6
May
2012
Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 8
Lady Lazarus
Jordan
As tends to happen at this point in a season of Mad Men, "Lady Lazarus" gives us a peek into multiple characters, moving forward a variety of plot lines as the season moves toward its endgame. On a lesser series, this type of episode is usually called a piece-mover, setting things up for what is to come. And while even this show does that type of episode occasionally, "Lady Lazarus" is far too compelling in and of itself to fit that description. Mad Men is on an incredible run at this point, with "Mystery Date," "Signal 30," "Far Away Places," "At the Codfish Ball" and now "Lady Lazarus forming a near-perfecty stretch for the series (the fact that I can recall all of the episode titles stretching back that far without double checking indicates just how memorable each has been). Where "Signal 30" and even "Far Away Places" felt smaller in scope, "Lady Lazarus" is a mini-epic by comparison, a buffet of potential character moments to dissect and plot threads to examine. There is so much to cover, I will apologize in advance for skimming over some plot lines and moments, and for skipping others entirely. What makes "Lady Lazarus" work as well as I think it does would take a very long time to lay out, and before I was done, Mad Men would be throwing another episode my way.

At its best, Mad Men is a symphony of subtlety, laying out its characters psyches in glances, smirks, and things left unsaid. When the show falters, it usually does so by being slightly too obvious in its metaphors, of hitting us over the head with larger points when what it does best is linger over the finer details. In this respect, season five has found a wonderful middle ground between the two, allowing symbols to articulate meaning in ways that define characters and let us into their world without ever leaving us feeling as if the show is spoon feeding us. I'm thinking here of a few moments from the episode, like Don staring down that elevator shaft, feeling as though the bottom has just dropped out and his perfectly constructed life has fallen apart, or Pete staring at his new infatuation (Alexis Bledel, who is occasionally passable, but acts as perhaps the only mar on this episode) as she draws a heart in the window then rolls it down, wiping away what they so briefly shared.

It is not immediately clear to me who the "Lady Lazarus" of the title is (the reference is to a Sylvia Plath poem, though), but I tend to think its Megan, who experiences a kind of rebirth this week as she sheds her job at SCDP to give acting another try. In doing so, she exposes in each of the other characters the episode focuses on a deficit, a hole that she leaves the job to fill, but that those she leaves behind cannot plug so easily. For Don, his illusion, held ever so briefly, of a life with a woman he loves helping him do the job he loves has shattered. For Peggy, her protege has left the nest, not to go on to bigger and better things as Peggy trained her to do, but to leave Peggy with a stack of unfinished work and a feeling that a lot of time has been wasted on a lost cause, a great talent who wants to be discovered...for doing something else entirely. For Pete (who, like Megan, takes some calls at a phone booth this evening), who has been echoing Don in so many ways this season, the journey plays out a bit like Don's realization on fast forward: he meets a beautiful girl, thinks briefly she will give him everything he wants, then realizes she may have different goals.

Throughout the season, there has been a lot of seeming jealousy of Megan Draper. Jealousy may not be the right word, actually, as no one has been bitter, exactly. They all just seem as if they envy Megan for some reason. At first, it appeared as if people felt she had been handed things she didn't earn due to her marriage to Don. Then it seemed as if they were uncomfortable because she had an innate talent at something they all worked hard for. Now, though, I've begun to think that everyone is put off by Megan because she is liberated in a way none of them are, nor likely ever will be. She knows what she wants, and she does what it takes to get it. It seems, at times this season, like Megan has been brought in to symbolize the women's lib movement in a way that Sally Draper won't grow up fast enough to handle. She is a different kind of woman from Peggy, who is mystified that Megan would quit a job she is good at, in a position that will let her grow, regardless of what she dreams of doing. If Peggy has shown us the sacrifices it took for women to gain even a modicum of equality, Megan is a different kind of woman, one who will get what she wants, and isn't satisfied sacrificing anything to get to it.

Megan does what she wants, and that may work out for her, but it has also hurt Don and Peggy in ways we will probably see play out over the next few weeks. Pete does what he wants, ignoring the fact that he might destroy his marriage to Trudy or the lives of two people he barely knows with his selfishness. I don't think its an accident that the product being hocked tonight is Cool Whip, a replication of whipped cream that pales in comparison to the original. Don, Peggy, Megan, and Pete have all tried out substitutes, and have found them all lacking.

For Don, Betty Draper was always a substitute for what he thought he wanted in a wife, a model when what he needed was an actress. There's an easy chemistry between he and Megan when they try out the Cool Whip pitch, each playing the part as they create a lived in relationship. If Don Draper is all artifice, hiding the man he really is, then Megan Draper may yet prove herself to be his perfect companion--an actress able to play the part of the perfect wife, even if she is less than willing to give in to his vision of perfection. For Peggy, the substitution is more immediate--she is called in to replace Megan at the pitch, and her chemistry with Don is cringe-inducing. Pete tries substituting out his wife, but is left with an empty hotel room and a quickly erased heart on a car window. Each of these replications was doomed to failure from the start, each attempting to recreate something that is difficult to imitate.

Characters on Mad Men always seem to be looking for escape, to get out of corners they've painted themselves into and away from the lives they have created for themselves. The biggest escape was the one the whole series is built on, the escape that transformed Dick Whitman into Don Draper, but this season has given us a multitude of little escapes and played around with how most of them look bright at the start and soon curdle. We have watched Betty Draper escape into food only to find herself alone at the bottom of an ice cream dish, Roger Sterling escaping with LSD and waking up with a dissolved marriage and a seeming new lease on life, and Sally Draper escaping into adulthood only to be exposed to its seedy underbelly, Tonight, we watched Megan Draper escape SCDP, but to what result, we do not yet know. The one person who isn't trying to escape of late is Don, who has spent most of the series  on edge and ready to bolt (think of when he asked Rachel Menken to run away with him, or when he disappeared in California for a few weeks), but now seems to be leaving his replication of the perfect lie behind in an effort to discover the real thing.

In the background of the episode, there are other signs of escape--news from Vietnam, a conflict America would soon be desperate to escape, and hints of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement that lead a class of people on a quest to escape from oppression. And the episode ends, perfectly, with another great escape, as Megan presses into Don's hands Revolver, the album that pushed The Beatles out of their pop phase and into much more experimental territory. The show's relationship with the greatest band of all time is an interesting one (if I ever get Modest Proposals back off the ground, I hope to tackle this subject), and that the episode that opened with a discussion of how its impossible to get the Beatles closed with a song by them is just the cherry on top of this near-perfect sundae. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a phenomenal song, a song about escape, a song Megan loves and a song that Don, in his new, settled life, has no patience for. He shuts it off and retreats into his bedroom, into the authentic life he is trying to build. But as the screen goes black, the music surges again. Don may think he can shut change out, but it is never that easy, and those looking for an escape route tend to find one, whether its through the drug use the song implies or at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

Grade: A

Notes:

-My favorite line of the night was Don's irritated "Yes, we're playing a hilarious joke on you" to Peggy when he was askign where Megan was.

-"Is it harder to lie to me now that you know me?"

-Is it just me or have the act breaks been off for the last few weeks? I see a natural point for a commercial break, then the show seems to zip off somewhere else for a minute or two and cut to commercial when I least expect it.

-"Have you seen those pictures of the Earth from space?" "Of course." "Do they make you feel small and insignificant?" "No, Jennifer does that."

-"Don, I love you. You're everything I hoped you'd be." "...You too."
Tags: Mad Men
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