The alien invasion at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce
In 1966, a photographer named Stewart Brand went up to his rooftop to drop some acid:
So there I sat, wrapped in a blanket in the chill afternoon sun, trembling with cold and inchoate emotion, gazing at the San Francisco skyline, waiting for my vision. The buildings were not parallel—because the Earth curved under them, and me, and all of us; it closed on itself. I remembered that Buckminster Fuller had been harping on this at a recent lecture—that people perceived the Earth as flat and infinite and that that was the root of all their misbehavior.
And as he looked down onto his city, he imagined someone looking down from space and taking a picture of our round planet. The next week he started hitchhiking around the country handing out badges that said, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” He was hoping the image might transform human consciousness like a “cultural hit of LSD.”
He was pitching the idea of freedom to us, by reminding us that we had fewer options than we once thought.
It’s an awful lot to take in, this notion of being an insignificant speck in this universe or, worse, a Richard Speck. Just look what happens to Pete Campbell. Through eyes the same color blue as the earth, his vision is clouded with things that feel big and small at the same time. His life in the suburbs is confined and suffocating but every time he attempts to pass its safe threshold, he goes into free fall.
With all the dream sequences and hallucinogenic trips and doodlings of nooses and strangling of nurses that have been going on this season, I spent this episode questioning what was real and what wasn’t all the way up until the end. I consider that a real victory for "Mad Men." This show has always been about selling us polished lies. As the romanticized heyday of advertising fades away, the show is curving and closing onto itself. Its characters are fleeing from the business and each other. At moments, it feels like they are even trying to escape the one-dimensional screen they are trapped behind.
The two best liars on this show used to be Don and Peggy, both outwardly and inwardly. Of course, everyone in that office walks around fooling themselves; but those two are the only ones whose secrets come with birth certificates. New Don, though, has been having problems lately detecting the deceit in others. Sally’s fib last week went undetected and with Megan he’s mistaking her for a rookie when actually she’s a seasoned veteran. She’s been pitching illusions to him from the beginning, this idea of a life that he never believed he deserved. She’s been every bit as successful at reinventing herself as Dick Whitman was. No wonder the client loves watching them, requests encores of their performance. They click together as snug as Adam’s rib fit into Eve.
But Megan isn’t that Eve. She’s not the backstabbing one from All About Eve either, a suggestion that the show has been working hard to misdirect us toward all season. She doesn't fit any of the definitions that people keep trying to foist onto her. She’s one of those girls who is good at everything because so far none of it has mattered to her. She’s an actor able to shimmy into any costume or persona she likes. When she gently runs a hand through Don’s hair to wake him up, she’s playing the role of the mother he never had. By the time she’s told him she wants out of the business he’s defined his life through, she’s turned into his little girl being tucked into bed.
All season long, Megan has been dangling her greatest asset in front of her colleagues, the fact that she was born late enough in the game to be able to choose whether she even wants to play. She has so many options, she's been dreaming up schemes like throwing files away in the trash just so at least one choice will taken out of her hands. Don’s generation trudged through the snow on their way to the outhouse, the journey from birth to death so cold and dull that it felt as dauntingly infinite as a flat Earth once did.
Everyone is waiting for Megan to reveal hidden malice or agendas but her glossy raincoats seem so far free of chinks, reflecting only everyone's insecurities back at them. Joan needs Megan to be just like Betty so that she, Joan, won’t have to wonder why she’s not more like Megan. Or why everyone keeps coming into her office and shutting the door, either to be kissed or calmed by her but never to offer her a more creative job. Even we the audience seems to need Megan reined in a bit. It's confusing realizing how cool she is, how much we like her. Are we rooting for her and Don to fail or succeed? Were we disappointed or glad she wasn't having an affair, that she was just running off to chase her every last dream? Only Peggy is able to speak frankly in this episode, again and again. She spent nine months keeping a lie alive and perhaps doing so built up an intolerance. When Don calls her at the office, she is incapable of lying to him. At the test kitchen, in front of transparent glass bowls full of Cool Whip, (because “everyone chooses the blue ones”) Peggy flubs her phony lines. Don’s face looks like it’s been carved out of wax. If you had just walked into the room, you’d think the two of them had never met.
But then this thing happens, this fight, and it’s like the director yelled "Cut!" Only I’m not talking about Matthew Weiner or Phil Abraham or anyone like that, more an imaginary director from that time who is all those people from Roger’s acid party morphed into one. When Peggy and Don went at it, it was like a seam ripped open in the reality of the show and the words spilling out were made of one hundred percent truth. It’s that relief you feel in the presence of someone who knows you. On camera, at dinner, in the pitch room Megan and Don are in sync, but it is Peggy’s inner frequency that is always tuned, like a baby monitor, to Don’s real self.
I’ve talked a lot about how this show this season has reminded me of plays and novels and older television shows. This episode, though, felt more like a Russian nesting doll in its structure. Pete’s story line felt like it was tucked inside Don’s, instead of running parallel to it, as though Pete Campbell was living inside Don Draper’s head. That scary casual rage that Pete wears like an overcoat felt like all the bottled up anger that Don wasn’t unleashing onto Megan. The object of Pete’s affection, she of the blank innocence and porcelain features, is how Betty must have seemed to Don when they first met, and later to Henry. Poor Pete. He can’t even rebel against his nature properly. The trouble with trying to run away on a round planet is that you keep ending up where you started from.
Rory Gilmore (I know that’s not her "Mad Men" name but that’s the only thing we were thinking) drinks in his earth colored eyes and only sees transient hoboes without pasts. After being assured Megan isn’t disappearing, the men are now the ones feeling weak and barely there. Rory, who at first seemed an easy enough pawn, draws Pete’s heart on a foggy window and then obliterates it in the same motion. Don takes a step forward and finds his foot dangling in thin air.
I was calmly convinced throughout the entire episode that Pete would either kill Rory Gilmore or die a horrible death. His every scene and line seemed to indicate it, down to the fighter jets on Rory’s husband’s tie that signaled that the enemy was among us.
In 1961, the Russians beat us into space. The Beatles released Revolver (six years later Don’s candidate of choice Richard Nixon would attempt to deport John Lennon). Sylvia Plath was conquered by depression in 1963 but was resurrected in 1965 when her husband Ted Hughes published her poetry collection Ariel, which included this episode’s namesake, Lady Lazarus. It’s about the Holocaust, specifically a woman who keeps returning to earth in different forms:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Ginsburg survived the Nazis but now his enemy, his kryptonite, is anyone or anything that is old and frail. He needs to be surrounded by strength and vitality. When Ken puts on a song that’s 30 years old, Ginsburg looks like his ears might start to bleed. He is an alien it turns out, after all. Megan is too.
They’re the young invaders of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and it’s no longer clear which planet’s living in the shadow of which.
Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: In 'Mad Men,' a genealogy of womanhood: Peggy, Megan, Sally, Joan and Betty.