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Mad Men: Flight of the Phoenix

Mad Men S05E08: “Lady Lazarus”

In “Lady Lazarus,” Mad Men invoked Sylvia Plath to give us a little perspective on what might possess Megan to walk away from her increasingly successful advertising career—one that, just a mere two episodes ago, she was happily enthusiastic about. Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel also made a delightful surprise appearance as Beth Dawes, the wife of Pete’s commute buddy, and the newest object of his creepy obsessive affection.

The narrator of “Lady Lazarus” the poem describes her multiple failed suicide attempts as “resurrections” and compares herself to a cat with nine lives. Each time she is revived, she is a new creature with a new purpose—until that purpose inevitably loops around to dying again. She expresses frustration with her inability to accomplish, once and for all, actually changing her life; or, more specifically, to find a death that will stick. In the last stanza, she becomes a phoenix, rising from the ashes, resolving to break her cycle:


Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air


At first, with her melancholy demeanor and fatalist tendencies, I pegged newcomer Beth Dawes as the titular Lazarus of this week's Mad Men episode, but surprisingly, the role turned out to belong to Megan. Over the course of her life, she's recreated herself multiple times. As an audience, we are aware of three of those rebirths, reflecting the three resurrections of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” narrator: In season 4’s “Tomorrowland,” we learned that Megan once dreamed of being an actress, then walked away from the aspiration, taking on various secretary jobs until she landed at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That was rebirth number one. Then, after toiling as a young secretary for a time, she married Don and became a copywriter, as well as the stepmother to his children. On the surface, it wasn’t a huge shift in roles, but the meaning behind the new status was clear: She was committed to SCDP, Don, and his family. She was leaving her free-spirited youth further behind in rebirth number two.

“Lady Lazarus” illustrated her third rebirth, a more blatant attempt to resurrect her old wants and dreams. In the poem, the narrator always hoped to accomplish the same end, so it makes sense that Megan would ultimately return to her original life goal of being an actress. However, by leaving her copywriter job behind, Megan has actually managed to limit her freedom by reducing herself to being wholly financially dependent on Don. For now, Don is more than happy to finance her dream. He told Roger that he didn’t want Megan to end up as miserable as Betty or her mother. On that note, Joan predicted that Megan would ultimately become “a failed actress with a rich husband,” which, again, should it come to pass, would just be a variation on the theme of her previous lives: a failed actress with a rich father, an office pariah (in the sense that many of her co-workers felt that she was only given her job because of Don’s favoritism) with a rich husband.

For now, Megan is a phoenix. She was even wearing red when she told Don that she wanted to quit advertising, as if to mirror the narrator’s bright-red hair. But that same narrator implied that becoming the phoenix was a necessary evil, that the only way to escape from the cycle of death and resurrection was to completely destroy it. For Sylvia Plath herself, this meant death. In a way, it means the same thing for Megan, but on a much smaller scale. Megan was good at advertising. We have yet to see whether or not she is a good actress, and even if she is, there’s no guarantee that she’ll find the same stability and success that she did in the SCDP offices. For all intents and purposes, by walking away from her office job, Megan might have killed the only successful career she'll ever have—a career suicide.

Megan’s rebirth came in direct contrast to Don’s struggle to simply maintain the life he has been accustomed to for so long. His season-long struggle has been, like many of the old guard at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, to understand the new chaotic world that seemed to spring up around them in the middle of the night. Don has gone through similar resurrections throughout the series: his Dick Whitman to Don Draper transformation, living the suburban dream, losing it, and his brief disastrous stint as a bachelor in the city.

Now, Don is the much older husband of a young, energetic, and modern woman. He struggles to maintain his edge in the workplace and when this week’s infuriating clients insisted on music that “sounds like the Beatles” for their ad, Don struggled to understand what they wanted and why. He doesn’t understand why no one is happy with a simple jingle these days.

Where Megan saw herself going up, Don saw himself falling further down, a mindset manifested in the malfunctioning elevator that opened up to show the deadly drop to the bottom of the shaft.

Megan attempted to help, encouraged Don to listen to her new album, the Beatles’ “Revolver.” “Start with that one,” she said, instructing him to listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which, tellingly enough, reflects the same cyclical pattern of Plath’s poem: So play the game “Existence” to the end/of the beginning, of the beginning.

Rather than take charge and rise like his wife, Don turned the record off, poured himself a drink, and went to bed.

Questions:

1. What are your thoughts on Pete/Beth? Impending doom? I’m going with impending doom.

2. Do you think Megan’s acting career will take off or crash and burn?

Comments (15)
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1. Well, I really like this storyline: the cheating husband who thinks he can get away with it (and even brags about it) but is in fact being cheated on very nicely. Very ironic! I'd like Pete and Beth to keep it up.

2. Don't really know, but I'm pretty sure Megan and Don will get a divorce eventually. It is nice to realize how Don has gradually become a bit narrow-minded and old-fashioned (or else, has always been like this) through seasons; he was this brilliant advertiser, but seems to be having trouble keeping up with the changes, which doesn't match his profession at all. Very interesting.
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1 I don't think that we will see Beth again. It was failed escape in thrilling affair for Pete. Like everything for him this season. I start to feel that he might not survive finale.

2 I think it doesnt matter whether she succeed or not. We won't see it. They gotta divorce.
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Thanks for the great review.

1. Impending doom sounds likely.

2. Hopefully she'll have at least some fleeting success, I think Weiner likes his characters too much to let them be abject failures.
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I'm getting quite annoyed with Pete, I really thought that he'd turned a corner last season, but now he's back to bedding randoms! Okay, so Beth wasn't exactly a random, and he does seem smitten by her, but still, you've got Alison Brie waiting at home man! Pull yourself together!
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Something bad is going to happen to somebody this season. The way Mad Men does it is they shove hints in your face. But they are so obvious you don't really take them as hints. For example: the season they worked with the cola, the Bye Bye Birdie thing, Betty left Don. This season, Death and close calls have surrounded the firm. There was the 8 nurses thing, Betty and her "tumor", Don strangling the woman in his dream, Pete mentioning his insurance covers suicides, and the elevator not being there. It is too much to ignore. I would also like to say that this is the episode were things will start to go sour for Don and Megan. He is clearly unhappy that she left the firm but is covering it with support. Eventually he will have a bad day and will let her have it. Their relationship should start unraveling soon.
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RORY! As a HUGE Gilmore Girls fan I was excited to see Alexis Bledel on this episode of Mad Men; but to be honest I didn't even recognize her at first. She and Pete were oh so adorable together! Still waiting for Don and Megan's relationship to implode! I love Mad Men oh so much! Yay! We get to see Betty next week!
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Mad men has lost its edge for me, im sorry to say.
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Really? For me it just keeps getting better and better.
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I tried, but could not unsee Rory. And I'm almost going to say "Poor Pete". I was wondering about the elevator scene, waiting for someone to fall and die LOL. Great explanation!



1- Impending doom all the way!

2- She'll probably won't have a great career and she sounds like she is ready for failures. She'll be fine.
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I couldn't unsee Rory either. Got stuck on it, in fact. I had to dig out the Gilmore Girls DVDs this afternoon.
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I also remembered I haven't watched the last season yet! D:
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1. I agree with the impending doom

2. This one is tough - She can be successful making Don jealous, or she doesn't make it and makes Don angry having to keep financing her failing acting career. Either way, Don will be upset.



I must say like you did how happy I was to see Alexis Bledel. I was a huge fan of the Gilmore Girls. If Alison Brie appeared in this episode along with Alexis and Jessica Pare I would have experienced sensory overload. I hope Alexis' character sticks around for a while, even at the expense of Pete's marriage.



Great job on your review. Very well researched and thought out and gave me something to think about. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to listen to some Beatles, or something that sounds like them.
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Oh, one more thing - This episode also had Mr. Belding, the principal from Saved by the Bell!
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I like your take on number two! Don is trying to be supportive, and I think he WANTS to be supportive, but he's gritting his teeth through the whole ordeal.



I totally forgot Principal Belding! ButI hope Bledel sticks around for a bit. Beth is really intriguing and Pete seems kind've...smitten? I felt kinda bad for him when get got stood up (but only a little.)



I had some Beatles on today myself :) Rubber Soul!
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I knew I recognised him from somewhere!
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