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'Mad Men' recap: 'Lady Lazarus' explores sex and death

Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser, in a

Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser, in a gallery portrait for “Mad Men”, Season 5. (Credit: AMC)

"Mad Men" just gets trickier and trickier, evolving and developing its theme like a complex novel that refuses to let you bail out by (say) chapter seven, at the risk of then never being able to put the puzzle together.

And so we come to Sunday night's "Lady Lazarus," referring to the 1962 Sylvia Plath poem, which instantly places this episode in the context of death -- death and suicide, this being Plath -- and the Holocaust.

The poem is about a woman who arises, Phoenix-like, to consume "men" so that they will never be able to revive her again, in a death camp.

Or something like that.

Any Plath scholars out there? Your input is welcome.

But this is the point of this episode: Sex and death and rebirth, and the great cycle of life that our little band of characters find themselves in. For some wacky reason, I kept thinking of the Woody Allen line: The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.

Linking sex and death -- and the linkage is inescapable in "Mad Men" -- has been a long theme here, but Sundaynight we moved it along a bit further.

Don's and Pete's existential -- sorry, hate the pretentious word but it does seem to apply here -- isolation becomes ever more pronounced, evidenced in particular by three wonderful scenes: Pete, alone, waiting for his paramour to arrive (she does not); Don, staring down the empty abyss of an elevator shaft; and Don, striding through the empty apartment -- and the episode's conclusion -- drink in hand.

Sex and death. So where's the rebirth? That was the ironic kicker, I believe, with the John Lennon song, " Turn off your mind relax and float down stream It is not dying, it is not dying... And ignorance and hate mourn the dead It is believing, it is believing/ But listen to the colour of your dreams It is not leaving, it is not leaving/ So play the game "Existence" to the end Of the beginning, of the beginning..

Don turns off the record in disgust.

 Contrast this with the closing lines of "Lady Lazarus:"

Ash, ash-- You poke and stir.

Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--

A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware.

Out of the ash I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

OK, let's break it down:

On the train: Pete and Howard discuss death, and the insurability of suicide (which, I suppose, Pete imagines is painless if the check is big enough). We call a scene like this "foreshadowing," but of what? Hang on, fans.

Music enters into "Mad Men" again, with what I believe is the series' very first reference to the Beatles, or at least the most extended one. In this scene, we get a distinctly homophobic Don, who later muses, "since when did music become so important." To which I'd say, "since when did Don become so square, daddy-o?" Don's feet are planted in the past (that line about plumbing in the '30s?Don almost sounded grandfatherly).

Going skiing, Pete? Great little scene with Roger actually bestowing a client upon Pete -- a dangerous one, where risk of bodily injury and death is high for someone who's never actually been on a pair of skis. A funny scene indeed as Pete lumbers away with his booty.

Pete and Beth. Is Beth -- Alexis Bledel, or Rory Gilmore of "The Gilmore Girls" -- the Lady Lazarus of episode's title? She's the complete version of a 1960s desperate housewife -- fully aware of her malignant circumstances, and incapable of forging an escape route, except in the brief passionate embrace of another walking prototype, aka Pete. We see her all bathed in shadows, or darkness visible, and -- mirroring the first episode of the first season -- Pete cheats on Trudy with the full and faulty realization that this act is his only escape route. Recall, meanwhile, the imagery of solitary planets, lone bodies in the vastness of space. (Beth even compares the irises of his eyes to lonely planets.) And there you have Pete: alone, floating through the vastness of space that is his own soul.

Peggy and Don and Megan. Obviously this episode is playing with the older and deeper tie that bonds Don and Peggy rather than the one that binds Megan and Don. Don and Peggy: fraternal, asexual (for now) and yet the only adult relationship with a member of the opposite sex that Don has ever had. Just as Megan leaves his orbit, Peggy returns.

The elevator: A classic scene. Don presses the button to go down after Megan because he knows he is nothing without her -- and again, we have the Don/Megan storyline mirroring the Pete/Beth one. But the door opens and all he sees is blackness and swirling cables. Don isn't horrified, but he is puzzled. Puzzled! He doesn't call the police or the building super, but goes to get ... a drink. The scene, of course, evokes the Falling Man icon of the series, and -- intentionally or unintentionally -- the real-life, tragic accident in a Y&R elevator bank last fall, when a woman was killed by an elevator. In any event, this scene was rich with foreshadowing. Don has lost Megan, and the great yawning void of his existence now beckons.

Creative Cookery kitchen: "Mad Men" and food are so tightly conjoined that you can almost TASTE this show some weeks, and what better scene (s) Sunday night than the Cool Whip ones? Cool Whip: Not a cream, but what is it? "Just taste it..." Don, in two small acting roles, declines to taste, and his "wife" finally forces the tagline out of him..."JUST TASTE IT." The reluctance is a reflection of Don, who is getting older, and reluctant or incapable of seeing what is going on in the world around him. Just taste it, Don. But he won't.

"Tomorrow Never Knows:" From "Revolver," with the line that says, Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining. Yet you may see the meaning of within It is being, it is being ." Just taste it, Don. Surrender to the void. It is shining. Well, no...Don's not about to surrender to any void. Not Don. Not yet, anyway. 

Pictured: Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell in "Mad Men."

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