I am finding it harder and harder to write about Mad Men. After a more or less straightforward episode like "At the Codfish Ball"-which was "straightforward" for a Mad Men episode in that it presented a variety of different ways that people were either disappointed or were faced with a difficult epiphany in their life in an artful and true manner-this week brought another difficult and dazzling episode in "Lady Lazarus."
So far this season, there have been three "all-time" episodes: "Signal 30", "Far Away Places" and now "Lady Lazarus". When I say that I'm finding it harder to write about Mad Men what I mean is that how can you easily digest and try to explain your feelings about a show that keeps pushing emotional, psychological and artistic boundaries in so many ways? It seems like I am writing this each week, but "Lady Lazarus" was one of the funniest episodes of Mad Men while at the same time one of the most emotionally complex. For me, the difficulty in breaking down each episode lies in a small moment like Michael Ginsberg's mini-monologue on lunch money; Don and Joan's coded conversation in her office; or Peggy and Don's argument in the Cool Whip test kitchen. That is to say that the difficulty lies in the fact that this show is so masterful at building off of its characters and at trusting the audience's memory and understanding of those characters that the moments that then occur between each different character become impossibly rich-quite frankly they are the stuff of real life and, at least for me, that sort of thing takes a while to fully comprehend.
The Pete Campbell plot was a perfect example of Mad Men's mastery over its characters and their histories. This season has very much been about the plight of Pete Campbell and after two episodes where Pete was very much on the periphery; he was back in the spotlight in "Lady Lazarus." Pete has always been unfaithful to his wife Trudy. Like Don, there is something insatiable in Pete. But whereas Don's insatiability is tied to his troubled youth and the "Hobo Code" which when paired with Don's overall controlled character somehow makes it an endearing quality, Pete's is more closely tied to something immature and childish. Whenever Pete acts out, it strikes the viewer as watching a child throw a tantrum. Whether his acting out was towards Peggy or Don in Seasons 1 or 2; Trudy in Season 3; or now Roger in Seasons 4 and 5, Pete always seems petulant in one way or another. In "Lady Lazarus", after Pete slept with the wife of his commuter friend, Howard, he made a point of seeing her after she told him they shouldn't carry on their affair. Pete knows she is right-his look in the car after they have sex showed all the regret and anxiety he felt about having to go home and see Trudy-however, he still asks Harry in a classic coded Mad Men moment, "Why do they get to decide everything?" which is a line that sounds exactly like a child talking about his mother. In the end, Pete pushes the envelope as far as he can. He tells his commuter friend that he does need life insurance after all, just so he can have dinner at the man's house and be in the presence of his wife. Pete tries to force her into meeting him in the city for a rendezvous, but she never shows up and we are left with Pete looking forlornly at her as she draws a small heart in her car window's condensation. The subplot of "Lady Lazarus" is a poignant short story about a 32-year-old man whose romantic ideals and desires are foiled by the trappings of his ambition and the suburban life has constructed around himself. Again, that was the subplot.
The main action of the episode revolved around the complicated dynamics surrounding the Megan and Don work/life relationship. "At the Codfish Ball" hinted at the fact that Megan was not completely happy with her work in advertising and that hint became a full-fledged reality in "Lady Lazarus" when Megan confessed to Don, in a fantastic bedroom scene, that she no longer want to work at SCDP. The range of emotion covered in that scene was truly staggering. First Don is dismissive and tries to explain to Megan how she will feel about the business after she sees the work on TV or in the world. Then he is confused. He doesn't completely understand why she wants to leave; though he shows a great level of intuition by apologizing for the difficult position, he put her in by giving her the copywriter position. Then, when Megan truly explains her position, he comes to a gradual understanding and acceptance.
Acceptance, though, is a difficult word to use. For, even though Don seems warm towards Megan and her decision, there is something uncomfortable going on beneath the surface. First, there is Don's strange vision/premonition about the elevator shaft once he sees Megan out of the office on her last day. Then, there is the intimate Roger and Don chat where Roger relays the advice about going home to create a routine so that "you both stay out of trouble." And, finally, there is the closing montage where Don listens to "Tomorrow Never Knows"-which was one of the most mesmerizing television segments in recent memory-and we get images of Peggy at work smoking pot and Megan at her acting class lying on the floor, either "centering" or pretending to be dead. As the psychedelic trance of the track continues and John Lennon's nasally megaphone voice recites paraphrased lines from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is symbolism and uncertainty abound. The elevator could be a case of Chekhov's gun or it could be nothing at all. Based on Don and Peggy's fight in the Cool Whip kitchen there could be something we are supposed to pick up from their relationship as opposed to Don's relationship. What is to be made of Peggy's claim that Megan is "good at everything", that she is "just one of those girls"? And finally, what do we make of Don's admission that he doesn't know "what is going on out there"? Or the fact that he turns off the Beatles, which in the 1960's was a symbol of not embracing the change in culture? And further, how do we interpret the different and pained facial expressions Don makes after Megan resigns? There is a loss of order in both the world at large and in Don's private world, but we don't know quite exactly what it means to him or how he will respond.
Pete and Don are once again the same and not the same. In both of their lives, it seems like the women are the ones who "get to decide everything." And whereas Pete becomes petulant, is stood up in a hotel and throws a champagne glass, Don is brooding, introspective and symbolic. There is a plight going on with both their lives and Don's reaction again seems more appealing even despite its danger and vague overtones.
At least that's how I think I feel.