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'Mad Men' recap: A little something on the side

Mad Men Don Peggy Ken Cool Whip

I’m going to start this week’s recap with a provocative question: Is Pete Campbell going to kill himself? While I'm not the first person to suggest this theory, I nevertheless find it increasingly compelling, especially after this week’s episode, “Lady Lazarus.”

Let’s count the clues, shall we? First, there’s the cryptic title, borrowed from a poem by Sylvia Plath, who famously died by her own hand. Then there’s the fact that Pete’s entire storyline this week revolves around his life insurance policy, and his bizarrely chipper reference to the suicide coverage in his current plan (“After two years, it covers suicide!” he says). Clearly, this is a man who’s been thinking about his own death, and isn’t entirely uncomfortable with the idea.

And, oh yeah, Pete is also totally miserable. The latest incarnation of his malaise is a brief assignation with Beth, the similarly unhappy wife of Howard, his life-insurance-shilling train buddy. Her motives are, at best, mysterious. There’s a sense that she’s getting back at Howard for his various infidelities — a la Betty and that handsome young guy in the bar way back in Season 2 — but whatever’s driving her, she’s not interested in an ongoing affair. Pete, however, gets carried away by the promise of hot sex without the tedious routine of marital life.

While it’s not the most groundbreaking development —a man bored by marriage? Well, I never! — what’s interesting is how Pete chooses to deal with these feelings. Rather than looking inward, he sees himself as the powerless victim of the mercurial, domineering women in his life — Beth, Trudy, and no doubt Peggy, too. “Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?” he asks Harry in a terrific scene. This sentiment is astonishing, really, given how Pete is prone to taking what he wants from women, with or without their consent. But what matters isn’t reality, it’s Pete’s perception of it and, of course, how he chooses to deal with it. The specter of Pete’s death is so overwhelming at this point, it almost makes me think it won’t happen for this very reason, but then how else can he put a stop to the misery?

Mad Men Pete Beth
Like Pete, Don finds himself beholden to the desires of a woman in his life — in this case, Megan’s dream of being an actress — and he, too, may he harboring resentment because of it. The question looming over Don’s impulsive marriage to Megan is whether he’s genuinely turned over a new leaf, or whether he’s simply repeating the same mistakes he made with Betty. As we all know, Don used to idealize Betty, too, but then grew bored and restless. Megan might superficially have a few things in common with Don’s first wife — specifically, her physical beauty and her desire to work in a glamorous industry — but in most other ways, they are very different women. Megan is compassionate, outspoken and vaguely Bohemian, where Betty was selfish, repressed and strenuously conventional.

When Joan hears the news about Megan, she seizes the opportunity to gossip with Peggy, her favorite kvetching partner. Joan responds in that coolly jaded way of hers, suggesting that Megan is going to end up “a failing actress with a rich husband.” She even compares Megan to Betty, and shares the tidbit that Don met Betty, a small-time model, on a photo shoot. “That’s the kind of girl Don marries,” Joan declares. As much as I love Joan — which is a lot—this is not her finest moment. Not only do I think she’s (GASP!) wrong about Megan, I think there’s something a little ugly about her knee-jerk cynicism. Could her own unhappiness be clouding Joan’s judgment?

I tend to think it is, though with “Mad Men,” it’s always hard to know the truth. Don took a while to take Megan seriously as a colleague, but now he’s actually turned on by her advertising savvy. His ex Faye was also a career woman, which Don appreciated, but there’s something about Megan’s almost accidental talent that he finds more exciting. Judging from his performance in the Cool Whip rehearsal, he is also intoxicated by the idea of Don and Megan Draper, Advertising Power Couple — by the attractive and charismatic image he and his wife project, perhaps even more so than the reality.

And this is where I begin to worry. As different as Megan is from Betty, I wonder how much Don has really changed. Yes, he’s been forthcoming about all the “Dick Whitman” business and he’s managed to stay faithful, but this doesn’t change his fundamental attraction to the illusion rather than the reality of things. It’s also clear that, as supportive as he is of Megan’s decision, he also feels somewhat rejected by it. Don bids Megan a long, tender farewell at the elevator, kindly offering to bring her things home from the office so she can avoid more painful goodbyes. The scene is so loaded, it feels like something terrible is about to happen — a freak accident, maybe? Then Don almost walks into an empty elevator shaft, and lingers for a few seconds staring into the void.

The imagery is unsettling and certainly not subtle, but its meaning is still somewhat oblique: Clearly, Don is scared, but why? Later that day, he returns home to find Megan, barefoot and stripped of her makeup, cooking dinner. She greets him warmly and expresses surprise that he’s not drunk; he reassures her everything is OK, but we all know it’s not. What I can’t quite figure out is the “why” of it all. Does seeing Megan in this familiar domestic tableau remind him of Betty — and make him realize he wants to be married to a professional woman after all?

Megan’s unhappiness also puts Peggy in a difficult situation. First she has to lie to Don, which is something she hates doing and also, it’s worth mentioning, something she’s hilariously bad at doing (“Pizza house!” anyone?). Peggy is outraged to learn that Megan doesn’t want the highly coveted job she lucked into and just so happens to excel at. It’s harsh, but not necessarily wrong. Her brutal honesty is quite a contrast to Don, who expresses his support for Megan’s decision and tries to mask his own hurt feelings. The next day, when Megan announces that she’s leaving the agency, Peggy softens her stance. “That takes a lot of guts,” she decrees. Still, it’s almost like Peggy gets to say the things Don can’t, because she’s not in love with Megan.

Unfortunately, this also means that Don lays the blame on Peggy. With Megan gone, Peggy has to replace her at the Cool Whip pitch. It’s an incredibly awkward situation, in part because it calls attention to the Peggy’s unique relationship to Don. She was, and in some way still is, Don’s office spouse, a role that’s all the more problematic now that Don is actually married. She is, to use an analogy that’s simply too tempting to ignore, the Cool Whip to Megan’s whipped cream. Peggy makes a valiant attempt to play Mrs. Draper, but she botches her lines and the pitch is a disaster.

Don lashes out, blaming her for not just for the failed pitch but also for Megan’s departure. Peggy may not be Don’s wife, but there is something quasi-marital about the squabble — even the test kitchen they’re in suggests a simulacrum of domesticity. But Peggy, in one of her gutsiest moments to date, refuses to indulge Don’s intentional misreading of the situation. “I did everything right and I am still getting it from you. You are not mad at me so shut up.” Amen, sister.

Stray thoughts:

-- An actual Beatles song on “Mad Men”! How exciting! There might also be some  clues buried in the lyrics to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” especially the lines like “turn off your mind relax and float down stream/it is not dying, it is not dying” and “lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void/it is shining, it is shining.”

-- Don tells Roger that Megan doesn’t want kids. I wonder if this will become another point of contention between husband and wife.

-- The theme of this episode is poor imitations: Cool Whip is to whipped cream as Herman’s Hermits are to the Beatles.

-- When I first saw the title of this episode, I thought for sure it would be Ginsberg-centric, given the poem’s Nazi imagery. I hope we get more of his character this season.

-- Mr. Belding works at General Foods? Who knew?

-- First Julia Ormond, now Alexis Bledel. What’s with all the name actresses in guest roles this season?

-- Speaking of which, I confess at first I thought Beth might be Howard’s girlfriend because she’s so young-looking.

-- I am sure glad I don’t work in the Time-Life building with Don. Not only do the elevators malfunction with potentially disastrous results, but some people — cough, cough — don’t even bother to call maintenance to report the problem.

-- Stan’s apt assessment of Megan’s decision to leave — “You work your ass off for months, you bite your nails. For what? Heinz. Baked. Beans.” — is interesting. There’s more open cynicism about the advertising industry than ever before, isn’t there? I wonder if anyone else will follow in Megan’s footsteps and decide to leave it altogether.

-- Based on next week’s previews, it looks like Betty will finally be making her triumphant return. Hurray!

RELATED:

"Mad Men" recap: A night with the grown-ups

"Mad Men" recap: Straight trippin'

"Mad Men" recap: Welcome to Fight Club!

— Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Photos: Top, Don, Peggy and Ken try out some delicious non-dairy whipped topping, lower, Pete and Beth embrace. Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

 
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