Mad Men Recap: The Price of Impulsiveness

Mad Men - Season 5, Episode 12.
Photo: Ron Jaffe/AMC

There were two central dramas on Sunday’s Mad Men, a luxurious shame bath titled “Commissions and Fees.” One juxtaposed the downfall of Lane Pryce, ad agency partner and secret embezzler, with little Sally Draper’s panic attack over having her first period during a secret date with her sorta-boyfriend Glen. The other was a perversely funny duel between screenwriters Andrew and Maria Jacquematton and Mad Men’s audience, which had been anticipating a major character’s violent death since the start of the season and finally got it when Lane was pushed to resign by Don after Lane’s “short-term loan” to himself was discovered, and responded by hanging himself in his office.

A couple of months ago, a Salon contributor confidently predicted that Pete Campbell would die this year by swan-diving from the Time & Life Building, but barring a back-to-back cast-death twofer (Mad Men’s fifth season finale airs next Sunday), I can’t see that happening. Lane is the season’s sacrifice. His swollen corpse was the show’s most gruesome sight since the lawnmower episode, a random explosion of blood that writer Amanda Marcotte argues was the show’s first (coded) attempt to deal with the JFK assassination. Series creator Matthew Weiner and his collaborators (including episode director Christopher Manley) must have finished this installment weeks ago, so there can’t have been much storytelling wiggle room. But the way they built to Lane’s demise – meticulously, with faintly Hitchcockian pitch-black humor — gave the strong sense that they’d all read early season speculation about which major character would die and when, and were playfully tantalizing us, subverting our expectations until they had to satisfy them.

You thought somebody was going to dive out of an office building window and splatter on the pavement like the water bombs dropped on civil rights protesters by Young & Rubicam punks in “A Little Kiss”? Well, then, here was a lovely, lingering wide shot of a mortified Lane sitting in front of his office window, the Manhattan cityscape behind him dotted by tumbling snowflakes that recalled cinema’s loveliest suicide-by-falling scene, Charles Durning’s death in The Hudsucker Proxy. Then the show cut to a commercial! When it returned, Lane’s wife Rebecca responded to Lane’s drunken self-pity by showing him his new present, a shiny green Jaguar (horror!). Rebecca’s gift led us to anticipate Lane (and perhaps Rebecca, too) dying in a drunk-driving accident. If this had happened, it would have made Pete Campbell’s early season screening of the driver’s ed scare movie “Signal 30” seem like ham-fisted foreshadowing of Lane’s death instead of Pete’s. But rather than get behind the wheel and reenact Jan and Dean’s hit “Dead Man’s Curve,” Lane yakked on the garage floor.

Then came what I figured would be Lane’s actual death, a carbon-monoxide special — garden hose, handkerchief, tailpipe. Had Mad Men gone through with this, it would have been clever and satisfying: the Englishman in New York biting it in an English-made car that helped rescue the ad agency that he helped found (and was stealing from). And it would have had that wonderful zig-when-they-expect-you-to-zag quality that I associate with the top-shelf TV dramas; my favorite example is still the death of Richie Aprile in season two of The Sopranos — a classic instance of a show giving viewers what they expected, but not in the way they expected it.

But crappy Jaguar engineering thwarted Lane’s attempt to off himself. If there’s such a thing as red herring foreshadowing, this was a brilliant example of it. All the early season talk of random mass murder and vehicular mayhem seemed so ostentatiously foreshadow-y that fans fixated on it, and didn’t notice the far subtler foreshadowing of Jaguar’s reputation for mechanical unreliability — a bit of information that set up the season’s sickest, best joke, the sight of poor Lane repeatedly punching the ignition button on his new Jaguar, then holding half of his self-broken spectacles to his face while trying to repair the damned thing. Lane’s ultimate demise occurred off-screen, and his body remained unseen until Don and Roger and Pete barged into his office and cut his lifeless body down: anticlimax as climax. The composer of “Suicide Is Painless” never met Lane Pryce.

What was the theme of this episode? “Shame” seems an obvious candidate, given that both Lane and Sally responded impulsively and drastically to embarrassment. That Lane’s response was spectacular and irrevocable, Sally’s mundane and perfectly normal, gave the episode a faint Crimes and Misdemeanors vibe; this was furthered by the episode’s coda, which forcibly wedded the two main stories by having Don offer the stranded Glen a ride back to school rather than stick around and tell Megan what happened to Lane. Don and Glen’s elevator conversation — with Glen inadvertently echoing Don’s “happiness is a moment before you need more happiness” by stating that “everything you think’s gonna make you happy, it just turns to crap” — was one of the season’s few flat-out bad scenes: stiffly acted and adolescently cynical. But it was partly redeemed by the sight of Don letting Glen drive his car, an image so tonally weird (given the intensity of what came before) that it seemed perfect, another instance of Mad Men zagging when you expected it to zig.

But while shame was important in “Commissions and Fees,” the episode was ultimately united by its fascination with the consequences of bold, decisive, impulsive action. Many major characters made choices small and big from their guts and had to deal with the consequences. In some cases, the choices happened within the episode; in others, they happened weeks earlier and were only now coming to bitter fruition; in still others, we seemed to be seeing intimation of future plotlines that might flower in season six, such as Don’s aggressive courting of much bigger corporate accounts (more evidence of the return of the old, bold Don) and the corresponding damage that this is likely to do to his marriage with Megan (whose wishes were treated as an afterthought in this episode by pretty much everyone).

Don impulsively demanded that Roger set up a meeting with Dow Corning Chemical executive Ed Baxter because he was tired of the agency subsisting in second-tier accounts. Betty impulsively decided to dump Sally at Megan and Don’s apartment when Sally stated her utter disinterest in their planned family ski vacation. Sally impulsively decided to use her free day in Manhattan (Megan and Don were both away working) to stage a secret date with Glen; then she fled the museum and headed home to Betty and Henry’s house after having her first period. (Two great, small touches in this subplot: Sally rocking the go-go boots that Don wouldn’t let her wear in “At The Codfish Ball,” and Betty making her daughter’s menstrual crisis all about Betty: “I think she just needed her mother.”)

Glen impulsively decided to sneak away from boarding school and meet Sally in the city, then impulsively asked for (and was granted) permission to drive Don’s car on the way back home. Lane impulsively decided (weeks ago) to forge Don’s signature on a check to temporarily cover his own financial crisis, then killed himself after Don discovered the misdeed. Don impulsively decided to keep Lane’s deception a secret (for now, at least) from Bert Cooper, the partner who discovered it while assessing the fee versus commission request from Jaguar that gave the episode its title; then Don demanded Lane’s resignation rather than work out some other arrangement with him.

This last twist was a rare example of Don’s empathy failing him this season. On the surface, his offer to Lane seemed very generous — resign now and explain it to Rebecca and everyone else in his family later, and treat it as an opportunity to reinvent himself rather than as a failure — but it was predicated on the assumption that Lane is as strong, devious, and resourceful a man as Don, which he obviously isn’t. Or wasn’t.

Interesting that this is the second time on Mad Men that Don has issued an ultimatum that drove a man to hang himself: see also Don’s half-brother Adam Whitman, whose fate was sealed in the season-one episode “5G.” As Deborah Lipp wrote over at the excellent blog Basket of Kisses, that episode also pivoted on Don forcefully rejecting another human being, with terrible consequences — and it was built around a more streamlined, simple version of the dramatic misdirection that’s been so expertly played out in season five. “The big question, of course, was, what was in Don’s case?” Lipp wrote back in 2008. “We all know how it turned out — 5G was in Don’s case. But the question in everyone’s mind was, Is it a gun? … What was in that case was rejection, and rejection killed Adam.”

Even Ken Cosgrove, one of the show’s wariest, most measured, principled characters, made an impulsive, bold, against-the-grain choice. Rather than argue against the firm courting his wife’s father’s company — a line in the sand he never crossed before — he told Roger he wanted to be involved in any creative decisions while having Roger claim he’d been forced into it. And he added another condition that’s bound to create friction between him and Pete. “Pete doesn’t go to the meeting,” Ken demanded of Roger, adding, “Pete doesn’t go to any meeting.” Was Ken’s gambit a delayed reaction to Pete’s aggressively sleazy facilitating of Joan’s one-night stand with that Jaguar dealer in “The Other Woman”? Was it evidence that Ken — who for years has led a half-secret, second life as a fiction writer who just happens to support himself on Madison Avenue — is finally going to commit himself to the corporate culture he professes to dislike (even though he ruled out becoming a partner)? Or is this scene setting the stage for a Pete-Ken ego clash that will eventually position Ken as Peggy’s colleague over at Ted Chaugh’s firm — the end result of Peggy and Ken’s two Musketeers pact? We’ll see.

This episode featured so much spectacular forward motion by so many major characters that it was easy to miss a fascinating secondary story unfolding in the margins: Megan Draper’s growing marginalization from the life of the firm and its characters. It’s no coincidence that Don’s old dynamism is resurfacing at the same time that Megan has demanded, and been granted, more autonomy in pursuing her acting career. She started the season inside the firm; now she’s literally on the outside looking in. And many of her scenes with Don (and Sally, and even Glen) were predicated on having been shut out of other people’s decision-making processes and just having to deal anyway. Don comes and goes when he pleases and doesn’t keep Megan in the loop, a very bad sign in a new marriage.

Yes, Don has had plausible excuses for going AWOL — in “The Other Woman,” he was helping his old pal Joan through a crisis while simultaneously doing showroom research for his Jaguar pitch, and this week he was dealing with a partner’s suicide. But the fact that keeping Megan informed of his whereabouts never even entered Don’s mind says something about his current, restless mental state, and it’s not encouraging. The more forcefully the old Don Draper makes his presence felt — and he’s so hungry now that Roger offered to buy him a post-pitch drink “if you’ll wipe the blood off your chin” — the more damage it’ll do to his marriage to Megan. Whenever I see Megan hectoring Don about his domestic insensitivity from their king-size bed, I mentally superimpose Betty over her. Being married to Don Draper is starting to seem like a pre-ordained, maybe cursed role, one that a woman doesn’t so much assume as endure. Every caretaker of the hotel Overlook is the same caretaker.

Mad Men Recap: The Price of Impulsiveness