Mad Men 5×08: “Lady Lazarus”

I enjoy Mad Men’s forays into poetry, and with a title like “Lady Lazarus,” my English Major wheels started turning.  So when I was a junior in high school I wrote a paper on Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”  I got the highest score my teacher gave anyone on any paper all year, 50/50 points.  This was a paper I handed in to colleges as a writing sample.  This is an achievement I think about from time to time (it very well could have been the first time I decided , but what’s kind of weird is that after I watched this episode (while I began listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows” fifteen times in a row on repeat) was re-read the poem.  And I didn’t remember any of it.  So in addition to trying to root out the significance of this week’s title in my mind (needless to say, I didn’t consult my 11th grade analytical self beyond realizing “oh shit I did write about this poem”), I am further disturbed by my inability to remember writing about this poem when I continue to think about the graded version of the essay.  I don’t wanna get all braggy (I may or may not be drinking a Manhattan as I write this), but I was one of the only self-identified feminists at my high school and I was a rabid Nirvana fan who loved “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (not to mention I lived to be a “misery chick”).  Therefore, I am shocked not to remember this last stanza of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

I should have eaten that shit up with a spoon.  But I digress…

We start again with Pete on the train and his philandering train-friend Howard, who is a life insurance salesman.  “I already have life insurance,” Pete tells him.  “It came with my junior partnership.  And it’s six times my annual salary and after two years it covers suicide.”  There has been some speculation that Pete will die this season.  I think (read: I hope) that because the show brings up the possibility up, it won’t manifest itself.  I don’t think Pete has the spine when it comes right down to it, and I also think Mad Men is skilled at misdirection in manners such as these—remember when Guy what’s-his-name was supposed to be the British version of Don and he didn’t even last an episode?  This episode doesn’t make Pete appear quie as pathetic as he did in “Signal 30”:  Thanks to Magical Zen Roger’s post-LSD attitude, he’s pretty much relented on his war with Pete for clients and Pete can take the lead as Account Man.

But then Pete meets Howard’s super sad wife, Beth, at the train station.  I can’t tell what I think about her.  I think Alexis Bledel is incredibly pretty and it’s nice to see her away from the rest of the Gilmore Girls.  The AV Club viewer wasn’t sure her acting skills are on par with the rest of the show…and she kind of sounds like a brunette Betty Draper but you can tell the character has depth.  But she really gets under Pete’s skin.  He tries to bring up their weirdly existential pillow talk to Harry.  In a Pete Campbell Creepy Creepster Move, he tricks Howard into taking him home so he can sneak a kiss with Beth and slip a note to meet him at a hotel. In a list of creepy Pete actions, this is at least in the top 5, behind trying to get his Driver’s Ed classmate to “explore the botanical gardens” and coercing the German nanny into sex.  But she doesn’t meet him.

The main storyline is Megan Following Her Dreams.  You may recall that I wondered at the end of my last post if “At the Codfish Ball” would prove to be a game changer.  It seems like I was kind of correct in this manner.  I suppose unless Megan turns out to be part of some sort of secret cult or something (although I’m pretty sure that shot at the end was a real acting class), there wasn’t more to Emile’s “you gave up your dream” lecture beyond acting (e.g., Megan is not a secret communist).  Megan really wants to be an actress and she really doesn’t want to do advertising.  It’s not that Megan thinks advertising is difficult (as Peggy assumes), but that it’s too easy (as Peggy learns).  This clearly hits both Don and Peggy right where they live.  Don seems like a natural at advertising (except in “The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), but he clearly works at it—and the campaigns frequently tie in with the plot of the episode and this season has made it increasingly clear that the increasingly powerful youth culture of the 1960s is becoming inaccessible to Don, our ever-aging hero.

Don almost needs Megan to be in advertising.  She’s 25 and educated and she’s hip—hipper than Peggy, who can’t be more than two years older than her.  She has Revolver waiting for him when she gets home, or she remembers the name of the Rolling Stones’ song Mr. Heinz’s daughter is obsessed with.  After their slam-dunk with Heinz last week, they’re about to be a Cool Whip super couple.  From a viewer’s standpoint, I’m glad Don and Megan will finally be getting their own lives.  I need some breathing room from their marriage.  I can’t take any more HoJo moments.

Will Megan be successful in her acting venture?  Of course we’ll find out as the season goes on, but I’m truly very curious—the first time I care about Megan, like, at all.  I find myself torn between Joan’s and Peggy’s predictions about Megan.  Quoth Joan, “She’s going to be a failing actress with a rich husband.”  She cites Betty’s former career as a model.  Peggy retorts: “No.  I think she’s good at everything.  I think she’s just one of those girls.”  I think the show has made Megan so that she could go down either path just as easily as the other—it’s like Inception or “The Turn of the Screw.”   It could really go either way.  I think that if it’s good, it will be good for the Draper marriage.  Megan is creepily domestic after her last day.  And if it’s bad….it will be horrid.

The elevator shaft scene was the stuff of nightmares.  (I should mention that I read the novel Invisible Monsters in high school, which is about a model whose jaw was severed by a partially-open window in a car accident and I have never, ever rolled my window halfway down since.  I will now always check elevators.)  I was texted briefly about it with a friend—it’s obviously only there to beat you over the head with Symbolic Importance.  But Don looking down into an empty elevator shaft he may have gotten into is just so goddamn effective to me.  Why did he push the button to go down?  Was he going to lunch on his own?  Was he trying to follow Megan and the universe was like “Ah hell nah”?  Personally, I can’t imagine Don trying to follow Megan downstairs after their goodbyes—he wouldn’t want to be at that lunch.  It would be too on-the-nose if it were Pete looking down the elevator shaft, but  I will continue to think about it.

This is a good Don and Peggy episode.  Peggy gets caught in the middle of Don and Megan’s marriage and their careers because Megan lies to her about attending her call-back and of course Don calls the office (btw I fucking loved “PIZZA HAUS”).  When they go through their bit in front of the Cool Whip executives, they fail miserably.  Once they leave the room Peggy’s perspective is “She thinks advertising is stupid” while Don’s is that Megan found her co-workers “cynical and petty.”  I think that what the audience is shown leads us to side with Peggy and Don is just back in the cycle of stepping on Peggy, which we saw in Season Three and Four.

We get hit over the head with the music in this episode, which is just fine with me.  We start with the campaign-of-the-week: Chevalier Blanc, apparently some kind of clothing company that wants to rip off Hard Day’s Night.  But of course, “no one can get the Beatles” to do their advertisements—they way they couldn’t get the Stones to do it in “Tea Leaves.”   When Chevalier Blanc sends over the song they want, it sounds tinny, dated.  Ginsberg remarks: “Are you kidding me?” about the selection, while Don says, “Why am I listening to this?  You know we can’t get the Beatles.”  Rizzo has to tell him “It’s not the Beatles” and Ginsberg insists “This song’s like thirty years old.”  It took me until the second viewing of this episode to realize he was using hyperbole (ding ding ding! English major points!).  The song does sound old and I found myself mad at Don for not realizing it.  Whatever song that is doesn’t hold a candle even to “Hard Day’s Night” (my personal favorite off The Beatles’ 1 in the year 2000).  And of course, by the end of the episode, we know that the “Hard Days’ Night” Beatles aren’t even those Beatles anymore.  I took the trouble of transcribing Don and Megan’s conversation about music:

Don: “Hey, let me ask you something: when did music become so important?”

Megan: “It’s always been important.”

D:”I mean, jingles, yeah.  Now everybody comes in looking for some song.  They’re so specific.”

M: “You love specific.”

D: “But I have no idea what’s going on out there.”

M: “Well. No one can keep up.  It’s always changing.”

I don’t think there’s a significant moment in Mad Men where Don connects with music (maybe the performance of “Babylon” in Season One’s…uh…”Babylon”).  If you remember, at some point in Season 2, Smitty (of Kurt and Smitty, the Ambiguously Gay Duo!) worked with Don to make a coffee jingle, but I’m not sure Don understands the power of rock ‘n’ roll, man.  Clearly Megan can keep up.

I want to talk about the montage set to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last song on The Beatles’ Revolver.  It sounds totally cheesy, but I really connected with that moment.  It hit me like a punch in the gut or something.  Don sits in his ultra-modern apartment and tries to absorb it.  Peggy smokes some weed in the writers’ room with Rizzo.  Pete gets a devastating wink from Beth as she draws and heart on the window fog for him at the train station and then erases it.  Megan does some sort of exercise in her acting class, her black clothing giving her the appearance of a disembodied head and arm.  Sometimes Mad Men plays with music that’s ahead of its time, the two most obvious examples being “Maidenform” with the Decemberists’ “The Infanta” and “The Wheel” with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”  This might be the first time the music has been contemporary but has felt ahead of its time.  It’s jarring to see Don there in the same outfit he’s warn since the pilot with the same discerning look drinking the same drink and have him listen to something that sounds so revolutionary.  And yet, Don cuts the song off before it’s even over, after the lyrics “love is all and love is everyone/ it is knowing, it is knowing.”  And he just goes to bed, while we all know Pete, Peggy, and Megan have a long night ahead.  I think before Don would have embraced the newness of the sound—or if not embraced it, at least figured out a way to manipulate it toward.  I think of Don at the beginning of Season Three (right?) talking about how everyone in California is full of hope, turning what he extracted in Season 2’s “The Jet Set” and “The Mountain King” and using it to look ahead in his field.  Now he just seems tired.  I found myself wanting to yell “Come on, man!” at Don.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve figured out the title thing all figured out.  But what I do notice is that like “Lady Lazarus” the poem, “Lady Lazarus” the episode of Mad Men has so much to do with spectacle.  The argument has been made before that the show is about exposing the fraudulent nature of the mythical American Dream (yeah yeah, citation needed, but it’s been said, trust me).  When I look back and read Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” there is a huge focus on performance within the poem with the overwhelming sense that the audience is controlling the spectacle.  Maybe audiences always control a spectacle to the point where the speaker of the poem is almost expected to live up to her suicidal label.  But what I want to say is that this episode does deal a lot with characters upset that some other specific character is standing in the way of their happiness, with that other character forcing them into one role.  Beth, to name one example, tells Pete she does not want to see him again and he laments to Harry how women call the shots; she has to keep up appearances to her husband and even to Trudy, who she could potentially run into.  Pete sees potential for himself to be something more than just a one-night stand for Beth, but she won’t allow it.  Megan doesn’t think she can talk to Don about quitting advertising and wanting to be an actress.  Cool Whip expects Don and Peggy to be Don and Megan and it just doesn’t work.

But the poem also has a lot of imagery regarding re-birth: the lines I quote above the cut invoke phoenix imagery, Lazarus himself was raised from the dead by Jesus.  At first I wanted to bring up music again here and talk about how the Beatles have reinvented themselves faster than Don (and his industry) can (or wants to) keep up.  But Plath’s speaker is not reinvented.  She is re-born the same.  Will everyone be stuck in a rut, then?  I’m excited to find out this weekend.

Stray thoughts: 

I didn’t get to Don and Roger’s talking about “kids these days,” but it was SO GOOD.

I wish I knew enough about the sixties to get into the history of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but as is referenced in one of the articles linked above, this is the second reference this season to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Not to mention John Lennon was reading said book ON LSD.

As always, I am desperate for comments on THIS BLOG so if you think my poetical analysis is b.s. or whatever, let me know.


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