What if I told you there was a show about an unhappily married man living in the suburbs who is desperate for something more than his humdrum life. And what if I told you that same show featured a happily married man seeking nothing more than maintaining that marital accord. Pretty standard sitcom fare, right? Maybe a pay cable series with an occasional glimpse of a bare breast? Right. Except Mad Men has always been more than a connect the dots show, but now, more than halfway through its fifth season, the narrative direction of the show seems less certain than ever. After spending early episodes framing a foreboding dawn of Aquarius, all dark shadows, mass murders and riots, plot pacing has downshifted into a time warp of suburban ennui and pedestrian infidelity.
While the title of the season's eighth episode, Lady Lazarus suggests resurrection, the storyline suggested anything but being born again. If anything, the episode was an inversion of the early 1960s. Pete Campbell, now ensconced in Cos Cob, Connecticut, has spent much of 1966 trolling for love and affection or rebelling against the quiet desperation of anomie (and a rifle for those gophers), or maybe both. His preferred sexual role playing involves female submission, he attempts to power play Roger, but covers his unhappiness with a laser focus on work. Sounds a little like a Season 1 Don Draper, but the difference is that Pete is impotent. A chance encounter with his commuter friend Howard's wife Beth, who confides in Pete that she is aware of her husband's indiscretions, results in a furtive, groping lovemaking session that leaves Pete unrequited when he attempts to extend that evening's lust into something more meaningful. He calls and is rejected, he shows up at their marital home under the pretext of buying life insurance and is denied, and is stood up in the City when he rents a hotel room complete with chilled champagne.
At work, Roger deftly clinches work with the sporting goods manufacturer Head and, as a bonus, gets to watch Pete fumble with the ski equipment the client has provided. LSD may have offered Roger clarity, or perhaps he better understands his role in SCDP, but either way, his anger at being bigfooted by Pete has dissolved into comfort with his own talent and skill with the added benefit of being able to pawn the "hard work" off to a guy who wants to make his bones. Indeed, watching Pete patiently waiting for Beth in that hotel room flashed me back to scenes from earlier seasons where Roger successfully utilized hotel rooms for his liaisons with Joan and how Roger's casual alpha maleness contrasts with Pete's forced attempts at the same.
Meanwhile, Jack Shapiro was not one of Megan's former flames, or even, as I was hoping, a first husband from Canada never divorced, but rather, a casting director for a play. Turns out Megan's commie dad actually got through to his daughter, who does not realize that advertising is actually a form of acting and instead, decides to fold up her tent at SCDP and pursue her dream of appearing on Broadway (or off Broadway, or films, whatever works). When Peggy and Don blow a canned presentation to Cool Whip and he blames Peggy, she lashes out at him, suggesting he is projecting his anger at Megan for quitting onto her.
Peggy's misreading of Don is a hallmark of this season, but it's not just Peggy who seems at sea with this "new" Don, it's the viewer too. As @winelibrarian put it, in discussing Megan, "She's turned Don into a pussy. period." While the comment was pithy, I think it missed the mark. After four years of getting inside Don's tortuted psyche, no one seems willing to accept that Don is a different man now - 40, appreciative of the second change his marriage to Megan has given him and not the swinging dick he was in years past. Any man who has experienced one (or more) of these things in life can relate to Don's desire for peace and tranquility. His conversation with Megan when she reveals her lie to him is telling - instead of screaming or slamming doors, their conversation is mature and nurturing. Indeed, that Megan admits her lie, and Don does not rebuke her, is itself telling. While Joan may have offered the cynic's view of Megan's career change, even the wink to Megan as Betty 2.0 is warped - yes, she is over a stove with a glass of wine in her hand, but she also reminds Don that coming home to a meal will not be an everyday experience.
While it is entirely possible Don's marriage to Megan may still fail, indeed, I've argued that Megan must be killed to resurrect the "old" Don, it may simply be that Don is transitioning into a phase of his life where he is comfortable not being "that guy" anymore. Tellingly, he seems to not understand current culture, whereas when the show started, he was spending afternoons in movie houses and constantly scribbling tag lines on cocktail napkins. When Megan gives Don a copy of Revolver to show how quickly The Beatles were changing their sound, Don gives it a listen but quickly pulls the needle off the LP and goes to bed. Tomorrow may never know, but Don is not quite ready to tune into that changing landscape.
*Note on blogpost title: I was going to use "Tomorrow Never Knows" but the bloggers who get paid to blog already used it. For Grateful Dead fans, you'll know that their version of "TNK" sampled a line from The Talking Heads Once In A Lifetime "same as it ever was ... same as it ever was."