Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mad Men -- Pete Campbell's a Snake Who Longs to be Don Draper

* Warning -- Spoilers ahead from the recent episode of Mad Men.*

When Pete asks a lady of the evening to slap him on the face, hard, then we'll know that his attempt to morph into Don Draper will be complete. But we're not quite to that point yet.

Pete is doing to his marriage what Don did to his first one with Betty, along with their cozy little family that was living a lovely little life in the New York suburbs: Trying to sabotage it because he doesn't understand why he's not happy living in the "country" with a pretty wife and young daughter in their nice home, while in the city he has earned respect at the workplace and a partnership stake in his Madison Avenue agency. Plus he's got Harry Crane's sweet office space now too.

Pete has already paid women for sex (like Don did last season), got into fist fights with colleagues/clients (like Don did with Duck last season and Jimmy Barrett years ago), hit on young women (like Don did with Miss Farrell) and slept with a married woman who's not his wife (as Don did with Bobbie Barrett).

Only now, Pete is upping the ante, almost as though he's hoping that he'll get caught by messing around with the wife of a friend of his, Howard, with whom he rides the train into the city each day, a man who Pete knows is carrying on an affair "on the side." Howard and his wife Beth live in the same neighborhood as do the Campbells, so when Pete got busy with Beth in Beth and Howard's house, he was taking a risk, something Don did with increasing regularity until he hit the bottom.

Two things fascinated me about Beth:

1. She was played by Alexis Bledel, otherwise known as Rory Gilmore from the Gilmore Girls. During her first few scenes, particularly when her character had sex with Pete, I kept yelling, "Pete Campbell can't do that to Rory Gilmore!" and "Lorelai's not going to like that!" (Lorelai did get very angry when Rory slept with Dean after he'd married another woman.) It's going to take more convincing scenes for me to forget that she was ever Rory and see her as Beth, a miserable 1960s housewife, a fellow suffering sister like Betty Draper. However it's unclear if Bledel's character will return.

2. The name of this episode was "Lady Lazarus," a reference to a Sylvia Plath poem. You remember Plath, the famous poet who eventually killed herself. (I kept thinking about Plath's death and the fact that Don was seen looking down an empty elevator shaft as if he'd just seen his own death just after Megan left the office for good.) A couple of disturbing lines from the poem stood out as parallels to the Beth's melancholy and Don looking into the shadowy, potentially killer elevator shaft:

"And I a smiling woman
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

. . . Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call."

Compare the despair with which Pete is acting out, thrashing around against a life of his own design, with Don, who seemed, at least on the surface, content with who is is now and where he is in his life. Just when Don has tried to settle into his new life with his new wife, she starts changing things, changing what Don saw as their marital road map and he's unsure what to make of it, even as he feigns support for the new course she's charted for herself.

Megan has been constantly evolving in front of Don's eyes. She can't be pinned down. Last season she was his demure, eager-to-please secretary and a charming woman who got along swimmingly with Don's children. This season, she's Don's young, sophisticated and modern wife (serenading him in a sexy minidress) who initially really engages with her work (even when Don wanted her to play and blow off her colleagues) and turned into a copywriter who displayed glimmers of strategic business savvy that happened to turn Don on. But in this episode, she told Don she was done with all of that. She bailed on advertising in order to take a stab at acting. The look on Don's face when he came home from the office to find her cooking dinner while barefoot was inscrutable but it wasn't one that was wild with pleasure. Then, poof!, she left him alone to listen to young people's music, a new Beatles' album, which Don neither seemed to understand nor care about as Megan went off to acting class.

Megan's absence at work -- where Don had planned a Cool Whip bit for a client in which Megan played a pivotal role -- left Don rattled. The disconnect is growing like a giant hole between them, or an ominous, empty elevator shaft.

The saddest scene in the episode (other than Pete and Rory) was Don acting like a cranky old dude, with his drink resting on his belly, as he sat in his living room and repeatedly called Peggy to demand info on Megan's whereabouts. So desperate to avoid lying to her mentor who wouldn't give it a rest, Peggy pretended he'd dialed the wrong number and gruffly said, "Pizza House!" into the phone then blew off his subsequent calls.

Image credit: Michael Yarish/AMC.

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