Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 12–Commissions and Fees

SPOILER WARNING – THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES MAJOR PLOT POINTS . DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 12 YET.

“What is happiness? It’s the moment before you want more happiness.”

MadMenLane

This week in Mad Men, nearly everyone was having a bad day – some worse than others. This was signified by a number of exchanges in which world-weary characters actually declared, “I’ve had a bad day.” Well, that’s not unusual for this show, but this instalment seemed to up the ante. After last week’s dramatic power house of an episode, this one felt more low key, the character arcs and plot development ambling along sedately – until a massive shock brought it all to an abrupt halt with the departure of the second major character in as many weeks.

Perhaps it was the winter setting – snowflakes visibly falling outside every window – but from the beginning there seemed a palpable sense of gloom throughout. There was the usual sense of existential angst and inertia at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with the events of recent weeks hanging sullen in the air. Despite securing the prestigious Jaguar account, nobody’s happy – and indeed the subject of happiness (or the lack of it) was a recurring theme in the episode, with many of the characters dwelling on it at various points.

Initially, the most unhappy (as usual) was Don, for a number of reasons. He’s obviously still smarting from last week’s deal with the devil that enabled Joan to gain a partnership by means of actual prostitution. He’s not just angry with the rest of the partners (“Should I just leave the room so you can vote without me?”), but plainly with Joan too for lowering herself to those standards. It probably doesn’t help that at the partners’ meeting Joan proves herself awesomely capable, signifying that this is a position she should have been given a long time ago.

But he’s also unhappy that, for an American ad agency, the account for a notoriously unreliable British luxury car is pretty middling stuff. This becomes clear in a meeting with Roger, as Don declares, “I don’t want Jaguar, I want Chevy!” Perhaps Roger is less ambitious than Don; he’s involved in yet another meaningless affair with a too-young girl, and recognises that it’s not making him happy but thinks it’s the best he can do.

Don, however, is having none of it. He honestly thinks Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce isn’t trying hard enough, and is still smarting from his recent chat with the Ed Baxter, head of Dow Chemicals and father in law to the usually principled Ken Cosgrove. Baxter, played by the marvellously slimy Ray Wise, had told Don that many major companies would never work with him because of the anti-smoking ad he put out to save face over losing the Lucky Strike account.

Don being Don, Dow is thus obviously his ultimate challenge – even Roger refers to it as “the Moby Dick of accounts”. But Don seems to feel that SCDP has been resting on its laurels (despite the Jaguar account) and it’s time to go hunting that white whale. This he does in a meeting heavy with hidden meaning after Roger has placated the surprisingly hard nosed Ken. Ken will put up no resistance – providing he can be “forced” onto the account and Pete Campbell will have no involvement at all. This was a bit of a revelation; we know Pete’s hard to like, but it was a surprise that even the usually mild Ken would be so ruthless towards him.

With that sorted, Don and Roger are free to meet with Baxter and the finance and marketing supremos of Dow. More than anything, this scene set out the themes of the episode. Don thinks that Dow’s current agency are just coasting, and that the company’s complacent for being satisfied with 50% market share. He’s projecting of course – he’s not happy with everything he has, so why should Dow Chemicals be? Addressing the idea of happiness head on, he comments, “what is happiness? It’s the moment before you want more happiness.”

If anything, that’s the philosophy of the show in a nutshell. Don’s reaching, ambitiously, like the very embodiment of the American Dream. And yet, however much he achieves, it’s never enough – the dream is hollow, no matter how nobly we strive. It’s heavily significant that he’s expressing these sentiments to Dow Chemicals, whose involvement in the Vietnam War was so crucial; the script even spelled that out by having him comment on the history of napalm, one of their most famous products. The implication was that Don’s ambition lacked any principle. He’s prepared to be a gentleman about Joan Harris, but he has no compunction over advertising a company that produces such a horrible weapon. I wonder if Don votes Republican?

Don also has to put up with Sally, herself as unhappy as usual in her relationship with her mother. Sally was being as wilful and spoilt as usual, refusing to go on Betty and Henry’s ski trip and preferring to foist herself on her harried father. Betty, typically, is fine with that – anything to get the burdensome Sally out of her hair, and ‘coincidentally’ to make things awkward for Don.

But with Don busily preparing for his meeting with Dow, and Megan off to another audition, Sally has to be left alone in the apartment on Monday morning. It was no surprise that she secretly arranged a trip to the Natural History Museum with sort-of-boyfriend Glen, who absconded from his boarding school just to see her. Their scenes in the museum, nicely played by Kiernan Shipka and Marten Weiner, were interrupted as Sally had the shock of discovering her first period. Mad Men delights in putting all its characters through the wringer, and in Sally’s case the shocks and depression are nearly always to do with her burgeoning sexuality.

Surprisingly, though, when she ran off and deserted Glen, it was Betty she ran to and not Megan. Even more surprisingly, Betty for once acted like a caring mother, soothing Sally’s worries, and holding her on the bed. Perhaps the evidence of Sally’s imminent womanhood has given Betty a sudden facility for empathy, based on her own experiences. But she still can’t resist playing one-upmanship with Megan, smugly pointing out over the phone that it was Betty that Sally ran to, and not her stepmother.

Lane Pryce at least started the episode feeling good – he’s been invited to join the fiscal committee of the prestigious American Association of Advertising Agencies. But this is Mad Men, and no-one’s allowed to stay happy for long. In Lane’s case, his fall from grace came surprisingly early on, as Bert Cooper, having stumbled on the cheque with Don’s forged signature, furiously asks Don why he’s given Lane the Christmas bonus that the partners were supposed to foreswear.

Don, of course, knows that he never signed such a cheque. Even mired in his usual angst, he’s a smart and shrewd man, and works out immediately what’s going on. Cue an agonising scene in his office as he demands the resignation of the weeping Lane, to whom the appearance of respectability is everything. Jared Harris crumbled magnificently as Lane for his last episode, venting all the despair that his character has been prone to for the last couple of years.

Don at least has the sensitivity to keep Lane’s crime confidential, and gives him advice on what to tell his wife. He’s projecting again, seeing echoes of his own history – “I’ve started over a lot. Believe me, this is the hardest part.”  But Lane isn’t Don; his facade is far more fragile. It doesn’t help that when he gets home, he discovers his wife has bought him a very expensive present – with his own chequebook. In a supreme display of irony, It’s a Jaguar XKE. Having spent the afternoon trying to drink away his despair, Lane does the only thing left to him – he goes and pukes in a corner.

It was a blackly humorous  moment, but not the blackest. Lane’s gradual unravelling was interspersed throughout the episode, and it came as no surprise to find him ultimately preparing to commit suicide by gassing himself with the exhaust of that very same Jag. Except, in a moment of unexpected humour that cleverly undermined this poetic gesture, the Jag, typically, wouldn’t start. Even in the circumstances, it was impossible not to laugh as poor old Lane poked about the engine hopelessly, holding one lens of his snapped glasses to his face. Even suicide won’t work out for him.

At least for a while. The final scenes of the episode were truly shocking, as Joan, suspicious of Lane’s locked office door, gets Pete to peer through his adjoining window. After the abortive Jag attempt, Lane had gone to the office and hung himself. Even the usually composed Joan was weeping, while the men looked like they’d been kicked in the balls. Real life, in all its horror, had intruded on the office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a singularly unusual experience.

Don and Roger, returning from the meeting with Dow, found the office eerily deserted, with only the shocked (surviving) partners left. Typically, it was Don, with his sense of decency, who demanded that Lane be cut down despite Pete’s protestations that it was a crime scene that shouldn’t be interfered with. This was shown in shocking, unpleasant detail; previously the director had shied away from actually showing Lane’s dangling corpse, and I’d expected it to remain unseen.

That just rendered it all the more shocking when we saw Jared Harris hanging, grey-faced, from his office door. Don, Roger and Pete looked genuinely sick as they cut him down; Harris has said that these were genuine reactions, so presumably Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser were seeing this grimly realistic tableau for the first time. For Don in particular, the look of horror was especially redolent. Not only is he presumably feeling guilty at having provoked Lane’s desperate actions, this isn’t the first time he’s felt responsible for a suicide by hanging; way back in the first season, his (ie Dick Whitman’s) half brother died in the same way, after Don’s rejection.

It was a startling and shocking end to an otherwise low key episode, the sudden horror all too real from my own experiences of suicides. Jared Harris has been great as Lane, and the episode rightly gave him plenty of good material in his last performance. In a script so heavily freighted with references to unhappiness, it was fitting that one of its worst possible consequences should provide the climax. Don was perfectly right in the way he dealt with Lane’s crime; but I’m sure that will be cold comfort to him. The episode ended with him at least being able to make one person happy, as he let Glen drive the car back to boarding school. It felt like a small crumb of comfort in a very bleak penultimate episode. But then, this is Mad Men; bleak is what they do.