Previously I’ve noted this show’s tendency to sound the trumpets when they want us to sit up and pay attention to one of its themes. What if the trumpet is a post-horn?
“Whenever I put the headset on now,” he’d continued, “I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself.”
— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
In chaos, fun, and adolescent joy, Mucho Maas locates a Door of Perception. Don Draper, no Pynchon character, is invited – twice – to “surrender to the void,” and he just walks away. Throughout the five seasons of Mad Men, we’ve been waiting for Don to lose a step, to fall tellingly behind a trend – now here come the Four Fab Horsemen. And it’s not just the idea of “Beatles” as an emblem of all the kid-junk that Don’s failing to understand, but The Beatles per se: a record on a turntable on an evening in October, 1966.
It’s surprising not just because Mad Men had previously kept The Beatles in the background, as in “buy Sally some 45s,” but because we all assume that their songs are far more expensive than any other music clearance the show might go after. But they’ve used Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys when they could have substituted other music if they were being frugal, and I can’t see any downside for the copyright-holding entities if the songs are featured on Mad Men. (I’d hate to think that this means AMC will have to film the last two episodes of Breaking Bad entirely in Hank and Marie’s guest bathroom, but if so, I’m sure they’ll do a bang-up job.)
And, of course, we’ve already been meta-teased about this in the scene two weeks ago when Don whistled “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” We get one more bout of it on the occasion of Ginsberg’s Hard Day’s Night–themed presentation for Chevalier Blanc men’s cologne, when Rick, the gay client, says The Beatles “are impossible to get.” Stan’s “don’t worry, there’s a million bands that sound like them” and Harry’s “or we’ll make our own” are both characteristic and annoying, and when Rick emphasizes the Beatlesque qualities he wants, Don brushes him off with “we know what The Beatles sound like.”
We know that Don is behind this particular curve – he doesn’t seem to think it was anything he needed to stay abreast of. Up here in the 43rd century it’s easy to feel superior about Don’s blind spots, but we have to remember that the cultural shifts in the ’60s happened with disconcerting speed – to many people Don’s age they were eruptions from unexpected directions, for no apparent reason. Don’s been doing pretty good with the societal curves he’s already been thrown in the series, all things considered. But if you’ll hand me that hammer again, please: Don can’t tell the difference between The Beatles and a lame British Invasion Lite version of an old Broadway standard, “September in the Rain,” performed by Chad and Jeremy. (To be fair and balanced, there’s:
but that doesn’t really count.)
Now let’s go back to the top of the slide, where Pete Campbell reluctantly bookmarks his Pynchon in order to fend off his sleazy commuter buddy Howard Dawes’s attempt to sell him more life insurance. Howard would know that Pete’s a sophisticated target requiring subtler methods of persuasion, yet his pitch is perfunctory, the standard insurance-man guilt trip. “I’m surprised you’re not doing better” reminds us that Pete loathes this guy as much as we do. The subject changes easily to Howard’s new girl friend in the city, which brings into focus his neglected wife in the suburbs – “I provide for her” is his defense.
Firmly re-establishing Howard’s oafishness greases our empathy for what Pete’s about to fall into, and they very wisely keep Alison Brie out of sight while he enacts what I suppose he rationalizes as gallantry: a tryst with Howard’s sad, skittish wife Beth, played by Alexis Biedel, a former Gilmore girl (it says here). A post-psychedelically magnanimous Roger Sterling has lumbered Pete with a set of skis, which are instrumental in bringing Pete and Beth together on the Dawes’s living room rug. We’ve seen Pete cheat on Trudy a few times before, but those were one-offs; this feels more portentous. If we’re going to have more Beth after this episode, I think I’ll wait a while before diagnosing her, although now I’ve got “Mother’s Little Helper” stuck in my head. I did wonder if Pete will have the kind of headaches that some fans were predicting for Don back in Season 3, during his affair with Suzanne Farrell – but it’s Pete who’s the creepy stalker this episode.
Megan’s story starts with a contrived fake-out as she furtively exits the office to return a mysterious phone call. They keep this in the air much too long, as if we’d buy her having an affair or anything really shady. We’re rewarded for tolerating this charade when Don calls Peggy to find out where Megan’s disappeared to (a faint echo of his payphone call to Peggy from upstate earlier this season); Peggy glowering as she cradles the phone distills all her inability to keep Don’s personal life at bay.
We see the three of them arriving at work the next morning, Peggy walking between Don and Megan. When Megan peels off to the ladies’ room, Peggy follows her and demands to know what’s going on. One-to-one girl talk is traditionally disastrous territory for Peggy; we keep hoping she’ll get better at it, but this time she just succeeds in making it harder for Megan to tell Don about her decision to return to acting. In the next scene we find out Don’s not the only one who’s looking forward to another episode of “Mr. and Mrs. Draper” – after the successful Heinz proposal, Ken Cosgrove’s a big fan too. In their Cool Whip rehearsal, Don and Megan are both very polished, which reminds us how much acting Don has had to do not only to get to the top of his profession but also to reinvent himself out of Dick Whitman. It’s perfectly natural for Don to think that Megan’s acting skill could also be used to their mutual advantage in a new phase of his glorious career – and that would be enough for Megan.
Last week we saw that their partnership at work is a key element in Don’s view of their marriage, so we’re watching his face very carefully in the night scene when Megan has to tell him she wants to quit SCDP. As always, we can’t be completely sure what he’s thinking when he says “I understand,” but something leaks out in his passive-aggressive suggestion that Megan quit immediately instead of training a replacement. Lucky for him that Megan hears this as approval.
One of my favorite Mad Men tableaux is “Peggy Among the Hoopleheads” – this year they’re Stan and Ginsberg (Joey and Danny, Kurt and Smitty, where are they now?). Megan’s resignation leads Stan to an unexpected reflection on the futility of their enterprise, which furrows Peggy’s brow. (Time-stamping this scene is a radio news broadcast about the five-alarm fire near Madison Square on October 17, 1966 in which 12 firefighters died, the largest single loss of life for the department until 9-11.) I also liked the bit with Harry Crane trying to sniff out the reason for Pete’s Iago-like mood: “Is Trudy pregnant again?”
Don tells Megan she needn’t bother coming back to the office after lunch, and then he gazes into the abyss:
Don immediately hears the echo in this void when he’s shown to be clueless about the Beatles, and again in the Kreative Kookery Kitchen performance, with Peggy stepping into Megan’s role. I found their lack of chemistry over-played and clumsy – I wonder how it would have gone if they’d skipped to the bitter aftermath instead of making us watch the whole thing along with our latest postwar trendsetter, the corporate flavor guru. (I kind of hope they find a way to bring him back.)
Now even Roger can see how Don’s really taking Megan’s decision, and now even Don can hear the wisdom in Roger’s advice: go home, “let her know there’s a routine.” Megan’s on her way out to acting class, but takes a moment to load the revolver: “Oh – you said you didn’t know what was going on…I bought you the latest Beatles album.” Several tracks on it would have served to show Don how fast the world was changing, but Megan points him to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a raucous repudiation of the very idea of popular music. This plays under a montage of Peggy and Stan sharing a toke at the office, Pete and Beth exchanging signs in the train station parking lot, and Megan flat on her back learning to breathe again. Don can’t take it for even three minutes; he lifts off the needle and trudges with his drink down the hall, middle-aged in mid-century midtown*.
In my summary I’ve clumped the three main story threads, but they weave around each other as the episode unfolds very attractively like all the best Mad Men; I have to roll up my newspaper and whack it for a few obvious faults I’ve mentioned, but I think it continues a strong trend for the show since I’ve started on these recaps (you’re welcome!). The title, “Lady Lazarus,” could be taken in a positive sense to refer to Megan’s rebirth, but it’s a Sylvia Plath poem about recovering from a suicide attempt, which makes me think we’re either going to get more of Beth’s back story or – what was that Pete said?
* Upper East Side, actually.
Mad Men, Episode 5:8 “Lady Lazarus”: B+
Allan Ferguson was born recently near Disneyland and has lived up and down the great state of California for all the years since. He is currently in La Mesa near San Diego where he practices graphic design and recreational atheism. He can be reached evenings and weekends at firstname.lastname@example.org and apparently on the YouTube, somehow or other.