“Have you seen those pictures of Earth from space?” That was the Rorschach test which Mad Men creator and writer of this episode Matthew Weiner posed to viewers in “Lady Lazarus.” The line itself was uttered by Beth, the wife of Pete Campbell’s train-riding pal Howard, whom Pete seduces, or, more aptly, is seduced by in this episode.
Beth, who, if you couldn’t place her, is played by Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls fame, uses those “pictures of Earth from space” as a metaphor for her alienation and loneliness with her husband Howard distant when he’s present and often simply physically absent — spending the night at their New York City apartment with his mistress when Pete swoops in. Of course, with Pete so adrift, it’s hard not to see this as a worldview that Campbell himself shares. There you’ve got the whole world, Pete, and all you can think of is the bleak, dark, endless negative space around it.
On the flip side is Megan, who abruptly quits her job at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to chase her simmering dream of becoming an actress on Broadway, or off Broadway — really on any street in New York City. Despite the natural skill she’s shown for advertising in the last few weeks, her unhappiness has been readily apparent. Unlike Pete, Megan runs toward that discontent and faces it head-on, having the difficult conversation with Don that is the lone hurdle to the reignition of her acting career.
Megan sees those pictures of Earth (metaphorically of course) and imagines a great many possibilities. Yes, she has things working in her favor that Pete does not. But ultimately I think it’s the disparate mindsets — the fundamentally opposite outlooks on life — that make the juxtaposition of Megan’s and Pete’s fate the spine of this episode.
On to the breakdown.
1. Things Look Good If You Have Pete Campbell in the Death Pool
Speculation is rampant that a major character from Mad Men will die during Season 5, and poor, drifting Pete Campbell has been put forth repeatedly as a popular choice to fit that particular bill. Subtle hints became outright noisy overtures in “Lady Lazarus.” Most obvious of all was the reference to suicide coverage in Pete’s life insurance policy — revealed during one of those awkward train conversations with Howard — but really the whole episode was rife with allusions to Pete’s mortality.
The rifle in his office made another appearance, of course, but my favorite more inconspicuous hint that Pete could meet his end had to be when he was driving Beth to her home and he blew through a stop sign, much to her alarm.
Pete is desperate for a lifeline — a real meaningful connection to someone or something in this world. I say that with a generous dose of sympathy. I know what Pete Campbell is, who he represents and the vitriol I’ve directed toward him over the course of this show, but I take little joy in his existential crisis. It’s tragic, if not wholly expected given his ethos and place in the world.
All that said, I can’t help but think that Weiner is fucking with all of us trying to guess who is going to kick the bucket. The suicidal hints got a little bit too obvious in “Lady Lazarus,” and such heavy — indeed clumsy — foreshadowing just doesn’t seem like his style. Maybe Pete will absent-mindedly run a stop sign again only to be T-boned by an 18-wheeler. Or maybe one of the more obvious choices, like Roger Sterling or Betty Draper, will meet their maker. I’m simultaneously more and less convinced than ever before that it’s Pete’s time.
2. Megan Goes the Selfishly Noble Route
I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be angry with Megan or happy for her. Her decision to leave SCDP is both selfish and inspired — a perfect embodiment, I think, of why Mad Men is so popular with my particular set.
On the one hand, there’s no way Megan would be able to go back to acting without Don. I mean, she could, I suppose, but the safety net his wealth provides certainly makes the decision a whole lot easier. This, in a way, makes her remarkably spoiled. Her problems are not real problems, or at least real, Earth-shattering problems. Her discontent with her work and desire to pursue something greater is so out of step with, say, Don’s secretary Dawn’s perspective on 1960s America that it’s almost laughable. As a result, I cheered on Peggy when she chided Megan in the bathroom at the SCDP offices for wanting out, for staring her natural talent in the gift horse’s mouth and passing it all up.
On the other hand, there’s this nobility to it. If you’ve ever been passionate about something — particularly some form of art — and been kept from doing it full-time because of financial concerns, then surely you have to empathize with Megan. No, none of her contemporaries in Harlem (much less Selma, Ala.) should shed a tear for her dilemma, that’s for sure. But, yes, happiness is subjective and relative. The greater suffering of others does not mean that Megan wasn’t facing an excruciating decision, and she deserves credit for being honest about what she wants. Stan Rizzo, much to the chagrin of Peggy I’m sure, probably put it best when he pointed to the utter meaninglessness of advertising as a primary reason for Megan’s departure.
Weiner contorted Megan and Pete into yin and yang throughout this episode, and so you had to love the differences between the pair illustrated by their superficially similar actions. Both go behind the back of their respective spouse in “Lady Lazarus” — Megan for a second audition and Pete to pursue Beth. There is so much more desperation and despair in Pete’s dishonesty, though, and, of course, he, unlike Megan, never comes clean about his actions, much less his deep depression, to anyone (except Harry Crane in a very oblique fashion, I suppose).
3. The Music Comes to a Crescendo
The musical choices on Mad Men have always been so exquisitely deliberate and so integral to the show, but it’s probably never been more important than it is right now, and not just because Weiner and company dropped $250,000 to license as much of The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows” as Don Draper could reasonably tolerate.
Its biggest role at this point is clearly as a generational dividing line. Earlier this season, Don and Harry — amid a sea of groupies — made an awkward and ridiculously futile attempt to get The Rolling Stones to do a commercial jingle for SCDP. In this episode, Don asks Megan “When did music become so important?”
Her response — that “no one can keep up with it” — is a comforting lie to Don. I’m not sure if it’s an instinctual trait of the young, or if it’s an instinctual trait of youngsters from the 1960s on, but we (I can’t include myself in this for much longer, I know) do seem to have this innate ability to “keep up with it.” Either way, Don is a metaphorical graybeard here. He’s neither young, nor a child of the 1960s, and so his age continues to show very starkly.