Sex. Lies. Deceit. Acting. The Beatles. Where do we stand with Mad Men? It’s beginning to take unexpected turns, further twisting our expectations of characters and once again shifting the geography of the show so much so now that the characters are beginning to mutate and transform into one another. Taking its title from a poem by Sylvia Plath, episode 8 of Mad Men‘s fascinating 5th season does not show its hand all at once but on reflection it becomes one of the season’s most low key and intriguing instalments.
As mentioned, the title refers to a poem by Sylvia Plath, which in a roundabout way concerns a woman who is destroyed only to rise again and “eat men like air”. If anything, this becomes a recurrent theme throughout the episode as two of the show’s key female characters and one newly introduced character do nothing but undermine the men in their lives after being beaten down by them.
While Pete is catching the train into the city, he is again accosted by the same man, Howard Dawes, who we met episodes earlier. He confides in Pete that he’s having an affair by using an apartment in the city. Pete isn’t visibly shaken and only becomes stand-offish when Howard offers him life insurance.
In the office, Megan is up to something, she is receiving mysterious calls while Don is pitching a commercial to another pleased company. Later on, Don is asked to go to dinner and requires Megan to join him, she politely refuses saying she has work to do. She then leaves the office and tells Peggy that she is going to dinner with Don. Accepting it, Peggy stays in the office (as she always does) through the late hours, only to receive calls from Don asking where Megan is. Forced to lie about Megan’s whereabouts, Peggy remains uneasy throughout the night and leaves.
On the same night, Pete leaves the office a little later than usual and is confronted in the car park by Howard Dawes’ wife Beth (a seductive turn from Alexis Bledel), who is looking for her philandering husband. Pete himself attempts to cover for Howard but fails and he drives Beth home. Much to our surprise Beth seduces Pete into sex in the living room but then brushes him off saying that she is satisfied. Throughout the episode Pete tries to get more out of her, even turning up at the Dawes’ home unexpected in a ruse asking for life insurance, but it still doesn’t work.
The next morning Peggy confronts Megan about her night, with Megan revealing that she was at audition and that her desire to become an actress is still deep within her. The berating she received from her father in last week’s episode has also stuck with her and she very openly rejects advertising, pretty much saying she hates her job and the world of advertising.
After trying to be nice to her, Peggy walks away stating “I don’t care what you do,” a phrase that in earlier seasons we have almost definitely heard Don say. Megan does later confide this to Don and he, as per usual, decides to support her wholeheartedly, despite him and everyone else (including the omniscient eye of Joan) knowing that she will probably fail.
There is a lovely, metaphysical/metaphorical moment that Matthew Weiner drops in so subtly and so confidently that you could be forgiven if you didn’t notice it. After Megan says goodbye to her colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Don places her in an elevator, after they’re apart for a matter of seconds he pushes the button to go down on the other elevator. Only, as the door opens, the elevator hasn’t arrived and it remains down on the bottom floor. What does this mean or signify? Is it simply one of the Mad Men red herrings that means absolutely nothing?
Throughout this season Don has been far too close to Megan, so much so that he can’t bear to be without her, hence his eagerness to run after her having just put her in an elevator. The fact he can’t chase after her anymore suggests that Megan is drifting further and further out of his grasp and there is nothing he can do about it. Will this be played up in the next 5 episodes? Who knows, you can’t predict what Weiner has planned and that’s why his show is excellent. Any guess you make about where the plot is going turns out to be wrong and what actually happens is always ten times better than you could have possibly predicted.
Since Megan has left the husband and wife act that was so successful in seducing Heinz into an account, she can’t be allowed to work its magic on the Cool Whip executives. Instead, Peggy is sent in to replace Megan and pitch on Cool Whip’s own turf. She instead makes a complete hash of things and the executives aren’t exactly thrilled. Don and Peggy then have an argument (which are always the most entertaining of all the show’s fall outs). While in the last season Don could have easily wiped the floor with Peggy in a slanging match, this time she emerges triumphant. She has grown a tough hide and learned not to expect anything from anyone, it is a magnificent performance by Elisabeth Moss who really deserves more awards attention than she gets.
Lady Lazarus closes in a very un-Mad Men style, with a Beatles song as Don listens to them on Megan’s advice, which then accompanies a montage to play out the tensions that have broiled throughout the episode. The song is an example of Weiner showing off at his worst, Beatles’ tracks are very hard and very expensive to get copyright permission for use in other media and here, the cash that AMC threw Weiner’s way is on display all too obviously. It does link back nicely with Don’s line about not understanding music is amusing and when he turns it off seemingly out of distaste it made me smile, but on the whole it felt out of place.
The eighth episode may not be a Mad Men classic but it certainly never dips in terms of quality. The central idea of Lady Lazarus with Megan, Peggy and Beth embodying this Plath character is an interesting one and it does set up some nice tensions that Weiner could work with through the show’s final few episodes.