I looked up the Sylvia Plath poem “Lady Lazarus” after watching this episode of “Mad Men” that borrows the title.
It’s an arresting work, blending her pain with Holocaust horrors in sharp-edged way that hurts to read. It was written about four months before she committed suicide in February 1963.
The obvious “Mad Men” parallel is the arresting character introduced in this seg, Beth, wife of Howard Daws, Pete Campbell’s craven train companion. I could hear the squeals of millions of TV geeks exulting in the collision of “Gilmore Girls” and “Mad Men” through the casting of Alexis Bledel as Beth. But there was nothing done with a wink in this role, and Bledel was really good, as “Gilmore” fans always knew she would be in a meaty dramatic part. A young wife, eaten alive by the certainty that her husband is cheating on her — something Plath knew all too well thanks to that rat Ted Hughes.
As much as this was an episode about Pete and his further descent into suburban alienation, it was an episode about Don and Megan too. The key intersection there for me was in the scene toward the end where Don is talking with Roger about Megan’s decision to quit Sterling Cooper to pursue acting again. He mentions to Roger (while lying on the couch in classic psychoanalysis pose) that he doesn’t want Megan to wind up like Betty or Megan’s mother — unhappy and unfulfilled. (He also delivers a great line: “I was raised in the ’30s. I wanted indoor plumbing.”)
Megan is benefitting from all of Don’s mistakes with Betty. (And now we know for sure Don sees Betty as a pitiable figure, like the rest of us.) Megan stands up for herself regarding the job, having a child, and she even tells Don to start “Revolver” with last song on side two, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” (As many others noted on Twitter, licensing the Beatles for this seg could not have come cheap. Somewhere, Johnny Moondog is smiling.)
But you can just tell that Don is uncomfortable with her decision – one of those great wordless perfs by Jon Hamm. And for anyone who might not have picked up on it, there was the tense scene in the Drapers’ kitchen where a barefoot Megan gushes: “You’re everything I hoped you’d be.” Don responds unconvincingly “You too.”
The Cool-Whip storyline was interesting for the question it raised about why Megan would turn down the chance at a commercial if she’s trying to restart her acting career? Maybe she thinks it would kill any legit cred she hoped to build up? The scene in the test kitchen gave Peggy a golden chance to yell at Don. I have no doubt he’s going to yell right back at her and then some in an episode or two. Peggy’s priceless moment of this seg had to be her answering her office phone as “Pizza House” in a lame attempt to avoid Don’s call. I don’t blame Peggy for being pissed at Megan for putting her in a tough spot with her boss. That would really suck. And she was clearly right when she hollered at Don about how much time and energy she too put in to shaping the boss’ wife into a copywriter. I think another point of that whole sequence was to prove that you can’t rehearse chemistry — either you got it or you don’t.
To the end, Peggy remains generous in spirit when it comes to Megan, even as Joan gets more cynical. Get the feeling Joan’s seeing her opening now that Roger is about to be back on the market? It was the way she sneered about the second wife “playbook.” Peggy, on the other hand, seems to be gradually reaching an is-that-all-there-is? career crisis moment. It’s complicated by the fact that it was so hard for her to get there in the first place, she won’t easily give it up. That’s why she remarks “that takes guts” as Megan departs their cramped office.
Another thing we see in this episode is the rise of pop culture as an all-consuming force in the social and economic landscape. It’s why Ginsberg refers to his pitch for Chevalier Blanc as “A Hard Day’s Night” and later “The Birds.” And this is why Don is so frustrated and feels so out of it when they’re trying to find the perfect song requested for the campaign by the client. Everything becomes a reference to some other element of pop culture – which is of itself an effort to narrow the scope of campaigns to hit they key adult demos first and foremost. Don is felling out of the demo, but Megan lets him down easy: “No one can keep up. It’s always changing.” (Just wait til you see Twitter and Facebook, Megs.)
Last thought before I nod off: What does Ginsberg have against “September Song.” It’s a timeless tune from Kurt Weill, a Jewish composer who fled Germany in the 1930s for the U.S., where he teamed with lyricist Maxwell Anderson on musical theater projects. “These precious days, I spend with you…”
That line almost as revealing for this seg as the last line of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
“And I eat men like air.” Just ask Pete Campbell.