The Orange Couch, Episode 8 of Mad Men: “Lady Lazarus”
I get the feeling that this episode is going to be controversial, but I love it. It’s a classic example of how good “Mad Men” is about pulling the rug out from under your expectations, but doing so in a way that works really well. The title of the episode is “Lady Lazarus”, which is one of Sylvia Plath’s greatest poems, and is known as a suicide poem. But as we point out in the episode, they don’t do anything so obvious as make the episode about suicide. No, it’s actually smarter than that. It’s like they actually bothered to read the piece they’re referencing, and noticed that it’s about not just death, but rebirth, of dying as part of living. Plath calls dying an “art” and a “calling” in the part we quote in the video, but there’s another part of the poem that clearly inspired Megan’s storyline here.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Is Megan rising? Does she eat men like air? I’m not so sure, but it’s intriguing. The more obvious man-eater in this episode is Beth, who has some of Plath’s traits: She’s depressive and uses evocative imagery to capture her own self-pity. I’m not trying to be mean; I think that there’s a place for self-pity, and anyway, bouts of intense self-pity are basically what depression is.
This episode also highlighted another great thing about “Mad Men” that other TV fails at: capturing ambivalence. Having characters suffer ambivalence is often fatal for TV, because viewers want clear roles for the characters: The Ambitious One, the Old-Fashioned One, the Ballsy One, the Sad One. We want to know what they want and see if they get it. But reality isn’t like that. Most people carry more ambivalence with them than we’re ready to admit. Don is sad this whole episode because he really doesn’t know what he wants from Megan. Pete also doesn’t know what he wants. Megan’s decisiveness is discomforting because it exposes how much others don’t have it. The key is to do what John Lennon says and try to go with the flow a bit, let that ambivalence sit and play out, just to see what happens. Don doesn’t like that, but Pete is maybe a different story.
If we sound sympathetic to that little weasel Pete in this episode, well, we’re aware of that. On the whole, I think he’s a dick. And the first time I watched this episode, I was bleating the whole time about what a dick he is. But rewatching it while we wrote out The Orange Couch, it seemed way more ambiguous. It’s incredibly telling that he wasn’t blowing smoke up Beth’s ass when he said he is listening. The bout of self-pity he expresses at Harry is annoying as hell—he’s a well-off white guy who has clients coming to him and a wife that loves him!—but my anger was moderated by realizing that Pete is incredibly depressed. Depression makes it nearly impossible to see things clearly. And she is pulling his chain, so he’s not entirely wrong about that. He’s just wrong about his belief that he has to play along. And yet. And yet….. Well, watch the video. I think maybe he does have to play along, on some level.
Beyond just the riffs on Plath’s surprisingly dense themes in “Lady Lazarus”, I loved the Beatles stuff in this episode. They got it exactly right, which is why I think Weiner was lucky to pull off the amazing feat of getting the rights to use “Tomorrow Never Knows” in this episode. The behind-the-times people are just getting around to accepting the reality and implications of Beatlemania, but they don’t realize that the Beatles have effectively put those days behind them. Don sitting on the couch, expecting to hear some teeny bopper tunes and hearing some psychedelic experimentation instead was just perfect. He already was annoyed that he doesn’t get the Beatles, and he was thinking of the first incarnation. This new incarnation of them is beyond even his ability to know that he doesn’t know what’s going on. But what I really loved was that it wasn’t some clunky condemnation of people who couldn’t keep up with the changes in the 60s. There’s a surprising amount of sympathy there, and I felt like I got a real understanding of how impossible it may have felt to be 40 (which isn’t even that old!) and have everything changing on you so incredibly fast.
Thoughts? Feelings? Opinions on Thomas Pynchon?