Megan tells Peggy and Don that she still wants to be an actress, while Pete stumbles into an affair with...wait...is that Rory Gilmore?!

By Adam B. Vary
May 07, 2012 at 11:07 AM EDT
Michael Yarish
S5 E7
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Before we can dive into a Mad Men filled with themes of rebirth and rejection, of taking command of one’s life or screaming impotently at the wind, we need to talk about the show’s Rory Gilmore/Mr. Belding problem.

For the last three episodes, we’ve been treated to guest stars who aren’t just recognizable actors, but carry some very specific pop-culture baggage with them. The LSD party hostess was played by Bess Armstrong — omigod, it’s Angela’s mom from My So Called Life! The Dow Corning man who gave Don the hard truth about his anti-tobacco letter was played by Ray Wise — hold the phone, it’s Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks! Megan’s gorgeously unhappy mother was played by Julia Ormond — jeebus cripes, it’s, you know, Julia Ormond! And last night, we met Beth Dawes, an unhappy Connecticut housewife, played by Alexis Bledel, i.e. RORY FRICKING GILMORE from Gilmore Girls; and Phil Beachum, the “Head of Desserts” for General Foods, played by Dennis Haskins, i.e. MR. FRAKKING BELDING from Saved by the Bell.

The immediate pleasure of seeing all these fantastic actors popping up in Mad Men is undeniable. But one of my favorite things about this show has been how rarely I’ve recognized any of the actors on it, especially the guest stars. That anonymity has kept the world of the show deliciously self-contained, allowing me to sink that much further into its impeccably appointed period details. To be sure, Bledel (who, for the record, is 30) gave a strong performance as Beth, a deceptively complicated woman brimming with conflicted longing. But watching Rory Gilmore smoking in her bra after getting boinked by Pete Campbell — for a moment, the cultural cognitive dissonance zapped me right out of the show. (It was as if I was seeing a flashback to a dark moment from the life of Rory’s grandmother Emily — the Gilmores do hail from Connecticut, after all.) As for Haskins, he did everything he needed to do in his one scene, but the moment he stepped on screen, I cackled immediately at the stunt casting. Whether my laughter was intended or not, it distracted me from the point of the scene: The fallout of Megan leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

I know, I should get over it — it’s not like every other TV show in existence hasn’t leaned on famous faces for its guest casting. But in a season that is clearly all about the disruptive power of change, I guess I’m just not quite jiving to this particular change in the way Mad Men does business.

Okay, rant over, lest I turn into Pete, a man increasingly incapable of dealing with his life not unfolding as he sees fit. The hour opened with Pete, on the train to work, reading (a book in soft focus that I could not identify — reader challenge!). Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke), the chatty, blithely libidinous life insurance salesman from the beginning of the season, plopped down in his customary seat across from Pete, singing the banal woes of his diminishing business. Pete, as is so often his custom, affected a patronizing smile, sighed, and cut to what he assumed was the chase. “Look, I already have life insurance,” he told Howard. “It came with my junior partnership. It’s six times my annual salary, and after two years, it covers suicide. So make your pitch brief.”

Howard chuckled, muttering about how he’s certain that policy would only pay out to Pete’s company, not his family, oh, and hey, Matthew Weiner, let me pick up that hint you just dropped. Ever since the last Pete-centric episode — you know, the one where Lane punched him many times in the face — I’ve wondered if Pete was looking to swallow that rifle he’s got stashed away somewhere in his office. And yet again last night, we witnessed yet another stage in Pete’s emotional unraveling. Mad Men is rarely this obvious, so I’m inclined to think now that Pete won’t take his own life. But then I wonder if that’s what I’m supposed to think, and I’m right back where I started. And I love it.

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NEXT PAGE: “I used to be like this — just reckless.” 

Pete’s conversation with Howard presaged another, more immediate plot turn: Howard noted he’d gotten an apartment in the city for “spectacular new side dish” he’s schtupping. What does Howard’s wife Beth say? “She’s happy because I provide for her,” Howard said, twisting the conversation back to his life insurance pitch. “She’s not worried about what might happen to her, if something happens to me.”

Turns out, Howard had it backward: He’s so focused on what happens to him, he couldn’t give a damn what happens to her. And she knows it.

That night, Pete encountered Beth at the train station parking lot. She told Pete she had locked her keys in her car, and Pete offered to drive her home. I’m not entirely sure whether Pete had designs on Beth at this point, but I do wonder if Beth had designs on Pete — not Pete specifically, just whatever kind man offered to help her with the keys she had “locked” in her car. She steered the conversation into rhetorical corners, forcing Pete to lie for her lout of a husband. She left the door open when she stormed into her home. And when Pete grabbed her, telling her she was acting “hysterical,” she kissed him, cooing into his ear, “Don’t you want me?”

Afterwards, Beth confessed, “I used to be like this — just reckless.” She’s always been the kind of woman men found attractive, “since before it was appropriate.” The loneliness of her husband’s chronic inattention to a woman used to lots of attention had pushed her back into old habits. When she tried to connect with Pete, using his big blue eyes to bring up the bracing photographs of the Earth surrounded by the darkness of empty space, Pete took her words at face value, thinking they were about him. Beth suddenly snapped back to reality. This was just another man, besotted not by her, but by how she makes him feel. “This can never happen again,” she told him, covering up.

“I don’t want to leave you here,” Pete protested.

“Why not? I’m fine now.”

But Pete, who has spent his career perfecting how to flatter a firm “no” into a serviceable “yes,” was undeterred. He called her home. “Just stop,” Beth said, her eyes filled with worry, realizing just how dangerous her recklessness had become, but still plagued by the need to please. “Enjoy the memory. Leave it alone. I mean, fantasize about it. I will too. But don’t call me again.”

The brush-off gnawed at Pete. Later, he came into work late, avoiding Beth’s husband Howard on the train. Seething with free-floating resentment, he lashed out first at Harry’s news that Megan was leaving the firm, muttering self-piting nonsense about how the Drapers “work it over in their minds, turn it off and on when they feel like it, and we’re just there, waiting at attention.” (Quick aside: I do get a kick out of how Harry’s become such a self-regarding simp, but I also wonder why the writers have lost so much interest in the character. Remember when he talked his way into running the TV department? Or when he was so moved by Don’s carousel speech that he had to leave the room to sob over cheating on his wife? That Harry was much more interesting than the Harry who’s an office punchline.) Finally, Pete asked Harry a simple, devastating question: “Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?”

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NEXT PAGE: Pete makes Howard and Beth’s probably awkward date night even more awkward

Oh Pete. His whole life, he’s treated his relationships like transactions that were somehow going to screw him over. He cannot believe it when Roger presents him with gifts of ski equipment as a token of goodwill from the head of a ski company client — he cannot believe Roger isn’t presenting them with strings attached, and that his reputation alone would be enough for a total stranger to give them to him. (We’ll just treat the fact that Roger was using the gifts to flatter Pete into the junior role of handling the day-to-day on the Head Ski Company account — and to see Pete awkwardly struggle with carrying all of that equipment out of the office — as a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Even though Pete has a wife at home who treats him like a true partner — a woman who is totally on his side — he cannot let go of the fact that she keeps getting her way: She chose their apartment in the city, she chose to move to the suburbs, etc. And now there’s this Beth, who lured him into her home, who kissed him first — and now she also gets to decide it’s over?

That night, Pete unexpectedly encountered Howard on the train home, heading back for dinner with his wife to keep everything in “balance.” Pete could hardly hide his contempt for a man treating his wife exactly like Pete was treating Trudy. He said Howard was right about the life insurance policy after all, so the firm was setting him up with a broker. “You didn’t even give me a chance!” whined Howard. “I’m telling you, aren’t I?” Pete answered, his teeth bared, before he invited himself over to Howard’s house.

When Howard arrived with Pete in tow, he discovered Beth had sent their kids to her mother’s house. Whatever the reason — a night of guilt sex? A request for a divorce? — it was utterly derailed by Pete’s intrusion. With Howard out of the room, Pete kissed her forcefully, telling her to meet him that night the next day at the Hotel Pennsylvania in the city. (Nevermind that in their very first conversation, Beth said she didn’t like going into the city, what with the pleading eyes of all those hobos and panhandlers overwhelming her.) Beth excused herself, telling Howard she had a migraine. And though Pete was so certain she’d come to him in the hotel — so sure he’d won her over by asserting his desires over hers — that he had champagne at the ready, she did not come. The best she could do was draw Pete a heart the next night, in the fogged window of the Dawes’ car — and then lower the window to erase it. (UPDATE: My mistake — Pete tried to meet up with Beth at 12:30 p.m. the next day.)

So we were left once more with a rudderless Pete Campbell, who cannot chart his own course because he cannot see beyond the boundaries of his own boat. I’m left still contemplating the suicide clause in Pete’s life insurance policy, which should kick in very soon, if it hasn’t already. As it happens, the title of the episode, “Lady Lazarus,” is the same as a poem, by Sylvia Plath, about an ambiguous recovery from an attempted suicide. There are also strong allusions to the Holocaust, and it ends with a woman reborn and devouring all men who get in her way. I don’t think these things precisely apply to Pete. But Plath ultimately did commit suicide, when she was 30. Whether this is careful foreshadowing, or misdirection, or I’m completely misinterpreting this poem, as it is meant instead as a metaphor for Megan Draper’s rebirth as an aspiring actress — well, only time and/or Matthew Weiner will tell.

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NEXT PAGE: Megan makes it official: She wants to be an actress

I’m having difficulty starting the section on Megan’s storyline, and I just realized it’s because I cannot pretend like Megan’s slinking off at night and lying to Don and Peggy about where she was going fooled me for a second into thinking she was having an affair. Given the stern lecture Megan got from her father last week, it was pretty clear to me that all the subterfuge had to do with Megan’s career. I am eternally grateful, though, for Peggy dodging Don’s calls about Megan by answering the phone screaming “PIZZA HOUSE!” in a vaguely German accent. (Megan’s houndstooth jacket was also pretty killer.)

The action really began the next morning, anyway, when an angry Peggy confronted Megan in the ladies room. “Don’t put me in that position again,” Peggy said firmly. “I cannot lie to him.” Calm down, Megan pleaded. She had to sneak around because she had a callback for an off-off-Broadway play — but she didn’t get it, so it’s all no big deal.

This was not what Peggy was expecting. She sees real talent in Megan, and yearns for another woman to follow in her footsteps. But Megan just wasn’t happy at SCDP. She’d even fantasized about getting fired, or trying to quit. “And then I realized that he’ll never fire me.” Peggy’s incredulity turned to anger. “You know there are people killing to get this job. You’re taking up a spot, and you don’t even want it?!” Megan couldn’t hear how much Peggy believed in her, had her best interests at heart. Peggy couldn’t hear how much Megan yearned for another dream, how hard it was for her to admit to Peggy that she didn’t want to be there. “You can’t keep lying to him,” said Peggy. “It’s so simple when it’s someone else’s life, isn’t it?” sniffed Megan.

It wasn’t until the next scene that Peggy and Megan began to understand each other. Their newest client was for a “non-dairy whipped topping” called Cool Whip, and Don and Megan had cooked up a playful exchange about a wife just trying to get her husband to “just taste it.” Their banter was perfect, carried by Megan’s timing and delivery, which had just the right level of hard-sell lightheartedness. Everyone was hooked, even Peggy, who was so sucked in, she barked at Don, “Just taste it!” Peggy saw how good Megan was at this, and how happy acting in this silly little scene made her. So she asked, why not have Don and Megan star in the ad itself? The answer: “We’re not interested,” said Megan, chastened, understanding finally that Peggy was right, she cannot keep hiding her dreams from her husband.

So in the middle of the night, Megan woke Don up, and confessed she’d lied to him to go on her audition. “Do you do that a lot?” asked Don. “Audition?” said Megan. “No, lie to me.” And with Megan’s quick assurance that she does not lie to him often, thus began maybe the healthiest conversation I think Don’s had with a woman who wasn’t Anna Draper. At first, he tried to talk Megan out of it — thoughtfully, generously. “Sometimes we don’t get to choose where our talents lie,” he said. “What you did with Heinz? It took me years to be able to think that way.” But Megan was clear: “It’ll never be for me what it is for you,” she said. “I don’t want to do it, Don.” Don blinked. “You don’t want to do it.” Megan has her own dreams, dreams separate from Don’s, and who is he to get in the way of them? Instead of piggishly putting his foot down, Don relented. Of course she can quit, of course she can take up acting again. She can even start doing it right away. Megan was ecstatic, her relief palpable. But as she snuggled up to him in bed, Don looked to the window with the same unknowing expression he had at the end of last season, after he’d proposed to Megan, wondering what he had gotten himself into.

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NEXT PAGE: Someone should probably call Time Life about that elevator 

The next day, it was raining. Don walked Megan into work, and then informed Joan of the news. “Do we make an announcement? Do we have a party? What’s the protocol?” said Don, unsure exactly how one handles it when one’s wife quits, and one is also the boss. Joan, ever tactful, was on top of it. “Why don’t we have the girls take her to lunch?” she said. “I mean, she’s not disappearing — is she?” Don’s answer was quick: “No, she’s not.” But in a way, that question now haunts the rest of the season. Without Megan’s constant, healthy presence in his life, will the new Don, the happy Don, the relatively well-adjusted Don, still survive?

Megan, meanwhile, was struggling to tell Michael and Stan her big news, and leaned once again on Peggy to help her out. “Are you sure about this?” asked Peggy, herself clearly not sure either. Megan didn’t answer Peggy’s question, but she did say what Peggy wanted to hear: “Peggy, I’ve always appreciated what you’ve done for me, not just yesterday.” After Megan left to talk to Joan herself, Michael groused about all the money he’d spotted Megan for lunch, as if that’s why she was leaving. Stan, meanwhile, thought it was the work itself. “Reality got her,” he said. “You work your ass off for months. Bite your nails. For what? Heinz. Baked. Beans.” This was not what Peggy wanted to hear.

At the elevator, Don sent Megan off to her farewell lunch, and once again was an effortlessly good husband, offering to bring Megan’s things back home so she wouldn’t have to face the office all over again. Megan planted a long, meaningful kiss on Don. “I’ll see you at home,” she said. “You will,” he said, filled with confidence.

Then the door closed. Don hit the elevator button himself (I’m not sure if it was to follow her down, or to grab lunch himself), and the next door over opened. But there was no elevator beyond it. Instead, Don peered down an open shaft — dark, foreboding, lethal. Had he not been paying attention, he could have stepped into it and down to his death, L.A. Law-style. The moment rattled him. The next shot captured Don through a row of liquor bottles, as he entered his office. Don tossed back a drink, the confidence gone, fuzzy confusion taking its place.

Don got just a moment’s pause, though, before work came barging back in. Michael, Stan, and Ken had the Beatles-esque song Chevalier Blanc wanted for their new cologne ad inspired by A Hard Day’s Night. This campaign had already unnerved Don, who’d confessed to Megan earlier in the episode that suddenly everyone wants a song for their campaigns, “but I have no idea what’s going on out there.” When Stan played Chevalier’s choice — a Beatles-like recording of “September in the Rain” — Don shrugged. Sounds like the Beatles to him! Michael, though, was repulsed — the song was 30 years old! “It’s stabbing me in the f—ing heart!” It was an odd moment for one of Mad Men‘s only f-bombs (the first, I believe, was last season, out of Roger Sterling’s mouth in “Hands and Knees”), even if it meant to underline how out of touch Don had become. I basically had the same reaction Don did: “Why are you cursing?” (FUN FACT! The Beatles actually did record “September in the Rain,” for their infamous failed audition for Decca Records in 1962, but it wasn’t released. Also, I believe the show’s timeline still in September of 1966, and it was raining that day. So there’s that.) (UPDATE: Nope, there isn’t: Eagle-eyed commenters noticed Halloween decorations in Joan’s office. So it’s October.)

When Don got home that night, there stood Megan, cooking dinner while barefoot in the kitchen. (Subtle.) She was surprised he hadn’t come home drunk, but Don assured her, “It’s okay.” Megan sighed, taking in the sight of a man who had not failed her. “Don. I love you. You’re everything I’d hoped you be.”

“You too,” said Don. With his young, hopeful, full-of-promise wife standing right before him, Don again looked like he was filled with confidence. But when Megan wasn’t around…

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NEXT PAGE: The role of Megan Draper will be played this evening by Peggy Olson

The Chevalier account may have been in good shape, but there was still the song and dance to do for the folks at Cool Whip, and Peggy was going to have to fill in for Megan.

“This is Peggy, the copywriter,” a Cool Whip exec told Head of Desserts Phil Beachum. “Oh, really?” moaned the Head of Desserts, who wanted the genuine article, and needed to be assured that the substitute would “be just as good.” But, alas, it wasn’t. Don could barely feign interest in Peggy as his wife, and Peggy kept flubbing her lines, especially the key one: “Just try it already!” instead of “Just taste it!” The Head of Desserts was unimpressed, and left in a huff.

Finally, Don and Peggy’s free-floating anxiety caused by Megan’s departure bubbled over, and they tore into each other. I really enjoyed how evenly their fight unfolded. Don wrongly thought Peggy had been threatened by Megan. Peggy rightly thought Don had neglected her professional development. But Peggy wrongly thought Megan left because “she thinks advertising is stupid!” Don rightly asserted that, no, “she thinks the people she worked with are cynical and petty!” Peggy, though, got in the last word: “I did everything right, and I am still getting it from you. You know what? You are not mad at me, so shut up!” Daaaaaaamn.

Who was Don mad at? I don’t think it was Megan, at least not directly. Don and Peggy were mad, I think, at how Megan’s decision to leave made them feel about their own professional lives. They’d both lucked in to their careers; it only became their dream after they’d had some success doing it. “I was raised in the ’30s,” Don told Roger back at the office. “My dream was indoor plumbing.” Don has been feeling more and more out of touch, both with the culture and his own firm. Thanks to Heinz, Peggy’s worried that she’s lost her mojo, that her ideas don’t have that spark anymore — or that she’s lost the ability to recognize it. They’d both invested so much in Megan’s success, but what does it say about advertising that someone so effortlessly good at it would willingly abandon it?

The added complication for Don, of course, was now he had to recalibrate his entire marriage, which was not even a year old. “You gotta go home,” Roger told him. “Let her know there’s a routine. Keep you both out of trouble. Mona’s dad told me that.” Yeah, and that worked out like gangbusters for Roger, didn’t it?

When Don got home, however, Megan was practically out the door for her first acting class — but not before she gave him the latest Beatles record, Revolver, to help him know what’s out there. The song she recommended he start with was the last one on the album, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an experimental piece of early psychedelia inspired by the book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Drs. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and (Doc Jensen bait!) Richard Alpert, and reportedly written after John Lennon had taken LSD. “Turn off your mind relax and float down stream,” commanded the song, as we watched Don, Peggy, and Pete contemplate the uncertain place their lives. “It is not dying, it is not dying.” The final montage ended with Megan, lying on the floor, her eyes closed, at peace with where her life is heading. “It is knowing,” intoned the song. “It is knowing.”

To Don, it is also noise. He flipped off the album, and went to bed. If Don wanted to know what was “out there” in 1966, he could scarcely have listened to a better track, but it was also a bit like tossing a five-year-old into the deep end. Megan may not know her husband as much as she believes she does if she thinks that Don was going to react well to that song.

What did you make of “Lady Lazarus”? Do you agree with Joan’s assessment of Megan’s future — she’ll be a “failing actress with a rich husband” — or Peggy’s assertion that Megan is “one of those girls” who is good at everything? Will Pete ever redeem himself, or is he heading for self-annihiliation? Are you as unnerved by the recognizable guest stars as I am? And do you think we haven’t seen the last of the obviously gay gentleman from Chevalier Blanc? (And I know just last week I was singing the Ballad of Stan and Peggy, but now I wonder if Stan’s constant sniggering gay jokes belie some complicated feelings.)

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Episode Recaps

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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  • 07/19/07
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