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Mad Men 5x08: Whole life and casualty

May 7, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Episode title: “Lady Lazarus”

Significance: Lifted from one of the darkest works by Sylvia Plath, the patron poet of those in despair. Plath committed suicide in 1963.

Time passages: The Halloween decorations at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, including a skeleton with an LBJ head, tell us “Lady Lazarus” (the episode) takes place in October of 1966.

Musical notes: The final scene and closing credits featured “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the trippy final track (although Megan tells Don to listen to it first) from The Beatles’ “Revolver” album (although many consider it to be the first track to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which would come out in the summer of 1967). The song’s lyrics about reincarnation and reinvention should have appealed to a man who made himself up, but Don can’t even make it the whole way through the entire 2:57 without lifting the needle. It’s another sign of the growing disconnect between Don and Megan (and Don and the changing times). In last season’s “Tomorrowland,” Don decided to marry Megan, thinking then that he was plugging his young trophy wife into the empty spaces in his life. But as we’ve seen this season, Don is getting something entirely different than what he bargained for, finding himself forced to adapt to fit into Megan’s life.

Dark shadows: Something very bad is going to happen on “Mad Men.” Whether it comes at the end of this season or the end of the entire series, we’re not sure. But the sense of foreboding and foreshadowing of doom gets more pronounced each week. This week, it involved Pete glibly announcing his office insurance policy covers suicide, and Don nearly walking into an open elevator shaft as his wife left her advertising job for the final time. (Not surprisingly, “Lady Lazarus” (the poem) references both a suicide attempt and a near-fatal accident. Of course, the iconic “Mad Men” image we see every week is of a man falling. We originally assumed that was a figurative image, but now we’re not sure that it’s not a man literally falling to his death. Might that man be a despaired Pete Campbell or a disillusioned Don Draper? We used to think “Mad Men” was a show about the death of the American dream, but we’re starting to think the message is more cynical than that, a reminder that – like Don Draper, who’s just a figment of Dick Whitman’s mind – that dream never really existed at all.

Affair shake: The Pete-Howard-Beth shenanigans take on a surreal feel because of the total absence of Pete’s wife, Trudy, from the episode and obviously that was a conscious decision on the part of Matt Weiner, who wrote “Lady Lazarus.” The setup certainly illustrates Pete’s self-centered nature, but it also calls to mind the feel of the “Mad Men” pilot when we didn’t learn Don Draper had a wife waiting for him at home until the very last scene. But we soon learn Pete can’t even have an affair properly, falling hopelessly for Beth’s “big blue marble” melancholy and winding up powerless and puppy-dog eyed as she traces a heart on a frosty car window in the train station lot.

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