You know the story of the blind men and the elephant. I know you do. There’s this group of blind men, and they all go up to an elephant, and every single one of them touches a different part of the creature and concludes it’s a different thing every time, never suspecting they’re all touching the same beast. The story’s a part of several religious traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, and it’s made the leap to a more general cultural parable that can stand in for all manner of things. It’s been used in physics to explain the differences and similarities between waves and particles, Wikipedia tells me, and any time you find someone talking about how hard it can be to see the whole when you’re so tied in to looking at the parts, you can bet that damn elephant is going to pop up.
I think you see my point now. Talking about a season of Mad Men is hard enough when you have the whole 13 episodes laid out in front of you. It’s murderously difficult when you’re in the thick of it, when all you have to go on is a vague sense of where Matt Weiner and his writers are heading and the knowledge that they will always, always try to outmaneuver you. They’re really fucking good at it; it’s what they do, and it’s why we love them.
But at the same time, I’m feeling very blind-man-touching-a-trunk about tonight’s episode, “Lady Lazarus,” which feels even more than a usual episode of the show like something that is pointing toward a larger purpose, a larger thematic statement, and we just don’t have all of the pieces yet. I feel like we could start just about anywhere with this one, and we could have an immensely pleasurable discussion about, say, Don Draper staring down an empty elevator shaft, right after the bottom has fallen out of his world, wind howling in his ears. That discussion would go on for a good 1,500 words, and then we’d realize that, hey, we hadn’t even mentioned Pete’s dalliance with his friend’s wife, who makes the childish little heart in the condensation on the window for him, then erases it with a flick of the power window switch.
“Lady Lazarus” feels big. It feels like a Rosetta Stone for the season, one that we don’t have all of the pieces to read just yet, but an episode that will seem even more obviously great in retrospect once we do. At the same time, though, analyzing it feels ever more like taking hold of one thing and trying to make it stand in for the episode as a whole. In this fifth season, Mad Men has all but perfected the art of taking over-obvious symbols—that elevator shaft, that window fog—then not insisting they apply to the characters as a whole. Don feels the bottom dropping out in a way he can’t articulate, so he takes it out on Peggy. Pete’s fallen in love with someone who might as well be a helpless child, playing at being grown-up. But these circumstances don’t apply unilaterally. These are all people trapped in their own lives, and the episode chooses one perfect image for each and every one of them, but it doesn’t stretch to make those images do too much of the work. It’s just fantastic television, and it continues a streak that might be the very best stretch of episodes the show has ever produced. (Seriously, is there a stretch to rival “Signal 30” through this episode? And I know a lot of you would include “Mystery Date” in there as well.)
My first thought is that “Lady Lazarus” is about how people never get what they want—hey, that something this season’s tangential guests, the Rolling Stones, sang about. But that’s not really true. Don’s gotten more or less what he wants. (He’s certainly gotten the indoor plumbing, at least.) Peggy, too, is working in a job she’d kill for. Both Roger and Pete say they have what they want, but those words sound increasingly hollow. All season long, there’s been discussion of whether the other characters are jealous of Megan for so easily attaining things they’ve worked very hard to get. This episode, however, reveals that the characters aren’t jealous of Megan because she didn’t have to work as hard as them to get where she did. They’re jealous of her because she knows what she wants, and she’s going to do whatever it takes to get it. She quits Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to have another shot at becoming an actress, and that’s something neither Don nor Peggy can quite understand, even as they support her desire to do so.
Here’s the thing: We tell people they should do what they want all of the time, but it’s rare that we mean it. Doing what you want usually involves fucking somebody else over. Even here, Megan’s taking away the workplace relationship Don had come to like so much, and she’s piling a bunch of work on Peggy without seeming too upset about it. (Granted, that was all Don’s idea. But she could have stuck to her guns a little more firmly when he said she should just quit straight off.) But sometimes, doing what you want involves really hurting someone else—like a spouse whom you cheat on because you’ve got a new fascination with the guy or girl you meet at the train station. In those moments, the idea of just doing whatever you want, damn the consequences, starts to seem more than a little hollow, as empty and devoid of nutrition as Cool Whip.
Cool Whip’s a chemical imitation of the real thing, something that’s designed to taste good enough to surpass the original, so long as you just give in and “taste it.” But Cool Whip—like Miracle Whip or a maraschino cherry—is only good as a substitute so long as you’re not intimately acquainted with the real thing. Cool Whip tastes good, but mostly in isolation. It melts down into a miracle, maybe, but it can’t compete with the taste of real whipped cream, ideally done yourself in your own kitchen. The characters most central to tonight’s episode—Don, Peggy, Pete, and Megan—have all done their fair amount of looking for sustenance in a substitution, but the substitution will always start to taste a little empty if you give it too much thought. It’s why Don and Peggy’s attempt to replicate Don and Megan’s easy banter falls flat (in a scene that’s one of the most cringeworthy of the whole series). They’re trying to replicate something that can’t be replicated.
In some ways, Don Draper really should have been with an actress from the start. He’s a man obsessed with chasing mirages and images that seem more permanent than they actually are. It’s a big reason he ended up with print ad model Betty, and it’s also why he instantly glommed on to Megan when he saw in her a kind of photo negative of his old life. All marriages involve some degree of public performance—the couple acting out old, comfortable roles that their friends and family will know them for—but Don and Megan’s seems simultaneously genuine and like a performance. The two are really in love with each other, but they also constantly seem to be attempting to construct a better marriage via copywriting. It’s a fascinating dynamic, and so much of it is evident in the expressions the two wear when Peggy says she’s “absorbing” the little scene they played out—Don is smiling, but Megan’s face slowly sours. She’s good at playing the role of Megan Draper, faithful advertising wife, but the true self is rising to the surface, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Megan’s desires don’t have the potential to really destroy anybody, though. Don is upset about it for reasons he’s unable to express, and Peggy has more work to do, but they’ll likely move on to other things after a week or two. Pete Campbell, meanwhile, falls into an affair with Beth, the wife of Howard, the man he talks to while riding the train, and he seems to grab hold of that affair far more excitedly than Beth is capable of. Of course, if word of this ever came out, it would hurt Howard (who’s an absolute asshole), but it would also hurt Trudy, who’s done nothing but be the wife she was always told to be. Yet Pete’s willing to throw it all away for a somewhat mysterious woman who seems to have some serious mental health issues. How much of this is just Beth playing the role she knows Pete wants her to play? She says early on that men have been watching her since before it was appropriate, and she obviously knows how to manipulate Pete’s gaze, so that he’s on the hook but unable to get what he truly wants. (She doesn’t come to the rendezvous he sets up in a hotel room.) She becomes like his Daisy Buchanan, someone who is just out of his reach and sends him just enough rope for him to willingly tie himself up. She’s stringing him along, but he’s all too willing to be strung. Beth seems both seriously depressed and a little excited by the idea of having Pete bouncing along behind her, all too happy to have the hook through his lip.
The characters this season of Mad Men all seem to be looking for escape routes, whether they’re cognizant of it or not. Sometimes, they find those escape routes entirely accidentally—as when Roger dropped acid and gained the ability to admit his marriage had fallen apart. More often, though, the characters externalize those escape routes, situating them in other people or things, thinking that if they just find the right person or come up with the right pitch, everything will work perfectly. The character who’s not doing this is Don, who’s already found his escape route and seems pretty happy with the result. That’s also why he seems to have so much less patience for all the SCDP bullshit. His work life is just a sidebar to what he’s really interested in now, even as his wife increasingly has more going on than playing house with him. Don was always someone who could be happy with the imitation, but now, he increasingly wants the real thing, even as said real thing is starting to feel like her actual life is going on somewhere out there in the city. This isn’t to say that the two are incompatible or doomed to break up, but they’re increasingly on entirely different paths, and neither of them seems to realize it just yet, except subconsciously.
Escape routes never go quite where you expect them to, do they? Chasing what you want inevitably means taking away something someone else wants, whether that’s as simple as giving your co-worker, confidante, and champion more work or as complicated and hurtful as cheating on your wife. When you escape, you inevitably leave a bunch of other people behind, and they’re all still stuck at their desks or in their lives, waiting for you to come home and resume living the life they always thought you were living. Both Don and Peggy seem baffled by the idea of Megan leaving SCDP because they can’t imagine wanting anything more than that, but also because they’ve seen this as a kind of life’s work. That Megan would want something else is baffling to them, because the escape route they envisioned back in that season-three finale went straight through the lobby of these new offices.
And, of course, throughout the episode and season, the country as a whole is looking for an escape—from Vietnam or from the increasingly stultifying ways of the culture that was or from the kinds of prejudice and intolerance that have made a land unwelcoming to those who aren’t privileged, white men. That escape can come from anywhere, from drugs or from chasing youth culture or from putting on the best Beatles album that ever was or will be. But the chasing of that escape becomes a kind of drug in and of itself, because you can’t ever escape the fact that you are who you are, and you will never get everything you want. You’ll compromise, and you’ll fail, and you’ll go back home, tail between your legs. It’s a tail, it’s a trunk, it’s an ear, it’s a leg, it’s the same animal but you can’t pull back far enough to see that simple fact. It won’t all work out. Something will have to break.
Of course, one character gets a glimpse of the ultimate escape route in this episode, and it’s something that should fill us all with a sense of dread. Escape routes never go where you think they will. Sometimes, escape routes go straight down.
- Matt Weiner was really broken up about the cessation of The WB as a going concern, huh? Because for as much as we can all thank him for returning Larisa Oleynik (who was on Nickelodeon, but whatever) to the air and for apparently getting it in his head that he needed to reassemble the cast of Jack & Bobby for no real reason, he somehow didn’t realize that it only seems like Alexis Bledel can act when she’s talking really quickly. Bledel’s affectless performance is the one blemish on an otherwise stunning episode.
- I loved the way the episode talked about how you’d never get the Beatles… only to close with an actual Beatles song. Just so Weiner can fucking brag to us about how much money AMC is giving him! That said, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the greatest songs ever written and a perfect capper for the episode, since it’s all about the escape of drug use. I also liked Don having no patience for it. I also liked finally having a reason why so many of this season’s episodes have seemed to take place entirely on standing sets. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard the Beatles used in a TV series. It’s like Mad Men throwing down a gauntlet, so you just know season five of Breaking Bad will open with the closing suite from Abbey Road or something.)
- The use of Revolver—which, again, is the best Beatles album—is pretty interesting, because it both reflects how the band was the pinnacle of pop culture at the time and was about to use that position to dramatically alter that culture. Revolver began the period in which the group would use its clout to pretty much do whatever it wanted, resulting in its most experimental albums. Revolver and Rubber Soul bridge the gap between the earlier, more conventional material, and everything that came after (though Lennon and McCartney were somehow genetically incapable of writing anything that wasn’t structured as a perfect pop song). In this episode, then, Revolver is a harbinger of all that is to come.
- I also like how world events are intruding more and more on what’s happening. The characters may not think too much about, say, Vietnam, but it’s starting to be present, more and more.
- It boggles my mind that we’ve had so few Don and Joan scenes throughout the series, given how much every single one of them is a treat. Maybe that’s because we’ve had so few of them, come to think of it.
- The scene between Don and Roger is sort of a “what’s the matter with kids today” type of scene, but I like it because they’re grousing about something that’s so “old man” to grouse about—how nobody had these breaks when they were kids—but they’re both so funny doing it.
- Line of the night goes to Don, surprisingly: “Yes, we’re playing a hilarious joke on you.”
- One thing I’m glad the show didn’t pay off: Pete’s mention of suicide would have been terrible foreshadowing had he, y’know, committed suicide. I’m not saying he can’t still do it, but I’m glad we got out of this episode without him doing so, as that would have been clumsy.
- That said, we now have Chekhov’s Elevator Shaft to be excited about. Just how much of an L.A. Law fan is Matt Weiner?
- Next week on Mad Men: Betty! And Henry Francis!