"Mad Men" Review: "Lady Lazarus" (Season 5 Episode 8) - "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream..."
The long-awaited fifth season of Mad Men continues with episode 8, “Lady Lazarus,” and as always, I’m here with my weekly review and analysis. To do the hour justice, this review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.
Spoilers for “Lady Lazarus” after the jump…
“It’s so easy when it’s someone else’s life, isn’t it?”
If you want to know everything “Lady Lazarus” was about, just study that final musical montage. Don listening to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” is about as on-the-nose, thematically articulate as Mad Men gets; the song – John Lennon’s experimental ode to LSD – advocates looking inside oneself to take stock of one’s own existence, to discover true ‘knowing’ by listening to the ‘meaning of within.’ As the song plays, we see all the characters in need of such self-examination: Don, Pete, and to a far lesser extent, Peggy, while Megan – who followed Lennon’s advice, albeit without the help of LSD – lies in a peaceful, meditative trance in her acting class. The meaning is obvious. Matthew Weiner, just like Lennon, is advocating how crucial it is to practice and act on self-examination when searching for happiness, and he’s given us character examples that speak to the truth of this lesson. Those who can, first and foremost, be honest about themselves – like Megan and Roger (who literally took LSD to find himself) – discover enlightenment, while those who continue to deflect their own pain – like Don and Pete – are headed for heartbreak.
After Roger, Megan becomes the second character this season to take a harsh, honest look at what makes her unhappy, and though it’s difficult, she feels so much better for the experience. “Lady Lazarus” focused on many of the insecurities the characters feel, and Megan’s has been clear from the premiere: she knows she’s good at advertising, but being married to the boss makes it impossible for her to ever feel pride, or even control, in her accomplishments. As she explains to Peggy, her job would be equally secure with or without last week’s brilliant Heinz pitch, and even at her best, she can’t be fully dedicated to work with romantic commitments so close by (dramatized in her outburst at Howard Johnson’s in “Far Away Places”). Megan wants to feel fulfilled, and try as she might to ignore it, there’s no way she can do that in a job that will never demand anything from her.
Acting, then, isn’t just a passion, but a challenge she can feel proud of attempting whether or not she succeeds. Indeed, it’s her failure in the off-Broadway tradition that reinforces how much more comfortable she feels in that world, and though she initially keeps this secret from Don, performing the Cool Whip routine with her husband provides a breakthrough moment. As Mr. and Mrs. Draper casually banter their way through this lovely pitch (which was a real 1966 ad campaign), they seem so fun together, so cute, so finely-tuned and functional, but for the audience – and Peggy, who’s been playing confidante to both of them – it’s clear that this is only a mask to hide deep-seated dysfunction. Megan won’t tell Don how unhappy she is at SCDP, and Don won’t tell Megan how terrible he feels (and how drunk he gets) when she isn’t around. It’s immensely frustrating for us (and Peggy) to watch, because we know how easily they could be this perfect together, on the surface and inside, if they just communicated the secrets they internalize.
But Megan isn’t as oblivious as Peggy and we initially assume, for she does notice the hypocrisy in their ‘perfect couple’ routine. With this final piece of insight, Megan does the difficult but proper thing and comes clean to Don (and, in a sense, herself) about what she’s really been up to and why. If Jessica Parè gets an Emmy nomination – and I seriously hope she does – “Lady Lazarus” is her obvious submission episode, if only for that brilliant nighttime confession scene. Parè is simply fantastic in that moment, trying so hard to be honest about something she herself is still trying to wrap her heart and mind around. It’s a raw, piercing piece of acting, and Parè makes it clear that despite the difficulty of relating such personal introspection to another human being, the process is also incredibly therapeutic.
Don reacts as well as Megan could have possible hoped; he’s initially confused, as he probably should be, but once he understands, he agrees to help Megan however he can. Nevertheless, accepting this makes Don feel uncomfortable, and though he can’t quite put his finger on it, the reason is clear to the audience. As made clear by Don’s dark nighttime panic in “Far Away Places,” and underlined in his lonely, drunken stupor of tonight’s first act, Don is a dysfunctional mess without his new wife. When Megan’s close by, Don is a content, laid-back figure, but he simply doesn’t know what to do with himself when she’s out of reach. It’s an unhealthy obsession, one that manifests itself in shocking, violent tendencies when the balance is thrown off (think of the couple’s rough floor sex in the premiere or Don chasing Megan through the apartment in “Far Away Places”). This is Don’s greatest insecurity, and just as Megan dealt with her personal anxiety by coming clean to her husband and asking for help, Don needs to take stock of this flaw in his existence and tell Megan how he feels right away.
The consequences of failing to do so are already beginning to manifest. Don grows increasingly restless during Megan’s last day at the office, admitting how uncomfortable it feels to Joan and Roger and unfairly chewing out Peggy at the Cool Whip pitch. As Megan departs in the elevator, Don possibly plucks up the courage to come clean about how insecure he feels without her, but when he calls an elevator of his own, he’s greeted with an empty shaft. As with the Beatles montage, the symbolism is hard to miss. Megan’s already out of his reach – in Don’s mind, at least – a point hammered home when he returns to the apartment to find Megan cooking dinner. The image veers too close to Betty for comfort; all Don can see is another struggling actress reduced to a housewife. As Joan notes to Peggy, “that’s the kind of girl Don marries,” and in a sense, she’s right. The old Don needed that simple, uncomplicated comfort in his life, but new Don has long since realized how unhealthy that sort of relationship is for him. He needs a partner, not a servant, and at their best, Don and Megan are true partners. Don is positively terrified that Megan’s new path will end, or irrevocably alter, the nature of their partnership, and that he will wind up regressing towards the disloyal, confused man he once was.
Don and Megan could probably find a way to fulfill their individual dreams while still working as a healthy, romantic unit, but it would require Don coming clean to himself and his wife about his deep-seated insecurities. Given that he flips off the Beatles record, though, it seems Don’s not quite ready to face the challenge of introspection.
He’s a hell of a lot closer than Pete, of course, whose dark downward spiral continues in another standout hour for the character. It’s a lot harder to nail down exactly what Pete’s insecurities are, but he has an awful lot of them, and he hasn’t even come close to recognizing that it’s something inside himself, not an external force, that’s making him unhappy. Tonight’s episode once again focuses on Pete’s crisis of masculinity, and the results are more overtly disturbing than ever before. Thanks to “Signal 30,” we know how emasculated Pete feels by suburban life and professional circumstance, and in “Lady Lazarus,” he attempts to reestablish his manhood. It starts with Roger who, thanks to overcoming his own demons in “Far Away Places,” has abandoned his petty competition with Pete and decides to give the kid a new account.
As with any perceived affirmation, this makes Pete feel powerful, and when he meets Alexis Bledel (whose character had a real name, but whose distinctively beautiful blue eyes shout ‘Alexis Bledel’ too loudly for me to remember anything else) on the drive home from work, he sees an opportunity to feel ‘manly.’ Pete’s conception of masculinity is, of course, childish and sexist: with women, he only feels like a man if his partner is fragile and helpless. He needs to have some kind of power over her, and with Bledel, he has power on just about every front. He gets to give her a ride home, he holds the answers to what her husband’s been up to, and he can give her the new sexual experience she (to his mind) craves. His brief affair with Bledel blows into a full-blown obsession, not because of anything he sees in her, but for the power he feels in her presence.
That’s about all this story amounts to for Pete; it’s yet another example of how far he’s fallen, and a warning of how much further he has to go if he can’t get his personal issues under control. What makes the story worthwhile and revelatory, to my mind, is how it explores the effect such limited and self-serving notions of masculinity have on women. Bledel’s character is clearly a tortured spirit, someone so constrained by suburban life and an insensitive, disloyal husband that she’s practically dead on the inside. Bledel is tremendous in the part, her character simply heartbreaking to watch at every turn, and we know that she’s grown this way not of her own volition, but because of men like Pete, men who fill their need to feel powerful by using and abusing women. Her husband is exactly the same way, Don once acted the same way (and left Betty Draper a similarly hollow shell), and the saddest part is that Pete’s actions will ultimately harm his lovely, perfect wife Trudy to a similar degree. Trudy isn’t even mentioned by name in this episode, yet her presence is felt in every moment Pete spends with Bledel. It’s a vicious cycle, born of a selfish, misguided notion of gender roles, and if Pete could get over just this one massive insecurity, he would be an infinitely better person for it.
But again, Pete’s capacity for introspection is too finite for that to happen. After Bledel rejects his advances, Pete asks “Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?” It’s the most unsettling line of the episode. By placing the blame for his unhappiness not only on Bledel, but on women as a whole group, Pete’s actions are painted as grossly misogynistic. Matthew Weiner tends to refrain from making direct judgments of sixties social norms, but in this case, he isn’t playing around: Pete’s story is a clear commentary on how destructively men of the time could use gender identity for personal fulfillment, and the powerful part is how universal the plot ultimately winds up feeling. This concept of masculinity did not perish along with the sixties, and in some ways, Weiner’s holding a mirror up to our society as much as he is to a former generation.
On a lighter note, Peggy continues to prove herself the show’s most kick-ass, quote-worthy, compulsively watchable character, even in an episode where her role is more reactionary than introspective. Peggy’s certainly dealing with issues of her own this season, but those were largely on hold this week. Instead, her primary focus was to comment on – and be frustrated by – Don and Megan’s actions, giving Elizabeth Moss many wonderful notes to play. Peggy yelling “Pizza House!” into the phone to prevent an awkward conversation with Don may be the hardest I’ve laughed at Mad Men all season, but her sincere moments with Megan, Don, and Joan proved just as emotionally stirring. Moss really can do just about anything the writers ask of her at this point, and as the show grows more and more ensemble centric, I find that Peggy is often the glue that holds the series together. She’s the sane, funny, relatable center of a vast, ambitious character epic, and even if “Lady Lazarus” won’t go down as one of the all-time great Peggy episodes, it did a nice job reinforcing how invaluable she is to the show’s creative success.
Mad Men has been on a pretty incredible hot streak this season, and though I don’t think “Lady Lazarus” quite lived up to the last four or five incredible hours, it was a pretty tremendous episode in its own right, and furthered the season’s character and thematic arcs in completely satisfying and fascinating ways. I’m already prepared to call this my favorite season of the show to date – which makes it one of my favorite television runs of all time – and the biggest praise I can give to tonight’s hour is that it shifted into a lower, more relaxed gear without sacrificing the amazing quality we’ve been treated to over the past few weeks. Next Sunday can’t come fast enough.
Come back next Sunday night for my review of
Episode 9, “Dark Shadows”
“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night an hour or two after the episode airs,
Right here on www.jonathanlack.com