Monday, 7 May 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Lady Lazarus' analysis / review

A strange aura has hung around Mad Men this season, reflecting the characters' growing sense of displacement in a time of social upheaval. Where 'Zou Bisou Bisou' was charmingly of its time and another instantly iconic moment for the series' collection, events seem to have been becoming more and more surreal as the series progresses. Fat Betty. Don's dream sequence. The Pete - Lane fight. Megan leaving Don at the Howard Johnson's, locking him in a state of limbo until returning home to find her. Roger's LSD trip, and getting exactly what he wanted from Megan's mother at the awards banquet last week. Now we've got Pete being manipulated by a melancholy housewife, and Don staring down an empty lift shaft. What next?

Death has been a strong symbolic presence this season, whether it's Don dreaming of murdering an ex while his daughter can't sleep for fear of being murdered, his fear for Megan's safety following her disappearing act, or the Vietnam conflict lingering in the shadows of lost husbands and background radio broadcasts. 'Lady Lazarus' put more focus on the motif, both as an ending and source of renewal, than any other episode to date, continuing the sense of dread that has been increasingly pervading the SCDP offices.
'Lady Lazarus' is a poem by Sylvia Plath, about a woman whose attempts at suicide are constantly thwarted by doctors resuscitating her. She's trapped in a neverending cycle, unable to escape the agony of a life she cannot escape from. Plath likens her to a phoenix, the mythological bird who self-immolates at the end of its life, only to be reborn from the ashes. That's an important symbol for the main characters this week: these are people wrapped up in a world made ever more redundant by a society seemingly evolving away from the formal rules and men-in-hats attitudes of the fifties. Escaping means having to burn some bridges, to cast away an old life and accept a new one, a risk which some are ready to take and others continue to hesitate.

Pete Campbell, for example, is this week's hesitator-in-chief. He's an odious little squirt at the best of times, but has steadily been working towards improving himself and his marriage to Trudy, the latter of which has seemed on remarkably solid ground ever since his disastrous affair with the German nanny in the third season episode, 'Souvenir'. With his inability to usurp Roger as top dog at work, though, this season has seen him increasingly retreat to his worst impulses, having a full-blown crisis of masculinity in Signal 30, and now allowing himself to be drawn into an obsessive affair with the tragic wife (played with effective dead-eyed monotony by Alexis Bledel) of the life insurance salesman who hassles him on the train. Campbell recognises his mistake as he's making it, initially reluctant to give into Beth's aggressive advances, but given his fragile sense of manhood, the idea of being irresistible to a woman is too strong to pass up.

What he fails to realise is that she's playing him as part of her own childish wish-fulfillment, longing for the days when she was chased by men, rather than being left home alone while her slimy husband is spending time with a bathykolpian paramour in the city. She recognises that her husband lost interest in her as soon as she accepted him, so she strings Pete along in a bid to recapture her lost power. Pete, meanwhile, thinks he's getting an acknowledgment of his male prowess, only to find himself more emasculated than ever, reduced to arranging phony dates with her husband just to be near her. She's a zombie, sucking dry the living in order to preserve whatever sense of herself remains. Pete, who at one point looking to be becoming a half-decent human being (stabilising his marriage, becoming a partner and increasingly important figure at SCDP), is pulled back into the dark just as he was approaching his moment of awakening. For him, the death motif now looks more likely to mean a surrender than a rebirth.

Megan, on the other hand, is the opposite of Pete in many ways. Where he longs for other people's acknowledgment and festers in his insecurities, she's independent and knows what she wants. He wishes he were someone else - previously Don, now Roger - whereas she has all the talent to succeed as a respected member of the SCDP team in her own right, but chooses to follow a path of her own choosing, rather than that which others are calling her down. To her co-workers, she's riding high after her pivotal role in winning back the Heinz account, yet her success has only made her conscious of how little gratification she is getting from her current work life. Seeking out an acting gig, the abandoned dreams described by her father last week are reawakened and she decides to give it a shot. It's a big risk, leaving behind a life of established friendships and easy success, but as cruel as her father's words were, there was some truth to them: she could never live with herself if she didn't at least try to pursue her dreams while the chance was there.

This isn't such good news for Don, whose rebirth at the end of last season is threatened by his wife pursuing a life similar to the one led by Betty when he met her. Megan challenges him and her presence is a constant reminder of what he would be losing by having an affair, or retreating into his old Dick Whitman habits. Betty lost her appeal to him once she was no longer a challenge, and Don is aware that if Megan fails in her new profession, history may repeat itself. With her no longer in the office and going to classes when he gets home, she's at risk of becoming the same kind of isolated figure that Betty was, which he can leave behind while seeking out thrills elsewhere. Megan is a challenge, constantly keeping him on his toes. Left alone, he'd have to find that challenge elsewhere.

We've seen his fear of giving into temptation, and what looked like a phoenix-esque resurrection for him is suddenly much more sinister. She has always been his link to a new world, whether in spiritual or cultural terms (it's thanks to her that he listens to the real Beatles, rather than settling for the old-fashioned imitation that so appalls Ginsburg), and her absence is likely to lead to him suffering as much at work as at home. It's a Catch-22: can he really ask her to give up her hopes just to sate his own insecurities, and even if he did, wouldn't that be the first step towards destroying their marriage anyway? Interesting to see him retreat to the bottle whilst trying to make sense of her decision, much as he did last season whilst trying to work his way through guilt at his collapsed marriage. Now he's staring down an empty lift shaft, in a turn of events as surreal as anything in Roger's trip. As a piece of symbolism, it's very staged, but just unsettling enough to work.

'Lady Lazarus' will be an episode dissected extensively for its range of meanings, not least for the other alternate motif of imitations and replacements: the '30s track instead of The Beatles; Cool Whip instead of whipped cream; Don struggling to replicate with Peggy the chemistry he has with Megan. What surely will not be up for debate, though, is that it was one of the most complex episodes of the season to date, continuing the characters' push into the new world, whether interpreted here as a choice between death as an end or as renewal, or pursuing an easy imitation of life rather than facing the challenges, and fighting for the greater rewards, of the real thing. A number of important plot points for the season arc were revealed - a relief, as many episodes this year have been wonderful in isolation, but seemingly lacking clues to the bigger picture - and further steps taken on the season's descent into the strange.


Love 4 Texas said...

This is a great article! I like how you see Don's and Megan's relationship as a challenge that excites him. That makes much more sense than how another author depicted it earlier in the season: as a frail, misfit relationship symbolized by the pure, white carpet in their apartment. That author predicts the divorce after a series of uncovered differences between them.
I much prefer your idea that this is the only type of relationship Don can continue to be a part of, on purpose.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for your comment! Lots of people have been pessimistic about the new Draper marriage, with good reason given Don's less than illustrious history in the fidelity department, although it always seemed a good thing to me. Don only likes the beginning of things, as Dr. Faye said at the end of last season, so Megan's independent streak keeps their marriage fresh and exciting.

I see the white carpet as symbolic of how people like to imagine perfect versions of their lives, but it's the tiny blots on the surface that keep us grounded in reality, challenged and forced to reassess our views, even if they just look like flaws when we first see them. Don is now having to face up to the idea of Megan having a life of her own: if he can cope with it, he'll be a changed man. If not, he'll turn back into Dick Whitman.

If Don's marriage to Betty was the perfect white carpet, a pristine vision which could not possibly last, Megan is more like the blotted version: messier on the surface, but more comforting when its lived-in qualities are appreciated.

Love 4 Texas said...

I also liked what Dr. Faye said. It was something we were all thinking, I'm sure.
The last paragraph of your comment is an interesting take on the carpet symbol. I agree that Don's current marriage is a much more honest one. When Megan came to tell Don what she was doing that mysterious evening, because she couldn't bear to keep the lie, I became SO hopeful for them. To me, that is an irreplaceable trait.
Despite all this fluffy, happy stuff, I am concerned about the severe political differences between Don and Megan's father. DUN DUN DUN! At that time in American history, communism was a very sensitive and scary subject. I can't wait to see what, if anything, comes of it.