Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, Commissions and Fees

With one episode left in the season, they finally delivered on that long-promised suicide.

A friend of mine pointed out to me the parallels between what happened in this episode, and an event back in season one.  In this week’s episode, Don tells Lane that he can start fresh.  No one else knows about the embezzlement, and Don himself will cover the $7500 that Lane owes.  Lane can just move on.  “The next thing will be better, because it always is.”

Don is totally sincere.  Starting over is something that Don has always had a special gift for, which is why his perfect protege is Peggy.  Back at the beginning of the show, after Peggy had a baby and a breakdown, Don advised her to “move forward.  This never happened.  It will shock you how much it never happened.”  And she did.  Like Don, Peggy is a master of the restart.  In the last episode, after she said goodbye to Don and SCDP, she stepped in the elevator with a smile on her face and the Kinks in her heart.  Crisis doesn’t defeat her, it energizes her.  It gives her a chance to wipe the slate clean.

Not so with Lane.  And for good reason — he has a wife and a son who depend upon him, and whom he loves (however imperfectly).  He can’t just wipe the slate clean without disastrous impact on people who need him.  And, radiating outward from his family, he has a whole network of people whose good opinion he cares about — the firm, the 4A, Rebecca’s family, the whole of England apparently.  In other words, Lane is a member of society — he feels too much responsibility to the people around him to sever his connections so easily.

In this, Lane is like Adam Whitman, of whom Don must have been thinking when he learned of Lane’s suicide.  Don made a similar speech to Adam back in season one, exhorting him to just start over.  He gave Adam $5000 and told him to leave New York, to forget he ever had a brother, and to begin a new life.  But like Lane, Adam couldn’t do it.  He had someone he cared about too much — in that case, Don himself.  And, like Lane, rather than cut his ties and begin anew, Adam opted to end his life.

I wonder if Don would still be capable of starting over, if he had to.  For the first time, it seems, Don is himself a member of society.  Don’s ability to leave his past behind him was dependent upon the fact that he — like Peggy — had always been curiously devoid of close attachments, to family, friends, even his wife.  But now, Don is married to a woman he loves and needs.  He genuinely cares about his kids.  He’s becoming a real boy — but he may have to lose his superpower in the process.

Okay and seriously.  Why was this episode so fucking gross?  No one needed to see a close-up of Sally’s clotty menstrual blood.  Or the empurpled face of Lane’s corpse, for that matter.  Come on, AMC.  Let’s keep it classy.

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34 Responses to “Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, Commissions and Fees”

  1. Paul Says:

    So far Don has slept with only one woman this season: his wife. You can do it, Don! One episode left!

    When Roger maid the quip that “‘no’ used to make you hard” — referring to Don — I could only think about what we know about the Draper bedroom. Roger has no idea how much Don gets off from hearing ‘no’.

    I think the lesson of this episode is that even if you take the best of all possible options it can still end in tragedy. Don chose the best of all possible options with Lane: he didn’t expose him to the other partners, or the authorities, but decided to spend 8 grand of his own money to cover the theft. He didn’t even yell at Lane. He poured him a drink and calmly explained that all trust is now gone in their business relationship.

    Maybe I’m missing something. Couldn’t Lane have talked to some headhunters, flipped through his Rolodex and started looking for a new place of employment? His record isn’t stained. He only resigned. Nobody knows what happened.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This episode was definitely traumatic for me right when I watched it, but the more I reflected, the thinner it all felt. I wonder if the purple face was necessary to make sure the impact came across? (The failure of the Jaguar to start was a little too cute, I thought.)

    I’m going to need to watch this again, because I watched it without The Girlfriend (her work schedule this week would’ve delayed it too long!), so I wonder how it will be the second time.

  3. dbarber Says:

    Thinking more about the Don / Lane contrast, i wonder if the ability to start over vs. lack thereof distinction is also mirrored by that between Don’s aggressiveness and Lane’s passivity. For instance, Lane’s last interpersonal encounter (if i remember right) is with Joan, in which he demonstrates his inability to act for what he purportedly wants, whereas Don, when we last see him prior to his finding out about the suicide, is preaching about the importance of wanting and getting everything, 100% of the market, etc. Striking, i thought, was Roger’s line about Don needing to wipe the blood off of his mouth — Don does not hold back before the death of others, Lane can impose death only on himself.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Maybe we should talk more broadly about Lane’s character arc — like his on-again, off-again marriage, the fact that his dad flew to America to beat the living shit out of him, etc. It seems like Lane is passive, and more specifically he’s a sidekick and enabler. Recall when he was about to be shipped off to India, then was only saved when the kid got his foot run over by the lawn mower (another “too much” moment that I don’t think anyone really objected to at the time since it was so absolutely hilarious). I don’t think he was going to do anything to stop it if it did go through, and he would never have left his abusive bosses if Don hadn’t provided him the out.

    He’s already “started over” from his perspective — he jumped ship from his original agency to be Don’s sidekick. Like Peggy, he chafes in the role, and perhaps his equivalent to her leaving is to take the money, secretly of course (he doesn’t do confrontation, as he laments when telling Joan to push a harder bargain). Last season, we saw both a Don and Peggy episode and a Don and Lane episode — the former was taken more seriously, while the latter was perhaps regarded as a fun, indulgent lark for the series (everyone loves Lane! he’s so cute!). Maybe they’ve been setting up Lane as another perspective on the Peggy role for a while.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (Pete would also provide another perspective on the sidekick role, obviously.)

  6. jms Says:

    Couldn’t Lane have talked to some headhunters, flipped through his Rolodex and started looking for a new place of employment?

    I think the key is that Lane lost his visa status when he lost his job. I don’t think the show ever specifies his visa, but if he was on an H1B (assuming the rules were the same back in the ’60s as they are now), his visa invalidates the moment he quits, gets laid off, or gets fired. Typically the INS (now DHS) will give the visa holder a short grace period, but it’s not very much time at all (not headhunting and getting a new job kind of time, more just packing up your belongings kind of time), and my understanding is that it’s discretionary and informal — you’re not actually permitted to remain in the country as an official matter, but the feds will look the other way.

  7. Brennan Breed Says:

    There were a lot of references to “hot” and “cold” in the opening few scenes (the ski trip and Joan’s plan to go to Bermuda for Easter) accompanied with Lane’s reference to the “death and resurrection of our Lord,” which, coupled with the juxtaposed two bloody scenes (Lane’s death and Sally’s menstruation) and the recurring theme of “starting over,” all seemed to relate this episode to the concept of resurrection. Of course, Jesus’ death and resurrection was something of a rebirth that was a dialectical relation between the counterpoints of the cold blood of death (Lane’s suicide) and the warm blood of new life (or at least the newfound potential for new life, as is the case with Sally’s menstruation). Rebirth always involves the death of something, and Mad Men has often probed that side of the advertising business: giving a new spin to a brand, repositioning it in the market, involves doing just what Don did with himself — killing something old, attempting to reinvent it, and seeing if something new can come from it. But it doesn’t always work, and there are often brutal consequences. I think this intersects with Zizek’s discussion of violence — there is an element of revolutionary “pure violence” that must precede a true rebirth — Lane’s terrible ethical failure, stemming from his lack of courage to just say what he needed, required him to take an even more courageous destructive path (that is, destroying his family’s life in America, his professional and personal relationships, etc.) and try to build a new life from the ashes. Don loves just that sort of creative destruction, and in his best moments — such as the destruction of the old Sterling Cooper and the founding of the new SDCP — it can create something new. But some other characters don’t have the courage to destroy (i.e. Lane) and some try but fail (i.e. Paul, who reinvented himself as a Krishna but still hates himself, and will try again in L.A.)

    It seems to me that Mad Men always does a good job of being ambivalent of the status of this new life, even when it is successful — SDCP is living but isn’t well, and Don’s reinvention has caused collateral damage with his children and family members. Emancipatory violence and exploitative violence often implicate each other. Don’s zeal for destroying things sometimes melds with the capitalist ethos of total domination — one wants to destroy all competition in order to dominate the market, not to bring something new. This is the blood that Don has on his mouth leaving the meeting — the blood of the kill, of the hunt for something else living that will die not for its own sake — but to fill further the belly of the hunter.

  8. jms Says:

    Lane’s last interpersonal encounter (if i remember right) is with Joan, in which he demonstrates his inability to act for what he purportedly wants

    I’m still thinking about the passivity angle you mention, but I read this moment very differently. I didn’t see it as an example of Lane’s inability to act for what he wants, but to the contrary, an illustration that Lane has nothing to lose, and can finally act out and express his desire for Joan — and doesn’t care that doing so entails being pretty shitty to someone he purportedly cares about and respects. He’s sexually harassed Joan before, but the last time, he immediately and abjectly apologized. Now he’s drunk, has already lost his whole world, and doesn’t let conscience or decency halt him — in fact, rather than apologizing at the end, he smirks and leers before he walks away.

  9. jms Says:

    Re. passivity/non-confrontation — I dunno. Remember when Lane beat the crap out of Pete? I’m not sure that passivity is the key.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Good point! It seems that that was motivated by his sense of honor — he was offended that Pete would say he became useless to the company after he fired them, when he was doing a lot of work and (as we later see) at great personal sacrifice.

    Plot-related speculation: maybe Joan will take up Lane’s financial duties in their entirety? He did say she could do his job… and that would make her 5% share retrospectively too small.

  11. Bex Says:

    Life and death are messy and gross a lot of the time. I applaud the writers of Mad Men for dealing with that honestly,

  12. dbarber Says:

    True that Lane fought Pete, but the basis for that action was (at least for Lane) agreed upon — there was nothing risky, in the social sense, for Lane to fight Pete. He was fulfilling a role. So passivity can still be confrontational, if confrontation is the social expectation. My point about Lane’s passivity would thus connect to his participation in “society.” What makes him passive, in other words, is his inability to take responsibility for a break with his social role.

  13. Alex Says:

    Surprised no one mentioned the final scene, which I found really quite moving.

    I thought the episode really illustrated Megan and Don’s relationship is strong, I can’t really describe why.

  14. jms Says:

    the warm blood of new life . . . with Sally’s menstruation

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaauuugh . . . .

  15. MikeWC Says:

    I’d really, really appreciate it if major spoilers like that were *below the fold.*

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I second jms’s scream.

  17. Brennan Breed Says:

    Sorry for grossing everyone out, even myself.
    But seriously, isn’t that what they are going for? I know it’s gross, but isn’t that the point?

  18. ben Says:

    If it is, it’s so tacky that we’re much better off pretending the timing was just a coincidence.

  19. Brennan Breed Says:

    I work primarily in Hebrew Bible, so the symbolic value of blood, including menstrual blood, is a pretty common thing for me to read about. Perhaps for that reason it doesn’t strike me as tacky.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was screaming about the gender essentialism.

  21. Brennan Breed Says:

    What about my comment is essentialist?

  22. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Jumping straight from menstruation to “life.” Sally’s experience isn’t mediated by her joy at being capable of reproduce now, I don’t think.

  23. jms Says:

    The warm semen of new life!

  24. dbarber Says:

    Well that is how Betty mediates the experience. Brennan’s no doubt right that theme’s there, no?

  25. Brennan Breed Says:

    Yes, I agree with you. I think that’s the way the show frames this event, nevertheless (as the other main event of the episode is Lain’s death). I’m not saying that Sally’s experience is mediated by joy — it’s clear that Sally is scared and upset. As I said, the symbolic value of “life” is ambivalent throughout Mad Men. Life-death, and so on.

  26. Brennan Breed Says:

    jms, isn’t that a really common symbol? Onan spilled his seed, and so on? I’m not saying these associations are without problems, but making them isn’t unusual.

  27. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think we need to discuss something other than whether and to what extent Brennan put his point in an icky way.

  28. Adam Kotsko Says:

    For instance, outlandish predictions!

    Mine is that SCDP will get the Dow Chemical account, with Ken as account man. He will be faithful to the pact and offer to take the business to Peggy’s new agency, setting Peggy up for the ultimate test of loyalty to Don.

  29. jms Says:

    Megan will be cast as the understudy for the Sally Bowles character in Cabaret, and have an affair with Joel Grey.

  30. ben Says:

    I’m disappointed that Megan apparently didn’t get a part in Little Murders, because what a great movie that play was made into!

    Also, it does seem curious that nothing’s been made of the Ken/Peggy pact. And it’s not, to my mind, for him to be faithful to it—it’s for Peggy, since she’s the one who left. (Maybe behind the scenes she’s getting an offer extended to him? Who knows.)

    It did seem as if Ken’s father-in-law, when seeing Don and Roger out, had softened.

  31. jms Says:

    Pete on Lane, channeling Anne Sexton: “That death was mine!”

  32. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It seems to me that the fight between Pete (the other main candidate for suicide) and Lane was foreshadowing — particularly when Roger said, “My money’s on Lane.”

  33. Josh K-sky Says:

    For the record, the very important record, I endorse Brennan’s comment about menstrual blood and found it insightful. That’s how Betty defines it to her–you can have a baby when you’re ready. Or are we just being grossed out by talking about menstrual blood?


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