So You Really Want a Career in Advertising? Some Thoughts on Mad Men’s “Lady Lazarus” Episode
Editor’s note: every week, our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, offers his unique perspective on the most recent episode of Mad Men. Here’s to the first of many installments of Mad Men Musings.
Maybe a fast-paced career in advertising isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. That’s the primary theme running through this week’s curiously titled “Lady Lazarus” episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
Megan, Don Draper’s vampish French-Canadian trophy wife, turns her back on a potentially bright future at the firm for the more uncertain life of a struggling, unemployed actress—the struggle made a bit less strenuous from living on Don’s largesse in their stylishly modern Manhattan flat. Pete Campbell scores some new skis from a client trying to curry favor with him, rather than the other way around, but seems more interested (creepily obsessed, in fact) with his philandering train companion’s sad and underserviced yet winsome wife, who in the wake of a quickie romp with Pete on her perfectly coiffed living room rug, gives him the cold shoulder and sends him back to his own depressing suburban life and the stalwart Trudy (unfortunately, offstage this week, as I do enjoy the perky intelligence of Alison Brie in the role of Pete’s spouse).
Peggy, fueled by booze and reefer to no doubt inspire wild, nocturnal flights of copywriting fancy in service to products like Heinz baked beans, seemed genuinely depressed by Megan’s decision to fly out from under her wing, and Elizabeth Moss’ nuanced reaction to the news makes one think that she’ll soon be questioning her own commitment to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP). (Peggy has come a long way, from covering for “Mr. Draper’s” drunken vehicular mishap with the hyper-sexed Bobbie Barrett in Season Two, to telling Don to “shut up” in the “Lazarus” episode after her dismal approximation of Megan in some staged repartee with Don about the joys of that new dessert sensation, Cool Whip). A newly single Roger Sterling hands over those skis to Pete, telling him he wants to transfer as much client work as possible from himself to Pete; this, ostensibly to free himself up for additional clandestine sexual adventures of the sort witnessed by poor Sally Draper in last week’s episode.
And Don nearly and prematurely ends his own meteoric advertising career by coming close to doing a header down an elevator shaft—potentially fulfilling the promise of the falling Draper-like figure in the show’s haunting opening credits. Don’s reaction to looking into the abyss that is the elevator shaft is perfectly appropriate to the show’s zeitgeist—rather than call building management to fix the elevator, he repairs to his own office and pours himself a scotch. One keeps thinking of the next poor unfortunate who doesn’t have Don’s reflexes or penchant for looking down, stepping forward and hurtling into the void.
A one-way ride down an elevator shaft may describe the trajectory of Pete’s personal life, as his success as junior partner at SCDP seems to be tracking with his increasingly erratic behavior at home—most evident in his truly creepy flirtation with a high school student in driving class three episodes ago, and now his virtual stalking of the bored stay-at-home wife played with a sense of depressing coquettishness by Gilmore Girls alum Alexis Bledel. Pete even goes so far as to pretend that he’s interested in buying insurance from the straying husband, just to get close to the wife, which calls to mind the famous scene in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, when Allen’s character is condemned to solitary confinement with an insurance salesmen who is trying to sell the poor nebbish on whole life as they walk in lockstep down a flight of stairs leading into an underground cell. Clearly, spending quality time with an insurance agent has a dubious Hollywood pedigree (think Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity), which Mad Men draws on to underscore Pete’s desperation.
It is to the continuing credit of Vincent Kartheiser that this gifted young actor is able to create a sense of pathos around his interpretation of Pete, who in lesser hands could become simply a two-dimensional foil. His enigmatic expression when the wandering wife, looking at him bemusedly through the passenger window of her car and tracing a heart for Pete to see (in expression of what we don’t exactly know) leaves us wondering how Pete feels about this mute token of her possible desire—and how he may react.
Questioning your life is part and parcel of the Mad Men canon. Questioning your selection of advertising as a career is quite another matter, and Megan’s rejection of a role that she’s so clearly well suited for seems to tip the subtle equilibrium that these characters maintain about their commitment to the dark arts of commercial persuasion. Don in fact is so incredulous of Megan giving up the business that he thinks at first that Peggy is behind it, assuming that she hasn’t been a supportive enough mentor to Megan, which prompts Peggy’s sassy retort over Cool Whip tastings. But there are more complex issues afoot. When Don waxes rhapsodic about the adrenaline rush of winning new business or selling an idea in trying to convince his raven-haired, toothsome lady to stay the course, Megan is hearing her frustrated and manipulative Marxist professor father’s admonition about following her dreams, still ringing in her ears from last week’s episode. Whether this turns into a battle of wills between the older and (relatively) younger man remains to be seen, but Megan’s declaration of emancipation from Don’s professional orbit promises to bring some conflict into their marriage. This, despite Don’s at-first-half-hearted and later firmer commitment to letting Megan essentially be Megan.
What the show has done brilliantly all year is to demonstrate the struggle for cultural supremacy that was going on in 1966, between the old guard of the ‘50s, represented largely by Roger and Don, and the counterculture that was being fueled by Vietnam and the civil rights movement and poised to break out and tear apart American society later in the decade. Symbolic of that uneasy co-existence in this particular episode is show runner (and episode script writer) Matthew Weiner’s use of the Beatles’ Revolver album to close and punctuate the episode—Revolver being a transitional moment in itself between the more carefree rock-and-roll of early Beatles and the introspective, drug-addled preoccupations of Sergeant Pepper. Weiner has Megan, who is Don’s tour guide to the nascent counterculture (as Midge was earlier to Don’s sporadic dalliance with the beatnik generation), give Don the album to play on his “hi fi,” while she goes off to imitate a tree at a method acting class. Her selection of a John Lennon song on the album, called “Tomorrow Never Knows,” is very telling, as it is allegedly inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead (referenced two episodes ago by Jane Sterling’s psychoanalyst in an LSD-laced reverie) and infused with Eastern mysticism and psychedelia, and can be interpreted as a surrogate for Megan’s urging Don to open up his mind to cosmic possibilities—certainly possibilities beyond advertising. Perhaps a “trip” of sorts is in Don’s future. Roger has already had his, which has contributed to his currently happy, unencumbered life.
I’m not sure Don’s ready to take the bait just yet. After struggling through about a minute and a half of this jarring stew of sound, bred from a fusion of rock-and-roll, mysticism, and sitar music, he pulls the arm off the record and picks it up, looking at it as if it were some kind of inscrutable artifact. Don may have been moved to whistle the tune to “I Want to Hold your Hand” on the way home from his revelatory California experience with his future second wife, but Revolver at this point is perhaps a bridge too far.
Of course, in this era of class warfare and the “Buffett Rule,” I might have picked another Revolver song that is very much on my own mind post-April 15: a George Harrison composition that leads off the album called, “Taxman,” the Beatles’ artful lament about being persecuted members of the “1 percent.”
Writer’s note: Pete spends an inordinate amount of time schlepping that set of skis around, which makes me wonder whether we’re seeing something for the first time in Mad Men that was an obsession of high school and college English classes back in my day—the Christ figure. At some point, the skis become less of a perk from a client and more of a burden that Pete drags about, first across the floor, and then into his car, and at one point they threaten to disfigure the object of his desire. The episode title’s allusion to Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, lends a bit more credence to this biblical hypothesizing. (But who would be Lady Lazarus? Maybe Pete’s suburban honey, meant to raise him from a figurative deadness inside?) From Jim Conkin in Red Badge of Courage to Cool Hand Luke’s ripped-up photo at the end of that classic Paul Newman flick, fictional characters have carried the burdens of the world, ostensibly on our behalf and with tragic consequences for themselves. Perhaps Pete is evolving from a Sammy Glick type on the make to the type of pensive, obsessive sort that could make a cosmic leap into some kind of self-sacrifice. One of his obsessions that he expressed during the episode is the idea of earth as viewed from space being so inconsequential and insignificant. Maybe Pete is finding religion. Or maybe he’s just plain tired of being Pete, bored with his life and looking for something to give his life meaning. Maybe he should just ask Don to borrow his Revolver album. I’m sure Don would be happy to oblige.
Submitted by Harlan R. Teller