Monday, May 7, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 8: “Lady Lazarus”

When Megan handed Don a copy of Revolver as an example of what’s going on “out there,” in American/youth culture, my initial exclamation and excitement over the show acquiring the rights to a Beatles song was quickly followed by guesses as to which song they acquired. The first song I happened to think of was “Elanor Rigby,” but I quickly decided it was inappropriate. Reflecting on the events of the episode, my next guess was (in my opinion) the most haunting song on the album, “For No One.” I thought it would fit somewhat nicely, as the song essentially describes the days immediately before (or after) the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Megan and Don are not there (yet), and it would have been a bit excessive considered in relation to Pete’s story this episode, but it could still fit, since it is possible to construe this episode as the beginning of the end for Don and Megan. However, “Tomorrow Never Knows” works much better both for this episode, and for Mad Men as a whole. Part of the show’s overall appeal lies in its unpredictability, which is definitely analogous to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” both in terms of the song’s deviation from the standard Beatles sound, and in terms of John Lennon suggesting we “surrender to the void.”

While larger character arcs often signal themselves within the first few episodes of any given season of Mad Men, it often seems as though it is impossible to guess what the next episode will be about. For instance, while it’s fairly clear that one of this season’s main concerns involves exploring what it means for Don and Megan to be married to one another (both personally and professionally), it’s rather difficult to develop probable and specific long-term hypotheses about what that entails. Earlier in the season, I predicted that Megan becoming a copywriter was going to reintroduce friction into Don’s mentorship of Peggy. While this has borne out (especially in this episode), it never really became the crux of any particular dramatic developments. For instance, at the conclusion of last season’s finale, it was rather easy to imagine something along the following lines playing out over the course of the current season: Megan is slightly incompetent or takes advantage of being married to the boss; Peggy is forced to cover for her, but gets more and more fed up with her; Peggy eventually has enough and confronts Don; fallout ensures, Don is forced to chose between his wife and his protégé, etc., etc. On another show, this story easily winds up going in this direction, but not on Mad Men.

Instead, Megan affects Don and Peggy primarily by distracting Don from work, and forcing Peggy to further establish her independence (and to learn some tough lessons on her own). Megan, it turns out, is just as dedicated and competent as a copywriter as she was as a secretary (remember, she didn’t want to blow off work to go on a trip with Don two weeks ago). Rather than turning her into a villain for interfering in a relationship (Don and Peggy) that finally got to healthy place last season, the writers come up with other ways to create conflict while still maintaining Megan as a sympathetic character (and, depending on how well-developed you consider her to have been last season, also maintaining her previous characterization, rather than changing who she is just to create some dramatic conflict).

This story arc is a large-scale instance of how the show can be difficult to anticipate, but almost every week offers smaller scale instances as well: a seemingly-important character is introduced, but then has his foot run over with a lawnmower; Pete gets in a fistfight with Lane; Don, Roger, Bert, and Lane steal Sterling Cooper away from Putnam Powell and Lowe; Don flies to Los Angeles and goes on a bohemian bacchanal, and so on. To my mind, one of the show’s chief appeals is its ability to generate such surprises from week to week while simultaneously staying true to its characters, even managing to make them grow and to reveal new things about them through these seasonal arcs. Mad Men encourages us to “relax and float downstream” with it (if not to turn off our minds).

This week’s surprise isn’t much of a surprise, but an answer to the question posed by last week's episode: “What’s eating Megan Draper?” She wants to be an actress, not an advertising executive. I’m of many minds about this development. I could easily see this becoming the first step in Megan and Don’s estrangement, at the very least because it means their schedules will make it more difficult for them to spend time together. The signs are already here in this episode; he works all day and comes home at night, precisely when she goes to acting class, or to the theater, should she actually land any parts (this also creates opportunity for her to become drawn to someone more age appropriate, although I don’t think the show will go in this direction, partially because I can anticipate it, but also because Mad Men is more interested in how Megan’s career choices affect Don than they do her). Roger seems to offer good advice in this regard: “Let her know there’s a routine. Keeps you both out of trouble.”

Additionally, Megan’s leaving is such a big deal for her that it almost seems as though she’s quitting a part of her and Don’s marriage, which might not be far from the truth, considering that they’ve probably spent most of their waking time together at SCDP. Moreover, there are at least two shots of Don in this episode where he looks particularly concerned over Megan’s quitting: one after she tells him what she wants to do in the middle of the night, and another in the shot that begins the scene in the Cool Whip creative kitchen. The latter of these shots is made all the more emphatic by it being graphically matched with the previous shot, in which Don responds to Megan’s line, “I love you. You’re everything I’d hoped you would be.” Don responds, “You too,” but the dissolve to the next shot of Don’s troubled face in the creative kitchen indicates quite clearly that he feels differently. The earlier scene in which Don shows concern could be construed as his worry over what Megan’s quitting means for her feelings toward him, but this later edit clearly indicates he’s more concerned with what it means for his continued interest in her (especially after the arousal he showed over her brilliance last week). While he seems to be more at peace with Megan’s decision later in the episode, this is not the ideal future he imagined with her. And like last week, the final shot of the episode is a masterful, telling one: after switching off the music, Don leaves the frame, and we are left looking at an empty living room.

On the other hand, I also like this development because it allows Don to show once again that he’s changed and learned from his marriage to Betty. The scene where Megan wakes Don in the middle of the night to talk to him about her desires was somewhat tense because it was difficult to anticipate how Don would react to her confession. Would he behave as he did with Betty whenever she expressed desires to him that were incompatible with his idealization of her (as he did to a lesser degree with Megan and the sherbet earlier this season in “Far Away Places”)? Or would he display the newer, more empathetic qualities Megan seems to have brought out in him? While he is somewhat resistant to Megan’s decision to leave SCDP, and while he tries to talk her out of it, he ultimately puts on a gracious and understanding face, and tells her he doesn’t want to keep her from her dreams. As he later says to Roger, “Why shouldn’t she do what she wants? I don’t want her to end up like Betty,” implying that he’s learned that he’s at least somewhat culpable for the miserable human being she became. And to her credit, Megan also realizes how well-behaved Don is being in his understanding and acceptance, repeatedly issuing proclamations of love throughout the episode.

Megan’s leaving also gave us some of the kind of conflict I thought would predominate this season, regarding Peggy being put in the middle of Don and Megan’s affairs (it was just condensed almost entirely to this episode), first in the wonderful scene between Megan and Peggy in the SCDP women’s bathroom (a location of high drama over these past two seasons – think back to “The Suitcase”), and then again between Peggy and Don in the creative kitchen. The former scene was great on its own merits, but watching it a second time, I was struck by how much it resembled past confrontations between Joan and Peggy, but with Peggy now in Joan’s position. Peggy’s lack of sympathy for Megan stems from their entirely different goals and desires, and from the effects Megan’s behavior has for Peggy’s office life, which parallels quite nicely with Joan’s irritation over Peggy’s handling of the sexual harassment from last season, as well as other conflicts the two had when Peggy was still a secretary. This episode puts this conflict to better use than those past ones, however, by becoming immediately pertinent to the next scene: we can now better gauge Megan’s discomfort over the work she does at SCDP, and it provides an undercurrent of tension as Peggy stares death rays at Megan (whom she considers an ingrate) while Megan and Don practice the performance they’ll give to Cool Whip.

And then we finally get to the scene at Cool Whip, where Don vents his disappointment with Megan’s quitting. This was another great scene, albeit one not too dissimilar from other scenes this show has done. Once again, something in Don’s personal life causes him to shit all over Peggy for some perceived slight, this time her botching the skit Don was originally going to perform with Megan.* Except now, Peggy has enough backbone and self-worth to stand up for herself and fight back, demonstrating once again how much characters on this show can change over time. Out comes all of the plot I had thought would occupy much of this season, condensed into a blistering back and forth: Don blames Peggy for Megan’s leaving, and accuses Peggy of being threatened by her; Peggy retorts that Megan was more her protégé than Don’s, as Peggy put in a lot of time training and defending her; Don says she didn’t need defending because she was great at advertising. In this brief exchange alone, the show quickly dispenses with a conflict that had played out mostly in the margins of the preceding episodes, and that on lesser shows would have taken up the majority of the season’s conflict for these characters. Yet expressed in this compressed yelling match, it becomes remarkably potent (much more so than if it were dragged out for a whole season). And then Peggy sums up how stupid the argument is (and why it would have been lesser drama had the show played up this conflict) while simultaneously getting in the last word: “I did everything right, and I’m still getting it from you! You know what? You are not mad at me, so shut up!” Great dialogue, great acting, great dramatic choices, and a great scene on a great show.

*Think back to the episode in season three, where Roger and Bert pressure Don into signing a long-term contract with Sterling Cooper. Peggy has the unfortunate timing to also ask Don for a raise – or some other form of validation – in the same episode, and he viciously reduces her nearly to tears, telling her amongst other things that there’s nothing she’s done that he couldn’t live without.

Other thoughts:
- Ever since the Howard Johnson’s episode, I’ve been slightly on edge about Megan’s safety. It would make no dramatic sense, since the show is still exploring their marriage, but a part of me keeps thinking the writers are going to kill her somehow. This episode’s eerie and ominous open elevator shaft did nothing to alleviate my concerns. There were a handful of moments where, on other kinds of shows (or movies), either Megan or Don would have died after expressing their love for one another, including when Don returns home to find Megan cooking dinner, and when they say goodbye at the elevator. Guess I'll just chalk up these feelings to my narrative schemata at work (including Mad Men's penchant for season-altering surprises).

- Once again, Don is perceptive, but not receptive. He wants to be able to connect with the youth culture in order to be better able to sell them shit, but he switches off “Tomorrow Never Knows” before it’s finished, clearly fed up with what must sound to him like noise rather than music. Stick around for Sgt. Pepper’s, Don!

- Roger’s LSD trip seems to have also resulted in a sea change in his attitude toward Pete. How refreshing that he now seems content to let Pete do a lot of the legwork, and act instead in a supporting role. A humbler, kinder, yet still-funny Roger Sterling. Not bad (although he does still enjoy Pete’s wonderfully awkward removal of the skiing equipment from his office).

- If this is Pete doing his best Don impression, he’s doing a piss-poor job of it, as he fails to realize that the key to the Don Draper Seduction (patent pending) is to leave the woman wanting more (optional: treat them like dirt). Act like you don’t want it, Pete! Who’d have ever thought that Pete would encounter problems from having too much heart? By returning him to his conniving, petulant roots, the show is doing a good job of removing a lot of the sympathy Pete acquired last season.

-“Pizza House!”

- The Michael Ginsberg Reformation Project stumbled a bit this week. He was pretty goddamned annoying in the scene where Megan told Peggy, Stan, and Michael that she was leaving.

- Peggy and Joan’s sympathy for one another is again used effectively in this episode. More, please.

- Pete was awfully bold in kissing Beth in the brief moment when his train pal, Howard, left the room to get some life insurance papers, and it led to a funny bit of staging shortly after, as Beth, upset by Pete’s kiss, calls Howard into the kitchen, and Pete moves to get his coat and sneak out. This is how domestic murders happen, Pete.

- Don and Peggy’s fight in this episode rivals, in condensed form, last year’s “The Suitcase.” Now that Peggy is more of an equal sparring partner, I enjoy scenes where Don and Peggy are pitted against each other almost as much as scenes where they work together harmoniously.

- Fourth week in a row with no Betty, and the fourth outstanding episode in row. Can’t be mere coincidence, can it? Betty made a good villain last season, but it’s been pretty clear for a while that Mad Men is better without her (or at least, it’s better when she’s marginalized like in the last season). The quality of these episodes during January Jones’s pregnancy-induced absence these past four episodes seems irrefutable evidence.


  1. What a wonderful and complete analysis again! I especially like the paragraph in which you explain the unpredictability of the show - it's true, it's always impossible to predict how things will develop in this show(it's apparent how they don't want to fall into the easy path of, for example, making Megan an obstacle between Peggy and Don's now healthy professional relationship, as you say, or making her unsympathetic, as mean people like me were expecting... haha), and I think this season is being especially good on that, because it deals with those things that would be more soap opera-like with a lot of class and containment (as always), consciously saying "ha, you expected this, but no!" - like in the Cool Whip scene between Don and Peggy that you describe.

    For me the episode was about women's independence and how that leaves men adrift. And the title, "Lady Lazarus", also pointed to the feminism that is coming to the surface this season, having women finally raising and walking on their own. Don would have never let Betty do that (he never let her work, or even wear a swimsuit!) and I think it's not only that Don has changed and learned from the past (which he recognizes), it's that society itself has changed. And Don, Pete and Roger have had to finally 'surrender' to women's desires and are completely lost now. It's amazing to listen to Don and Roger worriedly talking about women now in comparison with the first season, where Roger literally said "who cares what women want!" or something similar. When I think of how they treated women in the first season(s) I can only think of Roger horse riding some girls (I can't find a gif of that, but found this: haha), and, even if he still has a very sexist mind (he says Megan's decision is a sign that she wants to have a baby!!!), women wouldn't accept to be treated like cattle anymore, so they don't know how to behave or interpret women's decisions now - both Michael and the other copywriter, I don't remember his name, make really poor hypothesis of why Megan quit the job, and I love Peggy's disappointed look of "you guys don't understand anything".

    And that's what happens to Pete also, he tries to behave according to some old rules (a traditional masculinity) by which men took the lead and he completely fails. He's a tiny thing lost in a void, as the girl tells him, and that's how he and men are starting to feel now in relation to women.

    So Don does what he has to do (let Megan follow her dream) in that tense night conversation, even if that destroys him completely. He had totally depended on her in the office, and they made a wonderful work couple (and he was finally happy with someone, and also really proud of her) and that's because Megan had not let him treat her the way he'd treated Betty and had established some totally (new for him) rules in the relationship (as in the episode you mention), by which she gets to decide what she wants for herself, so now he has to act accordingly and 'surrender' to Megan's desire to leave SCDP, even if for him that's a strong blow and leaves him totally depressed. I loved the shot of the elevator hollow because it portrays very well that hollow and vertigo he's feeling when she leaves, and I can understand his yelling at Peggy (it's true, she's always his scapegoat!) when she clumsily destroys the Cool Whip ad that Megan had done so naturally - he's clearly thinking angrily "you're not Megan!" and tries to blame her for Megan's decision, even if we know that's not true.

  2. It seems like Peggy is the only one understanding Megan, because no man (Roger, Michael, the other copywriter, or even Don) can interpret her decision correctly. So I love how this season is unfolding, shattering all our preconceived expectations (at least mine) and avoiding the typical representation of confrontation and jealousy between women. I'm so happy to see Peggy and Megan bonding, and to see Peggy and Joan having a good relationship at last! It's the complete opposite to the first season, where women seemed to be competing with each other for getting men's attention. And men are totally lost and can’t understand them at all now: it's clearly the beginning of the 70s (and having a Woody Allen-like character like Michael also helps project that masculinity crisis).

    Wow, this comment is so long I couldn't post it all at once! I really loved this episode!

  3. Really interesting insights. I hadn't thought of the independence of the Megan in this episode (and in her marriage to Don in general) as a way for the show to tell stories about cultural change in America in the 1960s. Previously, that had been a lot of what the show was doing with Peggy's character (and still does, to a certain extent), but we see it now with the other women on the show too, and as you say, we also see the effect it has on the male characters (especially Don and Pete in this episode). And I agree that the open elevator shaft is a very nice representation of what Megan's quitting means to Don.

    I'd hesitate to say the show is reaching for the beginning of the 70s - it seems like the 60s have only just arrived this season and the last, and the show is pretty invested in showing us the way things are changing this season.