figures him to be from the city, and launches into a mopey diatribe about how sad it is, with all the hobos, etc. (Pete’s response to the hobos – “There’s not that many” – is hilariously out of touch).
This scene is intercut with a scene between Don and Peggy. He’s home alone, drunkish, and he calls the office, looking for Megan. Peggy answers the phone and quickly realizes that Megan has lied to them both and brushes Don off.
Back at the Dawes residence, Beth confronts Pete, asking him if it’s harder to lie to her now that he knows her. She says that Howard doesn’t care whether she’s alive or dead, and gets out of the car. Rather than warning him away, the red flags that pop-up around this girl only serve to inflame Pete’s passion. They’re a lot alike, these two. He follows her to the house, and they end up doing it on the living room floor.
Cut to Peggy, typing copy. The phone rings. She knows it’s Don. She picks up the phone. Yep, it’s Don, but she says nothing. “Peggy?” Don asks. After a beat, Peggy shouts “Pizza House” is a bad accent and hangs up on him. When he calls back, she ignores the phone and packs up for the night, unable to lie for Megan the way Pete did for Howard.
Pete and Beth lie on the floor, breathing heavily. They are flushed. This is the only way Pete can feel anything, it seems. Pete asks her to say something, and she says that she’s been getting attention from men since before it was appropriate and that no one has ever been interested in hearing what she has to say about anything. It’s a sad admission that must have struck a nerve with Pete, whose father treated him much the same way. She tells him that the irises of his eyes remind her of photographs of the earth, taken from outer space. Pete, ever looking for validation, says he’ll take the remark as a compliment, but she bursts his bubble by going on to say that those photographs make her feel unprotected and surrounded by darkness. Pete’s only response to this is, “So, you don’t like my eyes?”
The spell broken, Beth buttons her blouse and tells Pete he has to leave and that this can never happen again. He’s confused, but he leaves.
When Megan finally makes it home, Don’s waiting for her, slurred by drink. He tells her about the conversation with Peggy, and Megan explains that she had to lie to her to get away for drinks with friends. Good story, but she’s changed back into her work dress. She’s lying. She’s not a good liar, either. It’s written all over her face, but Don either doesn’t notice or doesn’t want to know the truth.
The next morning, Don and Megan and Peggy ride up on the elevator together. Peggy nearly squirms from the discomfort she feels, and when they get to the office, she follows Megan into the ladies and laces into her for putting her in a bad position. Peggy lists two cardinal sins committed by Megan. The first is the lost night of work, due to the stress and worry of having to lie to Don. The second, and more important of the sins, is the position of having to lie to Don. Peggy just can’t do it. Regardless of how jacked-up their relationship may be, she reveres him like a father and hates to disappoint or betray him. And she deeply resents being put in a position to do just that.
Megan cuts her off and tells her the truth – that she wants to return to the theatre. Megan explains that she fantasizes about quitting. If she’s looking for sympathy, she’s barking up the wrong tree. Peggy’s expression, once she realizes what Megan is saying is priceless. She can’t fathom the idea that she wouldn’t want to do this job. She reminds Megan that there are people dying for the opportunity to work there, bottom-lining it for her succinctly – “You’re taking up a spot, and you don’t even want to do it?” Peggy is beside herself. She wisely tells Megan that she can’t keep lying to Don, but Megan, cornered and judged, insults her. Peggy tells her she doesn’t care what she does and leaves.
Right after that, there’s a meeting with Don, Ken, Stan, and Peggy. Don asks about Megan, and Peggy says she won’t be there. Right after she says those words, Megan walks in, and they start the meeting – a skull session about how to pitch Cool Whip. Don and Megan have made up a scene, where she’s a wife trying to get her husband to try this new dessert topping – Cool Whip. After some coaxing, Don and Megan do the scene for the gang. Don loves doing it, and the chemistry between him and Megan is undeniable. It’s very cute, but Peggy is annoyed and jealous, blurting out the tagline “Just taste it,” but saying “Just taste it, already” in a put-upon tone. She asks if Megan and Don are going to be in the commercial. Ken says no. Peggy pushes the point, asking who’s not interested. Megan jumps in, saying she and Don aren’t interested. Don has that dopey smile on his face, pleased with himself, but he senses Peggy’s negativity and asks if she liked it. She admits that it’s a good ad, but says she’s still digesting it.
Pete can’t shake this Beth Dawes. He calls her one morning from the pay phone outside the SCDP offices, demanding that the meet him in the city. She won’t have anything to do with him, encouraging him to hang onto the fantasy but to stop calling her.
Nighttime at the Draper’s finds Megan unable to sleep. Don is out cold. She wakes him, and confesses to her lie. It’s a tender gesture, and rather than using the lie against her, Don asks a series of questions, trying to understand where she’s going with this news. As Megan gets closer to the big question, Don tells her, “sometimes we don’t’ get to choose where our talents lie. What you did with Heinz, it took me years to think that way.” She bats away this response. “Okay. So what do you want to do?” Don asks. She tells him that advertising will never be to her what it is for him. He offers to help her get on with another agency, to get around any kind of nepotism thing she’s dealing with. Finally, she tells him. “I don’t want to do it.” Like Peggy, Don is taken aback. “You don’t want to do it?” he asks, stunned and probably hurt. She apologizes, explaining that since she was a little girl, this has been her dream. “I don’t want to keep you from your dream,” Don tells her, offering to get her out of SCDP after one more day. She can’t believe her luck – or Don’s response – and showers Don with affection.
It’s a tender scene, shot in darkness and whispers, giving it a conspiratorial air. It’s superbly acted. Jessica Pare convincingly conveys Megan’s sense of expecting something horrible from Don, and when it doesn’t happen, her sense of relief is palpable. Similarly, Jon Hamm’s growing sense of clarity about what is taking place is heartbreaking. He really seems to need her at the office. Thinking of the joy with which he acted out the Cool Whip skit, it’s not hard to imagine the disappointment and hurt that will accompany her absence at the office.
But Don is a champ…for now. He does it all right, saying the right words, even if he doesn’t mean them. The scene ends with her climbing into the bed and snuggling up to Don. The shot is nearly identical to the one of them in bed at the end of season 4, with Don wide awake and thinking while she slips off into happy slumber. Am I the only one waiting for the other shoe to drop?
The next morning, Don slips into Joan’s office, looking for advice on the protocol of Megan’s departure. Joan fishes for gossip, but Don assures her there is none. Satisfied, she tells Don she’ll handle it with a lunch with just the girls.
Megan attempts to tell Peggy, Ginsberg, and Stan the news, but breaks down crying, melting away Peggy’s hard-assed façade. Ginsberg and Stan ignore her, as usual, and Peggy yells at them to get their attention. Sobbing, she apologizes and tells them she won’t be working there anymore. The reactions are great. Ginsberg: “Did her fire you? The son-of-a-bitch!” Megan laughs and says it’s not that. She explains her desire to return to acting. Stan: [laughing] “Are you kidding me?” Peggy cuts him off before anymore insults escape his mouth. Chastened, the guys wish her the best, but not before Ginsberg goes on a jag of questions about whether actors wear their own clothing and shoes.
Megan thanks Peggy for all she’s done for her, including the tough-love from the day before, which was what motivated her to overcome her fear of Don and confess the lie. Megan leaves, and the guys fall into wrong-headed speculation about the real reason she’s leaving. They don’t get it. Peggy can only say that it took a lot of guts for her to leave. Was remark inwardly directed? Peggy has had at least one opportunity to leave the agency and make her own mark, out from under Don’s shadow. As ambitious as she is, she must wonder how she’d do without his tutelage and protection…and persecution.
Harry drops in on Pete, having been told the news by Joan. Pete’s reaction disappoints Harry. He asks Pete if he’s shocked. “No.” “What about Don?” Harry asks. Pete launches into a rant that seems to be about the Drapers, but is really about Beth and her treatment of Pete. He bitches about how “they” turn it off and on, how “they” keep one waiting at attention. He’s gotten himself all balled up over this woman.
Pete asks Harry about the photographs of earth, taken from outer space. “Do they make you feel small and insignificant?” “No. Jennifer does that,” Harry says, a classic remark aimed at this long-suffering wife. Pete continues: “Why don’t they give you a glimmer of hope in the midst of rejection? A little thread to hang onto. A suggestion of the future. In a court of law, it would look like an accident, but it’s not.” It’s a cryptic remark. Harry, confused, confirms that Pete’s not talking about Trudy or Megan Draper. “Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?” Pete asks. Harry shrugs and tells Pete that they just do, that’s all. And he leaves.
What’s Pete getting at with that comment about accidents and courts of law? The level of desperation Pete is feeling reminds me of Don’s, way back in season 1, when Pete was threatening to blow the lid on his true identity. Don was fooling around with Rachel Menken, and when Pete made his threat, Don ran to Rachel, begging her to run off with him. He wanted to flee from his life, his problems. Similarly, Pete seeks escape from the life he has built for himself, and he’s pinning his escape fantasy on a hurt, mixed-up housewife who is also stuck in the burbs. But Beth Dawes is no Rachel Menken, as we’ll soon see.
Don walks Megan to the elevator, as she prepares to meet the girls from the office for her farewell luncheon. When she says she’ll be back to pick up her box of personal possessions, he tells her he’ll take care of it, sparing her the discomfort of another tearful goodbye. He’s making all the right moves, and she rewards him with a long, sincere kiss. As the door closes, she gives him a girlish wave. Standing there, he hits the button to call another car. The bell rings, and he walks to the open door, and something weird happens. There’s no car. It’s just an empty elevator shaft. Don steps to the threshold and peers into the shaft. It was a malfunction. Did Don nearly step over the edge to his death? What’s the metaphor? Is it symbolic of her leaving and him stuck? Foreshadowing? If so, then what? Does it go back to my wife’s prediction that the guy falling in the show titles is actually Don committing his last act in the show? Who knows? But it’s a chilling moment, one that sends Don to his mini-bar.
Don’s drink is interrupted by Ken, Stan, and Ginsberg. Rick, from Chevalier Blanc, found a song that is Beatlesy enough for the commercial – September In The Rain. Don can’t distinguish it from The Beatles, but Ginsberg has a violent reaction to the song, demanding that it be turned off. Ken asks Stan and Ginsberg to give him and Don a moment. Alone, Ken asks Don about the Cool Whip pitch. Now that Megan is no longer with the firm, Ken wants to know how to proceed with the skit. Don says that Peggy will fill in for Megan.
On the train ride home, Pete sits with Howard and finagles a visit to Howard’s house, pretending to be interested in buying insurance. Howard is all for it, sure that his wife won’t mind the intrusion. Once they arrive, Pete seizes a brief moment when he’s alone with Beth to slip her a note and steal a kiss. She’s overwhelmed, and disappears to the kitchen at her first opportunity. She calls Howard in to talk. Pete goes for his coat as Howard comes back from the kitchen. He’s in trouble, he says, and that Pete owes it to him to stay and eat. Howard hasn’t a clue.
As Joan is leaving, she runs into Peggy and tells her they missed her at lunch. Peggy explains that she’d like to do her own lunch with Megan. Joan slips into gossip-mode, but Peggy’s feeling guilty and confesses to feeling as though she’s run Megan off. Joan brushes aside her worry, explaining that Megan is a typical second wife for a man like Don – a failing artist married to a rich man. Peggy defends Megan, saying she thinks she’s one of those girls who does everything well. Joan’s response is classic – “Then you had every right to be hard on her.” She goes on to compare Megan to Betty – the model and the actress. “That’s the kind of girl Don marries,” she explains. I re-watched that last line by Joan many times, trying to decide whether she was aiming that line at Peggy, somehow. I don’t think she was. I guess it’s aimed at Don, and what he’s after.
Don arrives home from work to find Megan cooking in the kitchen, barefooted. She’s surprised at his graciousness, and he assures her that he’s fine. She tells him she loves him, and that he’s everything she hoped he’d be. His response? “You too.” Hmmm. Really?
The next day, Don and Peggy and Ken go to the General Foods laboratory and stink up the joint with their Cool Whip skit. Peggy keeps flubbing her lines, screwing up the slogan. Don corrects her, mid-skit, but they never come close to the chemistry Don shares with Megan. Afterwards, as their contact tries to salvage things with the decision-maker, Don and Peggy erupt into a fight. It’s there that we see what’s really going on inside Don’s head. He takes out his disappointment on her, blaming her for screwing up the skit and being, basically, a bad influence (too cynical) on his poor, sweet wife. It’s a childish argument that ends when Peggy calls Don out. She tells him that she’s not the one he’s mad at and to shut up. He does.
At Howard and Beth’s, Pete handed Beth instructions to meet him at a hotel in the city. He holds up his end of the bargain, but she never shows, and he leaves the hotel defeated and angry.
Roger shows up at Don’s office to find Don on the couch, having a drink. Roger has heard the news. He’s probably also heard about Cool Whip. Like Don, he can’t understand this younger generation and their dreams. Don underscores the generation gap by referring to his depression-era upbringing, where his dream was of indoor plumbing. Finally, Don gets philosophical, asking Roger why she shouldn’t do what she wants. He says he doesn’t want her to end up like Betty, or worse, like Megan’s mom. Ouch. “You’ve got to go home,” Roger says. “Let her know there’s a routine. It’ll keep you both out of trouble…Mona’s dad told me that.” Ah, Roger.
Don does go home, in time to catch her as she’s leaving for class. She’s picked up a copy of Revolver for him, a lesson on what’s going on in this world of his that’s being overrun by young people with dreams and messages. They kiss, and she leaves him to The Beatles.
He puts the album on, cues the song, kicks off his shoes, then takes his drink and sits in his easy chair as Tomorrow Never Knows plays. It’s so odd to see Don Draper, a guy who would have felt comfortable with the Rat Pack, lounging with Revolver.
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…
As the song plays, the show closes with a montage of Peggy, Pete, and Megan.
Peggy is working late, as usual, with Stan, who hands her a joint. She takes a drag and inhales.
…That you may see the meaning of within…
Pete walks to his car, parked at the train station. Next to him, Howard gets into the driver’s side of his car. Beth scoots over to the passenger side. She glances over at Pete, who looks shell-shocked. And this is where she’s different from Rachel Menken. Rachel drove Don from her life, once she saw his true colors. Beth, on the other hand, looks at Pete, and as she does, she draws a heart in the steam on her window. Once
she sees that he’s seen it, she rolls down her window, then rolls it back up, erasing this token that will surely string him along a little longer – but to what effect?
…that love is all and love is everyone…
Megan lies on the floor at school, participating in an exercise with other students. Her eyes closed, her body relaxed.
Next, we see the album spinning. Don picks up the needle and shuts off the music, either not liking or not understanding what he’s heard. He shuffles off to the bedroom, and as soon as he disappears, the episode fades to black. And as soon as it does, the music resumes. Don can ignore The Beatles, but the change they symbolize can’t be stopped.
In Plath’s Lady Lazarus, a reference is made to the mythological Phoenix, who rose from the ashes. Who will roll with the change and be transformed, and who will fall by the wayside, unable or unwilling to adapt to a world that’s been turned upside down?
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