Monday, May 14, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Lady Lazarus"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: May 6th, 2012

Jon: Welcome back, everybody. This week brought us an episode I really enjoyed for a bunch of different reasons, but kinda feels like it'll be one of those that becomes more obvious what it was doing once we wrap of season 5. That makes it a little tricky to review, but we'll attempt it anyway.

We begin with Pete's insurance salesman friend from the train, Howard, who hasn't been brought up much in our discussions here, but has consistently affirmed my initial suspicions of his being a complete ass-clown in his brief appearances this season. He's so repugnant in his boasts of infidelity, even Pete, who's hardly offended by such behavior, is disgusted by him. Later in the episode we're introduced to Howard's wife, Beth -- played by Rory Gilmore! -- who is stranded at the train station. Pete gives her a ride home, and during their car ride, Pete all but confirms her suspicions regarding her husband's whereabouts. Pete follows her into the house, in part out of concern for her well being but mostly because he seems to want to lie about his lying to her, which rather abruptly escalates into a tryst in Howard's living room. He instantly becomes smitten with her, but for her it was one and done. But if we've learned anything on Mad Men over the years, it's Peter Campbell wants what he doesn't already, or can't, have. Unfortunately for him, Beth may be even less emotionally developed than Betty. Despite all his pursuits of her thereafter -- a midday phone call, a surprise visit to her home, a hotel room reservation -- she does little more than brush him off each time only to tease him enough in the process to goad him into trying again. Judging by her final message at the close of the episode, I doubt we've seen the last of Beth or Pete's chasing after her.

But the biggest event this week was Megan's departure from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to go back to an actress full time. Picking up where Mike left off last week, it really is a shame Megan doesn't enjoy working in advertising the way the rest of the folks at SCDP do. She's absolutely brilliant at it, as we saw during the Heinz dinner in "At The Codfish Ball." But that's probably because she's an exceptional actress when she has to be, and as we were shown by her father's scolding and her obvious unfulfillment after that wonderful Heinz deal closure, this is not what she wants to do with her life. I don't think she's playing a part when it comes to her and Don. I think they both genuinely love each other. That said, Don was certainly more enthralled to have her eating clients alive by his side, so we'll see if he falls into the same indifference with Megan as he did with Betty, which Joan kindly reminds us of. At the end of the day Don wants her to be happy (or at least he tells Roger as much), so maybe he just needs a little time to process it. But would anyone be surprised that this is what drives them apart?

Ultimately, this is just the latest example from this season of Don's resistance to change with those turbulent 60s swirling around him. While Megan has spent her first days away from SCDP cooking barefoot while enjoying the latest and most experimental album yet from The Beatles, Don has been trying to find an acceptable Beatles knock-off group so they can make their latest client happy. (Sidenote - I take a bit of issue with the inclusion of The Zombies with the other bands mentioned, only because their wonderful album Odessey and Oracle is hardly one-hit wonder fodder. But, to be fair, that album wouldn't see release for nearly another year after the events of  "Lady Lazarus." So because "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No" were their only hits of note to that point, they must have seemed as just another group riding the Fab Four's coattails in the summer of 1966. Also, AMC seems to be doing okay with that whole zombie thing lately, so maybe they were name-dropped for promo-spot purposes.) In the middle of the episode, a perplexed Don asks Megan, "When did music become so important?" From her point of view it's always been important, but Don has only ever seen it as an advertising tool, not an art form.

For me, the best part of this episode was the prevalence of music, particularly the inclusion of my favorite Beatles album, Revolver. I'm a massive Beatles nerd, becoming obsessed with them in junior high when all the Anthology stuff was coming out, and proceeded to get my hands on all their albums while devouring a number of biographies. That the earlier part of "Lady Lazarus" was spent by Stan, Ginsberg and Ken finding a song to replicate their A Hard Day's Night era sound, The Beatles themselves had already abandoned the sound that made them famous before becoming stale, which would eventually elevate them to the iconic experimental and inventive songwriters we now recognize them as.

It's curious that Megan would direct Don to listen to "Tomorrow Never Knows" first. Not only is it the final track on side two, it's probably the least likely cut off the album he'd enjoy (that or George Harrison's "Love To You," a droning sitar number). Obviously he didn't have the patience to finish it.

I gave Revolver a listen this week while thinking how it relates in terms to the current state of Mad Men was quite enlightening. Roger would likely enjoy "Doctor Robert," a song about a Dr. Feelgood who has a pill for whatever ails you; Lane would appreciate "Taxman," Harrison's tongue-in-cheek critique on the British tax system; I suspect Ginsberg would be drawn to "Eleanor Rigby," a sublime tale of a lonely woman who's funeral had no attendees, save for the priest; and Pete, at least this week, would identify with "Got To Get You Into My Life." But the song that has really been hard to ignore is "For Know One," Paul McCartney's somber ballad that with lyrics such as And in her eyes you see nothing/No sign of love behind her tears/Cried for no one/A love that should have lasted years could be a harbinger for Draper marriage.

Because Mad Men never sticks any of the characters directly in a monumental event of the time Forest Gump-style, it's easy to forget exactly how much the world is changing around them. But subtle examples are sprinkled in, like the evolution of The Beatles from a mere pop group to the most influential rock and roll band ever. Of our main characters, Peggy and Megan have always been driving toward change and embracing the new, Pete and Joan generally seem to welcome it but are just old enough not to completely abandon the previous generation's ways, and Don and Roger (and the rest of the old coots) have actively resisted these newfangled ideas for the most part. Roger's LSD trip may allow him to be ride this wave of change to a safe harbor of success, but Don seems poised to be headed down a path of diminishing success at the office and a divorce from his young bride all stemming from either his inability to adapt to his surroundings or his mere stubbornness to pine for the good 'ol days. He's going to have set his dreams higher than indoor plumbing if he's going to be able to morph into yet another version of Donald Draper. If he doesn't, then he's likely to have quite a bit of hardship in the coming years.

Random thoughts...
-- Catty Joan is back! I missed her.
-- Pete may not be as down as he was at the close of "Signal 30" a couple of episodes ago, but he's still an incredibly depressed individual. If the internet rumor mill about a death during this season of Mad Men turns out to be true, I'd say he's our most likely suspect. He just purchased some extra life insurance after all...
-- Ginsberg really works up a sweat during presentations. That was intense!
-- Poor Peggy. When will she learn that staying late at the office alone is little more than a surefire way to get mixed up in her coworkers' relationships?
-- I'm a little surprised I'm saying this, but I'm kinda going through a little Betty withdraw. It's been six weeks.
-- Speaking of absent cast members, I know he's been causing havoc as David Robert Jones over on Fringe this year, but Jared Harris has been missed as well. Would it kill him to use some of that mad scientist tech to transport back to 1960s Earth Prime so I can have a little Lane action?
-- Man, life outside of Bayside High is hard. Mr. Belding is even fatter than when he on Always Sunny a few years a go, Screech is a complete disaster of a human, and Lisa Turtle looks like this now.
-- I never liked Vincent Kartheiser much when I was introduced to him as Connor on Angel, but now having to watch him be miserable with Alison Brie and actually get mad at Alexis Bledel for being a little difficult, he's gotta be among the greatest actors of our time. (I kid... mostly.) 

 Mike: Really laughing at that last one, Jon.  (But also, I gotta agree!  And nice work on the Beatles song character analogies.)  You know, now that I said that, there's actually a lot I agree with in your write-up above.  I think you were spot-on when you said that the significance of this episode won't really be revealed until we get a better idea of where the story is going this season, for any of the plot threads that it follows.  I've got to say that at least initially, I didn't find a lot that I needed to write about for this episode.  It was reasonably entertaining, and moved the pieces around on the chessboard a bit, but it's still difficult to see where all of this is going.

To take it from the top, then, Pete's initial success with Alexis Bledel's underappreciated cuckquean (per Google, a female cuckold) housewife was a striking scene, fraught with undercurrent that I hope I never really come to understand in my personal life.  Now, we've got a now rather well-established cheater in Pete cheating with the cheated-on, while her husband is in the city cheating on her.  On a show where Don Draper has become the poster child for marriage fidelity, I've been trying to figure out who else has been faithful.  (Maybe Ken?  Is Bert even married?  Oh yeah, I forgot about his wartime groin injury.)  C'mon, Mad Men and Women, you need to learn to keep it in your pants!  If only the cheating wasn't so fun to watch, at least most of the time.

Now, Bledel's character Beth clearly doesn't have Pete's best interests at heart, but on the other hand, her husband Howard is a complete piece of insufferable trash.  Even poor, blind Pete can probably tell that the situation he's putting himself in will never end well.  But he still buys the champagne and rents the hotel room anyways.  I'll say this for him: in his seemingly endless search for -- what is it, anyways? stability? love? fulfillment? -- he's persistent.  And that will probably be what does him in, in the end.  Now, it could very well be that this unrequited romance is just another bump on the road for poor old Pete, but it doesn't take a Master's degree in following TV storylines to start to see a throughline over these episodes.  And unless there's a major course correction in his life, I'm not so sure that things will ever be any better for him.

Along these same lines, I got a little chill when Pete was talking with Howard about his family history, and the early, accidental death of Pete's father came up.  I had completely forgotten about that.  With any further lack of caution and his increasingly more frequent affairs, or at least attempts at them, Pete stands a pretty good chance of losing his family.   The Campbell family and his in-laws already can barely stand him, as far as I can tell.  Will Pete be able to even muster up the strength to get out of bed in the morning if he loses the two, possibly only, real fans of his that he has?  I suspect we are going to find out this season, one way or the other.  I'd wager that Pete simply doesn't have the strength that Don did, to bounce back after his first family fell apart.  Even a man like Don, skilled in personal reinvention, almost didn't.

The other big happening in this episode is Megan finally giving voice to her desire to leave the advertising field, not to mention SCDP, in favor of her acting career.  It happened so quickly -- a tearful goodbye to the other copywriters, a lunch with "the girls," and she's not even coming back for her box of stuff afterwards.  After Megan's initial truth-bending about her audition callback, Don is surprisingly understanding, and I am choosing to believe he is sincere in this.  He's seen what having unfulfilled passions has done to Betty, and he understandably doesn't want his new wife to go down that road.  And perhaps even a little selfishly, he doesn't want to go through all of that again himself.  What this means for his recent career upswing, in conjunction with a Megan who has just found her copywriting and client-wrangling feet, remains to be seen.  But I think the looks on Don's face speak a thousand words:

Don and Megan's perhaps overly cutesy, but effective, Cool-Whip routine owned the room.  But after Megan's ill-timed departure, and Don and Peggy's disastrous (and stomach-churningly hilarious) second Cool-Whip demonstration:

Don and Peggy's exchange after this, in front of the awkward lab personnel, was particularly revealing as well.  Has anyone ever spoken to Don like that and not been fired?  The problem was, Peggy was right -- Don was mad at Megan, not her.  (Though seriously, Peggy, you really did blow the whole thing.)  The Cool-Whip contract will probably survive.  The strain on Don's marriage is a whole different story.  It wasn't that long ago that Don was saying that he only liked going to work so that he could be with Megan all day.  All of his recent success could reasonably be attributed to the synergy of both Don and Megan working together.  So, which Don will emerge from the rubble of this latest development?  That remains to be seen, and I'll be tuning in next week, for sure, to find out.

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"
Episode 7 - "At The Codfish Ball"

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