Mad Men, 5.08 “Lady Lazarus”
Some of the most prodding criticisms of Season Five assert that the themes might be too clear. Those who sport that suggestion might have been briefly relieved by “Lady Lazarus,” but like the rest of the season, strong, deep currents were pulling our characters down the elevator shaft.
“Lady Lazarus” refers to a poem written by Sylvia Plath, a part of her “Holocaust” series. It details a female speaker who is continuously reborn and eventually plots to devour all men. Both background and foreground of this poem serve to illuminate the two primary focal points of this episode — Pete and Megan.
It is revealed late in the episode that Pete is now 32 years old. Thinking about the growth of these characters is arresting and especially in the case of Pete and his struggle to attain a new identity in adult responsibility. Looking back to the pilot episode on the eve of his marriage and turning our attention to his current intimacy with Beth reveals that Pete might be the character who has struggled the most to progress, save for perhaps Roger, his nemesis of sorts. It is clear that Pete is in need of worship and response from someone who isn’t Trudy. Weiner&co. have drafted Trudy into a stay-at-home behemoth. Though Pete may be the most richly drawn character on the show, he still inspires a strong amount of public resistance and it is largely due to his inability to achieve self-control. So often, he seems to be the man falling off the opening credits and into a torturous and perpetuating cycle of self-loathing and misguided determination.
His fling with Beth is directly out of Weiner’s playbook, presenting an intriguing, mysterious character inside of a predictable circumstance. Sometimes, writing a show that will ultimately be 100 hours, it is forgivable to engage in something foreseeable. Pete and Beth’s post-coital philosophizing was the obvious opportunity to expound on “Lady Lazarus”‘s thematic edge. Beth asks Pete what he thinks about the new pictures of the Earth from outer space. She is disturbed by how small it looks. You can do better than that, Weiner&co. Regardless, her curiosity and instability are somehow magnetizing to Pete and he spends much of the episode hunting his train-buddy’s wife. It’s presented in such a way that is understandable for anyone who has known sexual obsession and it reveals Pete’s total inability to understand contentment within any context, especially inside the home. Season Five has been so insistent about conveying the impossible permanence of work relationships and their intersection with intimacy. Clearly, Pete isn’t capable of reaching either.
Megan’s struggle forms the motivic and narrative core of “Lady Lazarus,” perhaps representing the Lady herself. After last week’s discussion with her father, she has made a sharp turnabout. No one can deny the weight of parental disappointment no matter the context and Megan’s quick reaction is entirely believable. After lying to Don and Peggy in order to attend a callback audition, she relinquishes the secret to Don in the middle of the night. Over the last 5 years we have been taught to believe that Don would choke Megan or throw her out the window. Of course, he doesn’t and Megan quits. Simple as that.
The complexity of the situation lies in Megan’s increasingly intricate web of significance. After revealing that she plans to quit, Stan wonders who can blame her; saying, “You work your butt off for months and what do you get? Heinz Baked Beans…” This weaves into the Beth’s perceived nihilism. Insignificance and the failed quest for relevance has seeped into the home and the workplace. Megan believes that, by attempting to become an actress, she can achieve contentment and self-actualization. Weiner&co are preparing us for the revelation that no one can ever be completely content with what they do.
Mad Men is revealing a crucial generational shift. Perhaps a legitimate source of Don’s legitimate compassion, Megan belongs more to Sally’s youth than Betty’s complacency. The fantasy that we can do anything we desire for a living is starting to popularize with the sharp incline in college education. Megan, and so many others in the coming generations, sustains herself through change while Don sustains himself through consistency. Don offered Megan the orange sherbet and she didn’t like it. She doesn’t want to live his life. She is beginning to carve out the position that she will likely be occupying for the remainder of the series — someone to make Don look old.
The final montage is notable for one enormous reason. Revolver had just been released and Megan’s reliably hip musical taste forces it on Don. Strangely, she tells him to begin with the last track on the B-side, “Tomorrow Never Knows”. He sit’s down and hears the (probably unthinkably expensive) wobbling sitar and modal Lennon urging everyone to turn off, tune in, and drop out — most of all to “surrender to the void.” This time, he doesn’t like Megan’s ice cream. Earlier in the episode, Don peered down an empty elevator shaft that stared him in the face. It might just as well have been a mirror. Images of Pete’s emotional failure, Megan’s change, and Peggy’s career flash through his mind and he turns the record off in the middle of the song before going to bed. It’s not that Don is unable to cope with youth, but that he doesn’t believe in it. This is going to be the monumental struggle in this Draper marriage — Don’s inability to come to terms with Megan’s willful independence, misdirected or not. His spousal objectification is over.
The tie between home and work has been severed and Don will be required to reconcile with a new and powerfully ignorant generation.