Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 12
Commissions and Fees
And so we meet the end of one Lane Pryce, arguably the most tragic figure in a television series full of them. For years fans of the show have predicted a suicide for one of the major characters. First there were murmurs that Roger would off himself. Then speculation switched over to Pete. Yet it was poor, quiet, dedicated Lane who finally gave up and hung himself in his office. "Commissions and Fees" is a very good episode of television and a solid episode of Mad Men that misses greatness, if only because Lane's journey fails to land as it should. Don't get me wrong, the whole thing is heart rending and Jared Harris is stellar, yet in the end, this wasn't really a Lane episode, and one prominently featuring his death perhaps should have been dedicated to his final denigration more resolutely. Instead, this episode is as much about Don (and, to a lesser extent, Sally) as it is about Lane. This is the third time in the series we have seen Don give some version of the "starting over" speech. Once, it was to Peggy, when he told her she would be "amazed how much this never happened." In that instance, he was correct. Yet the other two times, when he gave the speech to his brother and when he gave it to Lane, it ended with the men hanging themselves.

Don was able to remake himself because he was willing to believe in the myth of himself as the American Dream, but it was more than that. His success was guaranteed by his dogged refusal to be beaten, his willingness to reach rock bottom and keep plugging away until he was back on top. Don himself seemed inspired by his speech tonight, pitching Dow Chemical just to prove he could and generally getting his head back in the game.

Peggy, too, was able to remake herself, because she and Don share an ability to delude themselves until their lies become the truth. For Don, that meant largely shielding his sordid past, marrying the trophy woman and trying to settle in the suburbs (and when that failed, he started over again with Megan and a chic apartment in the city). For Peggy, it meant ignoring a child she didn't want to go after a career she did. In both instances, the delusion is imperfect, but it serves the characters and allows them to continue living the lives they want, even if they remain slightly emptier for it. It is this comparison that makes the duo of Don and Peggy so fascinating, and perhaps it is Peggy's absence from a story where she would have fit perfectly that makes this episode feel slightly less stellar than it might have.

Lane was never able to buy into his illusion of perfection, and in the end the lie killed him. He styled himself as the perfect transplant: at first glance he had all the wealth and chivalry of Britain, but he had gotten out while the getting was good and made his way in America. In actuality, though, it was all a facade, as Lane poured more money into SCDP, got into tax troubles with the mother country, and found himself forced to embezzle rather than to let his illusion crumble around him. It isn't that Lane Pryce couldn't start over. It isn't like his wife would have died to cut back or his kid would have failed from having to go to public school. Lane could have made his circumstances work. Failing that, as Don makes clear, he could have gone to the partners and asked for help. There are any number of ways Lane could have saved himself, but where Don and Peggy's beliefs in their delusions crafted them into a sort of (admittedly warped) reality, Lane's refusal to recognize the flaw at the core of his public image, and his unwillingness to adapt the way Don and Peggy have, lead to his demise. In the end, Lane was so consumed by the artifice, he couldn't find a way to live without it. He couldn't even write a true suicide note, instead simply leaving behind a boilerplate resignation.

The resolution to the whole thing also feels unsatisfying, though perhaps that's intentional. The scene between Glenn and Don (and boy, Glenn sure manages to get all of the Draper clan to open up. Please do not force us to sit through a Glenn and the seventh version of New Bobby episode) is incredibly on the nose, as Glenn asks Don if everything is always so crappy, and Don gets Glenn to ignore the emptiness of existence by letting him drive the car for a while (a stop gap fix, at best), yet it works in its own way. Don has shut out his demons for the moment by leaving it all behind (even if only temporarily) the way he has engineered himself to do, and for Glenn, its still enough just to drive, to feel as if he is in control, even though he seems well aware of the lie he is telling himself.

Lane's death felt far more muted than it should have, and I tend to think of this as a failing for the show. While it makes a kind of sense that the man none of them respected enough in life would leave a less drastic effect in death, I don't think that's what the show was aiming for here. The horror, the tragedy, the inevitability of it all felt off in a way that is sort of surprising. These are all emotions Mad Men does well, and usually with similar material. Perhaps it is that the specter of suicide has hung over the past two years of the show, and the series has gotten so good at building that sense of dread that the pay off was bound to disappoint. It felt like the show needed me to feel heartbroken, and in a strange way that left me slightly more detached from the proceedings than I would have like. Don't get me wrong, I was heartbroken throughout the episode, but I'm not sure the pain of Lane's death stuck with me the way, say, Pete's malaise in "Signal 30" has over the several weeks since that episode aired. The show has never quite known what to do with Lane Pryce, and that made some of his plotting this season especially scattershot. If he was always building to this, it could have been handled better. And if not, well, the tracks in the snow should have been covered more cleanly to keep this from feeling dropped in. If Mad Men is one of the best television series ever at conveying a slow, existential death of the soul, it seems it is still a fair distance from being able to do a literal death justice.

The Sally story feels off as well. It seems as if the show is trying to do a yin and yang, with Lane's death as a contradiction to Sally's newfound womanhood, and if so, that's just a bad way to express a cliched dichotomy. Kiernan Shipka continues to be excellent, and she is always a joy to have on screen, but usually, Sally's stories have more impact than this one did. The moment when Betty slowly eases in to actually mothering her (slipping from "why is this thing I made touching me" detachment to actual comforting and nurturing, in what is easily January Jones' best scene of the season) is a good one, but it also felt like the capper to a story with more weight. All season long, Sally has been defaulted in to stories where she is thrust into an adult world she is not quite prepared for, and while Shipka makes the beat land every time, the story is starting to feel a bit redundant. It is best expressed in a little moment tonight, where Sally orders coffee to be like Megan and then dumps a ridiculous amount of sugar into the cup to make it palatable. The girl wants to seem like an adult, but isn't ready to enter than world fully yet. It is a powerful story, I'm just not sure I needed to be told variations on it four or five times for it to sink in.

So this wasn't my favorite episode of the season (though, in such a stellar run, that isn't a huge complaint). Lane Pryce may have deserved better, but the show still constructed a compelling narrative around his death, and it still managed to break my heart the way only Mad Men can. Next week is the finale, and I bet we're in for something huge. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Grade: B+


-"I already said no. Or should I leave so you all can do whatever you want?"

-"Well, if you think killing her is the only way out of that..."

-"I've started over a lot, Lane. This is the worst part."

-"No, I don't want to be a partner. I've seen what's involved." That is just a great scene for Ken Cosgrove.

-"What happened to your enlightenment?" "I don't know. Wore off."

-"If you could do anything, what would you do?"
Tags: Mad Men
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