Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: “Lady Lazarus”

It’s that time again, folks. This is the Barker Chappell Daglas Reviewing Agency. It’s time to reconsider our life insurance policies and sleep with our favorite WB starlets, as Les, Andy and I take on this week’s great episode of Mad Men, “Lady Lazarus.”

Cory: Welcome back, gents. I’m sorry. I said I was out with some friends last night, but actually, I was just pursuing my dream to write Mad Men fan fiction on the internet. I have to quit my job. I hope you can learn to love me either way. 

On a serious note, “Lady Lazarus” is one of my favorite episodes of this fifth season. So many of the things we’ve been harping on for six weeks came to a real head here and in ways I’m not sure we all quite predicted. We’ve speculated about Megan’s desires to keep working and even though the last few episodes showed us that she was at least more committed to doing the job more than her new(ish) husband, tonight’s effort reflected that Megan’s not really interested in doing this job. The acting bug is just too strong in her — as it is in you Andy — and apparently, she’s been taking auditions on the side. Of course, as much as Megan is driven to perform, this episode shows us that she is also still driven by a little fear as well. Fear that she might not make it, but more importantly, fear of what her husband would say if he found out about her dreams. As I mentioned, we’ve talked a whole lot about Megan and Don, as individuals and as a couple. How do you guys feel about both characters in light of tonight’s big revelations? Were you surprised at Don’s reaction to Megan’s choice?

Les: I think “surprised” is indeed the best word to describe my reaction to what Megan did and how well Don seemed to take it. I suggested two weeks ago that an investment in the creative process may be the shot in the arm the Draper marriage needed, and was confused last week at Megan’s seeming disinterest in her success, but I wasn’t expecting it to move from one state to another as this did. For Megan to wake Don up* and tell him that she wanted to be an actress, and for him to accept it (and have a wonderfully awkward conversation with Joan about the protocol) was a mature approach I wouldn’t have guessed based on the fight in “Far Away Places.” I think it says a lot about both of them for how much they really want to make this marriage work – there’s a lot of  “I love yous” and small kisses exchanged this episode, and Megan’s speech as she’s cooking about how Don’s everything she thought he was when he proposed. 

*I don’t know about you, but after what happened in “Mystery Date,” I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent comfortable with any scene of Don Draper in bed with a woman standing over him ever again. We’ve seen what tactic he’s capable of following in those circumstances.

But is it going to last, is the question? I’m sure everyone’s sick of the three of us expecting the worst from Don Draper in his relationships and wanting to know exactly when the other shoe is going to drop, but this is certainly the biggest change that their marriage has seen, and I wonder how Don’s going to deal with this brand new dynamic so soon after becoming adjusted to a similarly unfamiliar one. Last week with Heinz and this week with Cool Whip, it looked like he was growing very comfortable with a creative partner to bounce off of in his meetings, someone who gave him a second wind in pitches and who the clients liked seeing almost as much as him (well, as much as clients want to see him given what Leland Palmer told him last week about trust). To have to go back to handling it himself, and – more to the point – having to walk into the office alone every morning, without the promise of a quickie on the couch during the day? I want to say he’s mature enough to move past this, but not having Megan near him on a daily basis is going to be good for his mental health regardless of his desire to avoid a repeat of Betty. Don may be a man who talks a good game and puts up a strong front, but as we saw in the discussion of getting a Beatles-esque band for the Chevalier Blanc ad, and at the very end when he pulls the needle off “Tomorrow Never Knows,”** he’s not very good at facing the music.

**And now I’m feeling a little sorry I used up the reference to that song in our discussion of “Far Away Places,” when it’s actually used here – and used here in a montage fashion Mad Men usually saves for its season finales. That couldn’t have been cheap for AMC and Weiner to get the rights to.

Andy, your thoughts on the new status quo of Mr. and Mrs. Draper 2.0?

Andy: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…

Oh sorry, you caught me indulging my secret thespian side. Damn you, Cory, you know me too well! Like Megan Draper, I’ve decided to give up this humdrum writer’s life and return to my first love: the stage. As enlightened partners, I’m confident that you’ll be as understanding as Don, and won’t find a way to interpret this as me throwing back in your face the opportunity and support you’ve given me as I successfully pursued a path you chose for me.

After all, one reason you love me is for my independence. You really believe that to be true. And good thing, since it looks like that conviction will be tested now that I’m displaying full-fledged independence, and not just a simulacrum of it which still keeps me in your orbit—and, to some extent, under your thumb. At the end of the day, you’ll both still be there to greet me with a kiss and a home-cooked meal.

Um. This parable has gotten away from me a bit.

“Lady Lazarus” wasn’t as purely enjoyable as many episodes this season have been, but it was just as rich and puzzling. Since there were so many fascinating facets, I’ll offer up a few of my big questions for discussion: What’s the state of Peggy’s mind, after yet again watching Megan do things she feels herself incapable of—like escaping this career? Pete Campbell: worst person, or worstest person? And how in God’s name did Les spoil that landmark music cue without Matthew Weiner throwing him down an elevator shaft?

Cory: Les, you make some great points about our constant cynicism in relation to Don and his relationship with Megan. I’d like to say I wasn’t surprised by Don’s relatively calm, pointed reaction to Megan’s choice, but I’d be lying. I would guess that most of the audience keeps assuming that Don is going to do something to screw this up, which I think makes the character and this season that much more compelling and in many ways, intense. We keep waiting for that other shoe to drop, for Don to make a terrible choice or for him to be the selfish bastard we’re so used to him being. But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a bit proud of him while watching that scene with Megan. You always assume people who have disappointed you in the past will keep doing so until they consistently prove you wrong, and this might be a big stepping stone for Don proving to the audience that he is, actually, a changed man.

I know that a certain section of the audience wants Don to be the guy we saw in the early seasons and that character certainly has appeal, but I’m just as intrigued by older, wiser and less motivated Don Draper. But…those last few scenes keep our cynical hopes alive that something terrible is still coming around the bend. Don doesn’t understand what’s going on out there, and it seems like he doesn’t want to know. He has grown happy and comfortable living in the Mr. and Mrs. Draper routine that Ken loved so much. The uncertainty that now exists is not what Don signed up for. 

To your questions Andy, I’d love to start with Pete, mostly because I always love starting with Pete. I’ve made it known that the petulant Mr. Campbell is my favorite character, despite and mostly because of his selfish, oftentimes childish emotional reactions, but I have to say that this episode made me feel a bit of sympathy for Pete. There’s no question that he is making deplorable choices* and generally sulking through what is a pretty solid life. And yet, the degree at which he seems to have fallen into this sullen depression is, well, sad.

He wants to do cool Old-School Don Draper stuff like sexing up non-wives and getting classy hotel rooms, but even then, it doesn’t work out, mostly because he’s Pete Campbell, not Don Draper. His fling with Rory Gilmore is the epitome of that. Their first hook-up goes swimmingly, but Pete’s slimy clinginess instantly turns Beth off. Old-School Don knew how to play it cool and transfer his self-hatred into detached sexual debauchery. Pete is not cool, and he certainly doesn’t know how to detach himself from anything. And yes, this all makes him a terrible person. But in that final scene, with Beth leaving with her husband and Pete sitting in his car alone, I felt for the guy. For the first time all season, I started buying into the suicide theories.** Les, your thoughts?

*Weiner doesn’t even have to try that hard to make Pete’s adultery villainous because if there is one rule on the internet, it’s Don’t Mistreat Alison Brie or Characters Played By Her. 

**Of course, this episode certainly stoked that fire even more by having Pete talk about his life insurance policy. It has to be a misdirect, right?

Les: My regard for Pete has sunk to new lows this week. Who would cheat on Annie Edison with Rory Gilmore?! I mean, seriously. Has he not seen just how adventurous his wife is

But anyway, this was clearly not a good episode for Mr. Campbell’s personal life – which as you say Cory, paradoxically makes it a great episode of the show. Pete’s been fascinating to watch this season because as his star climbs – entirely due to his own talents at ingratiation and networking – it just seems to make him feel worse and worse. As opposed to Roger, who knows what he wants and isn’t shy about taking it, Pete’s never really known what he wants and tends to latch onto whatever seems most fulfilling at the moment. He wanted to be Don and pitch ideas to clients, he wanted to be Ken and publish stories, he wanted to be a partner because that was the big prize he set, he wanted Roger’s office because it stoked his ego, and now that he’s run out of things to strive for he’s realizing how little satisfaction he’s gotten from any of it. 

I’m starting also to wonder if there’s something more forcefully self-destructive in his behavior: Pete had to know what a risk he was taking by going to Howard’s house, and the closer it got to him wrangling that invitation for dinner the more I kept yelling* “Pete, no! Come on, no!” Maybe he wanted to be found out, to blow up his life and try to build something new from the ruins. Or it’s possible he knew that Beth wouldn’t show up to the hotel, but wanted to be there and feel that anger just for the sole purpose of feeling something. 

*Mad Men is great at those moments. Roger moving towards Megan’s mother, Don’s proposal in “Tomorrowland” – the show’s been around so long and spent so much time with them you really feel when they make decisions that seem so wrong at the time. 

That mention of suicide certainly felt as much like Chekov’s Insurance Policy as various mentions of his rifle, or Roger and the windows in earlier episodes. But at this point I’m half-convinced Weiner’s just toying with us. Mad Men‘s been playing this game for years now, much the same way it played with our expectations about Dr. Greg getting killed in Vietnam and removing that tumor from Joan’s life. I’m not ruling out the fact that the show could be building to this – and come season finale time we’ll be looking back and dumbstruck by how well it built to this in retrospect – but I’m in no way convinced it’s going to happen. (How would it happen, I wonder? Maybe a Roger/Pete murder/suicide pact, which caps off an entire bottle episode of the two in the office deciding to end it all? That would be bizarre, but I would watch the hell out of that.)

Andy: If there’s one thing that strikes me as more plausible for Pete at this juncture than suicide, it’s a failed attempt at suicide. Waking up in a hospital bed, saddled with pity and ignominy, having to pick up the pieces—somehow it seems like an even more appropriately morose outcome.

That, or he skis into a tree in Vermont.

Pete’s happiness will always be a façade, a mask he dons to smooth the way to whatever short-term gain he seeks next, as when he cons his way into Howard & Beth’s home. More tragic to me is Peggy, whose happiness is genuine but fragile. At times she really enjoy her station and her social circle—her easy way with a quip  (“Are you a really good skier? Like famous?”) betrays some small level of satisfaction. But she has to bust her ass to earn every ounce of it. How many times this year have we witnessed evidence of Peggy in her office well past sundown? And if it may not be what she truly wants, she’s hard-pressed to imagine what could be better.

When Megan announces that the ad game isn’t for her, Peggy’s knee-jerk defensiveness is the flip side of last week’s insistence that “This is as good as this job gets.” She’ll stick up for every tepid prize life has to offer, but recoil at the notion that they aren’t prizes after all.

All of which is a long build-up to saying that Elisabeth Moss has been positively killing it this year. Expressive, understated, always holding two opposing emotions in her head at the same time, puzzling something out under the surface. Not to mention that she’s displaying some of the most skillful comedic timing anywhere on television. (And given the bumper crop of deft comic actresses on the air right now, that is saying something.)

Guys, did you have any thoughts on the latest breaks for our favorite Pegasus*?

*Non-Animated Division. Because if we’re talking overall, she’s at least tied with Rainbow Dash. I THINK WE CAN ALL AGREE ON THAT.

Cory: Peggy’s arc this season mirrors Pete’s in many ways, but is certainly more muted and less…suicidal. As we’ve chattered about in previous weeks, Peggy has reached pretty great heights at the office. She is respected enough that the partners let her take leads on pitches, guide her own team and  more or less come to her when they are in a pinch. And I don’t think any of the respect paid to her is fake. Don and Roger really, really like Peggy. Unfortunately, with great responsibility comes great frustration, long hours and disappointment. That’s the slogan from Spider-Man right? In any event, like Pete, Peggy has accomplished quite a bit in a short time, and yet, she is still left wanting…something. Pete’s unsatisfied desires have certainly manifested themselves in more problematic and overtly terrible ways, but I’m almost more compelled by how Peggy has and will continue to react to her current circumstances. This week, she takes her frustrations out on Don, who doesn’t necessarily deserve it (nevertheless, that was a tremendous scene that both Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm acted the hell out of) and commiserates with Joan a little bit. 

I’m curious how you guys feel about Peggy’s desire to actually have this job. She started at the bottom and obviously has had all sorts of motivation to be upwardly mobile, but are we sure that she actually likes this gig? I’m wondering if Peggy’s frustration with Megan at least partially stems from the fact that she doesn’t feel like she has the gall to up and quit and find something she really, really loves doing for a living. With this season’s focus on the obtainment of empty dreams, I’ve noticed that so many of these characters never particularly wanted to be ad men/women. Megan’s an obvious one, so is Ken. But Pete, Peggy and even Don were/are in that position in some way as well. I’m not sure if this ties into the season’s focus on the personal over the professional or not. What do you gents think?

Les: To borrow Andy’s earlier allusion, I want to reemphasize my point from last week that were Mad Men and My Little Pony to join forces I would watch that show like crazy. My Little Peggy: Advertising is Magic! If someone hasn’t rendered fan art of this already, I don’t understand how the Internet works.

Peggy’s struggle with her feelings in relationship to her job has always been a great undercurrent of the show, and it’s been pulled to the forefront this season. We have to remember about her that she literally fell into this job – she had some ideas on the first season that Freddy noticed, was given more and more responsibility as Don saw them too, discovered a talent for office politics and copy-writing she never expected to have, and in it found her sense of validation. As she told Don in “The Suitcase,” “I mean, I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.” I think this more than anything is the foundation of the quasi-friendship she’s built with Joan in the office – the two women are incredibly different from each other, but they always come back to the agency because this is the one place where they feel not just validated by their choices, but empowered by the fact they can make those choices. 

I think her dissatisfaction isn’t so much that she doesn’t want to do this job (she’s had plenty of opportunities to stop doing it, plenty of Draper rants that could have given her the excuse to quit) and more that she’s never been able to really justify or put into words why this means so much to her. She’s tied so much of who she’s become in this job that it’s an alien concept to her anyone else wouldn’t want it – her drunken ramblings to Dawn earlier in the season where she assumed Dawn wanted to be a copywriter too, and now her frustration at Megan getting out of it after she showed legitimate talent. Andy, you’re completely right that her reactions to Megan the last two weeks were yin and yang, and it’s completely unsurprising she didn’t want to go to the final lunch and celebrate the possibility that just maybe people can be happy doing non-SCDP work. 

But of course, her feelings about Megan are complicated by the fact that Megan replaced her as Don’s work wife, and the fact that now she’s apparently expected to fall back into that role. And that’s going to be a bumpy road, as we saw in the wonderfully cringe-inducing Cool Whip routine they did for Dessert King Mr. Belding. (The only way that could have gone worse is if Peggy intentionally called it Cool Hwhip to throw Don off.) Unlike Heinz, Peggy’s not a fan of the Don/Megan pitching team, preferring the old professional Draper to the new happy one, and this finally gave her a venue to get that frustration out there. The fact that she actually told Don off in front of Ken and a stranger was fantastic, and is forcing me to readjust my earlier theory that Don might be the one on the offensive re: her inability to run the creative department as well as he did.

Speaking of Don again, one moment I wanted to touch on: the moment where he tries to go after Megan in the elevator, only to be confronted with the empty shaft. Do we see this as a Chekov’s Elevator Shaft for later in the season? Or simply a Nietzschean moment of Don gazing into the abyss?

Andy: The elevator shaft fits with much of the visual symbolism this season has bestowed, at once both obvious and oblique. As yet another harbinger of death (and an indication, perhaps, of the direction the incorporeal soul will travel). As a manifestation of Don’s pervasive feeling that things you’ve relied on are no longer where they’re supposed to be. As one more reason to feel like the bottom has plummeted out from under everyone.

Which is why I feel like a near-death would be a more potent turn of events this season. Suicide feels like too clean a getaway for Pete (or whomever). Like you said, Cory, the personal is encroaching on the professional. Problems that everyone thought they’d have pushed their way out of by now are only becoming more intractable. And knowing Matthew Weiner, I bet it’s no coincidence this is happening as the quagmire of Vietnam creeps into everyday life.

Cory: It sure does seem like disappointment, depression and death are more pervasive this season. Just for conversation’s sake, who do we put the best odds on to have said death or near-death experience? Pete and suicide does feel too much like a misdirect, but could anyone else meet the Grim Reaper this season? 

And while I’m throwing out sort of frivolous questions, let me ask you guys this: Is this the best Mad Men has ever been? I’ve seen a couple of pieces and more than a few tweets suggesting as much recently, and it’s made me think. It’s pretty misguided to make those assertions in the middle of the season and Mad Men is a series that I can’t really pick out my favorites of anything. Yet, I’d still like to hear what you guys think.

Andy: This has been a stellar stretch, no doubt; I’ve been intrigued or invested by nearly every moment to air so far that didn’t involve Betty. Since it’s also the first time I’m watching the show live week-to-week, it’s hard to weigh it against previous seasons without considering that shift in my viewing experience. Still, when the series is all said and done and I’ve been through it at least twice, I think the odds are strong that I’ll register many of these episodes among my favorites.

As for a Mad Men death pool….if this were a Joss Whedon show, my chips would be on Kenny all the way. But if it isn’t to be Pete, then death may strike with a glancing blow, taking someone outside the core characters but close enough to them to provoke bouts of soul-searching. By that measure, Bert Cooper is a logical option.

Les: Like you Cory, I’m withholding judgment until the end of the season and we see what events have been building to, but this has been a tremendous string of episodes we’ve had the privilege of watching and talking about. With the exception of the fat Betty Francis arc in the second episode (which itself earns a pass for creating one of the most hilarious Twitter feeds of the year) there’s not been a dud amongst them. I think I’ve been enjoying this season more than season four, which I thought was the best and also the first time I watched the show week-to-week. In terms of individual episodes, I don’t know if I’d put any on the level of “The Suitcase” or “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” (possibly “Far Away Places” for its ambitious structure) but there have been a legion of moments that I’m positive I’ll remember when it comes to picking best of 2012 lists. 

I think truthfully it’s not a case of the show being “the best it’s ever been,” but more this is a show that the longer it’s on the better it gets. This is a show that’s built on its characters and their interplay, and the longer we watch it the more history gets amassed and stories become intertwined. Remember the utter hilarity of Joan bringing Kevin to the office, secrets and subtext beyond counting? 

Pete’s malaise, Peggy’s frustration, Don’s newfound happiness – we love talking about these moments because we’ve watched these characters for so long we know how they got there, and we can almost predict exactly how they’ll react when the next obstacle comes up. It’s been fantastic, and there’s been nothing this season to contradict an adage I’ve heard many people say: When Mad Men‘s on the air, it’s the best show on TV.
On the death pool subject, I still won’t rule out a murder/suicide pact of Pete and Roger, but more realistically I think it’ll be a secondary death that affects one character very personally with ripple effects. Maybe Abe gets killed while covering a riot, or Dr. Greg actually does step on a mine in Vietnam? Ginsberg’s father? Dawn’s brother? Lots of possibilities.

Cory: If Ken Cosgrove dies, we riot. Until next week, friends. 

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