“When did music become so important?” This is a question Don Draper posed to his young, swinging wife Megan a few weeks ago on the critically acclaimed television show “Mad Men.” Not only was it a curmudgeonly, elder statesman complaining about the misplaced values of the youth, it showed a man caught adrift in a sea of change, simply trying to understand when and how the world was pulled out from under him. Only a few years earlier, Don reigned supreme in the world of cool. He could be found mingling in the West Village with beatniks and gypsies or taking an unannounced month off from work to enjoy the swinging life of the California coast. Yet, even in these exotic ventures, Don’s motives were never to be a part of a scene; usually, he just wanted to bed another woman.
In the first four seasons, music never played much of a part on “Mad Men.” On a show that is so heavily grounded in metaphor and symbolism, this is surprising. Perhaps in all his wisdom, creator Matthew Weiner knew to save music as an agent of change for season 5, and as the season nears its close, there is no doubt that music has become a major influence on the uncertainty within the SCDP Universe. This season, we’ve seen Don backstage at a Rolling Stones concert grilling teenage girls about why they are so fascinated with Brian Jones (in past seasons, Don would have been hitting on them instead of acting like their father). In another episode, Don and the boys struggle to find a song to fit their “Hard Day’s Night” inspired cologne commercial. When Ken Cosgrove presents “September in the Rain” performed by the Wedgewoods, the agency’s resident Jewish-alien, Michael Ginsberg, reacts to the outdated, hokey song like any self-respecting music fan would – demanding that they turn it off because it was “stabbing [him] in the fucking heart.”
Caution – song may stab you in the fucking heart:
Instead of paying up for a real Beatle’s song, Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price would rather go the cheap route and get a product that isn’t up to their former high standards. In past seasons, Don would have insisted they pay-up for the Beatles song, but caught up in his newly wed status, he defers to whatever the client wants. Fortunately for us, Matthew Weiner didn’t have the same miserliness for a recent episode entitled “Lady Lazarus.” Instead of searching out a 60s one-hit-wonder in need of some quick cash, Weiner insisted that the show get the rights to The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the episode’s closing scene. The minute and 40 seconds of Beatlemania cost the AMC production team a whopping $250,000.
While this may seem like an overzealous investment for a show that receives around two and a half million viewers per week, it shows how much care and commitment is put into each episode. As with anything “Mad Men,” the song’s use serves more than one purpose. On one level, Weiner’s musical choice represents The Beatles in the adolescence of their experimentation. The final track on an otherwise tame “Revolver,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” changed the definition of what a pop song could be. Repetitive, swirling, and erratic, “Tomorrow Never Knows” would even challenge the minds of the average listener today. So when Megan suggests he listen to the final track on the album, Don’s reaction to the song is what one would expect from a man that is stuck in the past.
The song choice has much bigger implications in regards to the episode and the season as a whole. As with all memorable moments on the show, the shots during the song each hold a deeper meaning when paired with the lyrics. The result is one of my favorite scenes in the show’s five seasons.
I couldn’t locate the clip anywhere, so I filmed it straight off my TV with my Flip-Cam. I know the sound and video quality are less than desirable, but I felt it was important to show the clip for those who may not be familiar with it:
I see this closing scene as the crux to the season (although, I may be wrong by season’s end). Every minute of the song provides insight into the state of things to come for each character. The scene opens with Don arriving home to find his actress wife (literally and figuratively) heading out. She hands him a copy of “Revolver” and says, “You said you didn’t know what’s going on. I thought you might like this Beatle’s album.”
She then instructs him to listen to the final track, a telling move. You would think a progressive young woman would want to slowly bring her husband into the fold with a track like “Eleanor Rigby” or even “Yellow Submarine,” but she opts for the most obtrusive song on the album. Does she really want Don to understand the cultural revolution or is she relishing the power of holding his culture shock over him? In this past week’s episode we saw her teaching Sally Draper how to cry, and I instantly had the urge to revisit past episodes to see each time she turned on the water works to get her way. I get the feeling that Megan has acted her way into a cushy lifestyle, and for the first time, a woman is able to tame the wild stallion that is Don Draper.
After she leaves, we see Don put the album on. Still wearing his work clothes, he sits back in a chair to take it all in, and John Lennon’s voice sings:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying
These lyrics perfectly capture what season five has been all about. In it, we’ve seen Don less concerned with his work, more relaxed and willing to give in to his clients’ requests. Instead of sticking by what he believes is a great idea, Don no longer is invested in his job and prefers to float along aimlessly with the aspirations that once defined him. As Lennon insists “It is not dying,” one can’t help but feel that it certainly is a form of death – death of aspirations, death of ingenuity, death of old ways, and death of Don Draper as we once knew him.
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
So goes the next line of the song as we see a familiar image from this season – Peggy pecking away at a typewriter. What is she working on anyways? Last week’s episode suggested that Ginsberg has become the creative mastermind of SCDP, and Don even questioned last week why Peggy’s name isn’t present on any of the agency’s latest work. On face value, it may look like Peggy has been passed up as the young, innovative mind, but the “Tomorrow Never Knows” scene has me second guessing this assumption. Could Peggy be working on something that isn’t work related? She did show great interest in Cosgrove’s writing exploits. Whatever the case, with a joint in hand, Peggy is certainly surrendering to the void of creativity. I suspect that we will soon see the light of her work “shining,” in whatever form it may be.
Lennon goes on to sing:
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
This, of course, is sung as we see the exchange between Pete Campbell and Beth Dawes in the parking lot. As self-destructive as Pete’s latest decisions have been, he is following in the footsteps of his hero, Don Draper. Pete is living in the moment, making decisions that he knows may come back to haunt him. In his personal life, he’s reached what he always thought was the precipice of happiness – a suburban home with his wife and child and a career where he is quickly becoming the most powerful man at SCDP (although Lane Pryce may have proven this wrong with a couple knuckle-sandwiches, British style). Yet, he feels emptier than ever. He has had an awakening, a realization that what he’d strive for his entire life is not the path to contentment. Instead, he has turned to all carpe diem, refusing to let the possible consequences get in his way. (Side note: a friend of mine has raised the possibility of Pete Campbell putting his shotgun to use by season’s end. Let the Pete Campbell suicide watch begin).
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
The montage closes with the new king of “Mad Men,” Megan Draper, lying on her back at an acting class, seeming to be at peace with the world. She has manipulated her way to the top and found herself in a place she truly loves – the stage (having an obsequious sugar daddy at home doesn’t hurt). In a season where all the characters have faced adversity, Megan is the one character who seems to be all-knowing. Every move she makes is planned, every tear dropped is another step toward getting what she wants. Is she truly in love with Don, or is he part of her most successful acting gig to date?
Don brings this moment to a screeching halt, lifting the needle halfway through the song. The clear reason for the mid-song stop would be that Don’s first foray in the world of experimental Beatles didn’t go well. This move is disinterested, dismissive, and shows that Don remains distant from the changing times. He stumbles off to his bedroom, his Fortress of Solitude, where music still doesn’t matter.
Despite the obvious, I’d like to believe that this metaphorical lifting of the needle has more to do with Don refusing to give in, than simply to illustrate how he is out of touch. Stopping the record is Don’s version of rising from an 8-count, ready to redeem himself. I’d like to believe he heard Lennon’s mantra loud and clear: