"Mad Men's" generation gap

As Megan makes a surprising choice, Don is confronted with changing '60s culture -- and Pete's spiral continues

Published May 7, 2012 12:16PM (EDT)

 Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) on "Mad Men"
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) on "Mad Men"

Nelle Engoron recaps "Mad Men" every week on Salon. She is the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

Something strange occurred somewhere in the middle of the 1960s. People began doing what they felt like doing, rather than what was expected of them.

Of course, rebels and freethinkers had always done this, but they were rare and often paid a price for their actions, even losing their lives. Now ordinary people began adopting the mantra, “If it feels good, do it.” Personal satisfaction, rather than duty, increasingly became the driver behind people’s choices. And they didn’t pay a price, unless you count the anger and jealousy evoked in those who weren’t courageous enough to do the same. Nearly 200 years after America was founded on a right to the “pursuit of happiness,” Americans began to claim that right. And they’ve never looked back.

“There are no second acts in American life,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared, without living long enough to see the constant self-reinvention of our age. In “Lady Lazarus,” the latest episode of “Mad Men,” Megan chooses to re-make her life, simply because her career isn’t making her happy. Even with her recent success, and the discovery that she’s able to “do everything,” (as Don declared in a tone of awe), she finds advertising so boring that leaving it is akin to raising herself from the dead.

A stunned Don and Roger commiserate that they never got the chance to pursue their dreams – not that they can bring any to mind. As Depression-baby Don sums up, “I was raised in the '30s; my dream was indoor plumbing.” Don’s a man who has literally succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, while Roger has merely followed the path his father laid out for him (if not the one Mona’s father did in trying to ensure fidelity).

Trying to keep her from throwing her career away, Don tells Megan it took him years to reach the level of mastery she has, not understanding that he’s only underscoring the reason for her decision: Advertising plays so naturally to her talents that there’s no challenge in it for her, and she’s been hit hard by the reality that Stan speaks of, when you see that all your hard work literally only amounts to a hill of beans. Don explains that the reward will come when she sees her work up on the sides of buildings, but she dreams of seeing her own name, not the client’s, up on a theater marquee. Surely making a name for yourself is something Don should understand?

But it’s not just the older generation who marvels as Megan’s decision. Showing how quickly things are changing, the only slightly older Peggy feels resentful that Megan is throwing away the same success she’s had to work so hard for. While Don chooses to play the supportive husband to his wife’s face (proving he’s as good an actor as she is, and not just when selling dessert toppings), he and Peggy have the marital spat that he avoids with Megan, after pretending to be a married couple eating fake whipped cream. Belying his soothing words to Megan, Don blames Peggy for her departure, regurgitating Megan’s previously stated disgust at the cynicism of her co-workers while ignoring the fact that he can be the coldest whip of them all. Who exactly are his employees emulating in their workplace behavior, if not their leader Don?

While the Draper kitchen is a place of harmony where a barefoot but deliberately not pregnant Megan cooks Don a loving meal that burns him when he tries to swallow it, Peggy and Don engage in their own version of the Nixon-Krushchev kitchen debate after their failed marital simulation. While she muffed the lines that Don refused to rehearse with her because he’s said them so many times before (with so many women, we might add), Peggy is still accurate in arguing that “I did everything right and I’m still getting it from you.” We can imagine Betty making that same point.

But Don is also striving to do everything right this time, painfully stretching himself to make Megan happy so she won’t turn into either Betty or her own mother, and looking almost tearfully happy when she tells him that he’s everything she’d hoped he would be. Don earns another Tony by returning the compliment, even though it’s clear that Megan is both more and less than he’d hoped – not the naïve young girl he first met, but a strong-willed woman with dreams of her own despite his efforts to subsume her into his.

Don thinks he’s been wonderfully open-minded to not only “allow” Megan a career after marriage, but help her succeed, and no doubt further congratulates himself for feeling proud rather than threatened by her being a natural at what he had to work to become. To have her say that he’s done everything right and it’s still not enough for her is almost more than Don can bear, a feeling symbolized by his getting the shaft at the office, as an elevator to nowhere opens before him.

Gawping into the abyss, Don faces the same nothingness that had Pete weeping not long ago. But Pete was mourning a lack of male respect while Don’s rapidly-shifting feelings bring to mind the saying that no man feels good about himself unless a woman approves of him. Having lost Megan’s loving presence at work, which stroked his ego as much as any other organ, Don may be boarding an express elevator to failure unless he can rediscover that thrill of success he was trying to sell her on.

Meanwhile, our seemingly doomed to rest-in-Pete has another intimation of mortality, as his train-buddy Howard tries to sell him life insurance. Suggesting that SCDP is the beneficiary of his company-issued policy, he warns that everything Pete has will “(stop) short the minute they put you in the ground.” Just as work consumed the lives of American men in that era, leaving them wondering like Howard where the hell their kids are, even their deaths were given over to their companies.

Howard counts himself a good husband because he’s provided financially for his wife Beth ("Gilmore Girls'" Alexis Bledel) both now and after his death, which he says is all that matters to her. And it’s hard to believe she would want more from the callous Howard, who’s putting his own Cool Whip topping on a strawberry blonde in the city. Having been commuter-trained in the art of suburban infidelity by Howard, Pete makes himself the beneficiary of Beth’s neglected affections, but with her ego assuaged by a quick romp, Beth brushes Pete off.

Taking a page from the traditional playbook, both in her role of suburban wife and mother and her well-rehearsed toying with Pete, Beth continues the push me-pull you game that ignited Pete’s libido in the first place, drawing steamy hearts behind her husband’s back and showing why she’s been getting attention from men her whole life. But then how could a man resist a beautiful woman who literally sees the world reflected in his eyes, even if (as so many felt at that time) it’s a troubled planet, “tiny and unprotected, and surrounded by darkness.”

Stung by rejection, Pete rants to Harry that women “do anything they want ….Turn it off and on when they feel like it, while we’re … waiting at attention. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” Pete’s complaint is one men have made about women for much of human history, as is evidenced by Harry’s resigned answer of “They just do” when Pete asks why women get to decide what’s going to happen. But Pete’s also channeling a complaint that the older generation began making about the younger, the very one that goes unspoken by Don and Roger, as they choose to support Megan’s dreams, at least in theory.

More typically, members of their generation angrily questioned the right of younger people to “do anything they want,” a luxury not afforded to those who came of age during the Depression and World War II. (As he never tires of pointing out, even pampered rich kid Roger risked his life fighting in WWII.) They fought to protect democracy for future generations, but when those generations took them up on the offer by democratically helping themselves to whatever was on offer, it didn’t go over very well. The reason we fought, they said, was so that you could be exactly like us. But copying the old model is precisely what this generation didn’t want.

After all, Cool Whip isn’t whipped cream, and Peggy isn’t Megan, and Megan isn’t Betty, and Pete’s eyes don’t really contain the whole world. (Hell, they don’t even encompass another person’s desires.) Peggy ponders work that Megan says she created exactly as dictated, saying "they're exactly as they're supposed to be, but they're not it. Or maybe they are."

This elusive gap between what's desired and what actually exists is a theme running throughout the show, often signified by an attempt to duplicate something desirable, only to have it fail the ineffable test of authenticity. In the Season 3 episode, “The Arrangements,”the agency worked on a cola ad that imitated an Ann-Margret number from “Bye, Bye, Birdie.” But as Harry put it after the client rejected the result, “It looks right, it sounds right, it smells right, but something’s not right. What is it?” while Roger offered the obvious answer, “It’s not Ann-Margret.”

This time around, Chevalier Blanc men’s cologne wants a rip-off of the Beatles’ film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” even if they’re surprised to hear the Beatles won’t provide the music. No problem, the SCDPers reassure them, since every pop group is trying to imitate them. But even though he tells the client that they know what the Beatles sound like, it turns out that Don can’t tell the difference between them and a song from his youth. “When did music become so important?” he demands of Megan, who argues that it always has been, seemingly unaware of the vast difference between growing up desperately poor on a farm during the Depression and her cosmopolitan upbringing in the era of early rock and roll.

Music will be important to every generation from now on, but the primacy of pop culture is alien to Don, who’s previously admitted going mostly to the theater for business, so he couldn’t really enjoy it. Megan hasn’t been enjoying the theater lately, either, but because it makes her envious of those involved in it. For Don, art is simply part of business, a means to success, but for Megan, art is part of life, one that she wants to make her business. While would-be artists like Megan have always sought careers that fulfilled their creative desires, the belief that work should be enjoyable rather than just materially rewarding is yet another searing truth that Don is having trouble swallowing. "Sweetheart, sometimes we don't get to choose where our talents lie," he says to her patronizingly as if he can talk her out of this silly acting idea. But in her gently persistent way that wears him down every time, Megan disabuses him of the notion that she's going to go along with what he thinks is best for her.

In fact, it's Megan who knows what Don needs, just as she's his living link to what's hip and current in the culture. “Just taste it,” she entices him during the mock commercial they act out, after Cosgrove urges them to “do the bit.” But while Don can bite down on what Megan’s offering when they’re playing the heightened happy version of themselves (which Cosgrove terms a “twist” on the stupid husband and pushy wife cliché, because they seem to really like each other), in reality he can’t take in what she’s offering.

Reminding him that he’s complained he “doesn’t know what’s going on,” she tries to enlighten him with the latest Beatles’ record, the groundbreaking “Revolver,” instructing him to begin with the last song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” But either the psychedelic music (which implicitly urges the listener to turn on) or the spiritually-oriented lyrics (which explicitly tell the listener to turn off their mind) are too much for Don, who turns off the stereo and retreats, old-fashioned drink in hand.

“It is not dying,” the Beatles try to reassure, although then again, “It is not living.”  Roger’s generation was told to come home every night, and Howard thinks that spending one night a week with his wife keeps things “in balance,” but now Megan is the one who goes off at night, even if she’s no longer lying to Don about the reason. As women seek their own satisfaction, many men will feel left behind, forced to face the music alone. Lady Lazarus may be rising, but as in the Sylvia Plath poem of that name, she’s eating men like air – or so they feel.

By Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer, an Open Salon blogger and the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

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