Don't read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 8 of "Mad Men," entitled "Lady Lazarus."
A strange sense of anti-climax pervaded this episode, which felt like a bridge between earlier events and themes and what's to come. I couldn't help but feel during the entire hour that a big explosion or a major event was on its way, but it ended with Don merely picking up the needle on a Beatles record and walking out of an empty room.
Emptiness, missed connections, lies and not getting what you want -- those were the recurring ideas, but overriding all that was the sense that someone was going to die or something terrible was going to happen. But nothing did, unless we saw Don begin to truly fall out of love with Megan. It was all pretty ambiguous, and I spent much of the hour waiting for a confrontation that never came.
Not surprisingly, in this season of readily identifiable symbols, the episode pivoted around a very brief moment in which Don confronted an actual void, instead of the usual existential ones.
Having just seen Megan off to her farewell lunch, he pressed the button again. A different set of elevator doors opened, but nothing was there. Not having heard John Lennon's command to "surrender to the void," Don didn't take a one-way trip down, but that moment hung over everything that happened subsequently. Would it happen again, and would someone else fail to notice the lack of elevator and plunge to his or her death? I suppose that's possible, but there's every chance the moment (like the unoccupied room at the end of the hour) was merely a comment on the emptiness Don felt at Megan's departure. It wasn't supposed to be that way: Megan was supposed to fill the emptiness, but she was gone.
There was a blowup, eventually, between Don and Peggy, who served as Don's surrogate wife in more ways than one in this hour. I don't buy that Don was completely OK with Megan leaving the agency; he's shown a real tendency to want to control or at least strongly guide her. She's something of a possession to him, a pretty bauble he can show off and use to bolster his ego and his business. Still, Don realized that he really could lose her if he was anything but supportive of her decision -- at least, he knew he had to act that way.
Underneath, I'm sure he was very disappointed in her decision to leave the business he had worked so hard to build and sustain. It had to grate, and it had to feel like something of a comment on the overall worth or value of what SCDP does. Partly because he was reeling from Megan's decision, partly because he blamed Peggy somewhat for her departure, the Cool Whip meeting was a disaster, with Don giving a minimal effort and not really taking into account the fact that Peggy would need a bit more help in that situation than Megan did.
Peggy's feelings were raw as well, given that she felt guilty about possibly hastening Megan's departure. Last week she tried hard to convey to Megan how happy she was for her, but ultimately, these two were never going to see eye to eye. Peggy loves what she does and would fight tooth and nail to stay at her job. The possibility that someone could voluntarily walk away from something Peggy fought so hard to get never occurred to her.
But Megan did walk away, and I kept waiting for Don to tell her how he really felt about that. The scene between them in their bedroom almost felt like a dream sequence; I half wondered if it was one, but it all really happened (and it served as something of a callback to another moment of truth with Betty from a season or two ago; like Megan, she had little makeup on and was at her most sincere).
Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there was a big chunk of Don that did understand and support Megan's decision, especially after the painful end of his disastrous marriage to a woman who gave up her entire life to sit and wait for him to come home.
But Don was powerfully affected by Megan's performances as his pitching partner; sexually and emotionally, he never wanted her more than he did after their successful night out with the Heinz executive. Finally, he'd found someone who made him feel good about himself and who understood his business. Megan was the total package, in that moment. It had to be a letdown to watch her leave to pursue performing, not pitching. She was terrific at the Heinz dinner and in the office, pretend-pitching Cool Whip with Don, but advertising just wasn't the life for her. Thank goodness she realized it before getting truly stuck in that position and turning more bitter by the year.
And that's slowly what's happening to Pete. Desperate to escape the confines of his bland, suburban life, he slept with Rory Gilmore! That's two prominent guest stars in a row (Julia Ormond last week, Alexis Bledel from "Gilmore Girls" this week), both of them playing bored women in search of any kind of escape from the voids at the center of their conventional lives. I got the sense that Pete's paramour actually enjoyed the idea that her husband might walk in on them; it added to the thrill that she so clearly wanted.
It's interesting to note that Beth, the wife of Pete's train pal, was nothing like the Gorgon we were probably expecting -- she was young and beautiful, not the kind of woman you stay late at the office to avoid. Why would a man with a wife like that at home pursue something on the side so assiduously? Well, why did Don? Because these are damaged people for whom enough is really never enough. Pete is living his own personal John Cheever story.
Alexis Bledel acquitted herself reasonably well (a surprise, given her occasional lapses into woodenness on "Gilmore Girls") as Beth, but the Pete storyline merely reinforced what we already know about him this season -- that his unhappiness and his desire for some kind of meaningful recognition and connection is growing all the time. Like Howard, he has a very attractive brunette wife at home, but he wants more -- and like a child, Pete's not even really sure what it is that he wants. He's just reaching out for something, and gets adolescently angry when he doesn't get it, and he doesn't have the emotional vocabulary (or psychedelic drugs) to help him figure out why his own void looms so large.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this transitional episode, this hour shot through with a sense of deferral and dread, is its title, "Lady Lazarus." It's an intense poem by Sylvia Plath, one that mixes Holocaust imagery with ideas about transformation and a Phoenix-like rebirth.
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."
How does the title relate back to this episode, which is far less intense than those words Plath published 50 years ago? (And by the way, to call it less intense isn't a dig, but as I said, this was a strange, interesting, transitional hour of the show. It was not really a turning point, but an hour full of deferrals and a tone of moody disappointment. There was the sense of a gathering storm, and to underline that, an actual storm could be heard during different points in the hour. "Mad Men" is not so subtle with the imagery this season, which is a help to the late-night recapper.)
To return to the poem: The idea of transformation is a crucial one for Don, obviously. He's reinvented himself, but did he just take the damaged parts that constituted Dick Whitman and use them to create a persona that appears successful and together? A big goal of the series is to figure out whether he's really changed or has just appeared to change, and the jury's still out on that.
Pete wanted a transformational experience, a deep one, with his fellow disaffected suburbanite, but he couldn't get that with Beth, so he'll continue to live under his own bell jar filled, breathing in the same old resentment and anger. The whole idea of being able to choose your path and change that path at any time -- that's not the kind of philosophy that Don, Roger and even Pete grew up with. Ultimately, that means they're really not in tune with the huge Baby Boom generation that Megan is part of, the generation that is truly ready to tune in, turn on and drop out. Megan just did the "drop out" part, but the idea of feeling so free with one's choices is hard for all those men -- and for Peggy -- to truly understand.
Megan did appear transformed by her decision to cut loose the one thing holding her down: her unsatisfying job. Her setup is pretty sweet at the moment: She's living in a fabulous apartment with her handsome husband, who's financially supporting her as she tries to get her acting career going. Tomorrow looks good but ... tomorrow never knows.
Don didn't have the patience to listen to the entire Beatles album, but he should have. (And by the way, how much negotiating and moolah must it have taken to get an actual Beatles track on the show? That's an impressive accomplishment for "Mad Men.")
With "Revolver" and especially the experimental track "Tomorrow Never Knows," the Beatles were throwing off the conventions that had brought them success and were entering brand-new musical territory. The band truly did take a great leap forward around this time; "Revolver" was a defining moment for them artistically, and the revolutionary "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" would be released less than a year later. Here's at least one group of creative people who truly did break apart their constituent parts, transform themselves and make something new.
It has to be said: Don Draper is woefully prepared to pitch himself and his services to the generation that gets that kind of thing on a gut level. It's not just that he'd rather have his wife around than that album (which must have sounded weird to his ears), it's that he doesn't get what motivates this generation. That song Ken played in his office was a terrible imitation of what the Beatles were doing years earlier. Maybe the client liked that song, but that's not the important thing: Don fully admitted that he didn't know what was current and why that song was just kind of lame.
What we're seeing here is that Don, and the agency he helped build, are pretty far from transforming themselves. The ad that Stan and Michael pitched was, as they admitted, a mere shot-for-shot imitation of another Beatles project. How long can SCDP get by with a mixture of bravado, imitation and nostalgia-tinged campaigns?
Not that every ad has to be an innovation, and not every campaign has to be revolutionary, but SCDP appears to be an agency without a clear and engaging creative mandate. And, because Megan heeded John Lennon's call to "listen to the color of [her] dreams," the agency just lost the one employee who might have been able to help bring it into the modern age.
Note: Ryan McGee and I talk "Mad Men" every week on the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast; this week we'll be talking about "Game of Thrones" as well (and both those discussions will feature a special guest). There's a good chance we'll talk about Joss Whedon's "Avengers" as well (which I wrote about here). The podcast should be up late Monday or early Tuesday on iTunes and here.
Take a look at photos from "Mad Men" Season 5 below.