How else to describe the events of the most recent couple of episodes of “Mad Men” other than as a one-two punch to the gut? The series often is reserved and at its weakest points can leave viewers cold, watching the goings on in the characters’ lives as if they were dioramas at a museum. But at its best — and Season Five arguably has delivered some of the series’ best episodes — it like any great drama invites viewers into its world almost as participants. By now, we have invested quite a bit of time and emotion into these characters, love them or hate them, and no incident is too small to not leave a mark. The greater the losses, the more keenly we feel them. Episode 11, “The Other Woman,” brought disappointment and heartbreak as Joan bargained her body for job security. “Commissions and Fees,” the penultimate episode this season, propelled us all into tragedy. Brutal in its simplicity, the suicide of Lane Pryce is one of the more haunting stories to appear on TV in recent years, and truly, few if any dramas are producing the art “Mad Men” is. This episode changes everything.
The juxtaposition of Sally’s tale with Lane’s is almost Romantic. Here is a child barreling toward adulthood, eager to hurry up and be mature yet still unprepared for what all that entails. She spurns Betty, a “phony,” and the family ski trip for a weekend in the city with Don and Megan, who not long ago she also dubbed a phony. She wants to talk about boys with Megan and her friend, Julia, and perhaps she even wants Glen to be the boyfriend she claims to have. Her jaunt of freedom with Glen in the city isn’t what she had hoped for, however; seeing him face to face only reiterated to each of them their age difference. Sally is quick to claim her only desire is friendship, but this taste of relationship woes is interrupted by her getting her period. She becomes a woman, as Betty later tells Megan, but this shock of adulthood scares her and she does what children do — and what most adults still wish they could do — and runs home to her mother. This change is symbolic and represents the coming responsibilities she will soon face, Betty tells her. She can’t go back. That doesn’t mean she won’t spend her life trying to get back to that place of innocence and safety, curled in mother’s arms. Recognizing that loss is part of the deal, but there’s more than one way to deal with it.
Glen already sees life for its bleakness: “Why does everything turn out crappy?” he asks Don. “Everything you want to do, everything you think is gonna make you happy, just turns to crap.” “You’re too young to talk that way,” Don says. “But it’s true,” Glen replies. Don knows too well the feeling of always wanting more. His discomfort with Jaguar is natural given how the account was earned, but his desire to not only constantly strive for more but to never be satisfied is dangerous. “What is happiness?” he asks Ed Baxter and other Dow Chemical executives as he tries to win their business. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for 50 percent of anything. I want 100 percent. You’re happy with your agency? You’re not happy with anything. You don’t want most of it, you want all of it. And I won’t stop until you get all of it.” This hunger, however, also has helped him leave his days as Dick Whitman behind. He’s a survivor.
For all that we question Don’s morals (or lack thereof), this season and these past two episodes especially have let us see his decency — even his goodness. His concern for Joan sleeping with Herb with her was genuine; remember not only how fond they are of each other but where Don, as Dick, comes from. His mother was a prostitute and died in childbirth with him. Don was the only partner immediately appalled at Herb’s proposition, although true conviction would have been putting up a fight instead of leaving the room when the discussion didn’t go his way. He’s too practiced at distancing himself from others, too good at numbing his own pain and wishing others could do the same. Back in another difficult situation, his firing of Lane for embezzlement and forgery again was the right thing to do — the “most decent thing” he could do. But Don’s weakness is failing to understand weakness in others. When Lane, crying, wonders how he could return to England and admit failure, Don is reassuring: “You’ll tell them that it didn’t work out, because it didn’t. You’ll tell them the next thing will be better, because it always is.” “I’m feeling a bit lightheaded,” Lane says. “That’s relief,” Don replies. “I’ve started over a lot, Lane. This is the worst part.” For Don that would be the worst part, but Lane isn’t Don.
Lane’s facade of a successful businessman was so complete he’d almost had himself fooled. He never really let on to his co-workers just how much financial strain he was under, and even as he hedged a bit when asked to serve on the 4A’s organization’s Fiscal Control Committee, he ultimately accepted the post. He always was hoping to find acceptance and success just around the corner, but his time in the U.S. only brought him disappointment. “I have never been compensated for my contributions to this company, including my role in its very existence,” he told Don when confronted about his crimes. He had a point, but it was one made far too late. Lane cracked in Don’s office, releasing tension built up for years and compounded during 1966 as the agency struggled. He cried, and begged, and practically whined. Here is a man, burdened beyond repair with responsibilities, who has worked so hard to deceive others about his life he couldn’t endure the humiliation that would come with owning up to his faults. He couldn’t endure the shame. Being told to leave the only thing he knows was more than he could handle because, really, who was Lane outside of the role he’d created? Who was he as an individual? When was he truly honest not only about himself but to himself? Even Rebecca was fooled; her buying a Jaguar as a surprise is a supreme example of the lie Lane had been living, and it made him sick to his stomach. Lane was backed into a corner, and instead of admitting defeat and asking for help, as Don suggested, he decided he was the problem. The firm only became involved with Jaguar to begin with on Lane’s suggestion. His failed attempt to land that account; his fist fight with Pete; the renewed pitch for the account; the problem of Christmas bonuses; the forged check; and Herb’s request to sleep with Joan all stem from this one car company. Dying in the Jaguar he couldn’t afford would have been too poetic; how fitting that it wouldn’t start and that he couldn’t even fix it. Another failure.
So, he headed to the office and was last seen typing at his desk. Viewers could only watch and wonder how events would play out, and the subsequent scenes — Joan trying to enter Lane’s office; alerting Pete and others that something was wrong only for them all to quickly discover something terrible; Don and Roger returning to work to be told Lane had hanged himself — were some of the most intense of the series. TV watchers are used to death; bodies are dismembered on “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” and even the basic cop procedurals have plenty of corpses and dissections. “Mad Men” even has had a death, but Mrs. Blankenship’s demise in Season Four was played mostly for laughs. This is different. To see a body hanging from an office ceiling is horrifying — it’s real. At first, the horror was implied; we could imagine what Pete, Ken and Harry saw when they peaked through the windows separating Pete’s and Lane’s offices. But as Don later forced his way into the office followed by Roger and Pete, we shared their shock as Lane’s lifeless body bounced back against the door, his face blue. This was a deliberate choice by Matthew Weiner and his writers to not sugarcoat the loss, and the effect is haunting. Cutting Lane down and placing him on the couch was the last dignity they could spare him. Every actor involved was pitch-perfect, and again Jon Hamm stole scenes not even about him thanks to his facial expressions, which can convey so many emotions at once.
It’s hard to see suicide coming. Don of course didn’t, and his inability to anticipate the actions of those in desperate situations once again backfired. His insistence of bringing Lane down from the ceiling not only spoke to his present remorse but to his past: Remember, his brother, Adam Whitman, hanged himself when Don rejected his attempts at a reunion once he’d shed his identity as Dick. In two episodes now, two members of Don’s world have reminded him of his painful past, Joan with prostitution and Lane with suicide. He couldn’t stop either occurrence, and he certainly can’t blame himself for Lane’s decision. Knowing him, to avoid continued heartbreak he will only revert further into his process of numbing his pain. But perhaps he can take a lesson from Glen. When asked by Don “If you could do anything, what would you do?,” Glen’s answer was to drive. He wanted to drive a car. Don helped steer from the passenger seat as Glen made his way from New York to Hotchkiss. It is such a simple request, but to a young teen, it means everything. Glen isn’t really a defeatist, not yet anyway. He has dreams, and his life is ahead of him. Sally is just beginning hers as well. Now is the time to learn that happiness isn’t a commodity.
Where does the firm go from here? No success is worth what the partners have paid. And what else is there to say? The loss is too great and too hard to fathom. Unfortunately, Lane’s death is likely a harbinger of more hardship to come. For now, we’ll bid him farewell — a great character who will be missed.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic at Pajiba. She lives in Texas.