It's easy to construct an elaborate fantasy in our heads about who we are or what we want. It's even easier to apply that fantasy to the people around us, particularly our spouses, to imagine that they're the individuals that we believe them to be: glittering paragons of ideals and loyalty, intelligence and honor, determination and resolve. We see them as the best and most perfect aspects of ourselves because we want to.
Those people shape our own perception of the world, existing as concrete foundations in our false notion of "reality," seemingly never shifting or changing. But when they do, when faced with reality and the knowledge that they're perhaps not the people we thought them to be, it's as much of an existential crisis as learning you're not who you thought you were or came from where you believed.
In this week's stunning episode of Mad Men ("Lady Lazarus"), written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, that's precisely what happens to Don Draper (Jon Hamm), as he's forced to confront the fact that Megan (Jessica Paré) isn't who he thought she was. Megan's words to Don in the kitchen of the Manhattan apartment they share echoed sharply here: he is everything she hoped he would be. But in confessing her dreams to Don--that she wants to quit advertising and pursue acting again--the scales have fallen from Don's eyes; Megan isn't everything he hoped she'd be. She's falling into another pattern altogether.
It's Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) who discuss the notion of how Betty (January Jones) fits into this pattern: Don met her, after all, during a print shoot and she was a model before he made her the first Mrs. Draper. Megan is far more modern and independent than Betty ever was, but her aspirations cast her in a similar light, putting the "second wife" as another in a string of similar relationships, according to the two women. Megan's hesitation last week to celebrate landing the Heinz account so effortlessly was due to the fact that she doesn't enjoy her job, no matter how great she might be at it. She wants, as she's wanted since she was a "little girl," to be an actress. What she doesn't realize is how well her acting skills were utilized within her job: in both cases of the Cool Whip "commercial" and the story she spun for Heinz, she embodied a character other than herself for dramatic effect, pulling on another identity and casting it off minutes later. (The entire notion of shifting identity, however, should be understood at some level by Don: he's reinvented himself so many times that he doesn't even resemble Dick Whitman anymore.)
Megan's entire conversation with Don, in which she wakes him in the middle of the night to confess her sins (after prompting from Peggy), sets the two up less as husband and wife and more as father and daughter. The language of their encounter deeply signals this shift, with Megan set up as a worried daughter asking her father permission to pursue her dreams, telling him that she's wanted this since she was a little girl. (It's also telling that Megan uses her maiden name to book the audition callback.) It's a subtle shift in the nature of their marriage: until now, the two had been portrayed as largely a partnership, working together, living together as adults. But the linguistic cues here demonstrate the crack forming in the foundation, as Megan positions herself as somehow less solid and adult as Don, more prone to childish dreams and whims, less practical and formed. She can't remember why she gave up acting in the first place. The answer: because she needed to pay the bills, which is why, when we meet Megan in Season Four of Mad Men, she's working as a receptionist at SCDP.
It's easy to pursue your dreams when you have someone bankrolling your efforts, whether that's a parent or a spouse. Megan's ability to reach for stardom--to imagine herself on Broadway or Off-Broadway--is fairly flexible when you have the means of pursuing it full-time, without concern for how your'll pay for your next lunch or your rent. But the shift from independent career woman to having her lifestyle financed by her husband also manifests in a physical way as well: after her confession and her departure from SDCP, Megan is presented as far younger than she has been all season: her clothes change, her hair is worn casually in a ponytail, her makeup is toned down. She seems more innocent and youthful than Megan the Copywriter did. She seems positively buoyant.
Don does not seem buoyant. In fact, in one of the episode's most startling moments, he nearly plummets down an open elevator shaft at the Time-Life Building. He's going down, just as Megan is seemingly achieving lift-off.
Don saw their marriage as a strong partnership of "equals," and relished the ability to go to work with Megan, to discuss what he does for a living with honesty and excitement. His dream, growing up in the 1930s, as he tells Roger (John Slattery) was "indoor plumbing." He's far more practical than his new wife, far less prone to pursue dreams (though he did pursue the American Dream at one point). He fell into his present career after doing some copy writing for the furrier he worked for; he never grew up believing or dreaming that he would be an ad man. But Megan is connected to the world, to the energy and passion that exists within the youth-dominated culture of the 1960s: she's plugged into the music and the culture in a way that Don isn't and will never be. She gives him The Beatles' "Revolver" album; he stops the needle after just a few minutes. "But listen to the colour of your dreams"? Impossible for Don, it seems, even as he admits to Roger that he rather Megan pursue hers, lest she end up like Betty or her mother.
It's easy, however, to look into someone else's life and tell them simply what they should be doing, rendering their decisions as simple somehow, that a mere "taste" of someone's problems can somehow give us a complete understanding. Peggy's conversation in the ladies' room with Megan conjures this up instantly. Peggy reacts how she would react when faced with the dilemma in front of Megan, seeing not Megan's own dreams or issues as significant of debate. If she doesn't want the job, she should leave, as she's taking the spot from someone who wants to be there. But, later, Peggy accepts Megan's decision graciously, seeing herself as the mentor who is allowing Megan to leave the nest. That relationship is echoed in Megan's words to Peggy, thanking Peggy for everything she's done for her thus far. It's a conversation that is interesting because it's occurring between two women in 1966: their dynamic is that of mentor/student, putting Peggy once again in a role typically occupied by Don Draper.
But, later at the Cool Whip taste test, Peggy subtly shifts into the role of "mother" to Megan. Her argument with Don plays out as it would between a married couple whose daughter has run away; the language here reflects that notion as Don lashes out at Peggy for pushing Megan away. It's only when Peggy snaps, shouting at Don, "You’re not mad at me. So shut up." These two can't even play-act as spouses, their banter awkward and forced, their lines out of order or garbled altogether, yet they are perhaps a truer partnership now than that of Don and Megan, two halves of the same person, existing in the same world, with the same outlook.
Which is not to say that Peggy is a replacement for Megan, but she too sees the failings of Megan to live up to the expectations. Just as Don saw Megan as a different sort of wife, so too did Peggy see her as a different wife for Don, that he had made a different choice, selected a different partner than the vapid failed actress/model. It's all the more frustrating because Peggy's actions precipitate Megan's decisions, both in terms of the conversation in the ladies' room and the way she is forced between the two spouses when Don calls the office looking for Megan. (Her knee-jerk "Pizza House" response on the second call was hysterical, unexpected, and resulted in me rewinding to hear it all over again. Genius.) Joan's response to Megan's departure: "That’s the kind of girl Don marries."
We can't even really step into someone else's shoes, to borrow a popular idiom. Our perception of other people's lives is limited by our own cognitive reflexes, our own experiences and character. Don, at the end of the episode, is alone in an empty apartment, a visual callback to the earlier scene in which he's waiting at home for Megan; he's essentially become the vigilant spouse at home, an about-face from the Don Draper we met in the pilot episode. But now he's the one at home, waiting for his spouse. Yet Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) sees Don as having everything, while he himself has "nothing."
That "nothing" would include a dutiful wife in Trudy (Allison Brie), a house is Cos Cob, a brilliant career, a stable environment. But he's afflicted with both an ennuie and potentially a death wish. Weiner and Co. have not too subtly been swirling death imagery around Pete all season long, with the returning callback to the rifle he still owns, his aging process, and now the outward mention of suicide, here turning up in a conversation about insurance with Howard (Jeff Clarke). While it's Don who escapes a brush with death in this episode (that elevator shaft, again), it's Pete that I'm far more concerned about, as he embarks on a journey of self-destruction.
While he's still set up as a bit of a joke (the physical gag of the skis comes to mind) and more than a little bit of a prat, Pete seems intent on immolating the life he's acquired for himself, on destroying the dream of 1960s suburban idyll that he embodies; his own dream achieved, he feels compelled to trade it in for something else, realizing that the lure of happiness was a false one.
Pete expresses shock at Howard's behavior towards his mistress ("Aren't you worried you're going to get caught?"), even though he himself contemplated having an affair with a teenager and even visited a prostitute recently. But it's the formality of the arrangement that seems shocking to Pete: that Howard should purchase an apartment and install his mistress there, right under the nose of his wife.
But Pete comes face to face with Howard's wife Beth (Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel) and they have a torrential one-night stand in the living room of the house she shares with Howard. Pete instantly casts her in his own fantasy, seeing her as the neglected wife who needs rescuing, seeing himself as a white knight who will woo her with trysts in Manhattan hotel rooms. He might step into her house and ride the train with her husband, but he's no closer to understanding Beth or her life than he is Don. He's a tourist in her life, an unexpected visitor, the bad penny who keeps turning up.
And he does turn up again, getting Howard to invite him over to his house so he has an excuse to see Beth again, stealing a kiss with her while Howard messes around with actuarial books. Is Pete that unhappy with Trudy? With his life? Or is he looking, like Megan, to cast off reality and replace it with fantasy, to connect to something other than his own identity, the constructs in his life? On the road to oblivion, is he seeking some warmth along the way?
Despite his proclivities, it's hard not to feel somewhat bad for Pete here, with his attempted assignation with Beth a monumental failure (he throws the coupe glass against the wall in a silent demonstration of futile rage) and his inability to let go of the fantasy when he's presented with such promises as a heart drawn against the steamed-up glass of her car, as her husband drives her away. Pete has a wife of his own, a life of his own, but he's stirred up by the potential that Beth represents, the illicit excitement and thrill of the pursuit, and perhaps the sensation that he's reconnecting to a lost piece of himself, a missing vestige of his own past, a key to the doorway of youth once more.
Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Pete and Beth's tryst can never happen again; it may have fulfilled some need within Beth to regain that "reckless" aspect of herself long thought gone, but she's not willing to embark on an affair with Pete Campbell. Lying there on the floor of the living room, she compliments him on the blue of his irises, the deep well of blue that they offer, but there's a tragic element to the scene and to Pete himself. Pete's eyes may be as large and blue as the earth in space, but it's that image that connects him to the sense of isolation and exposure that Beth discusses in relation to those images. I fear for the entropy embedded within Pete's character, the uncertainty, the search for a missing variable. He's a man without a dream, out of touch with the world around him, desperate for something to anchor him. Because, in the end, Pete--rather like Don (or maybe even like all of us)--is floating alone in the darkness, orbiting beautiful, bright things, but never able to change his plotted course.
On the next episode of Mad Men ("Dark Shadows"), Don becomes competitive and Roger seeks new business; Sally faces a challenge.