MAD MEN 5×07-08

"At the Codfish Ball" & "Lady Lazarus"

It's only because I've fallen so sorely behind on my reviews lately that I'm doubling up on my Mad Men posts this week, but these turn out to be good episodes on which to do so. The main plotline running through "At the Codfish Ball" and "Lady Lazarus" is the meteoric rise, and voluntary fall, of Megan Calvet Draper (Jessica Pare) at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As many characters have remarked this season, time feels like it is speeding up, and here Megan travels, over a period of a few weeks, a condensed story arc that other characters would take years to complete.

But that's the way things are going to be from now on in America: roles are becoming less narrowly defined, identities more fluid, and self-fulfillment is becoming more important than stability and the traditional markers of success. 

It occurred to me this week that Mad Men examines American generations in much the same way that The Wire did municipal institutions: each season can and does stand by itself, but it is only in watching how several seasons interact with and echo one another that you realize there are larger themes at work. Mad Men is not—as it was often dismissed as being in its early seasons—merely a snapshot of one bygone era in American history; it is, rather, an exploration of changing American values, and a tracing of the very evolution of American identity.

Over recent weeks we've been seeing how important Megan's work is to her: this was at the root of her fight with Don in "Far Away Places." She took pride in her role as a member of the creative team, and as a working woman, and she resented Don's assumption that she would rather play than work. In "At the Codfish Ball," Megan demonstrates to everyone that she's far more than a dilettante who married into a job: she not only comes up with the idea that finally saves the Heinz account, but she choreographs the impromptu pitching of that idea like a master. "You know, you're good at all of it," Don tells her, turned on by her talent.

But from the moment she has this triumph, it sits uneasily with her. Her success is put into perspective through the disapproving eye of her idealistic father Emile (Robert Guttman). "Yes, you had a big beans success," he says. "Is this your passion?" Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) doesn't understand why Megan isn't more excited. "Why aren't you jumping up and down?" she asks her. "This is as good as this job gets." But that's just the problem: this is as good as it gets, and it's not fulfilling. Peggy sees Megan as the next version of herself, but Megan is smart enough to figure out very quickly what Peggy has—after many years—only begun to realize: that success in these terms may not be enough. "Reality got her," Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) says. "You work your ass off for months, bite your nails, and for what? Heinz Baked Beans."

Megan's decision to walk away from it all, and pursue a dream of acting, is incomprehensible to most of the other characters. "I was raised in the 30s," Don Draper (Jon Hamm) says. "My dream was indoor plumbing." Don is the epitome of America's so-called "Silent Generation"—the pragmatic, Depression-born Americans who grew up in hardship and therefore longed for stability and prosperity. ("Stop talking, and make something of yourselves," he told Midge's Beatnik friends, back in Season One.) He's a child of the equally pragmatic Greatest Generation, personified in Roger (John Slattery). ("I sure as hell never got to choose what I was going to be," Roger says here. "My father told me.") For these men, recklessly surrendering a successful career to search for uncertain happiness and self-fulfillment would have been almost unthinkable.

But Megan is not of their generations: she's our first major Baby Boomer character, born into the post-war security the previous generations paid for (as her father points out). She has the luxury to pursue her dreams, and she has the awareness of how neglecting the ideas of happiness and self-fulfillment has made so many of the previous generation miserable. (It is also making those who aspire to the same values—like Peggy and Pete [Vincent Kartheiser]—almost equally miserable.) This, I think, is the real meaning of the ad campaign she comes up with: generation after generation of the same woman, serving the same baked beans to the same child: there is talk of casting Megan in that role, but she doesn't want it (literally or figuratively): she wants something different from what her mother had, and her mother's mother before her. She doesn't want to be her parents; she doesn't even want to be Peggy or Don. "It will never be for me what it is to you," she tells Don.

What I like about how "Lady Lazarus" handles this is how the other characters do not judge Megan for making the choice she makes—they are mystified by it, but they also seem to admire her courage and freedom. ""Why shouldn't she do what she wants?" Don asks, as if it's a new concept. "I don't want her to end up like Betty…or her mother." (Betty Draper [January Jones]—as we've discussed before—is the perfect example of a woman made miserable by completely sublimating her inner life to the externally-determined values of her generation.) And Peggy, too, recognizes—with a certain envy?—that there is something admirable in Megan's decision. "That takes a lot of guts," she says.

The media scholar Marshall McLuhan—who, by the way, once said that "Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century," and is almost certainly a major influence on Mad Menspoke in 1969 about the shifting values of the Baby Boomer generation. "It is not an easy period in which to live," he said. "[Y]outh acts out its identity quest in the theater of the streets, searching not for goals but for roles, striving for an identity that eludes them." Roles, not goals: their quest is not for something to do, but for someone to be. As McLuhan said:

"These kids are fed up with jobs and goals, and are determined to forge their own roles and involvement in society. They want nothing to do with our fragmented and specialist consumer society. Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures, they are desperately trying to discover themselves and fashion a mode of existence attuned to their new values…”

Those new values are still evolving, and the identity, as McLuhan implies, may continue to elude them: the old standards have been rejected but there are—and really will be—no comparable new standards to replace them. Megan thought she wanted to do what Don and Peggy do—she said this in her first real conversation with Don—but it turns out she just knew she wanted to be something else. She knew she wasn't a housewife—she didn't want to spend her life serving baked beans—but what she does want to be is a person who is fulfilled. For the moment, she thinks that means being an actress, but not too long ago she thought it meant being a copywriter, and we suspect that may change again and again over the course of her life. What she does is not necessarily what's important: the quest for fulfillment—and for happiness—is the new measure of success. This is a major paradigm shift in American culture—for better or worse—and it is met here with a nicely (if heavily-handed) symbolic moment: as Megan leaves the office, Don almost steps into an empty elevator shaft. The ground has, literally, opened up beneath his feet.

In the interest of time I'm only going to touch briefly on the sub-plots in these two episodes, but they deal with many of the same themes. This paradigm shift—this new emphasis on inner joy and experimentation over success and stability—is not just affecting the younger people: Roger, for example—with the help of a little LSD—is starting to examine himself and his inner life in a way he never has before. ("Are you seeing a psychiatrist?" his ex-wife asks him, when he demonstrates a little insight about himself.) Roger has been on a treadmill he never chose all his life: the game, he now realizes, was fixed from the start. Later in "At the Codfish Ball," he says, "I woke up one day, and I realized, at what point should you ever stop trying?"

He says this to Megan's mother Marie (Julia Ormond), who is also unhappy with the life for which she has settled. "When I was younger, it was my spirit to try everything," she says. "And then one day, I made too many mistakes." She agrees with Roger that they have settled for too little: "We should have everything we want," she says. (What she wants at the moment, apparently, is to give Roger a blowjob in an empty ballroom.)

Her lines are echoed in "Lady Lazarus" by Beth (Alexis Bledel), the young wife of one of Pete's acquaintances. "I used to be like this," she says, after she and Pete sleep together. "Reckless." Beth and her husband—like Pete and his wife—have emulated the previous generation: they have completely settled for the suburban American dream, and it hasn't made them happy. Beth seems very much like Betty Draper—an apparently perfect housewife secretly unhappy with her philandering husband—and seems doomed to make Betty's mistakes by refusing to imagine another life for herself. I would hardly recommend Pete Campbell as her ticket to a happier life—he does, in fact, act like his usual snivelling, sexist, weasel-self here—but they are both trapped in pale imitations of the lives they thought they were supposed to have.

And Peggy is feeling her way towards a different life—attuned to different values—without being able to totally let go of the old ones: she is such a transitional character, with one foot in each generational culture without being completely at home in either. When Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) invites her to dinner to discuss something important, Joan (Christina Hendricks) convinces her that it may be a marriage proposal. Peggy goes to the dinner expecting a proposal—and clearly wanting one—only to be met with his suggestion that they move in together. It's a wonderful moment—and wonderfully performed by Moss—in which Peggy realizes she is still an old-fashioned girl inside, and then adjusts to a measured joy over this new—and different—standard of happiness. "I thought you were going to be disappointed for me," she confesses to Joan, her relationship mentor. "I think you're brave," Joan says, reminding Peggy that marriage did not work out so well for her. (The disappointment comes from Peggy's mother [Myra Turley], who refuses to sanction her daughter's living in sin. "If you're lonely, get a cat," she advises: she is the voice of the generation for whom stability is everything, and happiness is not even a priority.)

"When did music become so important?" Don asks Megan. "It's always been important," she tells him. On Mad Men, the music is always an expression of the shifting cultural tides, and here it stands for this inward-looking quest for happiness and self-realization. The end of "Lady Lazarus" finds Don—alone in his apartment, while Megan is at her acting class—putting on The Beatles' Revolver and listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows." The song—with lyrics taken from Timothy Leary's paraphrasing of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in The Psychedelic Experienceis about the experience of taking acid, echoing back to Roger's mind-expanding trip. More generally, however, it can be seen to be about the meditative, inner-exploration that is becoming so important at this period in American culture, and which is so antithetical to the values of the previous generations. It is a song about looking within, and about being, not doing:

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.

Yet you may see the meaning of within,
It is being, it is being.

"I don't know what's going on out there," Don admits to Megan. He's trying to understand, like he's done all season, but he turns "Tomorrow Never Knows" off halfway through. With Megan, he only just learned to like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but now the Beatles—like the country, like the culture, like his wife—have moved on too quickly for him: every time he starts to find his footing, the ground opens up a little more before him.

Additional Thoughts:

  • It is nearly impossible to make a reference to Marshall McLuhan without envisioning this scene, so I'll just admit that I know nothing about his work, and how I ever got to write a blog on anything is totally amazing.
  • The title of the second episode, "Lady Lazarus," comes from a Sylvia Plath Holocaust poem in which a woman dies—or commits suicide?—and is revived, again and again, rising—reluctantly—like a phoenix from the flames. I've elected not to try to analyze the connection, but certainly it might be read as referring to Megan's reinvention of herself, or to the image of the same woman living the same life for thousands of years in the ad campaign, or else to Beth's brief revival before returning to the living death of her marriage. I don't know: here's the poem, what do you think?
  • Ah, the days before caller-ID, when you could answer your phone with "PIZZA HOUSE!" just to avoid talking to someone.
  • I also liked Peggy's reponse when Joan says that men, in her experience, do not take the time to end things. "Someone dumped you?" Peggy asks, in disbelief.
  • In other news, Don discovers that the American Cancer Society may honor him for sticking it to Big Tobacco, but they'll never trust him and never work with him. They all love his work, he's told, "but they don't like you." It's another example of how who you are is more important than what you do.
  • The Pete Campbell Suicide Threat Level is further elevated this week, with his sinking further into depression (over the Beth affair), and repeated references to whether his insurance policy covers suicide.
  • As always, there is an unspoken question: what sort of world will Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) inherit? Her impression after the Codfish Ball (and after accidentally witnessing The Fellating of Roger Sterling) is that the world she's being offered is "dirty."
  • That being said, I would watch a show that just featured the team of Roger Sterling and Sally Draper: maybe they could solve crimes.

 

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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One thought on “MAD MEN 5×07-08

  1. OK, now I'm officially involved in this season.
    The increased speed of change throughout the course of the 20th century is an imagined (and real?) perception of mine. Anyone born in the first decades of the 20th century must have seen a staggering shift in everyday life. And things really start to "ramp up" after WWII. I remember Don saying something about, "Show her there's a routine," when confronted with Megan's foray into acting.
    Routines and traditions. I wonder if that is also an undercurrent of the show…how certain routines and traditions are necessary and comforting, and how others must be thrown by the wayside.

    Good Roger Sterling moment. Pete trying to corral a bundle of skis and poles and drag them out of Roger's office, and Roger says, "Well, at least I got to see that."

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