Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.8
"It Is Being"
Guest Writer: Jeremy Varon

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

[The seventh in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men,  posted prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"It Is Being"

Written by Jeremy Varon (The New School)

By the time Pete Campbell beds the forlorn wife of a philandering suburban fellow traveler, an old-school Mad Men slime-fest seems full on. Explaining his entitlement to “a side dish in the city” — while playing Pete for a life insurance sale — the train mate Howard Dawes had restated the delusional macho writ of Seasons 1-3 which gave husbands license and left their wives miserable: “She’s happy because I provide for her.” Pete, taking the pitch too well, parlays — as per the vintage Don Draper — ennui into conquest, complete with post-coital, existential pillow talk and handsomely mussed hair. 

But there’s a twist. Beth Dawes, after all, had initiated the vengeful seduction, confessing “I used to be like this . . . reckless.” (No prudish Betty, she). As Meg’s mysterious night out snakes through the Campbell plotline, we appear to have graduated into a world in which women at least give as good as they get. Call it progress, the 60s on the slow march.

The crude parallelism of men and women behaving badly, however, is quickly suffused in a complex series of doublings or chiasmi; these permit the episode far grander commentary on the changing station of women, change in individuals’ lives, and, in a newish theme for Mad Men, how change and death comingle. Change itself is of course the arch-theme of the entire season, imposed by the times and begged for by countless “What next for the Mad Men?” pre-season commentaries. Each of Season 5’s installments can be read in terms of the extent to which the Mad World allows in, keeps at bay, or allows itself to be shaken by everything famously rattling walls in 1966, from the Civil Rights Movement, to feminism, the Vietnam War, and LSD. 

Some issues, like race, enter only fleetingly (so far), leaving as quickly as purloined bonus pay from a white girl’s purse. (As if providing meta-commentary on the show’s increasingly untenable banishing of nearly all subaltern identities and their struggles, Pete says of urban hobos, “I guess we’re supposed to get used to not seeing them,” to which Beth replies, “Yes, that’s exactly what happens.”) Other themes, such as rock ‘n roll as the soundtrack of a new generation, or feminism’s emergence through a widening circle of Mad Women, have greater staying power.

But mostly, as Kritik’s contributors have noted (and occasionally grumbled over), “history” registers only obliquely in allusive temporal markers and the slowly shifting grammar of the characters’ lives. (Note the Lyndon Johnson head cheekily affixed to a skeleton on the copywriters’ door, while news of Vietnam bleeds through the radio.) But here too Mad Men avoids the temptations of convention. Rather than give us so many Bildung narratives — the bounded journeys of Peggy, Don, Joan, et al. as allegories of social transformation — the show crafts most characters as reflections, or imitations, or repudiations of one another. By this means, identity is presented as fundamentally intersubjective, transferential, and based in repetition: the self as (an)other. 

Struggling to make their way, the characters face the perpetual threat of deeper estrangement by collapsing into someone else or being confronted by avatars of their prior selves. In this way, apparent “authenticity” is always called into question, as is the durability of apparent change at the micro- and macro-levels. By extension, the show is able to stage structured ambivalence that resists easy synthesis or closure, thereby mirroring the open-endedness and internal negativity of both history and subjectivity. Though the Beatles increasingly dominate the show’s musical sensibility, a roughly contemporaneous line from Dylan’s "Baby Blue"  captures one version of this haunting: “The vagabond who’s wrapping at your door / is standing in the clothes that you once wore.”

Long simmering in Season 5’s plotlines, character-doubling boils over in Episode 8, "Lady Lazarus."  Pete is now plainly becoming the old Don, while scheming to be Roger. Meg, in her secretary-to-copywriter trajectory, at first mimics Peggy. Yet with her second emancipation, as Joan’s cynical take on Meg’s acting talents and resolve suggests, she risks reverting to Betty. Peggy, herself fearful in her liquor-swilling moments of becoming Don, literally stands in for Meg in an awkward husband-and-wife client pitch. And Don, always already doubled by virtue both of his Draper-Whitman identities and uncommonly extreme devil and angel sides, is drawn again to being a better man.

The great irony is that this exquisite confusion comes in an installment devoted to the wholesome pursuit of being yourself and following your dream. Meg leads the charge in what is the episode’s ostensible crisis: her fraught desire to leave the agency to revive a stalled acting career and her even greater fear of telling Don. Her dilemma provides occasion for one of the show’s great stagings of personal-as-political solidarity among women, held literally in the ladies' room — that semi-private sanctum of female affirmation. Peggy, with tough-love generosity, encourages Meg to marshal the courage both to reject a world she had herself struggled so hard to enter and to stand up to Don. 

In social terms, Meg’s angst marks new horizons for women. Betty, the erstwhile model, had answered the vagaries of the feminine mystique by trading for a more reliable benefactor and a still lonelier suburban castle. Meg, just two years later (but several years younger), resists the elevated trap of an unfulfilling profession by following her heart path. Time will tell if Peggy is right to see Meg as “one of those girls who can do anything” or if Joan is fair in reducing her to “the kind of girl Don marries.”

The crisis actually registers most profoundly in Don, now pressured to take his kinder and gentler self perhaps farther than he ever thought possible or necessary. He has already upgraded and modernized his existence. Gone is his possession of a cloistered supermodel-as-suburban-homemaker, who summons mostly his contempt. In Meg, he has an equally stunning but talented and ambitious professional urban woman whom he can decently love. But it remains a paternalistic, even imperious fantasy of control, now wrought by transparency and de facto surveillance, not deception. Meg is omnipresent to him as, at once, his partner, lover, soul mate, employee, colleague, co-creator, and occasional homemaker. But for Meg, to live this life in its professional (and not domestic) aspect is to die little deaths, as her dream is deferred to oblivion. Originating in modest subterfuge, her escape quickly ripens into game-changing, confessional honesty with Don and a new lease on life. Lady Lazarus, Megan has raised herself from the dead.

Don responds to her news with reasonableness, sympathy, and stoic benevolence, resolving in twin, cathartic realizations: first, that he is not wholly responsible for, or equivalent to, her happiness (something generations of husbands still learn); second, that her happiness, predicated on a measure of autonomy, need not come at the expense of his own, which was likely never sustainable in his new fantasy of perpetual Disneyland. In a rare portrait of earnest satisfaction, Don’s lips slowly curl toward a smile as he holds his freshly emancipated wife in his genuinely loving arms. Now synched to Megan’s wishes, Don proves himself far more “with it” than his bumbling inability to recognize the Beatles’ “sound” would suggest.

Don’s acceptance of his circumstances and her need for autonomy, however, does not rest lightly, summoning new images of death. Clearly shaken the next day, he escorts Meg to the elevator for her farewell luncheon with all the bittersweet affect of a father dropping off his daughter to her first year of college, or walking her to the marriage altar. That ambivalence becomes a morbid swoon as he peers down the empty shaft of the neighboring elevator he had nearly stepped into. Two readings are suggested by this jarring, did-that-really-happen scene, which together preserve Don as an insoluble schism. In one, letting go and giving himself over to change feels to him like its own little death, over which he can triumph. He stares at — and stares down — the abyss of contingency and fragile hope as death, and comes through it okay. His redemption is to survive that panic, in tact, the better man for standing back to let others have and make their way.

In another, sharply contrary take on the scene, Don peers at an image of his own persisting emptiness, no matter the increasing richness of his life. While Megan descends to begin her journey toward Broadway’s bright lights, Don beholds from his floating perch the absence of any true dream of his own, or even a desiring self to propel a dream that may walk the earth. He thus stands at the literal precipice of the existential free-fall and dreamy nihilism that the unchanging, opening credits suggest is his chronic condition. Quickly seeking refuge in the welcoming forest of office liquor, he finds comfort but no true peace. (I thank, I should say, my astute wife Alice Varon for this “second reading,” from which the core structure of this entire essay derives.)

In a final, somewhat different doubling, the show concludes by restaging this dyadic drama Beatles-style. Don is now ripe to commune with the sound of a new generation, having come by his initiation honestly. Left alone by Meg with Revolver, Don hears first the epic track “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lennon’s (and George Martin’s) LSD-infused masterpiece signals a new peak in the psychedelic revolution, now going mainstream. With lyrics drawing from Timothy Leary’s adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the song bids the still-shaken Don, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream / It is not dying / This is not dying / Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void / It is shining.” Doing as instructed, Don gives himself over to Tomorrow Never Knows and the serendipities of chance. However scary, it is not dying. So edified, and coming to, he then drifts off to bed, ready to face the next day awakened. Roger that!

In another interpretive possibility, his apparent reverie is more bad trip than revelation. While he lingers in collapse, we see an image of Megan, lying still as death in her acting class, but oddly grounded in her welcoming void. In between, there is an image of Pete and Beth’s desperate, star-crossed affection, redolent of the aching impossibility of the Roger-Joan coupling of the Mad Men of yore. Don turns off the record with an agitated scratch, and exits the forbidding void of his exquisitely decorated apartment to rest up for another day in an equally empty life.

N.B. The Editors of this project and Jeremy Varon wish to take this opportunity to thank the director of this episode, Phil Abrahamfor his contribution to our forthcoming book, Mad Men, Mad World.


Make A Comment


Jez B. said...

Very good blog and good episode but I can't make my mind up about the two meanings at the end. I missed the skeleton on the door. That was good!

Rob Rushing said...

Loved this analysis of the show! I had a slightly different take on the empty elevator shaft, which I read as yet another in the long series of "things that never happened" on the show. Don looks into a Kafkaesque void—and a serious workplace safety hazard—for several minutes, and then never tells anybody else about it.

Helena said...

Very interesting. It encourages me in my speculations over on the Guardian blog in the UK. The Tibetan Book of the Dead reappears this week as an inspiration for Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver. I’m now thinking that the Book is an inspiration for this season. We’ve noticed the frequent references to death either directly or indirectly and they are so numerous I’ve stopped noting them all. So, is MW leading the characters through the stages in the Book? In the second stage, the soul is presented with a series of gods and gets itself into big trouble if it has lived an ignoble and impious life, and if it reacts with anger, egotism, jealousy or stupidity. It is presented with a series of terrifying demons which it must recognize as good gods in disguise and as projections of its own evil karma. The first god it is presented with is the divine father/mother, the supreme deity of the universe transcending all dualities including the division into sexes. We’ve seen example after example of that.

I wondered before whether Don is an un-dead soul wandering the world, unable to cross over into the world of the dead because his identity has been stolen by Dick Whitman. Don’s hallucination of Andrea matches well with some of the torments and challenges in the Book. I’m guessing, but don’t know, that the sufferings of the other characters do the same.

Or is it we who are being led on this journey by MM? Are we being shown the stages of the Book to prepare us for our own deaths?

Liberation of the soul is the only way out of the challenges, torments and rebirths that come with failure to live and die well, the Books says. Don said to Peggy in The Suitcase, there must be another way out of here. But there isn’t. The falling man in the credits is in a constant cycle of life, death and rebirth that will continue until he learns to live and die well.

Anonymous said...

Because of Don's endless cycle of sex/violence/death drive repetitions, I think that he's Lady Lazarus. I don't think that Megan was all that dead in the ad firm--except in the lightest pop psychology ways. She seems to be the only character who lacks an untertow.

Thanks for this beautiful reading!

cindy said...

Don seems to be stepping up to the plate as he accepts Megan's need to "find herself" (although I have to ask why it should feel like it is a narcissistic injury to him that she could want to pursue a career outside of SCDP). His rant at Peggy exposes the fuller truth as he displaces his anger at Megan onto a safer object. Don is threatened. Megan is choosing to risk leaving the protection of Don's world, where she has already proven herself, and to spread her wings and fly, leaving Don in an empty apartment and not for the first time either. Of course her independence is what commands his respect but it also challenges his insecurities.
Who would have thought that the Megan of S4 who might easily have become another victim of Don's quest for fulfillment would instead be the one to envy?

unitcritra said...

In the "Arts Beat" blog of the New York Times for May 7th, is an article about how "Mad Men" secured the rights to the Beatles's song “Tomorrow Never Knows." Here is a link to that article:

MP said...

Great post, Jeremy!! Also lots of interesting comments here. I share freudenenthal's sense that Megan is not clearly the Lady Lazarus of this episode. But I don't think that means we need to identify Don too strongly with that figure either. To me Sylvia Plath is the new Frank O'Hara: a speaker for the times the way that his Meditations on an Emergency was in Season 2. If Plath is darker than O'Hara (as I think her poem is) as well as more vulnerable (as she was biographically) both aspects make "Lady Lazarus" a kind of Zeitgeist--especially for those who do _not_ think young (as almost no one in this episode besides Megan does). At least in this episode Stan and Michael are almost prematurely out of it (don't seem to really "get" music) and Peggy, though her maturity is desirable in its strength, also seems wise beyond her years.
Cindy, I agree - Don threatened - so afraid of getting the shaft he's almost ready to see himself plunging down it...
Jez B. I missed the skeleton too!
Helena: love the idea of undead Don in this almost goth season!

zina said...

On the undead theme: When they are looking for Beatles sound-alikes, Stan and Michael discuss the Zombies. BTW, I think that they know about the new trends in music, contrary to Don and Ken (and the clients).

I agree that there is nothing phœnix like in the fact that Megan chose to quit working in order to take acting lessons. Equating having a cushy job to death seems a bit over the top.

In general, the Megan leaving SCDP plot bothered me in the sense that the reactions by Don and Megan, and even Peggy, seem widely disproportionate to the actual event. At least Don seems aware of that (and tries not to explode at Megan as he clearly feels like doing, and as he ends up doing, taking Peggy as his victim). In particular, Megan's tears when she talks to her fellow copywriters made no sense to me; it seemed melodramatic without justification (except that this is what people do in TV shows).

On the other hand, the whole Pete-Beth part of the episode was a thing of beauty.

MP said...

How interesting, zina. I'm definitely coming from a different place on this one. Maybe because I blogged on "Far Away Places," my head was very focused on how caught up Don has been in the phase of love that friends of mine used to call "blissed out." Don's bliss was invested in this "new" kind of marriage where office and home are equally love nooks (as though solving the problem of office infidelity forever more). Then "Codfish Ball" seemed (from
Don's perspective) to be about his learning to appreciate (and even be turned on by) Megan's talent. By this episode you could see that Don was on the verge of becoming dependent on her professionally: for musical advice, for client dinners, and of course for the cool Cool Whip ad.

For all of those reasons it made sense to me dramatically that Megan's wanting to have her own life--not just a career but a career that Don couldn't easily control or observe--would be very hard on him and possibly damaging for the marriage. And though it was a bit artificial that Megan wouldn't give a few weeks notice and keep her date with Cool Whip, I loved the way that turned into Don's way of taking his anger out on Peggy (his relationship with Peggy has always been so interesting.) It remains to be seen if the bliss can survive. So, yes, while I enjoyed the Pete/Beth affair (that little heart on the window was just great!) to me this was another episode built around an artful pairing. Don continues to grow (as we never thought he could); Pete continues to be like the old Don but far less resourceful and not terribly charming!

cindy said...

I think that most TV writers worry that ongoing relationship sans infidelity become boring. I am therefore always waiting for the other shoe to drop and Don has such a history of dropping shoes that it's hard to trust that he can sustain the frustration that Megan's character brings, without slipping into acting out his injuries. I agree with Lauren that Don is truly blissed out. But this might be understood as an idealized transference with Megan. Her youth, beauty, talent and independent spirit have really caught his attention and he is basking in the light of the feelings brought to him by this union.I wonder if we can mistake this with Don's having actually matured emotionally. If it is only transference the bubble will eventually pop. We shall see.

Zina, perhaps the writers are expressing the belief that viewers' sustained interest demands infidelity ("adultery is back").

Beth/Pete. Now there is a match made in hell on Earth. One could almost feel sorry for Pete who seems to be in way over his head. Beth is quite the player and in MM that has heretofore been primarily a man thing.

lisa fluet said...

One connection between last week’s episode-blog-discussion and this week’s: Peggy articulates something like the sought-after left critique mentioned last time, in her ladies’ room discussion with Megan. (I was the “Anonymous Quebecois” person who was hoping for this kind of development; I’m also, apparently, the person who doesn’t understand how signing a name to a blog works…) . The ladies’ room moment plays up Megan’s capacity for exasperating other working women—particularly since her responses to Peggy’s arguments fall into the category of “I know I’m really talented, but will this job REALLY make me happy? And, no other woman could possibly fathom the complexities of home/work negotiations in which I am embroiled…” Peggy could probably say a lot about her own difficult negotiations of time, economy, family, child-bearing, sexual harassment, and so on, but she resists self-righteous indignation, and also resists whining over the inevitable unfairness of Megan—perhaps—simply having more talent than she does. Her insistence that Megan could simply be a “better” woman than she herself is, in terms of work, intelligence, looks, and everything, notably counters Joan’s assessment, but also underscores where Peggy’s critique—and cool whipped anger with Don later—are coming from: the perception that the imbrication of marriage and workplace makes both Don and Megan worse colleagues to work with, even if they are successful working with each other. Don may be “growing” as a married man, but in some ways he was a better, and fairer, colleague to Peggy and others last season, as the somewhat-sketchy, Village-dwelling divorced man—and, a kind of outlier, for the moment at least, in an office full of married men respectably cheating on their wives. His office-outlier position made him an unintentional benefactor to Peggy—an office-outlier for different reasons—and confirmed his position as “seducer-with-career” to her; rather than seduce her the traditional way with sex, in other words, the idea of a career is what keeps Peggy interested in him. In what has been possibly my favorite episode of the entire series, “The Suitcase,” Don calls Peggy “cute as hell”—which is, I believe, older-male-colleague-speak for “inconsequential” and “totally uninteresting to me sexually.” But Peggy’s relegation to “cute” status also enables her eventual articulation of critiques about the workplace she’s found herself in, with an eye to making it “better.”

Jeremy V. said...

Thanks to all those who responded to the 5.8 blog! Many great insights, worthy of a great episode. Some comments on the comments. First, I resolutely defend the idea that shifting careers WAS a big deal for Meg, rendering her "lady lazarus." Recall her Commie father challenging her not to trade luxury for her dreams in the episode prior. It shook her up! Second, she said that watching movies -- any movie -- had become impossible for her, given the envy and regret it stirred. Ouch. Third, she may well think, a la Peggy's description, that advertising is "stupid." That just might be, and it's neat that this "insight" comes not from some Marx-breathing counterculturist, but a less ideological gal, whose instincts rebel. Recall how dull she remained to Don's recitation of the epiphany of seeing one's idea on a billboard, on the street. This is to this point of the show the ur-critique of the superfluity of the Mad World, whose mandate is to make rich corporations richer.

Otherwise, yes, these are "luxury" or "high-class" problems: an educated, talented, slink, gorgeous white woman with a rich, charismatic husband -- boo hoo -- feeling "estranged." Alienation, yes. A tragedy, all things considered, no. The show traffics in a limited bandwidth of the foible and struggle of the privilege -- that is its seduction (a common one) and that is its curse (much a la Sex and the City, which educated/entertained us with smart, sexy, successful white women in New York). Unless the show grows a social imagination, it will be recuperable as cultural candy. But I'm willing, knowing well this limitation, to see the dilemmas of Meg as broadly resonant. Lay lady lazarus, indeed.

MP said...

Welcome to Kritik, Lisa and greetings Jeremy--thanks again for your post. Lisa, You would think that google could spend a smattering of their gazillions on better commenting software but, hey, what do I know? (I do recommend Control + C before posting anything--and if this doesn't apply to you b/c you have a Mac then you are much cooler than I am and don't need my advice :).)

Lisa, I think you are entirely right that Don's apparent Bildung has seemed to come at the expense of his work relationships. But then again this season is moving along at quite a clip (psychically, I mean, not in terms of the diurnal temporality of each episode). There may yet be some suitcase-style rapprochement. I also really like the idea of this Commie father/Ladies Room Left plot developing in the midst of this (pace Jeremy) haute bourgeois decadent milieu. It's one of those aspects of the 60s (the counterculture but also the history of the postwar Left more generally) that the show seems more determined to engage--certainly vis-a-vis last year.