“Tomorrow Never Knows”, the Beatles
Lady Lazarus, Season 5 Episode 8
There’s a growing unease underneath the glamorous season five of Mad Men, signaling the terrors and discontent to come. Though there are a couple more traditional, viscerally climactic tragedies later in the year, this episode is arguably where the rug gets pulled out from under everyone, briefly suspending them above the emptiness below and revealing the aching within them. In an extremely expensive move which is perhaps unprecedented in television history, Mad Men closes Lady Lazarus by brazenly invoking the ultimate artifact of the Sixties. They play a Beatles song.
This installment shows that despite the wild changes in tone and narrative this season, the creators have actually been holding back to some extent on the historic riptide surrounding the show’s world. Consisting predominantly of white men in an entrenched position of tradition and privilege, social upheaval is always a bit late in coming to the halls of SCDP. So Lady Lazarus turns the tables, throwing it all at us in one monumental symbolic musical cue, using perhaps the most futuristic Beatles tune (it even has ‘tomorrow’ in the title).
It all begins when Don’s relative creative laziness of late is remarked upon. This spurs his idea of a contemporary music spot: some copycat, forgotten beat band singing a song about love, the moon and June (a track which I actually find to be quite catchy and lovely). The bait and switch here, once they confidently bring out the big guns at the end, is marvelous.
There is an emotional and spiritual disconnect keeping Don and Megan’s relationship from working, a problem that dooms the romance from the start and prevents Don from focusing on his job. Pete is likewise spiraling out of control, completely dissatisfied with his serene domestic life and posh job title. His foolish, inadvisable affair with Beth reaches the point of no return in this episode. That notion of absence and imbalance is already felt in the workplace, with the pitch-perfect domestic play-acting of Don and Megan giving way to Don and Peggy’s ill-matched, quarrelsome mess of the same presentation. The failed pitch also opens up a widening rift between the two most important characters on the show.
The ending montage in question is only faintly trippy, with a couple brisk camera pans complementing the musical insanity – there are Indian drones, musique concrete sampling, sound effects, phased-out vocals and backwards guitar to be found in the three-minute track. The Beatles’ defiantly experimental, freewheeling Sixties attitude bounces off the characters’ grounded emotions of despair and loss in dim, naturally-lit shots.
In this case, the episode’s title ties in to the message of the closing song: it’s a Sylvia Plath poem about a woman figuratively dying and being reborn, something Megan does in this story at great cost to her and Don’s relationship (and the agency at large). She is young, hip and self-possessed, and wants to be an actress, reflecting a new era of confident careerist women.
After losing Megan in a sense and realizing the extent of that void, Don finally gets some cultural education from his wife. His dated ad jingle was way off base. Bands aren’t singing about love anymore, they’re making surrealistic noisy avant-garde impressions about God, perception, life and the desolation these characters know so well. Megan hands Don the Beatles’ Revolver and instructs him to start with the end. In the span of this delirious yet somber tableau, a relationship dies, a woman is born again, and everything falls apart. Though he tries to shut it out and turn off the song, the emptiness in Don’s life grows ever larger, threatening to swallow him whole.