With the obvious exception of Superman, who used phone booths as changing rooms, scenes involving pay phones rarely lead to good developments. (One more exception: Ron Burgundy’s Glass Case of Emotion.) In last night’s Mad Men, the office pay phone was the scene of two acts of deception, one that points to a tough but perhaps positive life change, and another that’s the latest deed in a severe downward spiral.
“Lady Lazarus” revealed what Megan’s father meant when he told her he wished she hadn’t given up on her dreams so easily. Megan, it seems, has always wanted to be an actress. This is not a big shock to anyone who saw Megan’s mini-burlesque at Don’s birthday party in the season premiere. But for the first half of this episode, all we know is that Megan returns a call using the pay phone (did companies really have phone booths in their lobbies in the ’60s?). Suddenly, Megan is lying to Peggy, saying she’s meeting Don for dinner to skip out of work. When Don asks her where she was, she tells him she was having drinks with a friend. Uh-oh — is Mrs. Draper taking a play from the Don Draper of old and seeing someone on the side?
Megan’s mystery evening turns out to be much more interesting than that, as it involves a callback from an off-Broadway play. When Peggy scolds her in the bathroom, Megan admits she doesn’t love copywriting. And there’s the problem. She’s great at what she does, and after Peggy invested months training her, Megan wants to throw it all away for a long shot at acting. Don doesn’t takes the news well. After the success of the Heinz pitch, Don’s creative team has designed an ad campaign for Mr. and Mrs. Draper to pitch to Cool Whip. (They are so successful as a duo that clients are now requesting that the Drapers perform for them.) Suddenly, the power couple is back down to one, sharply illustrated by Don’s staring down an empty elevator shaft after he watches Megan leave the office for the final time.
If Megan’s phone-booth conversation was the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in her life, Pete Campbell’s off-the-record chat was certainly the low point in a year that has seen his life spiral out of control. Professionally, things could hardly be going better for Pete. Companies are lining up to work with him, and the new, mellow Roger is all too willing to pass off work and help from the sidelines. But personally, Pete is a disaster — this season has already seen him hit on a high schooler and prostitute and participate in a boardroom ass whipping.
After learning that one of his commuter buddies has a lady friend on the side, Pete happens to meet that friend’s wife, named Beth, in a dark and deserted train station (what a coincidence?). And she just happens to have locked her keys in the car, requiring a gentleman to take her home. Pete seems to have no qualms with helping this damsel in distress, which includes a romp on the living-room floor. But it turns out that Beth is deeper and more complex than Pete’s better half, Trudy, and suddenly Pete is calling her from the work pay phone to arrange a tryst in the city. It doesn’t happen, and the sight of him sitting alone in a hotel room with a bottle of champagne is one of the more pathetic images this season.
Back in his heyday, Don made cheating look easy. Sure, things got a little out of hand when his Beat girlfriend Midge came calling for drug money, but throughout the years Don was sleeping around, he at least looked like he was having fun with it. Pete, on the other hand, cheats because his life is boring, only to become attached and more miserable in the end. Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned, and Pete Campbell had better learn it quickly.
Those literary ad men: When Don’s in-laws visited in last week’s episode, Don was reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. Megan pointed out that he was only reading the book to appear more cultured for her parents; if so, that novel was a good choice, as it won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year. But as one of my brilliant editors pointed out, Megan’s parents being leftist academics, they would probably have considered Malamud to be middlebrow anyway. This week’s episode opened with Pete reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 on the train. Even though it was Pynchon’s shortest novel, it’s pretty heavy reading for a commute, especially for a man who exchanged a wedding present for a .22-caliber rifle, then wondered why his wife was furious.
Guest stars with depth: If those bright blue eyes underneath the bouffant flip looked familiar, that’s because Pete’s love interest was none other than Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel). She’s not the first guest star with long credits to her name: last week, Megan’s mother was played by Julia Ormond, of Legends of the Fall fame, and for some time now, Ken Cosgrove’s wife has been played by Larisa Oleynik, who you may remember from 10 Things I Hate About You. But the best cameo of the season came last night in the form of the great Mr. Belding himself, Dennis Haskins, even though Haskins’ Cool Whip engineer was a bit of a dud character.
Yet another sign of the times: When one of the companies asks for a Beatles knockoff, Don’s creative team finds music that sounds like the Beatles’ first few albums. But when Don relaxes to a Beatles tune in the final scene, it’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the final track off Revolver. It’s a far cry from the Hard Day’s Night Beatles. Even though it’s the song Megan picked out, it doesn’t seem to be Don’s cup of tea. Is this a sign of rocky things to come?