Mad Men: Flight of the Phoenix

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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?

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