In the Sylvia Plath poem from which tonight’s episode of Mad Men gets its title, the protagonist faces oppression from the Nazis and imagines herself reborn – like a phoenix rising from the ashes. In the show, it is Megan who is attempting to engineer her own renaissance: from advertising copywriter, stuck in the shadow of her husband, to aspiring actress, taking classes and auditioning for Off-Broadway plays.
After last week’s conversation with her Dad – in which he criticised her for not following her dreams and jumping into a successful life, without putting in the hard work to earn it – Megan has been convinced that her future no longer lies with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, she is just too scared to tell Don. As a result, she is returning secret phone calls for a callback from the pay-phone rather than in her office, then lying to both her husband and her boss, Peggy, about her whereabouts that evening. From their trip to Plattsburgh to visit Howard Johnson, we know that Don loses control when he does not know where Megan is, thus he spends the night drinking and calling up Peggy to find out what she knows. When his wife does return home, Draper gives her the opportunity to continue lying to him by revealing that he had spoken to Peggy and therefore knew she was not working late. For someone who spent his first marriage hiding his identity and affairs from Betty, Don is not artful in recognising when someone is deceiving him.
The following day, Peggy berates Megan for putting her in a position where she would have to lie to Don, causing her anxiety and a sleepless night. Because her boss assumes she is having an affair, Megan tells her that in fact she was on a callback for a play and she wants to get out of advertising to return to acting. Peggy is completely understanding about the situation and consoles…wait, that’s not right. Peggy flips out at the thought that anyone could entertain the idea of leaving the amazing job of copywriter at an advertising agency, assuring Megan that people would kill to have her position. This hostility carries over to a creative meeting about a potential new client – Cool Whip – at which Mrs. Draper uses her acting chops to pretend that everything is fine with her, even partaking in some banter about the product with her husband that will be the showpiece of their pitch at a test kitchen. The pretense infuriates Peggy – who ends up snapping their tagline of “Just Taste it” to end the skit – but it also eats at Megan, resulting in her waking up Don in the middle of the night to confess her lie and revealing her desire to quit SCDP. Like Peggy, Don cannot believe that his wife would consider not working in advertising, given that she has a natural talent for it. However, Megan is relieved that he is understanding and wants her to pursue her dreams, making arrangements for her to finish at the agency the next day.
There is a strong indication that this might be the beginning of the end of Don being a loyal and devoted husband, completely infatuated with Megan and not drowning in the vices he had during his marriage to Betty. After escorting Mrs. Draper out of the office one last time, Don then finds himself staring down an elevator shaft – suggesting that the descent of the opening titles, where he falls into a big drink and is surrounded by women, is just a false step away. For the first time in this season, we see Draper make a beeline for the bottles in his office – ready to get drunk during the day again now that he does not have Megan around to fawn over. His carefree attitude is already waning, as shown by him getting into an argument with Peggy at the Cool Whip Test Kitchen after she cannot remember her lines in the bit he was supposed to do with Megan. This ends up with Draper blaming Olson for his wife wanting to leave and they end up in a shouting match in front of one of a woman who works for the client.
The only question now is whether the rest of his old characteristics also return. Will his eyes wander to other women now that he is not seeing his wife all day? Will he refocus his efforts at work and begin to care once more about advertising? While I do not think Don has himself been acting in the role of content husband this year, he does now find himself with the same structure in his life that lead him to be a philandering drunk in the first three seasons of the show. One thing is for sure, he no longer has Megan around to ensure he stays relevant – and her attempts to continue this role at home failed as Don does not enjoy The Beatles album she buys for him. (Although to be fair, Revolver is best listened to from start to finish, rather than beginning with the final track – Tomorrow Never Knows – which is a crescendo that should be built to by the rest of the songs).
Pete Campbell, who a few weeks ago was complaining to Don that he has nothing, spends the episode besotted by Beth, the wife of Howard, an insurance agent with whom he rides the train. After trying to sell Pete life insurance on their commute, Howard tells him about a new apartment he has got in the city so that he can continue an affair with a 24-year-old woman. When Campbell gets back to his car that night at the train station, he finds Beth waiting there for her husband. Although he initially lies and claims his train buddy was seen in the Oyster Bar lobbying for more business, any sense of camaraderie Pete felt with Howard quickly disappears when he drives Beth home and ends up having sex with her. From then on, Howard’s wife plays hard to get with Campbell, unwilling to let the affair continue in a physical way, but enjoying his pursuit. When he calls her, Beth tells Pete that they can think about what happened and fantasize about it, but it cannot happen again. This infuriates Campbell, who wants to have everything and is never satisfied unless he is the one in control. Not only does he have a wife and baby, living in a beautiful house in the suburbs, he is succeeding in his job and even Roger now recognises the importance of his role in the company – giving him free skis from a client who want Campbell to be their account man. This is not enough for Pete and he continues to pursue Beth, going as far as pretending to want to buy insurance from Howard so that he will invite him back to his home. Once there, he gives Beth a key to a room at the Pennsylvania Hotel, telling her to meet him there the next day. Angered by her not showing up, he complains to Harry that women get to decide how things will be and that he feels insignificant – an emotion he finds to be exacerbated by the pictures of the earth from space. Despite his rage, Beth manages to ensnare Pete’s interest again by the end of the episode, drawing a heart on the condensation on the window, before winding it down to remove the evidence before her husband can see it.
As always with Mad Men – there were some comedic moments in “Lady Lazarus”: Ginsberg’s reaction to Megan saying she was no longer going to be working at SCDP – “He fired you – that son of a bitch!”, then being convinced that she had quit to avoid paying him back the $15 she owed for past lunches; and Pete and Harry’s back-and-forth when he is on the pay-phone with Beth – “What do you want?” “Nothing – you came over!” “You opened the door!”.
It has now been a few weeks since we have seen some of the main characters on the show – Betty has not returned since her cancer scare; Lane has been mostly absent since he punched Pete; and Joan has been only incidental after showing Greg the door. Next week may see the return of these people, as well as a comeback for the old Don Draper.