Sylvia Plath in Mad Men
Julia Turner chats with readers about "Lady Lazarus."
Julia Turner was on Slate’s Facebook page on Monday to chat with readers about the latest episode of Mad Men. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity. To see the full conversation, click on this link.
Julia Turner: Hello, all! I'll just be listening to the Beatles over here!
Julia Turner: Here's my take on why Rory Gilmore is not the girl for Peter Campbell.
Jamie Harding: I'm trying to figure out whether Pete is going to kill himself. That reference to his life insurance covering suicide after two years was a little *too* obvious. But he still looks like he's in a severe downward spiral that he won't be able to pull out of.
Julia Turner: Jamie, I agree that the foreshadowing about Pete and suicide—the gun, the insurance policy, the depression—is so heavy-handed as to make his actual suicide unlikely.
Jamie Harding: And when I saw the empty elevator shaft, I also had a flashback to that awful tragedy at Y&R! Why didn't Don tell someone??
Julia Turner: And though the elevator shaft was a powerful and horrifying image—the floor opening up beneath our man—I thought it was in poor taste given the recent death at Y&R.
Jamie Harding: Julia, I agree—it was too soon to be using the elevator shaft metaphor. It really squicked me.
Penny Ashley-Lawrence: I think Pete kills Roger. His suicide is too obvious.
Julia Turner: But how could he! Roger gave him the skiing account, and those skis! I did love the physical comedy of Pete struggling to haul those skis into the office, and, later, the elevator. And I think they could be a funny metaphor for Pete's moment: He's reached the top, and it feels empty. It's all downhill from here.
Cassie Djerf: Love Roger's quip about getting to see him struggle with the skis too.
Julia Turner: What did you all make of the episode's title, "Lady Lazarus"?
Cassie Djerf: Speaking of suicide—another nod with Sylvia Plath's poem as the title of this episode. There's death abound and resurrection/re-invention. Megan & Don's working relationship has "died"—the death of Roger's marriage to Jane, Pete's slow spiral downward to God-knows-what ...
Julie Kramer: “Lady Lazarus” is a poem by Sylvia Plath from 1962. It references suicide: "Dying/ Is an art, like everything else/ I do it exceptionally well" but also "Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air."
Julia Turner: Yes, Julie, I thought the Plath poem, which is in many ways about rebirth and reinvention, applied to Megan, but also to all the characters. Don Draper is a master phoenix, risen from the ashes of Dick Whitman. Part of what unsettled him this episode was confronting the fact that his newest incarnation—hip city dude with hot young working wife—wasn't making her as happy as it made him.
Julia Turner: Roger has remade himself. Joan has remade herself. Don, Peggy, and Pete have yet to confront or adjust to the new realities.
Cassie Djerf: Peggy I think views a small death in her life—she no longer has Megan, this protégé she gave birth to ...
Julia Turner: Peggy in particular I am worried about. She has been pretty bad at her job on many occasions. She's biffed two Heinz pitches and one for Cool Whip, even though she's working very hard.
Ben Gross: I took "Lady Lazarus" as referring to Megan's emotional and creative stagnation in advertising (and visually Lazarus during that acting exercise in the closing montage). Leaving SCDP, she has risen from the dead. I was very skeptical of Megan coming into this season, but really enjoy her now as a dynamic presence. She's independent and motivated, honest and willing to call out Don instead of playing the placating housewife, and is a proactive force for both Don and the office.
June Thomas: I just spoke with Alexis Bledel and I asked her about "Lady Lazarus." She linked Sylvia Plath's willingness to explore the darker side of her psyche with Beth's willingness to do so. As Bledel said, "She’ll definitely consider the things in her life that are dark." Bledel thinks that Beth's worries about homeless people and the vulnerable moon were completely sincere.
Julie Kramer: I also thought Alexis Bledel was quite jarring here, though MM has certainly used other iconic TV actors before to good effect. (I'm thinking of Bess Armstrong—Angela's mom!—as Jane's therapist.)
Eliza McCarthy: I thought Alexis Bledel was lovely as the unhappy wife—if we all didn't have memories of her as adorable Rory Gilmore, I wonder whether there would be less criticism of her acting as a grownup, and a depressed one at that! I think January Jones is a good actress, too, but had the benefit of being unknown at first.
Julia Turner: Eliza, it's hard to tell what I would have made of Bledel's performance if I weren't familiar with Gilmore—and the writers didn't do the character any favors by introducing her so abruptly. (At least when Don bedded Sally's teacher we met her a few times first.) But it didn't work for me.
Seth Levi: This is like the third time they've done this plot line with Pete: he wants to have an affair, he takes advantage of a vulnerable woman, he's ultimately rejected. And Don not understanding why music is so important to people? One of his character's central traits is that he has an uncanny understanding of human needs—which is why he's such a good ad man—despite not sharing those needs.
Julia Turner: Seth, you're right that there has been a lot of stop-start with Pete and women over the years—and this season. I think part of why Pete casts about for women in this way is that he doesn't understand why he's not happy.
Gail Anderson: I loved last night's episode. The show is amazing this season. It's bringing back such powerful memories of the ’60s (I was Sally's age) and seeing it through the eyes of the adults has been a revelatory experience for me. It's helping me understand what shaped me into the person I am now.
Julia Turner: I agree that it's been a strong season, although last night's episode felt a little pokey.
Jon Lutz: I have to say, I was not initially down with Megan hating. But lately... she seems to just exist for Don to develop against. All of her decisions are only interesting insofar as they affect Don, or what kind of response they will elicit from him. Looking back, the best defense I had for Megan was "She's good for Don!"
Betty at least got her pigeon-shooting / Sally-slapping moments. When have we ever seen Megan without Don in the room? That's why I was excited at the prospect of her cheating on him (only briefly a possibility this last episode): it showed individuality
Julia Turner: I'm not sure you're being fair to Megan's character. I think the writers have done a remarkable job of bringing her into her own as a plausible human, and we've seen her interact with Peggy and Peggy's team, with her parents, and more. But she is also a symbolic figure within the show: I think she represents the larger change and chaos of the '60s—how alluring it is for the more staid characters, and how unsettling and daunting, too.
Jon Lutz: Maybe we'll see more of Megan solo now that she's starting her own life.
June Thomas: Matthew Weiner is a master of misdirection. He does it every week with the inscrutable promos for next week's episode. He has been doing it all season with the foreshadowing about Pete's uncertain future, and he keeps doing it with the episode titles. I was sure that "Lady Lazarus" was going to have a Holocaust theme and that it would return to Ginsberg's odd origins.
Tim Schmelzer: Re: Cool-Whip—Don's interaction with Megan vs. Peggy was fascinating. Don and Peggy once seemed so in sync, now they fight like an old married couple.
June Thomas: I agree, Tim. Don and Peggy's fight was full of frustration and long-warmed grudges. When Don and Megan fight, it's all sublimated passion and Don immediately feeling bad.
Cassie Djerf: What did you guys think about Peggy & Don's scene in the test kitchen?
Julia Turner: Cassie, I enjoyed Peggy and Don's set-to. Although Peggy was underprepared for the scene, she was right when she told Don that he wasn't mad at her. She's earned the right to tell him to shut up.
Cassie Djerf: Absolutely, Julia. How about that look she gave with Stan's comment re: Megan finally seeing her future: beans.
Cassie Djerf: Peggy kept saying "Just try it" vs. "Just taste it"—Don needing to "try" out this new dynamic in his relationship with Megan?
Julia Turner: Cassie, good point about "Just taste it." Megan has been introducing Don to whole new worlds. We'll see how far he will follow her.
Julie Kramer: Can we give a nod to Christina Hendricks, and to Joan. I just loved the way she handled Don in that moment, when he came to her about Megan leaving and he didn't know what to do in any way. Actress and character are just wonderfully underplayed.
Cassie Djerf: I completely agree Julie. Joan's slowly becoming head of SCDP's HR
Cristie Ellis: Rory Gilmore made me miss the complexity of the Betty era. Rory's character—suburban housewife who speaks openly to a stranger about her husband's infidelities and then sleeps with the guy out of spite and to get in touch with her younger, "spontaneous" self—is just one of many examples this season of how the show seems to have given up on its initial ambition to give us not just psychological drama, but *historical* psychological drama. That was what was so fascinating about the show, originally—seeing how characters could be both recognizable and foreign, because they were navigating conventions and expectations which the events of the later decade would explode. But this year all the characters seem already modern, particularly the women. I realize it's 1964 now, and not 1959, but The Feminine Mystique was only 1963, whereas these women seem to have passed through second wave feminism.
Julia Turner: That's a good point about the writing, Cristie (although it's 1966 already!). Megan is at times more like a cleansing fire than a recognizable human. A few folks noted last week that her parents seemed more Parisian than French Canadian. They were conveniently boho, rather than the fur-trapping hick descendents one might expect.
Julia Turner: Thanks all for chatting.