Mad Men recap: Lady Lazarus

Going into the fifth season of Mad Men  I was worried – I thought the year and a half hiatus would hurt the show’s momentum, but I was wrong. So far, all of the episodes rank as some of the best in the show’s history.

This past week’s episode “Lady Lazarus” appeared to be a way for the audience to collect its breath after the changes from the fourth season like Pete  living in the ‘burbs, Megan kicking ass as a copywriter, Joan being a single mom, Betty gets fat,  Peggy shacking it up with an activist, Sally’s voice changing to a deep baritone, etc.

What’s interesting about this season is the gradual unravelling of Pete Campbell. I never liked Pete – I found him weasily and oily. Still, when his face got pummeled by Lance Price in a duel at the office in “Signal 30” and he rode the elevator later, crying over his wounded pride, I felt bad.

So like Don’s descent into self-destruction in the fourth season, Pete’s going through something similar in this season. After continuously having his sense of manhood and masculinity slapped about, he thinks he’ll find his mojo by becoming a ladies man. Enter Rory from The Gilmore Girls. Yup, you read that correctly: Alexis Bledel guests in this episode as Beth, a housewife, married to one of Pete’s commuting buddies, Howard. Beth hooks up with Pete after being given a ride home. In true Mad Men fashion, Beth is a cuckolded wife (and I know cuckolded is for men married to unfaithful women, but I couldn’t think of the female equivalent), content on living her American Dream while Howard keeps a woman on the side. After their sexual encounter, Beth tells Pete that they can never see each other again. Unfortunately, having an affair makes Pete feel like a man, so he keeps bothering her, calling her and even showing up unexpectedly with Howard one night.

Don and Megan are also having trouble with their marriage – but of course, that’s expected. Don Draper’s a character that seems to be allergic to happiness. After putting his wife through the ringer in the past few episodes, he’s starting to tread lightly. When Megan announces that she wants to quit copy writing and return to acting, he supports her. Shocking, right? He even starts to take responsiblity for the failure of his first marriage.

But of course, things aren’t as simple as they seem. While Don seems supportive of his wife’s decision, he’s also resentful. But because he cannot vent his frustration at his wife, he turns to the other woman in his life: Peggy Olsen.

Ah, Peggy – my favorite character on Mad Men. And I love what the writers are doing with her this season.  Peggy’s always been tough, despite her adorable appearance and her slightly mousey manner. She’s had to be, being the only woman at the office who doesn’t answer phones for a living. because she’s realized her worth at the office, she begins to assert herself, not only with her peers but with Roger and Don.

In a telling scene, fed up with being the brunt of Don’s passive aggressive behavior, she lashes out at him, pointing out that he’s angry at Megan not her and then ordered him to “shut up!” I stood up and gave Miss Olsen a standing O for her performance (and finally somebody told Don to shut up – it’s about time).

But I’m getting ahead of myself – back to Don and Megan. Megan is a gifted copywriter, but is just not interested in the work anymore. In an earlier episode she saves the troubled Heinz backed beans account, and with Don comes up with a cute husband-wife bit to promote Cool Whip. Just as a side note, I didn’t know Cool Whip was a non-dairy whipped topping. Quick question: what is it, then?

So, Don and Megan have this fun skit where she plays a housewife who gets her husband interested in Cool Whip. They play it with natural chemistry and charm everyone, except for Peggy (I’ll get to that in a bit). So when Megan decides to bow out of the advertising industry, Don and Peggy try to recreate the skit in front of the Cool Whip guys – it’s D.O.A., and Don’s frustrated – and well, cue the awesome “shut up!” scene between Don and Peggy.

Oh, and the disastrous Cool Whip audition takes place in a taste testing lab. I guess the casting director was thumbing through some old TV Guides because along with Rory, we got to see Mr. Belding from Saved by the Bell! That’s right, Dennis Haskins, has a cameo (is it considered a cameo if the actor isn’t famous anymore?) as one of the Cool Whip taste scientists.

There’s a lot going on in this episode – but what I found most interesting was the relationship between Peggy and Megan. Megan sailed into her job because her hubby’s name is on the door, while Peggy had to claw her way through crud and mud – it sounds like the 2008 presidential elections with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. But Peggy eventually warmed to Megan because the new Mrs. Draper had talent and was willing to work, when Don wasn’t whisking her away.

So when Megan told Peggy that she no longer wanted to be a copywriter, Peggy naturally took offense. Their confrontation took place in a ladies room – an interesting choice. Initially, I was a little mystified at Peggy’s angry reaction until I stopped and took a commercial break to think about it: here was this young kid who didn’t have to deal with the drudgery and she’s just simply throwing it away because she doesn’t want to do it anymore. Thankfully she’s married to a rich guy and has the option to opt out of working. Peggy never had these options – she had to work, and she had to deal with sexist crap from day one.

Because I’m a male in our society, I have some sexist shit ingrained in me and I expected Peggy to be threatened and jealous of Megan’s success. But instead, she reveled in it. Again, initially I was surprised. But thinking about it, Peggy’s happiness makes complete sense. For four years, Peggy was the sole female copywriter and as such, she was looked on as a bit of an anomaly – a talking dog or a novelty. Any day now, her fluke gift would conk out and like Cinderella’s coach, she’d turn back into a lowly secretary. Having another competent woman showed the guys that there can be mad women as well as mad men.

So, Peggy’s hurt feelings toward Megan made complete sense.

So a couple things popped up during this episode:

  • The writers need to do something with Joan. I almost forgot she was a character.
  • The writers need to remember Betty, too. We’re over the shock of a heavy Betty. Now do something with her character.
  • Seeing Mona briefly in the last episode, made me realize just how neat she was. The former Mrs. Sterling is a great foil for Roger and even though a reconciliation would be a mistake, having her periodically pop up would be awesome.
  • Some of the guest stars have been stupendous – Julia Ormond was brilliant as Don’s sophisticated, French-speaking mom-in-law.
  • I find myself wondering what’s going on with Paul Kinsey.

I didn’t know what “Lady Lazarus,” not being familiar with Sylvia Plath, outside of The Bell Jar. The poem deals with the Holocaust and uses imagery of an unwanted rebirth. I haven’t really figured out how this fits into this episode – the only “rebirth” I’m seeing is Megan’s – she’s being reborn as an actress. In Plath’s poem, the rebirth is unwanted and the narrator of the poem decides to kill those who revived her when she’s a phoenix, so that she cannot be reborn again. It might be a stretch, but maybe Megan’s “rebirth” as an actress will have dire consequences, and she will come to regret her decision: this being Mad Men, I imagine that there will be lots of things that go wrong for Mrs. Draper. Maybe the title refers to Pete (though he’s not a lady), and his rebirth as a man, and the tragic consequences he may face with his growing self-destruction.

So, dear readers and fellow Mad Men enthusiasts, what did you think of “Lady Lazarus”? Was this a good episode? What’s happening between Megan and Don? Who is the phoenix, on the verge of rebirth?

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