'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 8: 'Lady Lazarus.'

You may see the meaning within. Or not.
Michael Yarish/AMC

This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That's the point. If you haven't seen the episode, please come back when you have.

There might be better Mad Men episodes to come, but at this point I’d say Lady Lazarus is the episode Matt Weiner should win an Emmy for writing. He’s truly in command here and he’s touching on so many longtime Mad Men truisms – including the main one, existentialism – that he makes it look effortless. In fact, it’s almost as if Weiner is toying with the people, like me, who deconstruct each episode.

Because in the opening moments of Lady Lazarus, we see Pete reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. If ever there was a rabbit hole to fall down…

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I thought it was funny immediately (especially because it was Pete reading it – furrowed brow and all). But wanted to see what other tricks Weiner would pull out and use to complicate the episode.

Turns out, he pulled a hat trick. From the Sylvia Plath poem that gives this episode its name, to Pynchon’s book (featured throughout, as Pete rides the train) to the closing scene where Don listens in befuddlement to The Beatles singing Tomorrow Never Knows, it was the trifecta of interpretive confusion.

Perhaps it was Weiner’s nod to the belief we’ll never really know what’s going on in Mad Men, or maybe it was just his way of providing three reference points that could give good leads on fodder for discussion while also being vague enough to ultimately not be right (or matter). That’s the risk we run trying to assess each episode, rather than the whole of the season.

But hell, if it was ever fun, it was Sunday night.

The Plath poem is predominantly about suicide, which is arguably what the guy falling out of the building in the Mad Men credits is actually doing. The very word is used by Pete in explaining to train mate Howard, an insurance salesman, that Pete’s own insurance is so solid that “after two years it covers suicide.”

Have you ever known any insurance to cover suicide? And Howard instantly believes Pete’s insurance isn’t adequate, something Pete will find out later in sleepless nights (which we know Pete has, dripping water or no). Plus, the very notion of insurance is a cosmic joke and, placed inside a Mad Men episode where so many people seem lost and confused, it’s actually cruelly funny.

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And, if you’re playing the parlor game of which Mad Men character will jump out of the skyscraper window or otherwise kill themselves, I’d say Pete and his rifle just nudged up a notch. Pete’s entire run on Mad Men has been a series of disappointments, aggression, depression and failed happiness. I’ll bet he longs for the days when he and Trudy danced their asses off to the astonishment of many. Now he’s reading The Crying Of Lot 49, drinking in his office so he can take the late train just like Howard said he would and remaining completely and utterly lost when it comes to women. It’s refreshing that Pete has turned his attention away from teen girls in driving class but if he didn’t know almost immediately that Howard’s wife Beth was crazy/depressed, he’ll never know anything.  Don’t keep calling her, Pete – be lucky you got out of there alive.

(The Plath poem also has a strong current of Holocaust imagery in it, which could naturally lead back to Ginsberg, if you want to explore that further.)

Pynchon’s book is open to endless interpretation, though two connecting fibers to Mad Men include LSD and, for this specific episode, The Beatles. (And just a brief aside here about The Beatles – would Don really believe the band chosen for the commercial was The Beatles? He might be culturally out of it, but he’s heard their hits to that point, at least. Maybe his near free-fall into the elevator was still unnerving him and he couldn’t think straight? Or was choosing the fey sounds of an older unhip band that kinda-sorta sounded upbeat – stop your silly dancing, Ken – be yet another comment on changing times?).

Lady Lazarus had a number of references to death, the most blatant being the final shot of Megan stretched out on the floor in her acting class, but the most interesting by far was the elevator that wasn’t there, forcing Don to look down at what might have been had he been paying less attention. Will he have to “surrender to the void” as Tomorrow Never Knows preaches? Well, I certainly don’t think the empty elevator shaft was to be read literally, but it’s a great scene nonetheless because it reminds Don that life is unpredictable (also, maybe it cruelly reinforces the notion that just when you’re happy – as Don appears to be with Megan – you could lose it all). I loved the scene because my interpretation has always been that Mad Men is a series about a man having an existential crises, period. And that the show was allowed to be on television because it was sold as a look at advertising in the 1960s and it had a lot to say about the American mores of the time (starting in the late ‘50s and progressing to the end of the run, whatever year that will be). All the clothes, the drinking, the smoking and the sex are wonderful deviations on the unsellable premise that we have a man who is utterly lost in the universe.

Put a near-death elevator scene in the same episode where a lonely and lost housewife sees pictures of earth from space and asks Pete, who she’s just had a hollow, meaningless affair with, if, “It didn’t bother you to see the world tiny and unprotected, surrounded by darkness?” and you’ve got me hooked.

(Not to mention it continues this season’s wonderfully odd emphasis on elevators – get those thesis papers started!) Hell, we don’t know anything about Beth but from a distance she looks like the female Don Draper without his resolve to keep trudging through life. She even talks about hobos!

There’s so much goodness in Lady Lazarus (Peggy’s reaction to Megan hating advertising and what that means to her as a career woman and trailblazer; Pete’s fantasies imploding yet again and him wanting to whine and complain to the universe about it not being fair, etc.), but this was solidly a Don episode. He’s getting old and he knows it - or at least partly knows it while the rest is in denial. He seems to be savoring every minute of time with Megan, while also not letting work grind him down. And yet his mind keeps grinding away (thankfully Jon Hamm can brilliantly flash Don’s interior concerns onto his face and into his eyes).

Because it appears that nobody in Mad Men ever gets what they want (and that is beautiful, as They Might Be Giants would add); or that they remain unhappy when they do get what they want, I think we’re being suckered in by Don’s happiness. I thought Old Don, leaving Megan at Howard Johnson’s and running away (an old habit) was going to return for good, but that particular episode ends with Don literally chasing Megan to keep a hold on her and then, on his knees, squeezing her so she won’t get away. That's the New Don.

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That fight then led into another “happy” episode for the duo and, in Lady Lazarus, perhaps the most happy episode they’ve shared. Despite sharing a moment with Roger where the two seemed outdated as can be (and Roger dispensing advice from Mona’s father, of all people), Don decides to be more forward thinking and is perfectly fine with Megan seeking happiness in acting. He’s a man caught in time, but what if all those looks of confusion are really just Don finding some clarity and, wait for it, purpose. Part of “understanding” existentialism and how it affects your life is to first lead a more examined life and then to accept the choices you’ve made that have led you to where you are. And where’s that for Don? In love with Megan, who in the late scenes of Lady Lazarus tells Don that she thought for sure he’d come home drunk (after she rejected advertising like she rejected orange sherbert). But maybe coming home drunk is an Old Don thing. “Megan, it’s okay,” he tells her (forgetting to add, “everything is going to be all right.”). Megan replies: “Don. I love you. You’re everything I hoped you’d be.”

That’s an Important Line. It certainly appears to confirm that Megan – the un-jaded, un-cynical one who doesn’t judge Don --  has seen him evolve into the man she thought he could be. It’s Don’s LSD moment. He’s found happiness.

And yet, this is Mad Men for God's sake. Don is only beginning to realize how old he really is. Not getting The Beatles is behind the times. And this episode hit a high-water mark when Megan told Don to start listening to, of all tracks, Tomorrow Never Knows, the last song on the album, an indication of how far ahead of the curve Megan is (and how far behind it Don is), while also cheekily hinting that things are only going to get more trippy going forward.

The last scene is a thing of beauty, of course. That Weiner got permission to use a Beatles song is a great story unto itself, but by wanting that specific song, it certainly reinforces the existential aspect of the show – the search for meaning. Whether Don sees the meaning within will be addressed in coming episodes. I would like to believe that these early episodes are setting up an epic tailspin for Don. He’s not the type who wants to look inside much. It makes him flee. And his life is all-too-perfect now, with the barefoot-in-the-kitchen younger wife, the awesome apartment, the happiness. Combine that with his resistance to see how old he’s becoming, how the world is changing around him, and you’ve got real potential for trouble ahead. What is the meaning of life? I don’t know, let me turn off this noise on the record player and bring my drink to bed.

Email: Tim.Goodmand@THR.com