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In “Lady Lazarus,” last night’s episode of Mad Men, Pete Campbell had a night of passion with Beth Dawes, the wife of his fellow commuter Howard. After their indiscretion, Pete pursued Beth, but Beth spurned him—until she drew that sad heart in her foggy car window, giving him (and us) hope the affair might continue. Beth was played by Alexis Bledel, beloved by TV fans as Rory Gilmore in the long-running Gilmore Girls.
Slate talked with Bledel about complicated Beth Dawes and how hard it was to keep her involvement a secret for so long.
Slate: The episode was written by Matthew Weiner. How did he describe the character of Beth to you?
Alexis Bledel: He said she’s still living the life of a ’50s housewife. She hasn’t really moved into the ’60s, because she’s trapped in her marriage. I think in earlier episodes Howard alludes to losing his temper and says that he and Beth have really gotten into it. They have a very tumultuous relationship. You don’t really see that in this episode, but that was something I thought about a lot and something that really contributes to her sadness, her despair, and her loneliness. I think she identifies with the despair in Pete, and that’s why they connect so strongly right away.
Slate: It was hard to read Beth’s character, because she’s so complicated. I don’t know if she’s a temptress or a depressive or a sadist. Do you have any sense of what kind of person she is?
Bledel: She has colors of all of those things, and I don’t think the audience is supposed to be able to pinpoint her exactly. What she does to Pete’s character is to confuse him terribly. He has no idea what’s going on in this woman’s mind, and neither does the audience. He doesn’t know if she’s a stable person, or if she’s going to hurt him or please him or anything, really. He has no idea what’s going on. He completely loses his footing the day that he meets her. As does Don in this episode when Megan leaves the agency. They both are a little out of control and beholden to these women. They feel helpless, and I think that’s the theme of this episode.
Slate: I was really struck by the final scene. It was so beautifully done—the hard-to-read look that Beth gives Pete through the car window. She draws a heart in the fogged-up window, then makes it disappear.
Bledel: It’s meant to confuse Pete. She’s told him, “Think about me, and fantasize about what we had, and I will, but don’t call me.” She’s kind of torturing him. It means so much to Pete in that moment, but then she just takes it away. Maybe this is something she just does for herself, because it makes her feel better. I think it’s surprising that this ’50s housewife doesn’t need him as much as he starts to fall for her. But she’s meant to be a mysterious character and a confusing one.
Slate: Did you have a clear picture of Howard and Beth’s family?
Bledel: They’ve been married for a while. They have two young kids. There’s a hint that she’s not really fulfilling her duties as a wife. She tells Pete on the phone that she would run into Trudy at the supermarket if she ever went. She’s not doing much of anything. She’s in a bad place mentally and emotionally, because of how unhealthy her marriage is and how much drama there is for her at home. She has no control over it. It’s Howard’s household, and he runs it the way he wants.
Slate: The title of this episode was “Lady Lazarus,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who looked at the Sylvia Plath poem when I saw that. Was that something you were aware of as you were creating this character?
Bledel: Yes. Sylvia Plath wasn’t scared of exploring the darker side of her psyche. I think the title refers to a couple of women in the episode in different ways, but in terms of the way Beth folds into that, she’s not scared of it, either. She’ll definitely consider the things in her life that are dark. When she sees homeless people, she wants to help them. The pictures of the moon make her so sad. They really get her down, and she wants to talk about it.
Slate: When did you film it?
Bledel: I filmed it starting in November.
Slate: Was it hard to maintain the surprise for six months?
Bledel: Yes! It was really hard. I was really happy to do it, because it’s the only way to be involved in the show—that’s how they do it—but it was hard. I really tried not to tell anyone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.