In Sunday's all-new "Mad Men" episode, the prospect of performing is liberating for some and confusing for others. Meanwhile, a few outliers are gravely tired of the roles fate has assigned them. Spoilers ahead!
Pete is approached by insurance agent Howard, who rides the train with him to and from suburbia, about the possibility of life insurance. Pete declines the offer, and the conversation drifts to Howard's new 24th-story apartment in the city, where he meets his 24-year-old strawberry blonde mistress. He claims that his wife, Beth, is satisfied with their arrangement and grateful for the stability he provides.
Pete meets Beth (played by Alexis Bledel) later that evening in the train's parking lot, and offers to drive her home. During the car ride Beth bitterly confides that she knows the purpose of her husband's apartment, and that she believes he doesn't care if she's "alive or dead." Pete is attracted to Beth and, recognizing a fellow depressed soul, follows her into her home to make sure she isn't endangered by her own emotions. They have sex. During a post-coital conversation, Pete looks genuinely happy (the first moment all season), and Beth tells him his eyes look like the recent photographs of the earth as seen from space. Also: They shouldn't see each other again.
Meanwhile, Megan lies to Don about needing to stay late at the office, when in fact she has a callback audition for an off Off-Broadway play. Peggy gets stuck in the middle of this lie, and confronts Megan about it, stressing that Megan should tell Don the truth. Megan does tell Don, albeit in the middle of the night, and ultimately Don is supportive. Don and Peggy have been intriguingly paralleled thoughout the season, and no less so in this episode. They have essentially the same reaction to Megan's desire to act: Neither can truly grasp why Megan doesn't love advertising, but both understand the importance of pursuing a deep-seated dream.
Megan tearfully quits SCDP, and the spectrum of reactions is fascinating. Joan, who's seen many a woman come and go from the office, takes it with a serene smile. Harry Crane is relieved that one less person will report back to Don with office gossip, and Pete can't be shaken out of his depressive slump. Peggy genuinely admires Megan's courage, and snaps at Rizzo and Ginsburg to pay attention to Megan's announcement. Though Rizzo always brushes off Megan's ability with a sexist swagger, he still manages to nail the tragedy of the advertising profession: "You work your ass off for months, you bite your nails, and for what? Heinz. Baked. Beans." This gives Peggy pause.
Pete encounters Harry on the train again and, in an act of reckless maneuvering, invites himself to Harry and Beth's house for dinner. Once there, he corners Beth in a moment of privacy and tells her he'll be waiting for her at a hotel at midnight. Midnight comes, and Pete has champagne on ice in the suite, but no Beth.
Don, Peggy and Ken deliver a pitch to Cool Whip clients. Without Megan there to be Don's other half in the planned "Mr. and Mrs. Draper bit," the presentation goes poorly. Peggy tries to sub in for Megan, but her forced cheeriness falls flat, and Don looks utterly confused at the prospect of Peggy playing his wife. This set-up was brilliant. Peggy is constantly navigating her uncertain relationship with traditional femininity — does she want to get married to Abe, like a good Catholic girl from Queens? does she want to be that sweet seductress singing "Bye Bye Birdie"? — and seeing her uncomfortably act out the role of wife heightens her uncertainty. Also, Don frequently relies on Peggy as a sort of surrogate wife. He calls her in the middle of the night, he confides in her, and trusts that she'll organize his life in various ways. But when confronted with Peggy playing Mrs. Draper, his response is, literally, that she can't do it right: She messes up the key line of the pitch.
"I guess you could say I've a call":
The lurking possibility of suicide laces this episode. Pete mentions to Harry that his current life insurance plan with SCDP covers suicide after two years, which is one hell of a throwaway line for an opening scene. I see Pete and Beth's kinship as partly based in attraction, and partly based in an unspoken knowledge that they're both at the edge of a precipice. It's no accident that when Harry and Pete go back to Harry's house for dinner, there is an uncomfortable couple of beats before Beth emerges from the kitchen. She could just as well have been a Sylvia Plath, with her head stuck in the oven. (More on that below.) Beth also mentions that maybe she would encounter Trudy at the local market — "if I ever went there." She's showing signs of isolation from society.
And then there are the two most unsettling images from the entire episode. First, Don looks down the empty elevator shaft. This was particularly upsetting because Don and Megan finally seem so healthily happy in their marriage — why the sudden view of the abyss? It doesn't let us easily forget that in earlier episodes Don was seen doodling a hangman's noose, and mentioning that "a night in the suburbs makes you want to blow your brains out." Also, SCDP is all gloss, bright paint and mod design. To glimpse the building's skeleton is frightening.
The second unsettling image is of Megan's feet as she lies on the floor during an acting class. This image alone isn't dreadful, but it's edited immediately after a shot of Pete. We see Pete's trembling face as Beth and Harry pull away from the parking lot, and then a shadowy room with a pair of feet splayed limply on the floor.
(That final scene with Pete and Beth in the parking lot is a great call-back to episode 1, when we first saw Don using the electric car window. Who would have thought that, episodes later, an electric car window would be an instrument for erasing the clues of secret passion?)
This week's episode title, "Lady Lazarus," is also that of a famous Sylvia Plath poem. The poem's narrator is a woman who, at the age of thirty, has encountered and unhappily escaped death every ten years. There are distinct Holocaust allusions. The idea of someone who longs for the peace of death but can't manage it speaks to Pete, and perhaps Don. The Holocaust referencing makes me think that Ginsburg's horrifying backstory will have prominence in future episodes.
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.
Meanwhile, the use of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" in the final sequence suggests a more ambiguous take on the abyss:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, It is not dying, it is not dying. Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining. ... So play the game "Existence" to the end Of the beginning, of the beginning. Other ideas or interpretations? Thoughts about the episode?