Mad Men: Putting Pete Campbell on Suicide Watch

The inclusion of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" at the end of the episode marked this season's second reference to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. With bardo (the transitional state between death and rebirth) serving as a metaphor for some of the show's main characters, suddenly Mad Men is morphing into Lost with its intertextuality—a term that was actually coined by poststructuralist Julia Kristeva in 1966, the year in which this season is taking place. How meta! And metaphysical!

In the opening scene, Pete is mid-commute when he's bothered by his train buddy Howard, a life insurance salesman trying to make a pitch. Pete cuts him off, saying quite ominously, "It came with my junior partnership. It's six times my annual salary, and after two years, it covers suicide." And there it is: Within the first five minutes of the episode we're bludgeoned with another "hint" that someone might be killing his/herself this season. Would the writers be so obvious in their suggestion that it will be Pete?

Pete is still clearly unhappy. But for some reason, he takes exception to how Howard — who has procured an apartment in the city for his affair with a "spectacular new side dish" — treats his wife, despite the fact that Pete treats his own wife, Trudy, similarly, stepping out on her whenever the opportunity presents itself. Opportunity knocked at night in the train station parking lot when Pete ran into Howard's wife Beth, an attractive woman, used to male attention and depressed that she's being neglected by her husband. After Pete and Beth have a brief sexual encounter, he doesn't get the love story he's hoping for. He ends up pursuing/stalking her, calling her, showing up at her home unannounced (with her husband, like a total Fatal Attraction psycho) and insisting on a meet up in a Manhattan hotel. His advances are rebuffed and the entire situation just plays into Pete's fear of not being in charge, which he seems to equate with being "a man." Just like Trudy is in the driver's seat of their relationship, deciding where they will live, etc., Beth was in the driver's seat of their tryst, stepping on the brakes when she saw an accident waiting to happen. (She even went so far as to criticize Pete's literal driving; apparently he's terrible, and it makes sense, since he just recently got his license.)

In addition, Beth's unhappiness only intensifies Pete's own depression after she momentarily gets deep with him, discussing the photos of Earth from space, saying they make her feel "small and insignificant." Pete tries to talk about this with Harry, who jokes that only Jennifer, his wife, makes him feel that way. When Pete gets grouchy about it, Harry snaps, "I like the pictures of Earth! I find them to be majestic." And in that, we're reminded that everyone sees the world differently. It just depends on who is doing the looking. And Pete's view isn't as optimistic as Harry's.

The title of this episode, "Lady Lazarus," was no doubt taken from famous-life-taker Sylvia Plath's poem of the same name about her repeated botched suicide attempts, her desire to die, and her resurrection as a Phoenix rising from the ash. Of course, the title could be yet another suicide hint, particularly because the episode focused in part on Pete. But the poem's theme — the cycle of death and rebirth — ties in nicely with Megan's career path. She confesses to Peggy that she'll never get fired, no matter how much she fucks up. The idea of being relegated to this job for the rest of her life, and missing out on the opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, scares her. After lying about a callback audition, she later confesses to Don that she no longer wants to work in advertising, telling him, "I felt better failing at my audition than I did succeeding at Heinz." He tells her, "Sometimes we don't get to choose where our talents lie."

And Megan is a talented ad woman. She's a natural, as everyone could see in her effortless banter about Cool Whip with Don. Peggy recognizes it as true talent, since she can't replicate the effect and repeatedly flubbed her lines while standing in for Megan during the taste test. Angry, Don accuses Peggy of being threatened by Megan, but he's wrong. Peggy's grown to respect Megan's abilities. She likes the idea of having another woman follow in her footsteps. But it doesn't matter what Don's and Peggy's dreams are for Megan: She's her own person with her own dreams. Don shows his emotional growth when he acknowledges that and supports her decision to quit. He admits to Roger that he doesn't want Megan turning into Betty or her mother. (Both incarnations would be terrible for him as well as Megan.) But later that night while they're both in bed, he stares out the window into the night, nervously thinking about what this new future could hold, just as he did in the episode "Tomorrowland," in which he proposed marriage to Megan on a whim.

The next day at the office is Megan's last. Don approaches Joan about the "protocol" for something like this. A party? Cake? "Why don't we have the girls take her to lunch?" she suggests. "I mean, she's not disappearing, is she?" At that, Don tenses up. It's a very real—and scary—possibility. But many transitions are scary, because we don't know what comes after. This is Megan's bardo: Her state "in-between" state.

After Don sends Megan off to her girls' lunch, he presses the down button on the elevator (why didn't he just get in the same car as Megan?) and the doors open. The elevator, however, is not there. Instead, just the deadly shaft. Luckily Don was paying attention, or else he could've plummeted to his death. He needs to be careful to avoid that void—or any other void for that matter.

Perhaps it's not literal death that is being alluded to, but rather, the "ego death." The Tibetan Book of the Dead serves as a guide for the state between death and reincarnation and "how we can attain Nirvana by recognizing the heavenly realms instead of entering into the lower realms where the cycle of birth and rebirth continue." The first we heard of it this season was when Jane's therapist mentioned it the night she and Roger took LSD. "Tomorrow Never Knows," the Beatles song that plays at the end of the episode was written after John Lennon read The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner while on LSD. The book is an adaptation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and discusses the importance of the "ego death." Self-help book author Eckhart Tolle (a favorite of Oprah's) discusses his experience of ego death as:

What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn't know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self.

It kind of sounds like what Roger Sterling already had the joy of experiencing. He still hasn't come down off his cloud after his own trip, which served as the catalyst for the dissolution of his marriage.

The goal of The Bardo Thodol is to achieve Nirvana and avoid the cycles of reliving past mistakes. But it doesn't seem like Don will have the same kind of transformation Roger did. Megan gave him the Beatles' new album Revolver and told him to listen to "Tomorrow Never Knows." The group sang, "Turn off your mind, float downstream." This middle-aged man didn't hear any meaning. He couldn't turn off his mind. Instead, he turned off the stereo. It was just noise.