Instead of “Commissions and Fees,” last night’s episode of Mad Men really could have been called “Chekhov’s Gun.” The chosen title works quite well on several levels, just like everything else in Mad Men, but what we got last night was the proverbial shotgun blast that we had all been simultaneously anticipating and dreading.
Beyond that particular event, which I won’t spoil before the jump, the entire episode was about the prices we pay for things, both literal and figurative, anticipated and unanticipated. Perhaps that’s what the entire season has been about, in a larger sense, but last night’s episode was nothing if not jarringly, grotesquely specific.
For those of you who took real classes in college that required you to do real things like solve math problems and pass multiple choice tests, allow me use my comparative lit minor for the only 30 seconds of my life that it will ever be professionally useful to explain Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov, Russian writer of incredibly depressing things, had a little theory about red herrings and how they should and should not to be used. To paraphrase, any gun that’s introduced in the first act must be fired by the third.
That can mean a lot of things, and in grand Russian literary fashion, Chekhov was a tad opaque about his intentions. It can either be seen as a philosophy on foreshadowing or the advocacy of an economical narrative structure, but to me, it’s always seemed like a little bit of both. Either way, Mad Men has always been a show that doesn’t write extraneous “guns” into the plot; we may not always know exactly what’s being foreshadowed, and sometimes the gun turns out to be a water pistol, but it’s almost always fired eventually.
In these recaps, we’ve been talking about suicide all season. The specific methods that were foreshadowed were jumping from a building (Megan, Roger, Pete, maybe even Don), self-inflicted gunshot wound (Pete) and some sort of vehicular “accident” (Don), but somehow, it never even occurred to me that the method might be hanging, let alone that the person involved might be Lane. At least not that I remember; looking back on it now, it seems really obvious, but that’s the brilliance of this show. We spent so much energy trying to figure out how and where and which gun was going to fire, exactly what clues had been encoded into the season’s narrative, that the most logical answer never seemed like the right one.
Of course it was Lane who committed suicide. For all of the characters who are living lives of quiet desperation on this show, Lane was the only person whose problems were truly untenable in the longterm. Don’s unhappy, but he’s always been unhappy. That’s just his default state of being, and the provenance of his birth virtually guaranteed that long before we ever knew him as an audience. For several episodes, Roger spiraled downward, but his acid trip and divorce seem to have solved that, and the divorce was always a solid option that he knew he had. Pete’s endless narcissism and ambition mean that he’ll never be satisfied and will always feel like the world owes him something, but that’s the kind of strife that propels you endlessly and destructively forward, not downward and to suicide. Joan’s situation before last week’s episode was not ideal, but she was far from the only single mom of the era, and she’s a survivor. So’s Peggy, whose problems have paled in comparison to everyone else’s all season.
And then there was Lane. If there’s one kind of problem that never goes away, it’s tax problems, and Lane’s solution – stealing from the company – only made the explosion more inevitable. He’s always been taken for granted, though, both at SCDP and by audiences; it must have been tempting for him to believe that all was well once the money was in his account, because who would suspect him of wrongdoing? Who would even remember that he worked there?
All wasn’t well, though. Bert took it upon himself to review the company’s financials after Jaguar requested a departure from the agency’s normal fee structure, and in doing so, he found the check that Lane had forged almost immediately and confronted Don, whose signature adorned it. In turn, Don confronted Lane, who chugged a glass of whiskey like he went to a state school and went through most of the stages of grief in under a minute before resigning himself to his fate. Don was going to need his resignation, of course, but he gave him the weekend to figure out a way to do it with some dignity.
Don also told Lane that what he was feeling was relief, but even before we knew Lane’s ultimate fate, that seemed unlikely. Don Draper is a man pushed ceaselessly toward success by the resolute belief that he can be the man he wants to be, if only he can figure out how to re-write the story in his favor. Lane, on the other hand, needs the kind external validation that people don’t give particularly freely and for which he is too timid and self-effacing to ask, let alone to demand. That he was dealt this blow what must have been mere hours after accepting the role as financial steward of an ad industry professional association made the whole thing all the more crushing; he’d have to give up even that small victory of self-confidence.
Meanwhile, at the Francis House of Darkness and Wood Panelling, someone with a far more developed sense of self was in the process of extricating herself from a family ski trip. Sally Draper has her father’s bullheaded sense of self-determination and willingness to demand that her life continues on a certain path, and the latest affront to those pursuits was Betty’s insistence that she go skiing. Sally is correct, of course; spending a couple days in the city with your cool New Mom would be way more fun than watching Fat Betty skid down the bunny slope. On the other hand, I’m surprised Sally didn’t go purely on the hope that she’d get to watch Betty hit a tree.
Back at work, Don had moved from his office to Roger’s to drink and complain, but he didn’t tell Roger that he had just fired the firm’s financial head. Instead, he had some more generalized things to discuss, like how Jaguar and potential new client Dunlop are just two more Mohawks, which meant that the firm wasn’t really going anywhere, no matter what they tell themselves. Interestingly, that attitude was in stark contrast to the Don Draper of a few seasons ago, who was livid at the idea of ditching Mohawk for the opportunity to pitch to American Airlines.
In some ways, though, Don is a little like Pete Campbell. A small taste of success, like landing Jaguar, is as frustrating as it is exhilarating because it reminds you of all the accounts for which you’ve yet to pitch. Of course, Don’s fears of terminal inadequacy have been stewing since the American Cancer Society awards banquet, where Ken’s father-in-law told him that no large company would ever work with him because of the infamous letter he wrote to the tobacco industry. Lane’s financial impropriety made that frustration bubble over, and Don demanded that Roger get them a meeting with Dow Chemical so he could lay the groundwork for a pitch for their business, in spite of what had been said at the awards banquet. If anyone was going to be on the receiving end of a bout of Draper Rage, it might as well be that dude.
By that time, Lane had made it home to his wife, who seems to be forever on the wrong emotional page. She didn’t know of his firing and Lane didn’t tell her, and despite the fact that he was visibly intoxicated and in an incredibly bad mood, she insisted that they go out to dinner to celebrate. What, exactly, I’m not sure – perhaps his Four As board membership? Even in that moment, when Lane had every reason to deny someone else’s requests on his time, he acquiesced and let his wife have her way. For a moment, I thought that Chekhov’s Gun might end up being a drunken car accident.
When they got down to the garage, things were even worse than they might have been before, and arguably worse than they would have been had the upshot of the scene been a car crash. Mrs. Price had taken it upon herself to surprise Lane with a present: a brand new Jaguar in British racing green. Where there had been no hope before, the spontaneous purchase of the car put a stark end to any hope that might be tempted to visit in the future; we know from two weeks ago that it cost $5600, and even if his wife got a good deal, that’s most of what Lane stole in order to pay his taxes. Even his last-ditch effort to save himself had been thwarted from every angle.
After vomiting from a mixture of booze and terror, Lane spent the weekend drinking cognac out of a teacup and trying to make financial sense of the mess in which he had found himself. There was no exit in sight, though, a fact which we already knew, and probably so did he. His legal pads and tea cups held no respite; if they did, he’d have found it before he got desperate enough to start forging checks and stealing money. The jig was up.
Lane has nothing if not a stiff upper lip and sense of decorum, though, so instead of making a scene in front of his wife (or even telling her what was happening), he got out of bed in the middle of the night and headed down to the garage. Armed with a garden hose, a rag and a bottle of liquor, he got into the car that sealed his fate and tried to direct the exhaust into the interior. When he went to crank the engine, though…nothing. The car wouldn’t start, because it was a Jaguar, so of course it wouldn’t start.
When Lane couldn’t get the engine to turn over, I thought that perhaps Weiner wasn’t going to fire the gun after all; perhaps we had all been given a reprieve from death and a chance for Lane to think better of his actions. The next time we spotted him, in his darkened office, pecking away at his typewriter, was open-ended enough for us to think that perhaps he was going to soldier through while we paid attention to the episode’s other stories. In fact, I almost forgot about him by the end of the episode, which is a testament to how perfectly drawn Weiner’s characters are; of course Lane’s that forgettable and invisible. That’s one of his central problems as a man.
At Don’s house, on the other hand, the problems were mostly logistical. Sally’s sudden presence meant that someone was going to have to take her to school on Monday, but that was impossible because Megan had an audition and Roger had actually managed to secure a Monday morning meeting for Don with Dow Chemical. Sally would have to take a day off from school, and after testing out the idea that Glenn might be her boyfriend over a diner breakfast (and coffee – how adult) with Megan and her actress friend, Sally invited him to take the train down and spend the day in the city with her.
Glenn came, of course, and surprise, surprise – he’s not exactly a big man on campus. He’s got a newly grown-in creepy mustache and the kind of social skills that make other people’s parents suspicious, but Sally likes him, even if he did awkwardly confess to her that he had told people at school that they were going to sleep together, in hopes that he wouldn’t be bullied so badly in the future. Putting up with that stuff is just part of being a teenage girl, unfortunately, and based on the boots that Sally had selected for their outing to the museum (the same ones that Don had made her take off before his awards banquet earlier in the season), she was eager to test out the trappings of womanhood. Unfortunately for her, that eventuality came a little quicker than even she had expected.
After complaining of an upset stomach, Sally excused herself to the bathroom, where she found blood in her underwear. Unlike my own experience with that particular moment, Sally knew what it was (I was kind of an early bloomer, unfortunately, and hadn’t really had that talk yet), but that didn’t make her feel any better about the fact that she’d have to bleed for a week every month for approximately the next 40 years of her life. And I don’t blame her – having a period still seems like a totally raw deal to me, even though I’ve already put in 15 or so of my 40 years. Sally Draper: once again, not incorrect.
Apparently the actuality of becoming a woman hit Sally a little harder than even she expected, because the sight of blood sent her out onto the street, into a cab and all the way back to Rye, without so much as telling Glenn that she was leaving the museum or warning Betty that she was on her way home. Once there, we got what was perhaps the only genuinely sweet moment of the episode – Sally throwing herself into Betty’s arms and Betty hugging her right back, overjoyed not only that Sally had chosen her over Megan in that moment, but that she had chosen her at all. Betty rarely gets any validation as a mother, and even though she’s not a very good one, it was great to see a couple of moments of affection amidst Betty and Sally’s usual adversarial power struggles.
Speaking of power struggles, while Sally was in the city getting her period, Don and Roger were waiting outside of the office of Dow Chemical’s CEO for a meeting that would be only an hour and 45 minutes late. Roger had run a clever diversion of Ken Cosgrove to get the meeting in the first place, and as part of Ken’s participation in that clever diversion, Roger had promised not to bring Pete along or allow him anywhere near the account. So it was just Roger and Don, smoking and waiting. Once the meeting started, Don got straight down to business – even if Dow didn’t want to work with SCDP, he’d do work so good and get such impressive sales results that they wouldn’t have any choice. Continuing to punish the firm for the letter would become detrimental to their business, and if there’s one thing that a man like Ken’s father-in-law is willing to do, it’s throw in with someone he doesn’t like on a personal level in order to make a few more bucks.
The meeting was short and powerful, a display of confidence and and swagger by Don that only occasionally betrayed just how badly he wanted the Dow account. If being a small firm hasn’t yet made him completely happy, perhaps he can rewrite his story as the head of creative at a big firm. There might still be time for that, if he hustles, and that’s exactly what he intends to do. Well, at least up until that point in the episode, that was what he intended to do.
Back at the office, we were given what felt like a throwaway scene at the time – Lane’s secretary brought Joan the firm’s ledgers and books, which she had found sitting on her desk, and which she couldn’t put inside Lane’s office because the door was locked. Simple enough. As a viewer, I certainly didn’t expect Lane to be in on time on Monday morning just to tender his resignation, and structurally, the scene where Joan accepts the books and the scene where she tries to deposit them back in Lane’s office were split by Don and Roger’s meeting. (Or maybe it was split by Glenn’s sudden arrival at the Draper residence, sans Sally. I can’t quite remember. Point is, things were split up.)
When Joan tried to unlock the door and found resistance, though, my mind started spinning back through the episode, trying to remember where we had last seen Lane. He hadn’t shown up since we found him tapping away at his typewriter in the middle of the night, of course, and I immediately felt silly for assuming that the botched suicide attempt and his presence in the office meant that perhaps he had gotten a reprieve. There are no reprieves in his kind of situation, and Chekhov’s Gun had to fire eventually.
Unable to open the door, Joan burst into Pete’s office next door where he, Ken and Harry climbed up on the couch and looked over the divider, just as Peggy had done last season to watch Don’s falling out with his pre-Megan secretary. Until I saw the look of abject horror on Pete’s face, I still held out a small hope that perhaps Lane had simply trashed his office in a rage, knocking a piece of furniture in front of the door. Of course, that wouldn’t account for the smell that Joan noticed, and it wouldn’t leave him any method of egress from the room. That’s because he never left.
The show took its time giving us the specifics, and I wondered whether or not we’d see the body. We did, but not until the entire office had been cleared out except for Bert, Joan and Pete, drinking in the creative room and waiting for both Don and Roger to return and the coroner to come and cut Lane down, which I believe was the first time we had been told that he hanged himself. Don, ever the dissenter, demanded that they go cut him down immediately themselves; it would be disrespectful to leave him strung up like that.
And that’s when we saw the body. The show didn’t tiptoe around it or use the most delicate angles possible; instead, we saw exactly the type of fetid, grey-faced destruction that the combination of Lane’s invisibility and his financial straits had wrought, and Don saw a tragedy of his own making. It was, after all, the second time that someone had hanged himself after a particularly nasty run-in with Don, if you recall his half-brother Adam from early in the series. Everyone was horrified, but Don, knowing what he knew, was particularly crushed. It was no mistake that he was the one to catch Lane’s body when it fell. The last, and maybe even most heartbreaking detail, was the note they found with the body: it was simply a stock letter of resignation. Even in his grisly death, Lane was decorous.
Afterward, Don did the only thing he could do: He went home. Once there, he found Glenn waiting patiently with Megan for his train back to school after his mad search for Sally, and because nothing clears the head like a good, long drive, Don offered to drive him back himself. In the elevator on the way out, things got a little bit too on-the-nose, but resonant nonetheless. Glenn asked why it is that everything that’s good eventually turns to crap, which is a good question, even if it is a little too literal of an explanation of what everyone’s feeling at this point in the series.
We’re all on these endless little hamster wheels, all the way from the people at Dow Chemical, who have to keep innovating tirelessly in order to stay at the top of the industry, to Don, who won’t be satisfied with his work until he has literally all of the clients, to little Glenn, who got so close to the type of transcendent teenage love everyone thinks they’re supposed to have before having it snatched out of his grasp by Sally’s own hamster wheel march toward the adulthood that she suddenly doesn’t want as badly as she once thought. And you can’t opt out of the hamster wheel, because if you do, you end up hanging from the back of your office door, waiting to be cut down by people who didn’t like you all that much in the first place.
Where that moment could have become extremely maudlin and depressing, Don saved things as much as they could have reasonably been saved by getting a bit fatherly. He asked Glenn what he wanted at that moment, more than anything else in the world, and we cut directly to that answer – Don in the passenger seat of his car, Glenn behind the wheel, steering them both home while The Lovin’ Spoonful played in the background. Maybe it’s ok to let the kids drive, in both a literal and figurative sense. Maybe fighting that eventuality only makes it harder to get the hamster wheel to turn.
- I am both an awful person and a grammar nerd, so it made me happy that Bert used the grammatically correct “hanged” instead of the more popular “hung.”
- Christina Hendricks probably doesn’t get as much credit for being a good actress as she does for being a hot actress, but the way she played the scene where she thinks something is terribly wrong in Lane’s office is perfect. You can see her getting redder and redder before she bursts into tears, which is the sort of emotional reaction that separates the men from the boys, so to speak.
- In case you were wondering, the song playing over the closing credits was The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune,” the extremely appropriate lyrics of which you can read here.
- This moment was nowhere near serious enough to get a mention in the narrative recap of an episode like this, but the fact that Roger has already moved on to some anonymous 25-year-old cocktail waitress brings me great joy. Some people never change.
- I thoroughly enjoyed the opening office scene where Joan had taken her place as a partner and was training a new secretary to perform her former duties running the partners’ meeting. Except, of course, when Don just HAD to refer to Joan’s indecent proposal. I know he did it more to shame the men in the room than to shame Joan, but still, you can’t do one without doing the other, so just shut up, ok?
- Speaking of partners: Now that Lane has met an untimely demise, what happens to the name of the firm? One can only hope that it will be Sterling Cooper Draper Holloway, but I think Sterling Cooper Draper Campbell is more likely.
- As killed-off characters go, Lane was a pretty safe choice. I’m not sure if that’s a criticism or not, and if it had been a more central character, I’d probably be irritated that the show went for shock value. So, I tentatively approve of the choice of Lane, if someone was going to have to die. And the way that the season had been set up, someone definitely had to.
- I don’t think Don had any choice but to fire Lane, and in fact was rather charitable in taking the blame for him in front of Bert, giving him the opportunity to resign instead of being fired, and then giving him the weekend to think about things and come up with a narrative of his choosing for why he’s leaving the agency. In any other situation, Lane would have been marched out of the office by building security immediately after gathering up his coat and coffee mug. A lot of companies would press charges on top of it. Don’s only the bad guy by virtue of being the person whose name Lane signed to that check.