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MAD MEN RECAP 7: LADY LAZARUS

Television
by Deborah Lipp
May 7, 2012 1:22 AM
21 Comments
  • |

But listen to the color of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving.

--The Beatles, "Tomorrow Never Knows."

In the Season 2 episode of Mad Men called A Night to Remember, Betty needs, finally, to confront Don. She wakes him in the middle of the night. It's a stark moment of deep revelation (discussed in our video essay for Season 2), made more so by Betty's pale, unmade-up face. It's the beginning of the end of Don and Betty's marriage.

At the halfway point of last night's Mad Men, Lady Lazarus, Megan wakes Don in the middle of the night. Her vulnerability is accentuated by her unmade-up face. It's a conversation that will change their marriage. (Watch the video below.)

Betty confronted Don about his lying, and though he claimed to love her, he lied all the way through. When Megan confronts Don about her own lying, Don, somehow, is open to listening, although only in pieces. At first they speak at cross-purposes; he truly believes that she wants to work in advertising and will be happy doing it. He sees her talent. Nothing she says persuades him, but, remarkably, she holds her ground.

No one has an accurate perception of Megan's decision. We know that Megan was unhappy at work, that she wasn't nearly as thrilled with her Heinz win as she had a right to be, that her father's visit had rekindled her desire to fulfill her acting dreams. Peggy's snapping at her that the job would be precious to someone else probably moved her to decide. It's pretty clear that she's been afraid to face Don down, but this is what she wants. Yet Don blames Peggy for jealousy and competitiveness, Peggy blames herself for being too hard on Megan, Joan sees Megan's love as gold-digging, Stan sees it as an escape from the compromise and mediocrity of advertising: In other words, they all see themselves in the situation.

As people hear about Megan, they all see their own dreams and disappointments. Don dreams of material success and security, climbing past the back stabbers into recognition; Peggy dreams of doing everything right and having it be rewarded, Stan dreams of artistic recognition, and Joan dreams of a husband who will financially nourish his wife's dreams rather than abandon her.

Pete, too, has a dream. His dreams are sweetly, dangerously romantic. In past episodes, we've noted how Pete is turning into Don—the life in the suburbs he hates, the wife he becomes alienated from, the life lived through business success that brings no emotional rewards. Here's another aspect of Don: He was never really into the casual affairs. Roger was always happy to dip his wick into redheaded twins, or whores, or whoever happened by, but Don fell in love with Rachel, he fell in love with Suzanne, and he left Midge when he realized she loved someone else. Pete, like Don, wants the love dream. He wants a romantic ideal to fill the gaps in his marriage, just as Don did when married to Betty.

Pete wants to love Beth. (Check out their hot first encounter below.) He wants to feel he has her ("I have nothing," he said in the "Previously On" clip). He wants a sense that dreams have been restored to his life.

Beth leaves Pete with a dream. "This can never happen again," she says, and she means it. He feels brutalized by this rejection and does everything he can to fight it, to reject the rejection, but she stands firm. Pete's romance is all by itself when it's a hotel room and a bottle of chilled champagne. But if it's silent longing, if it's fantasy and secret hearts left on windows like a hobo code, she's all in. She just wants the dream.

When we see the layers of secrets and lying, the codes and conspiracies, we know we're firmly in Mad Men territory. These aren't themes of the episode or even the season, they're themes of the series. Two different phone calls this week at the same pay booth make very clear how important secrets are to this show, even as Don gives relatively less attention to protecting his identity. Pete, Beth, Howard, Peggy: they all lie, they all speak in code, they all talk about the things that aren't true in order to obliquely say the things that are. No wonder Megan, speaking her truth to the best of her ability, shakes them all up.

Sylvia Plath's poem "Lady Lazarus" is too dense to analyze here. In part, it's about remaking yourself as a new woman, and in part, it's about surviving suicide attempts. Megan remakes herself, but the scent of suicide pervades this episode. Pete mentions in the opening scene that his life insurance policy covers suicide "after two years" (which have already passed).  Pete at first follows Beth into her house because he fears she's suicidal (it's the second clip above). The elevator door opens to an empty shaft—terrifying, foreboding. Megan cooks barefoot (you're not supposed to because you risk electrocution). The Beatles song that Don plays, Tomorrow Never Knows, repeats the lyric "It is not dying," and we see Megan in acting class, lying corpse-like on the floor. That's a lot of death imagery, and it fills me with dread. I can't instantly or easily tie all these images together with the poem and deliver a neat interpretation. Should I? Is interpretation the point? The 1960s are, in part, a time of dread. We hear news reports about Vietnam twice during the episode. War, fear, violence, change . . . society as a whole may be killing itself and arising Lazarus-like. Does the Draper marriage survive this? We don't know. I don't believe we're meant to know. I do believe we're meant to fear.

Don wants to know what's happening with modern music, and Megan hands him Revolver, very possibly the Beatles' best album, released quite recently (August 1966—this episode appears to take place in October or November). She tells him to listen to Tomorrow Never Knows first. It is the most challenging, most psychedelic, least accessible track on the album; the song Don is least likely to understand or enjoy. It's being introduced to new music with a bucket of ice water to the face. Don might easily have embraced I Want to Tell You or Taxman. Instead, he gets experimental music, Timothy Leary-inspired lyrics, and sitar. The world is running away from him too fast to keep up; Lady Lazarus may remake herself, say, by quitting her job in order to act, but it seems like Don can't continue to rise from the dead, although he's done it before.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Another motif is the interconnection of safety and protection, rejection and danger: Some people feel small and insignificant in their lives, and some people feel protected and supported. Beth is scared of the city. Harry feels belittled at home. Who will watch over the unprotected? Who will feel safe?
  • Quote of the week goes to Don, both for wit and for meaning: "I was raised in the thirties. My dream was indoor plumbing."
  • If the physical comedy didn't get to you this week, you are not paying attention. Watch the guys acting out A Hard Day's Night in the fishbowl conference room when Megan peeks in. For that matter, watch Pete wrestle with skis. Or just listen: The sound effect of the scraping skis after he says goodnight to Peggy is worth the price of admission (or would be if AMC weren't basic cable).
  • Rich Sommer cracks me up. As usual. Thank you, Harry, for finding the Earth from space majestic.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

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21 Comments

  • Keith D | May 8, 2012 5:59 PMReply

    Really elegant and insightful writing about this episode. I enjoyed how you identified and explored the various motifs (one of the reasons I love this show...) and appreciate your sharing your thoughts with us about them.

    Just discovered your recaps and really glad I did. Thank you.

  • Deborah Lipp | May 8, 2012 9:39 PM

    What a lovely compliment, thank you.

  • Chris J. | May 8, 2012 1:05 PMReply

    Is anyone else reminded of "Double Indemnity" and wondering if Howard and Beth were both "playing" Pete - as a tag team with a long, successful run of getting suckers like him to buy insurance policies?

  • U | May 8, 2012 11:25 AMReply

    Megan cooking barefoot can be seen as ominous image in another way: it’s a reference to The Good News episode, when Anna lied to Don and told him she broke her leg while frying something while being barefoot too. Later, off course, he found out she was actually dying.

  • Noel T. | May 7, 2012 9:59 PMReply

    Love your analysis. Two additions: Was Megan cooking barefoot because it was a death reference, or because she is pregnant? Hm...a little banter about "let's make a baby" 3 weeks ago, she was very tired and hungry last week, and the comments to how she doesn't want children this week, yet barefoot in the kitchen? And hats off to Mr. Weiner for tipping his own hat to L.A. Law in the elevator shaft sequence.

  • Ivy | May 7, 2012 9:59 PMReply

    I just have to add, because it is light-hearted and adds on to the physical comedy in this episode-Ken dancing to "September in the rain". I don't see it mentioned anywhere and for whatever reason that scene made smile so big.. Ken smiling, dancing. Too funny.

  • byronious | May 8, 2012 10:43 AM

    the Beatles actually played "September in the Rain" in 1962 for an audition for Decca.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beatles%27_Decca_audition

  • Deborah Lipp | May 8, 2012 9:29 AM

    I didn't notice Ken the first time I watched, but the second time it really was a riot.

  • A.S. | May 7, 2012 4:11 PMReply

    Vincent Kartheiser continues to amaze this season. And yes, I agree completely that the ominous vibe of this episode is almost overwhelming. (So great!)

  • Ruprecht | May 7, 2012 2:47 PMReply

    The elevator scene intentionally harkens back to an old phrase: "She took the elevator and I got the shaft." My prediction? Megan gets real famous real quick and dumps Don for some young pretty boy actor type. It would be karmic poetic justice of sorts on Don.

  • Tomris | May 7, 2012 1:50 PMReply

    Excellent recap. Really enjoyed reading this.
    Also, I'm glad B Martins touched upon the elevator scene. It was quite significant, purposefully (and wonderfully out of place) and full of discomfort. Deborah- I would love to hear your further thoughts on this scene. Particularly, why hasn't Don mentioned anyone about this malfunction (which he obviously can foresee as potential danger to others)?

  • Deborah Lipp | May 8, 2012 9:42 AM

    The elevator scene is fascinating, as everyone is discussing what is essentially a 2 second shot. I saw it as part of the suicide/death motif. Other writers, including Matt Zoller Seitz, saw "looking into the abyss," and compared it to the Beatles lyrics about "surrender to the void."

    A lot of people said what you say: That Don didn't report it. I don't think we saw every moment. Just because we didn't see him report it, doesn't mean he didn't. We didn't see Joan give birth, yet the baby is evidence she did.

  • TildenKatz | May 7, 2012 9:50 AMReply

    Thanks for the awesome recap. If Mad Men fans are interested in another fan's take, my recap is here: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/05/mad-men-season-five-same-as-it-ever-was.html

  • Teresa | May 7, 2012 4:11 AMReply

    Ms. Lipp, thank you for the thoughtful and insightful post. I've been reading various blogs that review the show; last week I wondered how a woman would interpret the show. You have made my dream come true.

  • Deborah Lipp | May 7, 2012 10:59 AM

    That's very gracious. There are other women writing about the show, but I so appreciate hearing from you. Most of the writers at Basket of Kisses (linked in my byline) are women, and I am very fond of Mo Ryan's reviews as well.

  • b martins | May 7, 2012 2:56 AMReply

    Don's reaction when he realizes there is no lift when the elevator doors opened was significant. It felt as though he was going after his wife, but was suddenly presented with the preciousness of life and how life can be so precarious. He has been in situations before where he had to make quick decisions, that meant life, rather than death (changing the dog tags to become Don Draper comes to mind). His reaction and that no one was around was priceless and I feel that it was a motivating factor that allowed him to approve of Megan's decision to return to acting. Don in this episode seemed to inhabit the same feeling of peace with himself that he had in the comfort of Anna. I think in a way, Anna and Megan connote the same woman that allows Don to relax. They both know his real identity. Seeing Megan's parents woke Don up as well and gives him the impetus to allow Megan to be freer than Betty ever was. I find it odd that Megan spends all her time either at the office or with Don, being a wife. When does she ever get a chance to see her friends; how does she stay so ahead of the curve an already know about The Beatles' album? Finally, I think there was some foreshadowing going on tonight when we only see the feet of the acting coach....Hmmmmm. I could just watch and talk about this show all day long! One thing however, the brilliance of MM was the actors that were always cast. After last week with Julia Ormand and this week with Alexis Bleidel, I hope there are not other actors in future episodes that will be so recognizable. It starts to break down the authenticity a bit (at least for this viewer)>

  • Hashiman | May 7, 2012 8:00 AM

    And don't forget Dennis Haskins' cameo - Mr. Belding from Saved by the Bell - as the Cool Whip executive.

  • Virginia | May 7, 2012 7:18 AM

    I have to admit that last week, it took me awhile to recognize Julia Ormond, though I had recently seen her in My Week with Marilyn as Vivien Leigh, but last night, the moment I saw Beth (Alexis Bledel) I thought, Rory Gilmore, all grown up!

  • Mitchell | May 7, 2012 3:27 AM

    Glad to see a comment on this, I felt that the elevator scene was the most significant moment of the episode.

  • SueB | May 7, 2012 2:46 AMReply

    Excellent review as always Deborah. Pete is the hobo and she stops looking at him at the end. **booboofaceforpete**

  • Reader | May 7, 2012 3:48 PM

    This was a tremendous review. One of your best yet.

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