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'Mad Men' Recap: Lane's Tragedy

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Don't read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 12 of AMC's "Mad Men," entitled "Commissions and Fees."

"What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness." - Don in the Dow Chemical meeting

It's somehow appropriate that this episode of "Mad Men" was full of references to accounts, ledgers, commissions, fees and expenses.

That's because, at the heart of the episode, there was a terrible miscalculation.

Don's fundamentally crippled when it comes to emotions -- he has them, but he often doesn't know how to deal with them or even what they are. He usually self-medicates them away with alcohol or tries to bury them with work or women. He may be slightly more attuned to what's going on inside his heart these days, but that's not saying much, considering the incredibly stunted place he started from.

The strangest dichotomy about Don is that he both can and can't understand the pain and longings of other people. He can -- or he could, back in the day -- channel concepts like desire and nostalgia in clever or sentimental ways. So he gets people. But when it comes to the flesh-and-blood individuals around him, he often has absolutely no idea what's going on with them. His inability to truly put himself in the shoes of others lost him Peggy, it lost him Betty, it lost him lots of friendships and paramours and promising relationships.

Because he's Don Draper, he assumes that everyone else is like him. It's not a flaw unique to him -- we all find it hard to navigate our way out of our narcissism, I'm betting -- but his emotional cluelessness is especially pronounced. So he doesn't understand that Lane Pryce is not Don Draper. Lane is not a man who can reinvent himself at the drop of a hat, certainly not at his age. He's the product of a certain era and class, and he spent whatever bravery he had on getting far away from his father and reinventing himself -- just the one time -- as a spiffy New York ad man.

But Lane, like most people, doesn't have an infinite capacity for hobo-ing, for starting over, for shedding an old life and acquiring a new one, as you might acquire a car, for example. When Don told him to "think of an elegant exit," Don meant Lane should find a classy way to leave the firm. It never occurred to Don -- as it did to Lane -- that this was it. There were no more reinventions, no more courage, no more restarts left.

And so it led to one of the saddest scenes -- if not the saddest scene -- in "Mad Men" history: Three partners cutting Lane's body down after his suicide. There wasn't a Roger quip, there wasn't anything to make that moment anything but immensely painful, which is only fitting. Lane's death was tragic; it was treated as tragic, and rightfully so.

I think it was wise of the writers, Maria and Andre Jacquemetton, to slowly prepare us for Lane's death, via Joan's encounter with the blocked door and the others looking over the transom. We needed to be eased into what we knew was coming. Still, back at the start of the hour, when Don and Lane had their showdown in Don's office, I knew it was over then. Chekhov's check exploded, as I predicted it would in recent weeks, and though Lane's angry outburst was full of sensible rationales and justifications, even he knew it was over and that there was no way out. In that scene in Don's office, Jared Harris did a beautiful job of taking us through Lane's rapidly evolving emotional states, from defensive to furious to desperate and, finally, to resigned. Whatever reservations I have on how the story got Lane to this place (and I have a few), I have none about Harris' exceptional work.

When Lane looked up at Don standing over him, it was as if Don himself had risen from the dead. He loomed over Lane like a vengeful god. And weirdly enough, Lane's malfeasance was the cause of Don's career resurgence. Don't ask me to explain exactly how Don's self-hatred fuels his creativity -- it's 4 a.m. as I write this and the birds are singing -- but clearly the incident with Lane led to Don's drop-the-mic schooling of the Dow executives ("I don't want to hear about that letter anymore!").

A big part of Don's resurgence, of course, was the fact that Lane's embezzlement was such a piddly amount, in the grand scheme of things. "My God," I can picture Don thinking, "if he was going to take a risk that could lead to him losing everything, why not do it for something big? If you're going to take a chance or if you're going to do anything that requires a sacrifice or endurance, you might as well go for it." Don decided that the small ball SCDP was playing just wasn't enough. After a season of relative indolence, he finally decided (to the relief of many "Mad Men" fans, I'm sure) to go big or go home.

How will Lane's death weigh on him in the future? Will he just pack it away with the rest of his pain and self-hatred? He has to feel at least partly responsible for the man's death, and perhaps that will become another toxic secret he carries around. Maybe it'll be a way to fuel the next great pitch or campaign. Knowing Don, he'll be able to recycle this tragedy into some kind of big win that leaves him feeling hollow and filled with self-doubt.

Still, it was hard not to feel like the Don of "Commissions and Fees" was the old Don, a fact even Roger commented on. Much of the office-based storyline felt like an old school episode of the show, in that it was driven by big questions and mysteries: What would Don do? What would Lane do? Would he give up on the idea of suicide after his botched attempt with the Jaguar? (By the way, I may be going to hell for this, but I laughed when the notoriously unreliable car wouldn't start.) How would the other characters react to what Lane did? What was in his note?

Even though I was fairly sure after the scene in Don's office that Lane would die, there was still a great deal of tension in that story line -- welcome tension, given the slackness of several recent episodes -- and that foreknowledge didn't rob the moment of its impact.

But we had to know that something was up early on, didn't we? When he went into his office after his dressing down from Don, Lane got the indelible Don Draper-style back-of-the-head shot; a moment him sitting at his desk, with his back to the viewer, and his beloved New York spread before him. Did Lane ever get his moment of happiness, before a desire for more happiness set in? I hope so. This heartbreaking Englishman deserved it.

Was this a great hour of "Mad Men"? I don't know about that, but Lane's story connected with me on an emotional level like almost nothing else I've seen this season. There's been a lot of commentary lately -- much of it quite thought-provoking, from James Poniewozik and Linda Holmes in particular -- about whether Joan or any of the other characters would really do the things they did this season, or whether the show was forcing them down particular (and somewhat contrived) paths. I thought the latter was the case even before the Joan-Jaguar incident. Instead of being driven by the characters' organic evolution, the show has been -- in a number of cases -- forcing the characters down somewhat contrived paths, all of them leading to the same dour, cramped, heavily symbolic place. Without getting deeply into specifics about particular characters (except to say that I never truly bought that Lane would embezzle funds), as I wrote last week, the show is just less compelling when you feel like you know the destination of every person's journey, and that destination is Disappointmentville.

Still, though I felt I knew where Lane was going as soon as he forged that check, his storyline in this episode felt right, it felt like an organic place to go with the guy, as sad as it was. The Lane who felt this was the only way out is the Lane I've been watching for a few years; though the embezzlement struck me as out of character, if you accept that he took the money, the suicide did seem like something he would do. Oh, Lane, I'll miss you and your tweed blazers, sir.

Wrapping up, the non-Lane parts of the episode felt a bit like filler. Every season, there's the annual attempt to make Betty seem like a human being, and we got another one in this hour; but as I've said, she bores me, so I didn't care much either way about that story. As for the Sally-Glen stuff, it was pretty weak, given that Marten Weiner, who plays Glen, just isn't a very good actor (he's certainly not in Kiernan Shipka's league). So, in the interest of getting to be before 5 a.m., I'll just say that I wasn't all that compelled by the Glen-Sally-Betty material.

At least the presence of Don allowed for a non-bleak ending to the episode: Glen got to drive Don's car. The Don who is filled with existential despair -- and a deep desire to kick ass in the business world -- might be back, but at least this version of this guy can reach out to another human being in an altruistic moment, and share the ride.

That's something, isn't it?

A few final notes:

  • Oh Lane. Your taped-up glasses embody all the sadness in the world.
  • Is Don really and truly back? Well, he made us all almost fall in love with Napalm, so I'm going with yes.
  • Alan Sepinwall's review reminded me of Don's very similar reaction to another suicide by hanging -- that of Don's half-brother Adam, whom Don had also kicked to the curb.
  • I went back and forth on whether Don -- the keeper of an epic number of secrets -- was right to fire Lane for the one secret he kept. But as my husband pointed out, at the time Don's identity deception was discovered, it had no material affect on the firm's bottom line. Of course, it hampered their ability to get defense work in recent years, but that was well after the cat was out of the bag, and, when they were discovered, Bert Cooper was OK with Don's lies because they didn't take money out of the firm's pocket. All things considered, stealing from one's company and lying about it are absolutely fireable offenses, so I understand why Don did what he did. But as someone who's married to an Englishman who was here on a work visa for a long time, I can relate to Lane's horror at losing his visa. That kind of thing is truly a nightmare for foreign workers.
  • Where do you come down? Was Don right to fire Lane or should he have given him another chance? Lord knows Don has gotten more than his fair share of second chances. Let me know if you think Don was right in the comment area.

"Mad Men" airs on Sundays on 10 p.m. ET on AMC.