The Annotated MAD MEN: The Beatles And Sylvia Plath And All Kinds Of Death

Ego death! Metaphorical death! Real death! Change is coming and the secrets to it lie in the cultural contexts of this weeks' MAD MEN.

I’m not even sure where to start annotating the latest episode of Mad Men. Lady Lazarus offers lots of deep cultural cues, and they weave together in truly fascinating ways. There are two really main ones - Lady Lazarus, the poem by Sylvia Plath, and Tomorrow Never Knows, the song by the Beatles - but Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 shows up as well, and it appears in weird hands and speaks obliquely to larger themes of the season so far - as well as Pete Cambell’s story.

So let’s just cut this shit into chapters, shall we?

I. Tomorrow Never Knows

When did the 60s begin? On the surface that’s a stupid question answerable by any calender, but the reality is that the thing we call ‘The 60s’ didn’t start January 1st, 1960. Every single episode of Mad Men so far has taken place in the 1960s, with Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, the first episode, happening in March, 1960... but March 1960 looks and feels nothing like what we mean when we say ‘The 60s.’

You can point to a lot of events and cultural moments as the beginning of ‘The 60s,’ but for me it comes at the end of Revolver, the 1966 album from The Beatles. And I suspect that Matthew Weiner agrees with me on this. It’s no coincidence that The Beatles bookend this episode, first referenced when a riff on A Hard Day’s Night’s famous opening scene is pitched for a client. But that’s the pre-The 60s Beatles, a frantic, fun pop group. Just two years later (A Hard Day’s Night was released in 1964*) they’ve utterly transformed, becoming experimental, leaving behind touring and getting way into drugs. They dragged the entire culture with them as they went.

Is it an inside joke that Megan tells Don to start listening to Revolver at Tomorrow Never Knows? It’s the last song on the album (and the worst one for Don to start with. Taxman, straight up front, has a more classic Beatles sound AND lyrics Don could totally get behind) but it was the first song recorded. Listening to Revolver in the correct, sequenced order is like stepping over a boundary; the songs on the album often sound like what a Beatle fan might expect, but almost every other song careens out into something exciting and new and different. Imagine what it must have been like to be a 15 year old teenybopper in 1966 when Love You To came on the hifi for the first time - it must have been beyond mindblowing. Tomorrow Never Knows ends the record, but the side one finale, She Said She Said, is almost as jarring and strange, if more traditionally rock n' roll.

She Said She Said and Tomorrow Never Knows are both acid songs. She Said has a pretty great backstory - the Beatles (except Paul) dropped acid at Peter Fonda’s place, and he began telling a story about how he almost shot himself to death as a kid (“I know what it’s like to be dead,” he told them, freaking out George. John snapped at him to shut up, saying “You’re making me feel like I’ve never felt before.” Or so goes the legend. Both lines made it into the song). She Said ended up being the actual last song they recorded for the album.

Tomorrow Never Knows is much more obviously about acid. It sounds like acid. John wrote the song after buying Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, which was an acid dropping manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which you’ll recall being mentioned during Roger’s acid trip); the lyrics are adapted from there. The basic gist of it all is about ego death, the transcendence of the self, and seeing that the separation between us and the rest of the world is nothing but illusion.

Heady stuff. Powerful stuff. If you’ve done enough acid you’ve probably experienced something like it, as if a curtain has been raised on reality and you see - in one bright, shining moment of perfect, ecstatic clarity - that not only are you part of something bigger, there’s no actual difference between you and the bigger thing. You are the big thing, the big thing is you. It’s all one and the same, and you’re constantly fooling yourself that it’s any other way. It can be a scary moment for some because the individual elements of you melt away, and you see that your experiences and consciousness are just a facet of an infinite diamond. It’s scary, but it’s also incredible and beautiful and the closest I’ve ever felt to truly ‘religious.’

It’s what Roger experienced when he took acid, what has allowed him to have a new perspective on life. But Don turns it off. Ego death isn’t for Don Draper.

But more explicitly this is the sound of the coming years. Don, who is so out of ‘it’ that he thinks a song from the 30s is a Beatles track (probably also an in-joked, by the way. September in the Rain was one of the songs that the Beatles covered when they did a demo for Decca Records. Decca rejected them, possibly the single stupidest move in music history), is refusing everything that’s about to happen. The culture has changed so drastically in just 24 months that the Beatles have gone from mop tops to acid dropping mystics, and things are only going to get stranger faster. Megan has offered Don entry into ‘The 60s,’ and he very much refuses it.

II Lady Lazarus

Ariel was Sylvia Plath’s second collection of poems, published after her suicide (1965 in the UK, 1966 in America). The book is considered a seminal work of proto-feminist writing, and Lady Lazarus, from where the episode’s title comes, is probably the book’s most powerful poem.

Like much of Ariel, Lady Lazarus is dripping with Holocaust imagery; it’s so up front and obvious that it can be hard to move past. But there’s more underneath the Holocaust stuff, and it’s all about death and rebirth. Like Peter Fonda, Plath knows what it’s like to be dead - in the poem she talks about dying twice before, once every decade of her life, and dying again now for the third time.

On some level the Holocaust imagery is simply overwrought; Plath is comparing her pain to people dying in Nazi camps. She gets real specific, too, talking about Jews turned into lampshades and soap. But the Nazi imagery speaks to a world leached of goodness, just as the poet herself feels leached of meaning. In many ways Plath is writing about a woman simply going through the motions, a woman whose scars are on display and who in the end, is turned to ash.

But from the ash rises a new woman, flame-haired and phoenix-like (it’s fascinating that Plath uses Christian character Lazarus for her very Jew-centered poem title). The final three lines of the poem read hopeful and vengeful:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Read the whole thing here.

So who is Lady Lazarus? The lines about being on display, about peanut-crunching crowds and a theatrical comeback all point to Megan, who is reborn out of the ashes of her copywriting career. But it seems like Beth Dawes, the housewife with whom Pete dallies, fits in here as well. Crushed, empty, burnt out... but possibly reborn at the end of the episode? She certainly eats Pete Campbell like air. 

At any rate Lady Lazarus is a poem about a woman fighting back at the ennui and hopelessness that engulfs her, fitting right into the show’s increasingly feminist themes. The Holocaust imagery also fits in nicely with the creeping Jewish aspects of the show; remember that Ginsburg was born in a concentration camp - an evil so great he chooses to believe he's an alien instead, as it's easier to rationalize.

III The Crying of Lot 49

Pete is reading The Crying of Lot 49 on his commute, and it seems like a weird choice for the button-down little weasel. Of course the book was a major cultural event at the time, and a good ad man should be staying up to date, but it’s hard to imagine Pete really enjoying the trippy adventures of Oedipa Maas as she investigates a secret underground mail service that may or may not exist.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Lot 49, and even though it’s Thomas Pynchon’s shortest novel it’s still dense as hell. Feel free to extrapolate further in the comments, but what stood out to me were these two things: one is that Maas, the novel’s protagonist, is a housewife who discovers a larger world, something that feels very appropriate to the episode and the show in general.

But more than that, The Crying of Lot 49 is, in Pynchon fashion, paranoid and conspiracy-minded. And Pete gets all paranoid and conspiracy-minded as he can’t figure out Beth’s ‘signals.’ He rants to Harry about it, about the tricky, secret words that women use, and then at the end she gives him a tricky, secret symbol only he can see - except instead of the muted horn from the novel, it’s a heart on a misty car window. The Crying of Lot 49 is about a secret organization that may or may not exist - much like Pete's relationship with Beth. 

There’s probably more; Lot 49 is a post-acid book, and there’s a band modeled on the Beatles in it - The Paranoids are a shaggy haired band with the song I Want To Kiss Your Feet. Oedipa’s husband, Mucho Maas, is a DJ who drops acid while talking about the experiencing of hearing their music for the first time.

When those kids sing about 'She loves you,' yeah well, you know, she does, she's any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the 'you' is everybody. And herself.


IV Death and Ego Death

For Plath death is a metaphor for change... but also really death. It has happened to her three times, and each time she rose from the ashes (although she wouldn’t get to the nine deaths she foresees for herself).  For the Beatles “It is not dying/It is not dying,” and in fact you should “play the game ‘Existence’ to the end/ Of the beginning, of the beginning.” Mucho Maas seems to be understanding the concept of ego death himself, connecting with all people ever, and realized you are she and she is you.

Death has been all over the series this season, sometimes very obvious - the road safety films, Betty’s cancer scare - sometimes less so. Is the show setting us up for a death? Or is the key really ego death, the moving from one state to another and accepting the change that is rocking the culture in 1966?

What’s interesting in all of this is that Don has already died. He died in Korea - or at least ‘Dick Whitman’ died there. He almost dies again this episode, as the elevator door opens on an empty shaft**. But he’s utterly unwilling to change and move into the future that is barreling down on him, whether he likes it or not. Don made a choice this episode, and it’s a choice that’s probably more ominous than all of his smoking and drinking. It won’t be cancer or liver disease that gets Don, it’ll be irrelevancy as he desperately clings on to his set-in-stone notions of himself.


By the way, I'm not great with poetry. I tend to appreciate it more when I hear it, rather than read it, so here's Plath reading Lady Lazarus on the BBC. She changes a line in this reading, widening the WWII references to include the Japanese.

* Funny side note: both A Hard Day's Night and Tomorrow Never Knows get their titles from Ringo Starr malapropisms. He also gave us Eight Days A Week

** I could do a whole Annotated Mad Men wondering if that’s a joke reference to how the hated Diana Muldaur got offed on LA Law.