Poor Lane, "for whom the bell tolls" in this haunting 12th episode of Mad Men season five. We watch Lane's life disintegrate so sadly... and so completely. Poor Don, too. He does right by his company, firing Lane for forging a check, but his act leads directly to Lane's suicide. He thought he was giving Lane an opportunity to start over, unblemished, but the disgrace was too much for his proud colleague to bear, and now Don Draper must go forward with blood on his hands.
What a singular moment this was in the Mad Men saga! What a sad, but insightful, episode "Commissions & Fees" turned out to be. The show's writers provided us with a far deeper understanding of the dangerous pitfalls that await those who dare to compete in advertising's "big leagues."
In his forceful, uninvited pitch to Dow Chemical, Don sounds his own challenge and the week's central theme: Never being satisfied, for long, with what you've got. The theme rang true for me as a former ad agency head, because all ad men take it as a given that there's always a bigger, more delectable fish out there to hook. We cast our rods and our nets upon the waters again and again and again. But this ceaseless chase can quickly become more than an addictive game and develop into a full-blown disease. In Episode 12, Weiner and company have revealed one of the central compulsions that simultaneously drive many ad men to greatness and despair.
In "Commissions & Fees," we clearly see how the "ad game" can torment an agency's leader. Instead of reveling in his most recent, impressive triumph of "bagging" the Jaguar account, Don feels compelled to mount his steed and prove himself, yet again, by pursuing and bagging even bigger game -- in this case, Dow Chemical.
In part, Joan's unsavory role in helping secure a critical Jaguar account pitch vote may be partly responsible for Don's disquiet. After all, he can no longer consider his hard-fought victory to have been "pure." He also may regard Jaguar's offer to compensate SCDP primarily on a fee basis, rather than on the industry's customary commission rate, as a penny-pinching, "bush league" move -- a further reminder that he still isn't playing in the majors. In a moment of frustration, he tells Roger he'd rather be in the hunt for the Chevy account because its product doesn't break down and the account delivers big fees and big commissions. When you are caught on such a carousel, can you ever feel satisfied?
After spending several decades building my own ad agency into a regional, and later, a national, contender, I can recall similar moments when unsatisfied drives and ambitions would overwhelm me. No sooner did my firm win the US Airways account, our "Jaguar" of sorts, then I felt compelled to bag another beast. Ironically, I did not have Dow Chemical in my sites, but its rival, DuPont. I should have been comfortable allowing our big airline account to settle in without immediately needing to "better" it.
This episode led me to aim my Boomer Lens at a movie once popular with many members of my generation: Leaving Las Vegas. The film had a haunting effect on me the first time I saw it. I recall it now to attempt, as a conjurer might, to influence the course of the two seasons yet to come. In Episode 12, we heard prophecy delivered in the disturbing question posed by Sally's friend, Glen: "Why does everything always turn out crappy... Why does everything you want to do, everything you think will make you happy, just turn to crap?"
In Leaving Las Vegas, I heard echoes of themes repeated in "Commissions & Fees." Ben Sanderson (played brilliantly by Nicholas Cage) was a charismatic, successful screenwriter with intense mood swings (remind you of anyone?). Sanderson's weakness was alcohol. The disease cost him his job, his family and his friends. Instead of rising above his addiction, Ben chose to check out and drink himself to death in Las Vegas.
I worry an awful lot about you, Don. While you, too, start early at the office drinking, that doesn't seem to be the root of your problems. I think Episode 12 showed us you never can really feel joy. For you, happiness remains painfully elusive. It always seems to lurk around the next bend, until you get there and find it has mysteriously moved on.
It's time for a "shrink," my friend, and you better make it a good one... someone to help you resolve your inner pain, to help you appreciate the joy that already surrounds you: Your loving wife, your kids, your agency's respectful and adoring workforce and your stable of successful clients.
If not, I fear you, too, may follow Lane's lead and find your own, special way of leaving Las Vegas.
Follow Steven C. Eisner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StevenCEisner