Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 8: “Lady Lazarus”

Last week’s episode of Mad Men, “Lady Lazarus” is probably the most important of the series to date, and therefore, automatically, the most significant of any series currently on television. Namely, other than its standard excellence, it’s because they played the Beatles. It’s a widely acknowledged fact, or so I’ve read, that licensing rights to the Beatles’ music are incredibly hard to come by. Not only are the band’s existing members and heirs extremely picky choosers, turning down nearly every licensing request that comes their way – basically, you don’t touch the Beatles – but, if you are so lucky to be chosen, they want a ton of money from you, too. On a smaller scale, it’s a bit like grad school, except there’s only one place, not a couple hundred, and Mad Men just got it (and paid a lot more for it). Of course, if any TV series is to make history by getting the Beatles, albeit for the record sum of $250,000, it’s Mad Men, the best in the business.

When, in the latest episode, a choosy client wants some music for their commercial that ‘sounds like’ the Beatles, it’s granted that it is impossible to get the actual thing. The fictional ad men at SCDP, however adept at their work (advertising is, in other words, persuasion), are also realistic and don’t try to land the Beatles. Meanwhile, the entrusted creator of Mad Men (hence, God), Matthew Weiner, treats us to the real deal as Don listens to a snatch of “Tomorrow Never Knows” at the end of the episode, before shutting it off. As Don struggles to get his head around the wiry melodies of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, he’s more likely having trouble with Megan quitting her copywriting job at SCDP, to resume her acting career. Initially, Don seems to take his wife’s news uncharacteristically well, appearing to understand or at least be understanding. Though he doesn’t admit it, Megan isn’t exactly as Don wants her to be. Later, when cooking for her husband, albeit barefoot – hardly something the upright Betty Draper would have done – Megan tells him he is everything she had hoped he would be. He says it back, but with less conviction and afterwards, a look that only we catch; something that looks like fear. As Julia Turner writes in Slate, ‘So far, Megan has been Don’s ticket to modernity. He was an enlightened man of the ’60s, content to have a working spouse with ambitions of her own… [and] able to have the idea of an independent partner without actually having one’. Indeed, by having Megan at work with him, he could feign support for her independence, though really she wasn’t all that independent at SCDP, where her accomplishments were often not seen as her own but Don’s, too. Don was also able to keep an eye on her there. Had it been the former Mrs Draper, Don arguably wouldn’t have been, or rather had to have been, as he sees it, so understanding. Yes, it’s still the 1960s, but 1966 is like another era; protests against the Vietnam war are in full swing and while race riots are rife across America, SCDP hires their first black employee. In part, Megan – the new, feistier, more modern Mrs Draper – represents these changing times, while one thing’s for sure: Don doesn’t want a Betty, but is he ready for a Megan?

Somewhere between a Betty and a Megan, there’s a Beth – with the introduction of another intriguing character, Beth Dawes (Alexis Bledel), the wife of Pete’s train buddy, Howard. We get to know Beth in Pete’s car as he drives her home; Howard, clearly preoccupied with his ‘side dish’ in the city, is a no-show at the train station and Beth has car trouble. Here’s what we know about Beth: she gives money to homeless people, is scared of the photos of the earth from space, which she says are ‘surrounded by darkness’, is fully aware her husband is cheating on her and is fuming about it. Naturally, Beth and Pete wind up sleeping together. For “Gilmore Girls” fans accustomed to Alexis Bledel as the timid, book smart Rory Gilmore, it will come as quite a shock to see her looking more Emily Gilmore here in the role of a sexually frustrated suburban housewife, replete with grown-up bangs and pearls. Post-coital and barely dressed, when Beth decides that they shouldn’t continue the affair, Pete is confused and, as the days go by, grows increasingly perplexed. On the phone, Beth seems to enjoy telling him to ‘Fantasise about it, I will too, but it can never happen again.’ By refusing to sleep with him again, she regains the power she loses as a cuckolded wife and as the damsel in distress who cannot fix her car problems. Withholding sex, Beth reminds me of Megan in the “Zou Bisou” episode as she strips down to her underwear to clean up the apartment following Don’s birthday party. She is mad at him but tells him, ‘You don’t get to have this’, but then he does have her, on the floor amid the debris of the night before. On this occasion, Megan ultimately decides he can have her and I get the impression that Beth will soon give in to Pete’s unlikely charm, too. At work, not talking about Trudy, Pete asks Harry, ‘Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?’ to which his friend soberly replies, as though everyone knows the answer, ‘They just do.’

Just as Pete cannot understand Beth, Don, though he appears to, cannot understand Megan. Indeed, women are to the men in “Mad Men” what they were to Freud: ‘a dark continent’. But it’s not just the men that fear these women; it’s other women, too.  Arguably, Joan undermines Megan most of all when she leaves SCDP, writing her off as ‘the second wife’ type, whose plan all along is to prop herself up as an ‘actress with a rich husband’. But I have to agree with Peggy who can see, and with good reason is pretty intimidated by, Megan’s talent, as she credits Megan as ‘one of those girls who’s good at everything’ – which, evidently, she is; by day, she’s signing the Heinz account and by night, singing and dancing, too well, to “Zou Bisou”. Returning to women and their darkness, as Bledel says in her Slate interview of Sylvia Plath, ‘Plath wasn’t scared of exploring the darker side of her psyche… [Beth]’s not scared of it, either. She’ll definitely consider the things in her life that are dark.’ Aside from the darkness of women, there are other kinds of darkness in the episode. There are the photos of earth that Beth mentions, that incite both wonderment and anxiety. It must have been alarming to see for the first time the world that, up until that moment, had seemed so solid and safe, instead a small and insignificant orb, vulnerable, amid a pool of blackness. In one moment, where Don looks down the elevator shaft at the office, it’s a little like looking at the earth from space – all that space, the fear of falling. Just as he doesn’t expect Megan to lie to him or to quit her job, when he calls for the lift, he doesn’t expect that empty, brooding space. What’s to stop him from falling into the darkness? What’s to stop space swallowing up the earth? Megan’s already chosen to quit advertising; what’s to stop her from quitting him? Like much else we cannot control, Don doesn’t expect it to happen, but it does, hence that ode to the future and its eternal darkness, “Tomorrow Never Knows”. ‘Lay down all thought/Surrender to the void… Or play the game,/Existence to the end, of the beginning, of the beginning’. Though Don turns it off, it’s too much for him to take and he can’t keep up, the song picks up again as the credits roll. That’s life; it goes on, whether we like it, or not.

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