Can you believe we’re already two-thirds through season five? As Pete’s high school crush said a few episodes ago, “Time feels like it’s speeding up.” In last night’s “Lady Lazarus,” Mad Men‘s cast of characters was forced to visit some unappetizing truths. Pete Campbell developed an unfortunate obsession with a pretty, discontented housewife. Peggy snarked and sniped at everyone – including Don. Megan had some ground-shaking news that was a surprise to few but forces Don to reevaluate. Abundant references to death make this yet another strange trip of an episode.
Pete Campbell has begun to spread his metaphorical wings – he comes home on the later train, spends time talking with the other commuters, and has become almost complacent in his self-imposed misery. But when Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke) mentions he has a “spectacular new side dish in the city,” Pete makes a mental note. “What does your wife think?” he asks Howard. “She’s happy knowing I’m providing for her!” Howard answers. (How little he knows, or wants to know.) When Pete debarks from the train by himself a few nights later, he encounters a very pretty young woman in a headscarf and bouffant. Beth Dawes, Howard’s wife, accidentally locked her keys in the car and knows Howard’s up to no good. Pete drives her home, and their mutual misery, their corresponding angst, drives them together in a sudden, disheveled, “reckless” mess. Mrs. Dawes (played with aplomb by Alexis Bledel, better known as Rory Gilmore) is preoccupied with all the sadness in the world, and compares Pete’s blue irises to the “tragic” photos of the earth from space. “This can’t happen again,” she says.
Meanwhile, Ginsberg pitches a “Hard Day’s Night” concept to Chevalier Blanc (the British Invasion is now so far under way that even the “Olds” know who the Beatles are). Since the Fab Four are quite literally impossible to get for commercials (and remained that way until Michael Jackson bought the rights to most of their material in 1984), Ginsberg spouts a list of bands that sound similar to the mop tops. Don dismisses him, running to ask Megan: “She’ll know” what band to pick, he says, which causes Stan and Ginsberg to trade an exasperated glance.
Speaking of the new Mrs. Draper, she’s been sneaking around, accepting secret phone calls for “Megan Calvet,” surreptitiously sneaking out, making Peggy lie to Don for her. It says something interesting about her character that I didn’t immediately assume she was cheating on Don – after all, everyone else on this show is a cheating cheater. After Emile’s harsh words last episode, Megan is rethinking her goals. She got a callback for a role in a play, and felt she couldn’t tell Don about it. “Oh right, because he’s the easiest person in the world to talk to,” she murmurs sarcastically after Peggy rips her a new one for forcing Peggy to lie. Megan wakes Don in the middle of the night to tell him she wants to quit SCDP to return to acting – and this is a tougher blow to Don than anything else she could’ve done, though he’s putting on a calm face.
As Joan points out to Peggy, Betty was a model when he first met her. Joan says, “That’s the kind of girl Don marries.” His reaction to Megan’s rejection of his trade makes me believe otherwise. That might’ve been the woman Don thought he wanted to marry years ago, but we all know Betty didn’t make him happy. In the hallway outside SCDP, he kisses Megan goodbye (this scene has an odd finality to it) and sends her off down the elevator. After pushing the call button himself, the next elevator dings politely and opens…to a gaping, empty elevator shaft. Don’s vertigo, his feeling of displacement, is illustrated brilliantly in the abyss.
When he walks into the apartment later to find Megan literally barefoot in the kitchen making beouf bourginon, he’s visibly disconcerted. Don, our man of the 1950s, actually wanted an independent wife, one who speaks for herself and holds her own in both the personal and professional worlds – and her sudden return to barefoot in the kitchen scares him a little. “Don’t get used to it,” she says, and follows up with a sweet, though bizarre, speech: “I love you, and you’re everything I hoped you’d be.” “You too,” Don says, and we see something strange and a little cool in his expression.
Peggy, who recognized herself in Megan after Megan’s triumph with Heinz last episode, takes Megan’s rejection even harder than Don. “I think she’ll be great. I think she’s just one of those girls,” she tells Joan (who, by the bye, is becoming quite the knowledgeable mother figure, the heart of SCDP nestled in her centralized office). Megan and Don, the Great Advertising Couple, were due at the Cool Whip test kitchen to pitch a commercial idea. Peggy is the easiest choice to replace Megan, but she doesn’t have the wifely rapport, nor the acting chops, and screws it up. Don starts to take it out on her, and she prompty waves a finger at him and yells, “You know what? You are not mad at me, so shut up!” Peggy and Don’s relationship is perhaps the most complex, intelligent, and ever-evolving on the show – and due to this Peggy’s possibly the only person in this office who can get away with telling Don Draper to shut up.
Stan brings in a record he thinks will be great for the “Hard Day’s Night” commercial, and Ginsberg remarks suddenly, “Turn it off! It’s like, piercing my f*&%ing heart.” That word is used so rarely on this show, Don even looks stunned and asks, “You’re cursing?” Don, ever the clueless one, thinks this knockoff band is the Beatles, and Megan educates him later, bringing him a copy of “Revolver.” (This is my favorite Beatles album!)
Don turns on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last song on Revolver, and we’re treated to a montage of the cast: Stan and Peggy pass a joint back and forth as they work diligently on the next big project; Pete climbs into his car at the station and stares forlornly as his one-time lover Beth draws a tiny heart in the condensation on the window before erasing it forever; Megan smiles as she lies in shavasana (corpse pose) on the floor in acting class. “Turn off your mind/relax and float downstream/it is not dying/it is not dying,” intones Lennon. Don, for whom this kind of emotional release is unheard of, turns off the song and lets in the sounds of the big city instead.
Speaking of dying, though, this episode is named after one of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems about suicide.
“Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”
From Megan’s corpse pose to Don’s wary look into the abyss, from Pete’s mention that his insurance covers suicide to Beth Dawes’s assertion that her husband wouldn’t care if she were alive or dead, death is the word of the week in the Mad Men universe.
Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is also about the Holocaust, about Jewish history. The show has been focusing on Jewish culture more in this season than any before; Ginsberg told Peggy about being born in a concentration camp, Jane spoke Hebrew while she was tripping. Those things and the opening lines from the poem make it hard to believe Weiner’s not making a point:
“A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
What’s your take on these details? Do you think all these references to death are an omen? How did you feel about this week’s episode? Share in the comments!