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Mad Men: The Anvil Has Landed

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The anvil has landed. A season full of obvious portents of doom has at last produced a death. I'm just not sure how central this fatality is to the story. But it may illustrate a larger point about the need to be able to surf the waves of changing times.

As always, there be some spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.

I have always enjoyed the character of Lane Pryce and think that Jared Harris is a fabulous actor, both on Mad Men and Fringe, as well as in his movie work. He was a terrific Moriarty in Robert Downey, Jr.'s latest Sherlock Holmes epic and I'm looking forward to his Ulysses Grant in Steve Spielberg's forthcoming Lincoln. In Lane Pryce, the rather old-school and more than slightly fussy British financial manager who is practically the antithesis of Harris's roustabout movie star father Richard, he has deftly created a portrait of a man who yearns to be free but doesn't know how to go about it.

And yet. And yet, the character has been something of a third wheel on Mad Men since Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was formed. His machinations freed the core of the old Sterling Cooper crew from their British corporate overlords, but since then, the show has struggled to provide a strong storyline for Lane Pryce.

So his death, as a result of a chain of circumstances that seems somewhat contrived, doesn't have the impact that a more highly anticipated (hoped for?) demise would have.

But, and yet again. Despite creator Matthew Weiner's efforts, the character didn't pay off in life on the show, yet the death of Lane may point up an extraordinarily important lesson for those in challenging, changing times, which the late 1960s (it's 1967 on the show) certainly were becoming.

In "Commissions and Fees," we see Lane Pryce go from the heights to the depths with stunning swiftness, due to his inflexibility and unwillingness to surf waves of change. He is accorded a major honor as a top financial manager by the national advertising association and he is unmasked as an embezzler in rapid succession. Can you say, "ironic?" Anvils.

Anyhow, Don Draper confronts him. The identity thief and deserter under fire from the U.S. Army (that is a very serious crime, which can carry the death penalty) doesn't like Lane's explanation for forging his signature on a check -- really, Lane should have just asked for help, but was too proud and embarrassed to do so -- and forces him to resign.

Which leads to Lane's suicide. First he tries to kill himself in the beautiful new Jaguar E-Type in the classic British Racing Green that his clueless wife has bought to sacrifice his success, and which won't start. (A cheap and easy joke on the show's part, considering how many of those cars are running a half-century later.) Then he hangs himself in his office, leaving behind not a note, but the resignation letter Don had required.

Don is all about reinvention, to a point. He can't grasp that Lane has not broken free from Old World strictures even as he's embraced the New World.

But the irony is that this paragon of new starts is himself falling behind the pace of change in the advertising business and in '60s America. He's not into the Beatles, he doesn't really get his smart and spiffy young wife, he may not even be the best advertising mind at his own firm any longer, perhaps because he hasn't been applying himself.

Don is spurred to self-renewal by Lane's desperate act. But what he does sounds a little psychotic. He complains that he only wants the biggest companies as clients. (Really, Don?) After getting Roger Sterling to arrange a meeting with Ken Cosgrove's fairly smarmy father-in-law, a big wheel at Dow Corning -- or is it Dow Chemical? -- Don blows into the meeting insisting that the corporate giant needs new advertising and he's just the man to provide it.

Declaring that happiness is just "a moment before you need more happiness," which sounds like the ethic of the great white shark, which must keep moving constantly forward or else it dies, Don blathers that they can't be happy with 50 percent market share because 100 percent market share must be the goal. But total dominance, monopoly, is itself the path to stagnation, as AT&T and IBM conclusively demonstrated.

The old Don is back, seeing few limits to possibility even as he rejects the contentment he found for a time with Megan.

But, having just won the account, however it happened -- another way to think of it is that SCDP would have won anyway had the car dealer on the advertising committee not practiced sexual blackmail -- Don, or someone, doesn't quite grasp what Jaguar means to his agency.

I see an analogy with the real world example of Chiat/Day and Apple. Like Jaguar, Apple's Macintosh computers were cool and glamorous, a lucrative niche product not suited to the mass. Just as everyone was not going to want a graphical user interface (or so it was thought), not everyone is going to want a sexy British sports car.

Chiat/Day turned advertising Apple's products into a sort of art form, with the epic "1984" ad as only the most famous example. They became a go-to agency as a result.

SCDP's work for whatever the heck they've been selling these last years -- floor polish, baked beans, etc. -- hasn't showcased them at all. Nor has it been much of a window into the times, a disappointment of mine with this show. Don had a great shot with Hilton Hotels, but failed to think big and wild enough for his eccentric pal Conrad Hilton.

The fact is, he needs to stop being so damn staid. And that was clear even before the '60s became "The Sixties."

On the soap opera level, Don's callousness has now spurred two people to suicide. First, his own brother; now, the man who made it possible for him to have an agency in the first place.

Incidentally, I haven't researched this, but something bothers me about the Lane Pryce storyline, well-played though it turned out to be in the end. I thought it was outstandingly presented in this farewell-to-Lane episode. But the conception of it bothers me a bit.

I recall there being some famous British actor tax exiles, i.e., actors in the '60s and '70s who got out of the UK's very high rate of taxation by mostly living and working outside the country. Hmm, who does that sound like?

Lane has lived and worked away from Britain almost exclusively for years. He's been at Sterling Cooper and then SCDP in New York for at least four years, and may have worked elsewhere abroad for Putnam, Powell, and Lowe before that. After all, they had initially planned to send him off to Bombay, India (now Mumbai), when they brought in the fellow who got his foot chopped off by Lois and the lawn mower.

Is it possible that Mad Men didn't get this situation right? I don't know. As I said, I haven't fully researched it.

But the show certainly appears to have made a mistake about another big part of this storyline.

With regard to the company Don and Roger hit up to make their move into mega-corporate work, the show seems to have gotten confused about what company it's talking about. Don and company are at last pitching that napalm maker Dow Corning for its advertising business. Except, uh, Dow Corning never made napalm.

The company that made napalm is Dow Chemical. Dow Corning is a separate company launched as a joint venture by Corning and Dow Chemical. Way back in the early '40s.

Oops.

Dow Corning never made glassware, either, as Roger Sterling said they did in the episode in which Ken Cosgrove's father-in-law, a top Dow Corning executive played by Ray Wise, is introduced. That was the episode with Don being honored at the American Cancer Society awards banquet for his farewell-to-tobacco ad in the New York Times, which the assembled corporate elite honor publicly but which Wise's character tells Don privately has caused them to determine that Draper, having bitten the hand that fed him, can never be trusted. Because they make some nasty products, too, presumably, that Don might have second thoughts about down the line.

Incidentally, there's no mention of Peggy Olson whatsoever in this episode, even though she just left the agency which, in one guise and another, has employed her since 1962 and was part of the core group that formed SCDP at the end of 1963.

Hopefully, she will at least be mentioned in the season finale.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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