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'Mad Men' recap: 'A moment before you need more happiness'

June 4, 2012 | 10:56 am

Mad Men Don Lane

The specter of death has loomed over “Mad Men” from the very beginning of Season 5, and now we know why. Despondent over the discovery of his embezzlement and facing almost certain financial ruin, Lane decides to take his own life. Though it’s not as thematically unified as last week’s “The Other Woman,” “Commissions and Fees” is all about life passages: While Lane is dying, Sally and Glen are moving into adulthood. As the title suggests, the episode also explores a question that has lately become central to “Mad Men”: What price are we willing to pay for success?

By my count, Lane’s suicide is the third tragedy to befall the agency during business hours. Two seasons ago, there was the maiming of Lane’s nemesis — and fellow Englishman -- Guy Mackendrick. Then came the unceremonious death of Miss Blankenship near the end of last season. By now, you might think the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would be inured to this kind of human suffering in their midst, but no: Even the weasely Pete Campbell, who was far from friendly with Lane, is stunned and upset by the news. 

For the viewer, however, Lane’s demise was somewhat less shocking. His storyline was forced to the back burner for most of this rather crowded season, but Lane came back with a vengeance two weeks ago in “The Christmas Waltz.” At the time, I complained that Lane’s financial crisis was overly manufactured, and I still believe it was. His scheme was transparently stupid, to be sure, but the basic impulse wasn’t entirely out of keeping with what we know of Lane, a man who will do anything to preserve his dignity. From the moment he forged Don’s signature, we all knew this wasn’t going to end well for poor old Lane.

If anything, it’s something of a miracle that it’s taken so long for Lane’s malfeasance to come to light (it’s also odd that Bert Cooper, and not Joan or Scarlet, is the first person to notice the check). Bert assumes that Don went behind the backs of the other partners and gave Lane a bonus. It’s a convenient assumption, one that allows Don to quietly ask Lane for his resignation without anyone being the wiser. The scene is wrenching, not quite as devastating as Peggy’s farewell last week but difficult to watch nonetheless. When Don asks why Lane didn’t just ask for the money -– an entirely reasonable question –- Lane’s explanation speaks multitudes: “Why suffer the humiliation for a 13-day loan?”

Though Lane’s excuses are not terribly convincing, it’s hard not to sympathize with him somewhat. “I have never been compensated for my contributions to this company,” he complains, his sense of entitlement no doubt inflated by his appointment to the 4A’s financial committee earlier that day. While Lane was dutifully tending to the company’s books, Roger was busy taking three-martini lunches, napping in his office and bungling the Lucky Strikes account -– a screw-up almost as egregious and far more destructive than Lane’s. Can you blame the guy for getting mad? 

Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Betty (January Jones) share a moment in "Mad Men."

But Don is right, and probably very generous, to give Lane the option to resign. As the scene ends, Don leaves him with a sage and unusually forthcoming bit of advice: “I’ve started over a lot, Lane. This is the worst part.” For a minute or two there, it seems like everything might work out for Lane. Then, he gets home to discover that his wife, Rebecca, has splashed out on an expensive Jaguar.  From this moment on, it’s a matter of when, not if, Lane will do something drastic. 

In one final indignity, Lane tries and fails to asphyxiate himself in his brand new Jaguar, but he can’t get the engine to work (Attention, class: This is what’s known as “irony”). He eventually goes to the office, where he sits down in front of his typewriter and clanks out a boilerplate resignation letter. To the very end, Lane maintains his stiff upper lip. The following morning, it’s poor Joan who makes the grisly discovery, but it’s Don who, after stumbling back into the office after his meeting with Dow Chemical, insists on taking Lane’s corpse down from where it’s hanging. This season of “Mad Men” has been an unusually blunt one, and the sight of Lane’s stiff, blue corpse is possibly the show’s least delicate, most explicit moment. Yet despite how shocking it is, there’s something somewhat muted about Lane’s death. Perhaps because the build-up to it was so schematic, the emotional impact is not quite as devastating as it ought to have been.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Lane’s death is discovered while Don is making his borderline psychotic pitch to Dow. Earlier in the episode, Don complains to Roger about the “piddly” accounts the agency is scoring. He doesn’t come out and say it, but Don’s new-found aggression no doubt has something to do with Joan’s decision to prostitute herself and Lane’s petty self-sabotage. Why bother going to such extremes if the rewards are so meager?

Though it’s surely not what he intends, Don’s overzealous Dow pitch sounds almost like a critique of capitalism. “Eighty-one percent isn’t enough!” he says maniacally, the veins in his forehead bulging. (Jon Hamm is a master of face-vein manipulation). Then, in one of those coded lines of dialogue that “Mad Men” just loves, Don conveys the emptiness of rampant consumerism: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” When asked about Dow’s manufacture of Napalm, a subject I somehow knew was going to come up, he offers up an overly simple jingoistic rationalization. He first notes that it was used against the Japanese and the Germans (read: “people who deserved it”), then claims, “The important thing is, when America needs it, Dow makes it, and it works.” Well, that’s more than enough for me! 

When it comes to morals, Don has always been a rather slippery figure. He’s appalled at the idea that Joan would sleep with someone to procure a partnership, and he insists on taking Lane’s body down before the coroner gets there, yet he glibly defends the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population. Don might not see it, but in my book these three events -– Joan’s night with Herb Rennet, Lane’s suicide and Don’s wild-eyed pitch –- add up to an indictment of capitalism. In “Mad Men,” material desire leads to only unhappiness, yet no one seems quite able to unburden themselves of it.

Sally’s storyline provides a welcome respite from all the doom and gloom in “Commissions and Fees.” After spending an afternoon with Megan and Julia, Sally is feeling suddenly grown up. She invites Glen, whom she hasn’t seen in more than a year, to the city for an afternoon of hookie. Although she gets gussied up, Glen arrives at the door sporting an awkward peach-fuzz mustache. He’s become a man. Whatever romantic possibility there might have been quickly dissipates at the natural history museum, where Glen tells Sally, “You’re like my little sister, except smart.” Sally seems relieved rather than disappointed to hear it. She may not be ready for a relationship, but her body is plunging ahead into adolescence. She gets her first period while at the museum –- we all knew that was going to happen, didn’t we? -- then flees home to her mother. 

At first Betty is a little flummoxed, but she rises to the occasion, finding just the right words to say to Sally: “There’s a lot of responsibilities, but that’s what being a woman is. Then when it happens every month, even though it’s unpleasant, it means everything’s working.” This rare moment of intergenerational understanding is echoed in the closing scene, where Don helps Glen realizes his dream of driving a nice car. It’s an abrupt tonal shift from the horror of Lane’s suicide, and it’s an oddly hopeful way to conclude such a bleak episode, but I’ll take it.

Stray thoughts:

--A major red flag: No only did Peggy not appear in this episode, but her name wasn’t even mentioned. This does not bode well.

--How do we read the drunken bikini comment Lane makes to Joan? Was he, in a state of desperate delusion, hoping she’d respond to his overture and run away with him to Hawaii?

--Are we to assume that Lane was working on a suicide note while sitting on the couch next to Rebecca?

--Signs of trouble on the horizon: Don’s been drinking a lot, and Megan is clearly getting annoyed with being treated like Sally’s babysitter. 

--At the partners’ meeting, Joan wears a fetching blue and red polka-dot number. I don’t think we’ve seen it before. Maybe Joan treated herself to a new dress after making partner?

--Don and Megan live at 782 Park Ave., which would put them just around the corner from the elite Buckley School. 

-Glen, ever the comedian, tells Sally that Theodore Roosevelt killed all the animals in the natural history museum.

RELATED: 

"Mad Men" recap: A woman's worth

"Mad Men" recap: Every man for himself

"Mad Men" recap: A little something on the side

-- Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Top photo: Don (Jon Hamm) asks Lane (Jared Harris) for his resignation. Credit: Ron Jaffe / AMC.

Bottom photo: Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Betty (January Jones) share a moment. Credit: Ron Jaffe / AMC.

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