Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 8: “Lady Lazarus”
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Phil Abraham
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
If we’re talking favourite episodes for the fifth season, episode eight probably won’t feature too highly on anyone’s list. However, there is an intricacy and subtly in the way that Weiner expresses, and indeed, constructs the themes and ideas, which ensures this episode stands out. Weiner’s set of characters remind us that being envious can leave one embittered and subsequently secluded. The two major stories, featuring both Pete and Megan, each present the different sides of this conflict.
As alluded to, the subtext in ‘Lady Lazarus’ is far more restrained and muted than usual. However, the teleplay is brimming with examples that convey the central ideas of this eighth episode.
‘Lazarus’ opens on Pete and his commuting buddy, Howard. Almost immediately, they’re covetous of each other. Then over at the SCDP office, Roger is evidently jealous of Pete’s new skis, sent over by Head Ski Company. In an unsuccessful attempt to appear unfazed, Roger pronounces, “it’s what I’ve always wanted. Sit back, let the business roll in, while you pass the jug with some shmo”.
From the very first exchange, between Pete and Howard, it is reasonably clear what the episode will touch on. During season five, Pete has been perpetually discontent. He inquires about Howard’s affair – “aren’t you worried you’re gonna get caught”. No sooner has he uttered these words, do we realise that his womanising and adultery will once again feature. Sure enough, Pete cannot resist temptation and before long, he is bedding Howard’s wife, Beth, who like her husband, articulates her envy. “You’re enough of a stranger that I’ve never heard your name, yet you know where [Howard] is and I don’t”.
In the course of this conversation, there is a nice little moment, where Pete passes through both a literal and figurative stop sign. His reckless driving is later echoed by Beth who claims that what they’re doing together is just that – reckless. And more so than ever, the amount of emotional unrest in this season is particularly startling, right across the board of characters. The extent of Pete’s existential mumblings this season have escalated, to the point that if he were a teenager living in the 2000s, he’d be labelled quite strictly as an annoying “emo”. Perhaps ironically, for once, Don seems to be the only one keeping it remotely together.
Meanwhile, Megan’s storyline commences with a note of intrigue. Though very quickly, it becomes clear that her actions are not as nefarious as they may first appear. Like Pete, her tiptoeing around during the early part of this episode, is rooted in her own unhappiness as a copywriter. Eventually, she reveals to Peggy that acting is where her real passion lies.
In a potent and telling discussion, Don appeases his wife and despite attempting to persuade her at first, he eventually gives her consent to pursue her childhood dream of acting. Megan highlights her dissatisfaction by disclosing to her husband that she “can’t even stand going to the theatre anymore, because all [she feels] is envy”. She elaborates further by claiming, “the next [stage of this journey] is bitterness”. Interestingly, it is here that she inadvertently describes Pete’s current predicament – his resentment of others (particularly Don and Megan), stemming from his own jealousies.
Part of the reason this episode is so intricate and well layered, is partly due to its intelligent employment of symbolism, along with very deliberate motifs to ensure its messages regarding story and character are conveyed. Firstly, ‘Lady Lazarus’ is the title of the episode. This is presumably a reference to Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name that recounts the oppression of Jews by Nazis, during the Second World War. Superficially, this parallels the emotional isolation experienced by some of these characters, but if one is to dig further into the inferences of the poem itself, the poem could actually represent both Megan and Don. Plath’s poem notes a rising “out of the ash” for its protagonist. The implication being that she will be reborn, like a phoenix and rise from the ashes. This is obviously a remark on Megan’s career situation, but it’s also not worlds away from being a symbol for Don during the entirety of season five. As it stands, he is truly a changed man. Settled, in love and controlled, like never before.
Finally, arguably the most important motif is, as Pete mentions “a suggestion of the future”. While Pete longs for better times, Don is the happiest and most content we’ve ever seen him. The sublime use of The Beatles’ track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, encapsulates at least two very important messages for this particular episode. The first is the image of Megan relaxed, sprawled on the floor of an actor’s studio, with the lyrics “it is knowing, it is knowing” playing beneath. She can afford to be at ease, rather than never knowing. As for Don, he turns the track off before it finishes, because he doesn’t want to think about tomorrow. Perhaps, Don is finally satisfied with his life? With only five episodes to go in season five, nothing is a certainty.