Mad Men: season 5, episode 8

Sneaky calls, the Beatles and fake couples/kitchens/whipped cream.

If "Lady Lazarus" was a concept episode based on Revolver it would have begun with Pete putting down Pynchon to discuss taxes - rather than insurance - with his commuter buddy, Howard. Still, the episode's closing shots and credits rolled out to "Tomorrow Never Knows", the trippy final track of the 1966 Beatles album. Like Don we may wonder: "when did music become so important?" In Mad Men we've watched the artistic trends of the late Fifties give way to The Sixties in fashion and design - think Roger's office furniture, Megan's minis - but we've seen and heard less, until recently, of the counterculture affiliated so strongly with the decade. Suddenly it's not only young wives listening to psychedelic rock and trying LSD: advertising clients are specially requesting the Beatles - though they, like Don, don't know the Beatles apart from a boring pop band whose thirty-year-old song makes Ginsberg feel he's being "[stabbed] in the fucking heart".

Michael's curse may be a covert reference to suicide, and if so then it's one of at least a couple more. Pete brings up the killing-himself-clause of his life insurance plan in the first minute of the episode (it kicks in after just two years!), and Don almost steps into an open elevator shaft that is gaping for a Time-Life/SCDP employee to throw themselves down it. It's the episode's title that makes these thin references potent: the haunting poem from Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965) about her previous attempt to kill herself and near-death experience as a child, written shortly before her death by suicide at just 30.

Could this be a forewarning about Pete's spiral into depression? The season's fifth episode was largely dedicated to his misery and unsatisfaction. Pete's unremitting attempts to live privately and publicly like Don have failed. In broader terms, despite his successes at work Pete has been emasculated and humiliated time and time again. Earlier it was the failure to fix a tap, being turned down by a teenager and losing in a fist-fight against a Brit. Now there's still his pathetic mishaps - grappling with sporting gear, driving like a nervous youth - but it's his inability to sustain an affair with a dejected suburban housewife that thoroughly undermines Pete's manlihood. For Trudy's sake (at least before those two years are up), let us hope they fix that lift.

Megan's behaviour over the Heinz pitch and her father's life advice had us wondering last week whether her passion still lied in acting rather than advertising. Well, it does. Peggy shouts at both Drapers in this episode: first at Megan in the office toilet, incredulous that the talented junior copywriter would consider foiling her work to get fired: "You know people are killing to get this job. You're taking up a spot and you don't even want to do it?" We can't miss a comparison of each woman's relationship with Don. "I cannot lie to him," Peggy tells Megan. She's up all night because of that and can't bring herself to pick up the phone when he inquiringly rings back the office (or "Pizza house!"). Megan - although she wakes and tells him the next evening - did sleep fine that night and presumably the nights before; she actually had a first audition at the weekend. The small lie is not the problem - even though Megan's sneaking around to make a payphone call mirrors Pete marital betrayal, when he uses the same phone booth (rather than the office line) to call the woman who is not his wife.

The problem now between the Drapers is that Don isn't exactly sure who he married. "Sweetheart, you can't choose where your talents lie. What you did with Heinz . . ." "I don't want to do it," Megan tells him. "You don't want to do it?" If Peggy doesn't believe this - later she wonders to Joan whether she'd put too much pressure on her trainee - then Don is confused to the hilt. His face says it all. Megan tells him "I love you, you're everything I hoped you'd be." Don frowns and keeps frowning. What starts, though, as misunderstanding moves on to delusion and the blame-game. "You didn't want her there, you were threatened by everything about her!" Don charges at Peggy - ridiculously. It's not true, of course. "I spent eight months defending her. She thinks advertising is stupid." "She thinks the people she works with are cynical and petty." If Megan ever said this, it's not the reason she quit. Don is rightly nervous that without his wife it will be obvious his advertising career has peaked: he's out of ideas and is far more charming nowadays as part of a young couple than solo. And with all those far-off looks we have to question the longevity of his marriage. Roger can be a wicked truth teller and a great line of his should be heeded this week: "I gotta say, I can see her as an actress. Not that she's insincere, but, you know . . .?"

Again, Roger brings us back to this generational divide that seems so crucial in Season Five (see "Far Away Places"). Don says he has "no idea what's going on out there" in terms of music. Roger's advice to him - via Mona's dad, an even older generation but closer to Don who did grow up "in the Thirties" - "Go home, let her know there's a routine. It'll keep you both out of trouble". But at home Megan with her youthful ponytail is on the way out to her new evening class. And unable to "turn off [his] mind, relax and float down stream", whether because he's unimpressed or uncomprehending, Don turns off the record and walks stiffly from the room. 

Read the Mad Men series blog

That non-dairy whipped topping: Just taste it! (Photo: AMC)

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge