A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I wait 20 minutes for an unspecified meeting with my boss…
“What’s happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” -Don
Matt Weiner said before this season of “Mad Men” began that its theme was the idea that, “It’s really every man for himself… That realization that you really have to deal with your own problems by yourself, and other people are not interested.”
We’ve seen that theme play out time and again over these last dozen episodes, with characters making one cutthroat move after another. But when you’re conducting business, and life, in a way where you don’t care about what happens to anyone else, then bad things can and do happen to other people. And as we’ve watched former friends split up, proteges turn against mentors, marriages crumble, etc., we’ve also had so many hints of imminent death – talk of car crashes and spree killers and life insurance policies(*), the lasting image of an empty elevator shaft in the Time-Life building, just waiting for Don or someone else to become the falling man from the show’s opening credits – that I almost began to wonder if the entire season was some massive sleight of hand on Weiner’s part. He had us looking so hard for someone to die – really, for someone to kill himself – that instead he was going to lead us into a moment of great collective triumph and joy.
(*) On the plus side for poor Rebecca Pryce and her son: didn’t Pete learn that the company insurance policy indemnifies for suicide after three years? SCDP’s been in existence for more than three years now, after all.
But no. This season of “Mad Men” has never really tried to hide what it’s about, whether from episode to episode or across the whole year. As the decade has become bolder and brassier and more iconic, the series has begun to wear its themes on its increasingly colorful sleeve, and the portents of suicide were no different. The premonitions have all come true in the form of Lane Pryce, who became a victim of his own stubborn pride, which led him to live above his means and refuse to ask for help from a man like Don who would have so easily given it. Instead, Don gives him a chance to walk away with his reputation mostly intact, but his life and career in shambles, and it’s too much for Lane to bear. Lane tries to suffocate himself in the brand-new Jaguar his wife bought him with money neither of them had, but – in a dark joke expertly set up by several episodes’ worth of discussion of how Jaguars are pretty but unreliable – the damn car won’t start. At that point, Lane doesn’t go out the window, or down the elevator shaft; he simply goes back to his office and hangs himself right next to his New York Mets pennant – one of many symbols of his attempt to embrace a country where he never quite fit in, but which gripped his imagination and pride so much that he chose to die rather than leave.
“Commissions and Fees” had made Lane’s decision clear long before Joan and Pete found his body. If his fate wasn’t written the moment he left Don’s office, it was by the time he sat calmly on his living room sofa taking care of overlooked errands, assuring Rebecca, “There’ll be plenty of time, dear.” The “what” wasn’t in question for most of the episode, nor the “why,” so all that was left was the “how.” There was a palpable, painful sense of dread throughout this episode, just as there was last week when forces (and Pete and Lane) were conspiring to put Joan into Herb from Jaguar’s hotel room. And though Lane’s tax trouble seemed to come out of nowhere a few weeks ago – and last week seemed designed as a lever to help make the prostitution angle make sense – all of his behavior, and Don’s, felt very true to form, and not like characters acting in a way designed to create a specific end point. Lane was doomed, but by his own actions and foibles as much as by any plot engineering to get that noose around his neck.
Lane, it turned out, was one of many characters this week whose day began with good news and ended with very, very bad news. He starts off getting a prestigious position in the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the “4A’s” everyone kept discussing), and then hours later has his entire life and career come crashing down around his ears after a single conversation with Don.
Don is inspired by the meeting with Lane to get more hardcore about what he wants the agency to be – and what he’s willing to do (like sacrificing Ken) to get it. He gets a meeting with Dow Chemical that’s not so much about a brilliant creative pitch (at this point, he’d have needed Ginsberg for that) as simply forcing Ed Baxter to seriously consider the idea of switching agencies by pointing out the lesson that several characters learn this week: that happiness doesn’t lead to sustained happiness so much as the desire for more happiness, or obstacles to it. And as Don and Roger return, loose and giddy, from a liquid lunch, they’re confronted with the horrific news of Lane’s suicide.
Sally tantrums her way out of a ski trip with Betty and Henry, and then tries to take advantage of Don and Megan’s overlapping schedules to get some time alone with Glen Bishop. She’s been trying to act so grown-up all season – and gets to wear the go-go boots Don made her take off before going to the Codfish Ball – but when her womanhood literally arrives (a different life cycle event in an episode dominated by death), her instinct is to run home to mommy.(**)
(**) And boy, does Betty take pleasure in that – not just Sally for once acting like she wants and needs her, but from a chance to put skinny stepmother Megan in her place.
Though this was Lane’s farewell episode, this is Don Draper’s show, and as the tragic news punched him in the gut, I couldn’t help but think of a prior situation Don found himself in very much like this one. This isn’t the first time, after all, that Don has learned that a man he knew well (even if he tried to hold him at a distance) had hung himself as a result of Don telling him to leave. Before there was Lane Pryce, there was Adam Whitman. The circumstances, and Don’s motivation, were different, but the end result is the same: rather than run away, Dick Whitman tells someone else to do the same, and that man instead ties a length of rope around his neck and violently exits this life of ours. Even Don’s reaction is framed similarly each time:
Don thought he was doing Lane a kindness, and he was. He couldn’t keep working with Lane under those circumstances, and letting him resign without scandal was better than outing his behavior to the other partners, or, worse, calling in the authorities. He even gives Lane a variation on the speech he gave Peggy when she was locked up in the mental ward after giving birth. But where Peggy had enough in common with Don that she could make the hobo code a part of her life – could even flee to a better professional situation when it became available – Lane wasn’t equipped to do the same. He was a middle manager, treated as a lapdog by St. John Powell, and as a necessary evil by the other partners at SCDP. Whenever he aspired to more in life than the path others had chosen for him, he got smacked down (quite literally by his old man). Dick Whitman could start over; Lane Pryce can’t. Don’s speech to Peggy gave her life a new beginning; his speech to Lane brought his life to an ending.
Though Don was never as close to Lane as he was to his half-brother, nor was he as cold in dispatching him – if anything, this was a rare case this season of a character acting relatively selflessly, and it still leading to bloodshed – the parallels are inescapable for him. It feels like he insists on going into Lane’s office as much to deal with lingering memories of Adam (who was long dead before Don learned about it) as to confront what’s happened to Lane, and to keep the man from dangling up there, alone, until the coroner comes.
Glen Bishop doesn’t get the great day he imagined, either, but he does provide a distraction to Don at the end of a terrible, terrible day. And Don in turn fulfills a different fantasy for Glen by letting the kid sit behind the wheel on the long drive back to boarding school, as we listen to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune,” which is about ex-lovers drifting apart, but which has lyrics that play very well into this tragic moment for Don, and the show:
“Please don’t you cry when the time to part has come
It’s not for what you’ve said or anything that you’ve done
I’ve got to go anywhere any time
And I’m leaving, gone today
On my way
I’m going home.”
The agency is on its way back up. Clients are calling in, and even if Dow Chemical doesn’t pan out, the drought is over. But the professional success has come at a terrible, consistent personal cost. Peggy is gone. Joan has prostituted herself. Don is creatively lost. No one trusts anyone else anymore.
And Lane Pryce is dead.
Some other thoughts:
* Well, if Peggy is still going to be a part of the series, we got no evidence of it this week. Elisabeth Moss’ name was still in the credits (and listed second after Jon Hamm, as per usual), but many actor’s names are there even when they don’t appear, and sometimes even after their character has been killed off. (SAG rules being what they are, I’m expecting to see Jared Harris’ name in the credits next week, even if there’s no Lane dream sequence, flashback, etc.)
* Whether you agree or disagree that Joan would have done what she did last week, the fact is that she did it, and her relationship with everyone who knows about it is forever changed as a result. Just check out how quickly her friendly banter with Lane turns cold and distant the moment he brings up the idea of her in a bikini. Not that Joan ever loved being ogled by the men she worked with, but she had learned to make a game of it that she could usually win; even the game is gone in her dealings with the partners, because of what she did, what they know, and what their roles were in her doing it.
* Not that he seems as fixated on Megan as he was on Betty, but I couldn’t help laughing at Megan inviting Glen to spend the day in the apartment. Somehow, that kid just keeps getting the wives of Don Draper to take pity on him and make him lunch.
* Well, the post-LSD Roger Sterling lasted a few episodes longer than the “every day a gift” Tony Soprano, but in the end, even he has to admit he’s essentially back to the same cold, amused bastard he always was. On the other hand, he is sure as hell able to feel the pain and horror of Lane’s death, and John Slattery’s panicked whisper of “Let’s go” after Roger picks up the suicide note/resignation letter is the moment in that sequence that I think is going to haunt me the longest.
* Lane has previously said, with only minimal exaggeration, that Joan could do his job, so the agency will likely get by okay – and I figure Pete finally gets his name on the logo after this. But interesting that Ken was so turned off by last week’s business with Joan that he wants no part of being a partner – and unsurprising that he doesn’t want Pete Campbell near his father-in-law, at any point in time, ever.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org