Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Lady Lazarus" (season 5, episode 8)

Mad Men - "Lady Lazarus" (season 5, episode 8)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 6, 2012/written by Erin Levy; directed by Scott Hornbacher): Megan and Pete are both keeping secrets from their spouses. Pete's train companion - Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke), the life insurance salesman - blabs, as usual, about how he has a mistress in the city. The timing of this revelation is convenient (if not necessarily coincidental) because a night or two later, Pete runs into Howard's wife Beth (Alexis Bledel) at the Connecticut station. Her car won't start and she asks for a ride to her house but it's clear she wants much more than that, and she gets much more than that. After a tryst on the floor of the Dawes suburban home, an enamored Pete wants to continue the relationship despite Beth's insistence that this fling be a one-off. He invites her to a hotel suite in the city (smashing his champagne glass against the wall when she refuses to show), calls her incessantly, and eventually even convinces Howard that he wants to take out a new policy in order to get himself back over to their house and plead for Beth's attention in person. The distressed housewife feigns a migraine rather than serve Pete supper at her husband's request, but the next time she sees him at the station she draws a heart in the fogged up window of her car and stares at him across the parking lot with puppy dog eyes before her own philandering, oblivious companion drives her away.

Although Don worries about what Megan is hiding from him, it turns out to be a relatively harmless mystery (or does it?). She's begun auditioning for plays again, fueled by frustration with the back-biting cynicism of SCDP and also of course her intellectual father's dismissive attitude toward her current career. When she finally admits why she's been coming home late and lying to him about her whereabouts, Don tries to reassure her, citing the glory she'll feel when she sees her work on a billboard or in a magazine. But Megan feels more alive getting rejected for a part than accepted for a pitch, and all sorts of familial pressures reinforce this temperamental disposition because not only do her parents encourage a more bohemian work life, her husband's overbearing (if affectionate) presence at the office suffocates her. In letting her go, at least, Don is understanding if vaguely worried. Saying goodbye at the elevator, he watches her go down with ease, only to call up his own and come face to face with an empty shaft. There is no near-step into the void but the sense of foreboding is impossible to shake off, as unsettling as the jangling cacophony that greets Don on the last track of Revolver at episode's end. The lyrics tell him to "turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" but the avant-garde orchestration inspires him to turn off the record instead. After a moment of silence, the song returns for the end credits - we're all on this journey, and have been ever since 1966, but maybe this is where Don gets off the train.

My Response:
"Tomorrow Never Knows" must have been an expensive needle drop; when the Mad Men soundtrack first called upon The Beatles (in the moment Don first took notice of Megan, no less) it was "Do You Want to Know a Secret," a title very apropos to this particular episode, and they stuck with an instrumental cover. But this moment calls for the real deal, however ironically handled; when Megan pointed to an unseen listing on the back of the album cover, I expected to hear "For No One," even if it would have been both a little too on-the-nose ("she no longer needs you") and, paradoxically, off the mark or maybe just premature ("and in her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love..."). The Leary/LSD-inspired number, on the other hand, is at once just oblique enough, cleverly suitable in its title alone (never spoken in the song itself), and sonically perfect for the moment, as we launch off the precipice that was the 1966-67 cultural earthquake. Megan's turn toward art occurs at just the right moment to provide a contrast with Don's commitment to straight society in the late sixties. In some ways, their marriage has never been stronger; "you're everything I hoped you would be," Megan tells him, but Don is clearly teetering on the edge of despair - very notably gulping down a drink the second he steps into his office after she's departed.

This dramatic inflection is brilliant because while the ostensibly alpha Don is swelling with barely-contained anxiety, it's Megan who makes the assertive move that puts him there. Should the happiness he's almost miraculously achieved this season collapse (it's already precarious, as displayed in both "A Little Kiss" and "Far Away Places"), will Don be a hapless victim of fate or have only himself to blame? At the end of season four, I suspected that Don's foolishly blissful marriage to Megan would be shortlived and as late as watching this episode I wondered if it wouldn't last this fifth season. Now, however, I think it could be the story of the rest of the series, its survival or defeat a parallel to Don's very different relationship with the very different Betty. If they fail, the question will be whether Megan's pursuit of her dreams inevitably pulls her away from Don, who has dedicated his life to living a lie (despite an underlying similarity in their skill at performance). I never expected them to be as functional as they are - as one of their colleagues describes their endearing shtick, which has developed enough of a reputation that potential clients actually request it as a condition of the deal, they act like a comfortably bantering married couple who actually like each other.

As for Pete, I can't shake the feeling that his encounter with the bizarre Beth is a meeting of soulmates. They have a chemistry he simply doesn't have with the well-meaning but grating Trudy, who only brings out the superficial cad in him. Beth, by contrast, makes Pete seem kind of like the authentically offbeat nebbish he really is, beneath the desperate attempts to play company man/man of the house (he always comes off as a ventriloquist dummy in silly costume when feigning a confidence he obviously doesn't actually command). No doubt, actorly connection has something to do with this; Vincent Kartheisier and Bledel began dating soon after this episode was shot and have been married ever since. But if Pete, Megan, and Don all have standout episodes, it may be Peggy who steals the show as a sleeper supporting act. Her scene with Don in the test kitchen, when she steps into Megan's role last-minute and falls right back into the "married couple who don't like each other" archetype (I'm literally laughing out loud as I recall the way this scene unfolds), is such a wonderful fulfillment of her character development over the last four and a half seasons.

Telling her boss off in no uncertain terms, even as he fairly informs her that what Megan didn't like was her co-workers' attitude as much as the work itself, Peggy has really found the skin she's comfortable in. Fitting neither a conventional woman's nor man's role for the time, she finds herself shaped precisely by those conflicting pressures - forced to invent something else entirely: dedicated to her job if frustrated with her work environment, able to speak her mind while cognizant that she's often not going to satisfy someone else's expectations. And at this point the persona fits her like a glove. Indeed, when Don rejects Revolver over a montage of characters hitting their own stride, we wonder if he - the original make-yourself-up-as-you-go-along guy - may actually be one of the few characters still unable to make the full leap into self-realization.

Next (active on August 9, 8am): "Dark Shadows"Previous: "At the Codfish Ball"

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