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Elegant Exits: Commissions and Fees on Mad Men

"Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap."

If that's not a statement about Mad Men's major themes, I don't know what is. While it's outsider Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) who utters those words at the end of the episode, they could be said by just about any character on the drama, offering a prism through which to see that our expectations are often dashed against the rocks when faced with the reality of our situations. Happiness, as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) would argue, just begets more happiness, but more importantly, the sensation of happiness demands further happiness. It's elusive and short-lived and, as one gets older, the simple things that might have once made us joyful--driving a car, an illicit cup of coffee with tons of sugar--turn to ash in our mouths.

Happiness, it seems, is as much about anticipation as it is expectation. When things fail to match up to the ideal we set in our heads--an ideal established by Don and his ilk largely--such dissatisfaction can be wholly destructive: emotionally, psychologically, or even physically. The need for more--whatever more may be--might drive us, but it also can consume us in the end.

After a season that was at times almost heavy-handed with its death imagery, this week's episode of Mad Men ("Commissions and Fees"), written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton and directed by Chris Manley, finally paid off the swirling symbolism of mortality that was hovering uneasily over the ad men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, resulting in an installment that examined the illusions of adulthood, from both the perspective of children standing at the cusp to the adults who had to come to terms with the consequences of their actions.

Let's be honest: there were few alternate ways that this could have played out for poor Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), who has had a sword of Damocles dangling over his head for much of the season. While he engaged in schemes intended to bail him out of his temporary financial situation, he committed greater and greater crimes, culminating in outright embezzlement and forgery in order to pay the taxman. Rather than bear the "indignity" of asking Don or the other partners for help, Lane tried to remain honorable while reducing himself to a criminal. The gentleman becomes nothing more than a common thief, though his techniques for larceny may have been more sophisticated than a pickpocket.

As for why Lane does it, it's all summed up in the brilliant scene between Don and Lane, in which Lane tries everything in his arsenal to prevent Don from demanding his resignation. He's defensive, hostile, angry, and finally he is resigned to his fate, a cup of liquid courage in his hand. The questions that pour from his lips are the questions that many of us would ask in the same situation: what will I tell my wife? What will I tell my son? For Lane, he's failed in his own mission, not just a quest for his own personal happiness, but he's brought on a situation where he will destroy the state of happiness for his own family. He's not one who can easily face shame or failure (remember how his father treated such scenarios in Season Four?) and rather than face up to his actions, he finds a way to escape.

It's Don who tells Lane to take the weekend before making an "elegant exit," but I don't think Don would have ever contemplated taking the exit that Lane does. In the cataclysmic scene between them, Don's advice applies to Don alone: he sees a resignation as a chance to start over, to reinvent himself as he has done time and time before, slipping out of one identity and into another. That is something that Lane, caught between cultures, nations, and temperaments, cannot do in any way. That's not "relief" that Lane feels when he says he's "lightheaded," but the effect of alcohol and terror.

Don doesn't understand how the rest of them live. Lane throws this in Don's face during his rage-filled speech, but it's also true, as well. The Drapers are so far removed from the harsh realities of workaday America in the 1960s that they might as well live atop Mount Olympus rather than in a high-rise pied a terre. For Lane, the loss of his job is the loss of his identity. He's survived on dreams of a different life, recasting himself as a lothario (that wallet portrait, his pass at Joan), a Mets fan, an American. But when faced with the horror of his actions and their after-effects--defeat, ignominy, loss of honor--he falls on his sword.

Or he tries to, anyway. Paying off the running joke this season that Jaguars are not reliable and that they sell you a toolbox along with the car because it breaks down constantly, Lane tries to kill himself by running a hose from the car's exhaust into the car... but the Jaguar fails to start, rendering his plans for naught. It's a bit of gallows humor that's in keeping with the sometimes off-kilter and dark nature of the show, one handled magnificently here, placing the object of Lane's intended demise front and center these past few episodes. It represents the dream of what he can't have, just as Joan does too: objects of beauty denied to him. Even though Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz) purchases one for him as a surprise present, she does so with a check, with money that they don't have. The chaste dream of Joan turns "obscene," their final conversation fueled by Joan's utter disgust at Lane, his by making Joan emblematic of everything he can't have in life. Any chance of happiness has turned to crap, as Glen might say.

After all, Lane is not Don at the end of the day. "I won’t settle for 50 percent of anything," a re-energized and hungry Don tells Ed Baxter (Ray Wise) during their meeting at Dow Chemical. "I want 100 percent." Lane wants 100 percent of happiness as well, but he knows he'll never get it. The castle of sand that he's built is crumbling down around him. When he fails to drown himself in alcohol and toxic fumes, he heads to his inner sanctum: his office at SCDP. It's only fitting that this is the scene of the crime and the resignation letter he writes is an indication that he's resigned himself from life, not just his job. That it's boilerplate is all the more heartbreaking: he has nothing else to say now that his entire identity has been co-opted from him. His final words are, as always, about work. The fee he's willing to pay is his mortal life.

(Aside: I can't help but think about whether Lane has the same life insurance benefits as Pete. Given that they've both been partners for two years now, Rebecca would be entitled to Lane's benefits, even in the case of suicide as Pete informed the viewer a few weeks ago. Could it be that Lane is worth more dead than alive?)

That Lane hangs himself is also telling, making his corpse an impediment to normalcy. Joan can't get the door to his office open because his body is in the way, a physical obstruction that derails the entire day. The sight of his corpse swaying in his office, alone and purple-faced, witnessed by Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and the others through the window is as much a warning as it is an ending: be careful what you wish for, be careful what you want.

It's Don who attempts to give Lane some semblance of dignity back, ordering that Pete cut him down, laying him down on a couch, as if he'd had too much to drink rather than ended his own life. They tidy Lane's office before making their own exits, as if trying to maintain the illusion of order and neatness amid the horror of what they've encountered, coming face to face not just with Lane's demise but also their own. Lane dies in the office because it's where he lived. He dies because of what the firm sells: the illusion of happiness.

That illusion permeates the entirety of the episode as well. Sally (Kiernan Shipka) pretends to be an adult, joining Megan (Jessica Paré) and her friend for coffee, indulging in gossip and "adult" talk, and later urging Glen to visit her in the city, where they take the morning to visit the Museum of Natural History, venturing across the park, dressed up in their finest. (Including those go-go boots that Don nixed from a few episodes ago.) They're playing as adults here, engaged in behavior that wouldn't normally appeal to two kids without parental supervision. But the fact remains that despite their trappings--Glen's mustache, for example--their steps into adulthood are illusory. When Sally takes that step towards becoming "a woman," she's terrified and regresses completely, literally running home to her mother's embrace.

It was quite nice, for a change, to see January Jones' Betty be kind to her daughter, to express sympathy and love, and to offer her advice about dealing with her period. Being an adult, according to Betty, means dealing with "responsibility," something that Lane is unable to do and this takes his own life. Sally might play at being a woman, dressing up and drinking coffee, but when faced with the reality that such a role entails--the physical price--she wants nothing more than to throw away the illusion.

Likewise, Glen might play at being a man, growing a mustache and telling the boys at school that he's going to go all the way with Sally--despite the fact that neither thinks of the other in "that way" (Glen says she's like his little sister, "only smarter")--but he too is still a child, teetering unsteadily on the cusp of adulthood. When asked what he would want to do more than anything, his answer reveals his innocence. He's driving a car, but he doesn't have to grab onto the true responsibility. In the end, Don is there, his hand firmly on the wheel, helping the boy steer.

On the season finale of Mad Men ("The Phantom"), opportunity is in the air for everyone and Pete meets a stranger on the train.


Anonymous said…
Good job, Jace. But here is my immediate take on Don's firing of Lane and, given time, my opinion has not changed one iota. Knowing Lane's exceedingly nervous temperment, his obsession with honor and his need to be ever dignified, there could be no question that he would do away with himself after Don's indictment of him. Period. To have Don appear to be shocked or contrite after the fact seemed to me purely gratuitous. Talk about a disconnect, could this supposedly sharp-minded man have possibly seen any other outcome for Lane? Those emotions of Don's just did not compute in my book. Not on any level at all.
Unknown said…
I disagree with the above comments. Don really is so far removed from the realities of the lives of those around him - in those first seasons, with the lies of his family; in later seasons, with Megan, Peggy, and ultimately Lane as well. His reaction fits perfectly - he's consumed by guilt because he really can't see this coming. Just as he didn't see Peggy's resignation (or, earlier, Betty's decision to leave him,) he doesn't -- or can't? -- see this outcome for Lane. Last week's episode saw him come to Joan's rescue, but part of me has to wonder how much of that was altruistic and how much was because, once Joan has gone through with it and they won the account, how will he ever know if he won based on his staff's creative merits and not just on Joan's sex appeal? Don may be at his most moral this season, but a heart he's still blindingly narcissistic. Lane's death will likely serve as a catalyst for Don to regress to places he's been previously -- because at the end of the day, it's still really all about him.
Tom Wark said…
January Jones' character remains absolutely irrelevant to the Mad Man series. Every time her character graces the screen, precious time is denied to the most interesting elements of this great series. Too bad the Betty character wasn't killed off, rather than Lane, so that Sally and her siblings could be integrated into the Draper story line more fully and we could be done with the off-shoot that is Betty's world.

Great critique!!
Anonymous said…
Betty's scenes this episode was about Sally, not Betty. Betty was used to illustrate that although Sally dreamed and acted out being an adult, she wasn't ready when realty hit her. She ran back to her mother who happened to be Betty.
Anonymous said…
Correction: Betty's scenes this episode WERE (not was).

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