Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Out of the Ash"

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Eight, "Lady Lazarus"

Okay--perhaps I spend too much time puzzling out--and reading into--the titles of these episodes, but really--why would Matt Weiner name an episode "Lady Lazarus" and not have a closer reading of Sylvia Plath's 1962 poem in mind? The episode's title has got to infer more than just Megan being "reborn" (a la the subject of Jesus' raising-from-the-dead miracle) from the 'deadly' job of copy writer (ouch to Peggy) to the life-affirming job of actress. That's way too trite an interpretation (well, I hope, at least, that he's more knowledgeable about Plath than just reading titles). First, Megan is no corpse just lying around waiting for a savior to bring her back to life. Second, the title of this installment is the exact same as the title of Sylvia Plath's brilliant poem that ends with the stanza "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air." Take that, Ted Hughes--er Don Draper... So, my cynical question for the evening is: just how good an actress is Megan? It's not been much more than a year since the day she--Don's secretary--slid into his office, told him she thought she'd like to have a job like his or Peggy's someday, and seduced him, telling him "I just want you now," that she wouldn't go crying about this the next day. Over the course of that year, she became Don's wife, got the copywriting job she said she wanted, demonstrated some real talent at it, suffered an existential crisis about missing acting, and is now--voila--back in acting school, financially supported by Don. Now, I'm not necessarily suggesting that she's completely Machiavellian. She might really have fallen for Don (he is the charming Don Draper, after all) and care for him. AND she might have thought from early on--having watched him from her desk by his office as he struggled with the hell that was his post-divorce year--that she could snag him and get what she wants from him. She does move perfectly from her 'scene' in the bathroom with Peggy to acting out the potential Cool-Whip commercial with Don. The tears that spring to her eyes when she says 'good-bye' to her fellow-copywriters seemed a bit overdone to me. Joan certainly seems to see Megan from this un-romantic, practical (okay, cynical) perspective: "She's going to be a failing actress with a rich husband." For those of you who disagree, Peggy will offer support for your position: "No, I think she's just one of those girls who's good at everything." Joan and Peggy are probably the two smartest characters on the show, though Peggy can be more naive. Who's right here? Is it an either/or proposition? I'm not even certain, but I think the situation raises intriguing possibilities.

Whatever Megan's prime motivation for being with Don, though, she's making him a better man. While he--and Roger--don't quite get the follow-your-dream manifesto of the younger generation ("I was raised in the '30s. My dream was indoor plumbling," Don says.), he is expanding his perspective--particularly on women: "Why shouldn't she do what she wants? I don't want her to end up like Betty. Or her mother," he says to Roger, not aware of what went down with Roger and Megan's mother last week (pun intended). He is surely evolving, though he's not quite ready for the psychedelic Beatles. Before Megan gave him "Revolver," he couldn't even tell the difference between the old song the clients with the "Hard Day's Night" ad wanted to use and a song of the Beatles. He was, after all, the man who said he'd wear earplugs when accompanying his daughter to Shea Stadium the year before. But, he pours a drink and sits down to listen to "Tomorrow Never Knows": "Turn off your mind; relax and float down stream. It is not dying." He flips the music off and heads to his bedroom before too much of it plays, but he is not "dying." In some ways, he's been re-born into a new life--another Lazarus of the episode.

Meanwhile Pete Campbell seems to be trying to live Don's old life--and failing miserably at it. He's got all of the old Don's bad behavior, yet none of his charm and interesting inner conflicts. And none of Don's ability to pick interesting mistresses. The women Don slept with while married to Betty--and after his divorce--were always very different from her. He fled his bored and boring housewife to spend time with women who were professionals, creative-types, and usually had minds of their own. Pete leaves his own disappointing--and disappointed? she's got to be--housewife at home to go and woo someone else's disappointed housewife. But, mostly Pete's problem is that he sees male/female relationships as a zero-sum game: "Why do they get to decide what's going to happen?" he whines to Harry after Beth insists their liaison won't be repeated. "They just do," replies the equally dissatisfied Harry. Pete and Harry both feel that since they're not happy with how their relationships are going--since they're not winning what they want--that the women must be winning. There has to be a winner and a loser. Yet, the women in their lives aren't really happy either. They're not in places that are good for them. Don, to his credit, wants Megan to be in a place that's good for her. He really has grown--a lot. He's joined the second half of the sixties, while Pete--despite staying up-to-date with literature, reading the post-modern-ish "Crying of Lot 49" on the train--remains a 1950s man, through and through.

So, while it remains to be seen what will happen in and to Don's and Megan's marriage, Don is a better man and a better person now. Pete--as almost always--is just a creep. And, I'll be intrigued to see how Joan and Peggy's debate about Megan gets resolved. What do you think: Megan Draper, Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus or just someone who's rebirthing herself as an actress?


  1. I'm not a fan of Sylvia Plath, but I really was a fan of this episode. Best line of the evening: Peggy yelling at Don, after the flubbed pitch for Kool Whip: "I'm not the one you're mad at!" (or something along those lines).... Creepy image with Don staring down the elevator shaft, into the abyss, and creepy dialogue with Pete, like Willy Loman, speculating about the suicide benefits of his life insurance policy. Lots of suggestions about the men and possible ends, but, the title is, after all "Lady Lazarus". Plath wrote this after a failed suicide attempt, right? Here's one of the often quoted parts of this poem: "Dying/Is an art/like everything else./I do it exceptionally well." Isn't Megan, according to Peggy, "one of those girls that just does everything well?".

    1. I also loved the Peggy yelling at Don bit. Poor Don had both of these important women in his life challenging his authority last night. But, he handled it really well. Not so Pete. I hadn't thought specifically about Willy Loman, but did find it chilling to hear Pete mention the suicide clause. He's been so depressed lately. I don't like him, but don't want to see anyone kill themselves. And, yes, the Plath poem is about how she'd survived two different suicide attempts and one other near-death experience in childhood. She wrote about how she, like a cat, apparently has nine lives. Willy Loman only had one to give. There were a lot of interesting literary allusions last night. I am a Plath fan and have taught "Lady Lazarus," so know it pretty well. I haven't read "Crying of Lot 49," but wished I had. It might offer some interesting insights into Pete. What does it mean that he was reading that book on the train? I didn't make the connection to the dying "exceptionally well" line and Peggy's reference to Megan. Good one, Mary. I hope that doesn't bode ill for Megan's character. There have been so many references to the violence of the sixties this season, all the death references this episode, Betty's fear of death from cancer. Are they setting us up for a death of a major character?