This review contains spoilers.
5.8 Lady Lazarus
Does anyone else have the feeling Matthew Weiner enjoys playing with us? So willing are we Mad Men fans to dissect symbolism, Weiner must know he only has to have Peggy walk into a room holding a pineapple for internet to sag under the weight of essays on Pete Campbell’s essential pineapple-ness (spiky, but sweet), or theses on how tropical fruit represents Peggy’s frustrated ambition/Catholic guilt/adopted child. It must be tempting to prod your audience into spouting pseud’s corner-style theories over a silent glance or an off-the-cuff line, and it’s hard to imagine that’s not what the showrunner’s doing at times.
It wasn’t a pineapple this week, but an elevator shaft. After kissing wife Megan goodbye as she left the Time-Life building, her advertising career, and her husband behind her, Don stood for a moment in contemplation of an empty lift shaft. Was he surrendering to the void, as The Beatles would later advise in the episode’s excellent closing montage? Was he foreseeing the fall for which his marriage was headed? Foreshadowing another grizzly workplace lawnmower-style accident? Or could Don just have been, you know, looking down a lift shaft? Time, and Matthew Weiner, will tell.
Lady Lazarus was a slow-burner, even by Mad Men’s standards, and one of those episodes that will likely percolate away at the back of the mind, gradually bubbling up meaning (I sometimes think we should all sign up to a self-imposed 3-day embargo on recaps of the show, as that’s often how long it takes for episodes to bed in).
There were some laughs: Peggy’s “Pizza House” bellow is surely someone’s text alert by now, and Pete’s “Do they explode or something?” puzzlement after Roger offered him the skis was priceless. But mostly, it was a two pronged story about getting – or not getting – what you want, starring Pete and Megan.
Megan first. Lady Lazarus was Matthew Weiner’s first solo writing credit since the Zou Bisou Bisou action of A Little Kiss, and it seems he has a thing for the would-be thesp (who can blame him?). Perhaps prompted by her father’s disapproval of her bourgeois career choice in last week’s episode, Megan struck out from under Don’s shadow this week and quit SCDP to pursue her dream of acting.
The early signs wrong-footed the audience, having us suspect Megan of cheating on Don rather than sneaking out for an off-Broadway call-back, but then a chat in the Ladies’ explained all. Megan would rather fail at acting than succeed at advertising, and she has the guts (and wealthy husband, it should be said) to abandon a promising ad career and pursue a life on the stage.
Not since A Little Kiss has the generation gap between the Drapers been more pronounced than in this week’s episode. Don teetered on grumpy old man territory with his exclamations about music and The Beatles, while Megan’s baby boomer-privilege clashed with his silent generation quest for financial stability over than artistic ambition. “I was raised in the thirties.” Don tells Roger dryly, “My dream was indoor plumbing”. I’ll tell you when we’ll really see that age-gap cause a fissure: when Megan lands a part in Hair…
Pete, of whom we’ve seen little since his bravura breakdown in Signal 30, was given something else to whinge about this week. A sudden infatuation with another man’s wife (a slightly wooden turn from The Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel) led to more from the Pete we all know and dislike: entitled, desperate, and whining about things not going his way.
“Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?” Pete asks Harry, in reference to women. It’s both a superb moment of irony for a show that, over four and a half seasons has shown women compromising, being patronised, and battling for a scrap of agency; and a sign of things to come. I’ll spare you a GCSE coursework-style reading of the Plath poem referenced by the episode’s title, but seeing as Lady Lazarus is about new incarnations of a woman rising from the ashes and eating men like air, it’s little wonder the likes of Pete are getting worried…
And what of that tantalising reference to Pete’s insurance policy covering his suicide? Another rifle-like hint towards Pete’s departure, or just more teasing from Weiner?
Interesting this week was the return of the view that advertising is a soulless, cynical, corporate endeavour – an observation that to a modern audience is as obvious as smoking being bad for you, or those checked sports coats the boys wear at parties being a heinous crime to fashion.
Before this series, there was the odd flutter of anti-ad talk (from Midge’s beatnik buddies and Peggy’s arty crowd), but season five has really laid into what SCDP does. After Don’s “Nobody grows up wanting to be in advertising” from a few episodes back, Stan piped up as a frustrated artist this week, telling Peggy he understands Megan leaving, as “You work your ass off for months – bite your nails, and for what? Heinz. Baked. Beans”.
The work hasn’t yet lost its shine for Peggy, but is that only a matter of time? Now Megan’s off in her leotard pretending to be a tree, perhaps it’s time for Miss Olson to start penning the great American novel.
The episode checked out to the psychedelic sounds of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, a song that sounds jarringly modern even now, and one that, despite trying, grumpy old man Don failed to get to grips with.
There was stunning work from John Hamm this week, it should be said, and also from Vincent Kartheiser and Elizabeth Moss, all of who made a little go a long way. Sometimes the slow-burners are the Mad Men episodes that stay with you the longest, and something tells me I won’t forget Dick Whitman spinning Revolver in his space-age pad for a good while yet.