Deep into “Lady Lazarus” is a brief moment that crystallizes the essence of Mad Men: a moment when a man finds himself staring into an abyss.
The man is Don Draper. He has just said good-bye to his second wife, Megan, who’s decided to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and pursue the acting career she abandoned a few years ago. Although they’re still married — and, it appears in subsequent scenes, happily so — Don and Megan’s parting when she steps onto her elevator has unusual weight. There’s more going on in their kiss and subsequent exchange of close-ups than a simple, temporary parting. It feels like a rupture, a decisive moment that could go either way in the long run.
Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm’s performances are perfectly in tune here, disclosing plenty but withholding more — from each other, but not from the audience. Megan’s reactions mingle deep affection, guilt, relief. Don’s face is smiling, but he seems more troubled. Jon Hamm plays stricken very well, and that’s what the character is here: stricken. He looks like a man deeply in love and terrified of losing it; he also looks very old. Hamm has always used his broad-shouldered, dark-haired, granite-jawed good looks with great intelligence and self-deprecation, but those lingering close-ups of Don just before and after Megan steps on the elevator might represent the peak of that particular talent. He lets us see how vulnerable Don is; he can turn on the alpha male swagger, but there’s always an edge of disquiet in his eyes, and sometimes self-loathing and existential terror. During seasons one through four, he came on like the Man even when he was suffering or screwing up.
But in season five, he’s just a man, and he’s recently been looking, acting, and presumably feeling older than ever before. At the new agency, he’s no longer the dashing, faintly dangerous Idea Man, but an authority figure, a full partner with responsibilities, and the more young hot shots he surrounds himself with (Michael Ginsberg, a.k.a. the New Don Draper, being the most recent example) the more like a fuddy-duddy boss he seems. Megan’s blooming beauty and casual, youthful narcissism helped bring out that side of him, ironically enough. Don proposed to her at Disneyland at the end of season four — in an episode titled “Tomorrowland,” no less! — because she offered him a shot at a new, happy future. But she also represents the End. Don married a much younger woman, a blank slate that he could inscribe his dreams on, but he can never be young again, and the more time he spends with her, and with the youth culture-connected younglings of SCDP, the more he knows it. Sometimes when I watch Hamm’s face in close-up as he looks at Paré, I’m reminded of a great sarcastic Steve Martin line from the 2001 Oscar broadcast: “I love welcoming the young stars to show business, because it reminds me of my own death.”
Sure enough, after Megan departs, Don hits the elevator button, the doors open, and lo and behold, there’s no car. Just an empty shaft. Don stares down into the darkness, takes a step back, processes the incident to the extent that anyone can process an utterly random near-death experience, then goes to his office and pours himself a drink. But the brevity of the elevator shaft moment and the drink-pouring drives home its realistic banality. You’ve had your own versions of these moments (nearly stepping off a curb into the path of a bus, nearly losing control of your car for some stupid reason, fill in the blank) and realized how close to death you came, then continued on with the rest of your utterly ordinary day. When Don goes home later in the episode (which was written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham) and sees Megan fixing dinner — the slow dolly-toward her slender body, as seen from the back, idealizes her as the homemaker that she really isn’t — he seems truly happy to see her. And she seems truly happy to see him. They’re both trying hard to make this marriage work, and because they’re doing such a good job of listening to each other and not judging, it seems like they might have a shot at long-term stability, an unusual prospect on a series as grim as Mad Men.
But the memory of the abyss lingers in the viewer’s mind, and presumably in Don’s as well. And when Megan heads off to her acting class and suggests that he start understanding young peoples’ music by listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last song on side two of the Beatles’ Revolver — which is sort of like telling somebody who’s never swum before to start by leaping off a cliff into a raging sea — the episode shifts into a quasi-visionary mode. A brief music montage connects Don; the depressed and restless husband Pete Campbell, just rejected by Beth (Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel), the wife of Pete’s sometime train compartment buddy Howard; Megan lying on the floor during an acting class, ultimately framed at the end of her tracking shot in a close-up that suggests death and transfiguration; and the professionally and personally dissatisfied Peggy Olson, briefly glimpsed smoking a joint with Stan Rizzo during what looks like a late-night writing session (the 1966 Beatles would have approved).
The lyrics of this particular song are so ethereal and multifaceted, and so clearly designed not to be interpreted one way, that unpacking them in relation to Mad Men would be foolish, and in any event, I seriously doubt that series creator Matthew Weiner and this episode’s principal crew intend us to. (It’s certainly not as simple as, “This song signaled the true beginning of the Sixties, and y’know, their next album was Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was all psychedelic!”) But some lyrics do jump out, particularly, “It is not dying, it is not dying” and “surrender to the void.” The first line resonates because it can be read as both truth and denial of truth: the abysses that the characters peer into in “Lady Lazarus” (which is named after a Holocaust-, suicide- and death-laden poem by Sylvia Plath, who eventually took her own life) do not represent dying, and yet at the same time they do. They’re images of potential death, or little personal deaths, or unspecified oblivions, or the unknown — the void. You can’t fight the void, or even knowledge of the void. You must surrender to it, let it wash over your or flow into you, then get on with life.
Roger Sterling figured this out during the LSD trip that prompted him and his second wife Jane to amicably split up. They both decided to go with the flow of the emotions they were feeling during the trip. This is the same drug, incidentally, that spurred the Beatles toward new heights of mysticism and formal experimentation in the sixties; “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its backwards drum track, buzzing sitar, and freaky hee-hee-hee-hee voices was a formal rupture in the Beatles’ discography, marking the point at which the band abandoned live performance, holed up in the studio and directed their artistry inward.
To some degree, that’s what all the major Mad Men characters are learning to do in season five: surrender to the void; or, more specifically, to the reality of not knowing precisely what makes them tick, where they’re headed professionally and personally, and what will make them happy (if indeed it’s possible to be “happy” in general), as well as to the certainty of their own cultural obsolescence and, ultimately, their physical decline and eventual death. The void, the abyss, depression, and death are poetically connected in this episode, both through music (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), dialogue (lots of talk of insurance and suicide, plus the bit with Roger commanding Pete to grab himself some skis), and imagery (the elevator shaft; the finale close-up of Megan, her face and shoulders matted by the dark floor around her; Pete and Beth’s climactic exchange of close-ups as she draws a heart in steam on her passenger side window, then lowers and raises the window, obliterating it along with Pete’s fantasies of being with her).
As my friend Alan Sepinwall writes, “On Mad Men this week, Megan is allowed to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and Beth avoids becoming Pete Campbell’s mistress, but their escapes in turn leave the men in question feeling trapped and confused and alone.” I don’t think Megan, Beth, or even Peggy — who accepted her boyfriend’s proposal to shack up last week, and alienated her mother in the process — are necessarily going to be permanently happy, or even happier, as a result of any choices they’ve made this season: not forever, not even in the short term. But that’s not so much fashionable basic-cable pessimism as it is a welcome corrective to the usual B.S. of Hollywood movie and TV storytelling. In life, nobody except crazy or deluded people live in a permanent state of happiness or unhappiness as a result of having made the “right” or “wrong” choices. Like existence itself, one’s moods are in constant flux. Megan and Don get at this obliquely in the scene where they discuss modern pop music; their conversation is all about Don seeking a key to understanding the new music and Megan informing him, as nicely as possible, that there isn’t one.
“Let me ask you something: When did music become so important?” Don asks. “Everyone comes looking for some song. And they’re so specific.”
“You love specific,” Megan says.
“But I have no idea what’s going on up there,” Don says, presumably referring to the room full of young writers who are in touch with contemporary pop.
“No one can keep up,” Megan tells him. “It’s always changing.”
As Deborah Lipp writes, there’s a theme in “Lady Lazarus” that works in conjunction with the notion of an abyss or void that everyone is always at risk of stepping into: the idea that we’re all struggling to realize a dream, or return to some previous state that feels like a dream because our lives have changed so drastically. What makes us feel this way? Are our perceptions accurate? Are other peoples’ perceptions of us accurate? Who knows? “No one has an accurate perception of Megan’s decision,” she writes. “We know that Megan was unhappy at work, that she wasn’t nearly as thrilled with her Heinz win as she had a right to be, that her father’s visit had rekindled her desire to fulfill her acting dreams. Peggy’s snapping at her that the job would be precious to someone else probably moved her to decide. It’s pretty clear that she’s been afraid to face Don down, but this is what she wants. Yet Don blames Peggy for jealousy and competitiveness, Peggy blames herself for being too hard on Megan, Joan sees Megan’s love as gold-digging, Stan sees it as an escape from the compromise and mediocrity of advertising: In other words, they all see themselves in the situation. As people hear about Megan, they all see their own dreams and disappointments. Don dreams of material success and security, climbing past the back stabbers into recognition; Peggy dreams of doing everything right and having it be rewarded, Stan dreams of artistic recognition, and Joan dreams of a husband who will financially nourish his wife’s dreams rather than abandon her.”
There are hints of deep fear and horrendous trauma lingering around the margins of every episode this year, with all the talk of random murders and riots and the war in Vietnam (we heard two snippets of war-related news in the background of this episode), as well as situations that prepared us for shockingly violent moments (Megan’s disappearance at the Howard Johnsons’ and Don’s subsequent, stalkerlike pursuit of her in their apartment being the most disturbing examples). But the deeper we get into season five, the more I think that Weiner is not setting us up for some sort of conventional Big Moment: Pete going postal in the office, Don strangling Megan, Megan leaping to her death from the balcony of their oh-so-ritzy apartment.
Yes, I know, this season has been filled with intimations of death (see this piece by Vulture’s Margaret Lyons), many of them focused around Pete; a Salon article even went so far as to predict the character’s demise, ticking off a laundry list of “foreshadowing” like ingredients in a cocktail, and concluding that Pete would die by leaping from a window of the ad agency’s headquarters, thus becoming the falling man glimpsed in the show’s opening credits. I’m going to go out on my own critical limb here and predict that none of the major characters, Pete included, will die this season, for one simple reason: Matthew Weiner cut his showrunners’ teeth on David Chase’s The Sopranos, a series that specialized in setting up viewers for an obvious, inevitable outcome via all manner of thuddingly obvious, TV-style foreshadowing, then either gave us the opposite of what we expected or (more surprising still) no resolution at all. Chase played his audience like Jascha Heifetz shredding a Stradavarius, using the audience’s comfort with fake-smart TV storytelling conventions in order to set us up for sucker punches that we somehow never saw coming, even though we had six seasons to study his moves. Weiner isn’t a maestro on Chase’s level (yet!), but I think we can all rest assured that he’s not going to spend seven episodes playing variations on “Turkey in the Straw” and then show us a turkey in the straw. And if he does, I will be very disappointed, as will many of you, I’m sure.
No, I think what’s going on here is something much more elusive, mysterious, and altogether satisfying (to me, at least): an intricately assembled mosaic of character moments, alternately glitzy and dirty, buoyant and despairing, which in their own hit-and-miss way, get very close to capturing what it means to be alive and sentient. All of these characters are very self-conscious, and self-absorbed in a way that seems to confirm that they’re products of the Hollywood script factory. The standard Hollywood storytelling model insists that every commercially viable narrative be an inspirational bubblegum version of the Hero’s Journey, and that we all sit there in the dark buying into the self-flattering fantasy that we, too, are the heroes and heroines of our own little movies, and that everyone else in our lives is but a glorified supporting character or background extra, and that they’ll all launch into a collective slow clap when we finally get married or land the big promotion or whatever. Mad Men lets the characters think this way — they’re as self-centered as you or I, which is why their selfish or self-destructive actions are often so disquieting — but it consistently pulls the rugs out from under them, and from us. The times change, history rolls on, the characters get older; they try to improve and know themselves, yet they keep doing things for inscrutable reasons, and keep waking up in unfamiliar circumstances wondering, to quote the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” “Well, how did I get here?”