But listen to the color of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving.
–The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows“
In the Season 2 episode of Mad Men A Night to Remember, Betty needs, finally, to confront Don. She wakes him in the middle of the night. It’s a stark moment of deep revelation (discussed in my video essay for Season 2), made more so by Betty’s pale, unmade-up face. It’s the beginning of the end of Don and Betty’s marriage.
At the halfway point of last night’s Mad Men, Lady Lazarus, Megan wakes Don in the middle of the night. Her vulnerability is accentuated by her unmade-up face. It’s a conversation that will change their marriage.
Betty confronted Don about his lying, and though he claimed to love her, he lied all through it. Megan confronted Don about her own lying. Don, somehow, was open to listening, although only in pieces. At first they speak at cross-purposes; he truly believes that she wants to be in advertising and will be happy doing it. He sees her talent. Nothing she says persuades him, but, remarkably, she holds her ground.
No one has an accurate perception of Megan’s decision. 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.
Pete, too, has a dream. His dreams are sweetly, dangerously romantic. In past episodes, we’ve noted how Pete is turning into Don—the life in the suburbs he hates, the wife he becomes alienated from, the life lived through business success that brings no emotional rewards. Here’s another aspect of Don: He was never really into the casual affairs. Roger was always happy to dip his wick into redheaded twins, or whores, or whoever happened by, but Don fell in love with Rachel, he fell in love with Suzanne, and he left Midge when he realized she loved someone else. Pete, like Don, wants the love dream. He wants a romantic ideal to fill the gaps in his marriage, just as Don did when married to Betty.
Pete wants to love Beth. He wants to feel he has her (“I have nothing,” he said in the “Previously On” clip). He wants a sense that dreams have been restored to his life.
Beth leaves Pete with a dream. “This can never happen again,” she says, and she means it. He feels brutalized by this rejection and does everything he can to fight it, to reject the rejection, but she stands firm. Pete’s romance is all by itself when it’s a hotel room and a bottle of chilled champagne. But if it’s silent longing, if it’s fantasy and secret hearts left on windows like a hobo code, she’s all in. She just wants the dream.
When we see the layers of secrets and lying, the codes and conspiracies, we know we’re firmly in Mad Men territory. These aren’t themes of the episode or even the season, they’re themes of the series. Two different phone calls this week at the same pay booth make very clear how important secrets are to this show, even as Don gives relatively less attention to protecting his identity. Pete, Beth, Howard, Peggy: they all lie, they all speak in code, they all talk about the things that aren’t true in order to obliquely say the things that are. No wonder Megan, speaking her truth to the best of her ability, shakes them all up.
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” is too dense to analyze here. In part, it’s about remaking yourself as a new woman, and in part, it’s about surviving suicide attempts. Megan remakes herself, but the scent of suicide pervades this episode. Pete mentions in the opening scene that his life insurance policy covers suicide “after two years” (which have already passed). Pete at first follows Beth into her house because he fears she’s suicidal (it’s the second clip above). The elevator door opens to an empty shaft—terrifying, foreboding. Megan cooks barefoot (you’re not supposed to because you risk electrocution). The Beatles song that Don plays, Tomorrow Never Knows, repeats the lyric “It is not dying,” and we see Megan in acting class, lying corpse-like on the floor. That’s a lot of death imagery, and it fills me with dread. I can’t instantly or easily tie all these images together with the poem and deliver a neat interpretation. Should I? Is interpretation the point? The 1960s are, in part, a time of dread. We hear news reports about Vietnam twice during the episode. War, fear, violence, change . . . society as a whole may be killing itself and arising Lazarus-like. Does the Draper marriage survive this? We don’t know. I don’t believe we’re meant to know. I do believe we’re meant to fear.
Don wants to know what’s happening with modern music, and Megan hands him Revolver, very possibly the Beatles’ best album, released quite recently (August 1966—this episode appears to take place in October or November). She tells him to listen to Tomorrow Never Knows first. It is the most challenging, most psychedelic, least accessible track on the album; the song Don is least likely to understand or enjoy. It’s being introduced to new music with a bucket of ice water to the face. Don might easily have embraced I Want to Tell You or Taxman. Instead, he gets experimental music, Timothy Leary-inspired lyrics, and sitar. The world is running away from him too fast to keep up; Lady Lazarus may remake herself, say, by quitting her job in order to act, but it seems like Don can’t continue to rise from the dead, although he’s done it before.
Some additional thoughts:
- Another motif is the interconnection of safety and protection, rejection and danger: Some people feel small and insignificant in their lives, and some people feel protected and supported. Beth is scared of the city. Harry feels belittled at home. Who will watch over the unprotected? Who will feel safe?
- Quote of the week goes to Don, both for wit and for meaning: “I was raised in the thirties. My dream was indoor plumbing.”
- If the physical comedy didn’t get to you this week, you are not paying attention. Watch the guys acting out A Hard Day’s Night in the fishbowl conference room when Megan peeks in. For that matter, watch Pete wrestle with skis. Or just listen: The sound effect of the scraping skis after he says goodnight to Peggy is worth the price of admission (or would be if AMC weren’t basic cable).
- Rich Sommer cracks me up. As usual. Thank you, Harry, for finding the Earth from space majestic.
Originally published at Indiewire Press Play.