“That’s relief. I’ve started over a lot, Lane. This is the worst part.” -Don Draper
So it looks as though the producers and writers of MadMen have found a seasonal pattern on which they can rely. Tragedy is heavily foreshadowed in the last few episodes, then revealed in the penultimate episode, so it can be dealt with in the finale. In season four, the tragedy was SCDP's loss of Lucky Strike, their largest client. This week, after the idea of suicide had been peeking in from the wings all season, Lane Pryce, undoubtedly one of the finest men ever to associate with Sterling and Cooper, made multiple attempts on his own life, and in the final attempt he was tragically successful. With only one episode remaining in the season, it's hard to imagine a finale that doesn't center around our crew coming to terms with this awful event. Though it's obvious that financial pressures were the chief motivator of Lane's felo de se, let's see if we can look back at his story this season and find some other contributing factors.
In the first episode of the season Lane's financial difficulties were repeatedly hinted at. He lashed out at wife Rebecca over money, he considered keeping the wallet he found in a cab and accepted a reward from the wallet's owner when he decided against keeping it. He also had a telephonic flirtation with the Wallet's owner's mistress, but though there was flirtation, it went nowhere and ended up frustrating Lane. Lane is not above cheating on Rebecca, as we learned last season when he had a serious love affair with a Playboy bunny until his visiting father put the kibosh on it, via physical violence against Lane. This season, however, Lane was not seen consorting with ladies other than his own, he was mainly seen failing in that arena. With the wallet lady, and with Joan, repeatedly. Furthermore, his friend from across the pond who was his entree to Jaguar specifically refused to go out womanizing with him, because he believed Lane to be gay. So a season long pattern of emasculation and financial strain were notable contributing factors.
Taking into account all we've learned about Lane, this season and last, all the pieces were there for a suicide. Obvious financial pressure, familial discord and even familial violence, embarrassment and ridicule over his failure with women, profound feelings of inadequacy among his business partners. Spelled out like that, one almost wonders how they made the suicide such a surprise. At different points this season, it looked as though Roger or Pete were more likely to engage in self harm than Lane, but as soon as I saw his shocked, pale, sickly reaction to Rebecca's gift of a new Jaguar, I had a strong feeling that Lane was running out of options. Later that night when he was working at home, I put in my notes, “he’s checking on final details like life insurance. This is going to get bad,” and by the end of the episode my fears were borne out.
It’s a mark of the singular greatness of MadMen that this sort of longer story arc can be so subtle, yet equally effective. This was not “the season where everything was about Lane’s imminent suicide,” but at the same time, there’s nothing we learned about Lane this year that runs contrary to what we saw this week. His quintessential ‘Britishness’ carried through even his terrible last day on Earth. His first suicide attempt actually played to the audience like a joke. Rebecca bought him a new Jag, with money the couple didn’t really have, which was the financial straw that broke the camel’s back, and Lane attempted to seal himself in it and poison himself with carbon monoxide, which would’ve made Rebecca’s gift Lane’s coffin. But it’s a Jaguar. They never start when you need them, “you need a separate car to actually go places.” So Lane makes his final decision, and announces its finality by breaking his glasses, and then he can’t start the car to make it into a proper death machine. I must admit as heavy as the scene was, I laughed. But Lane, rather than reading the Jag’s failure as an omen, keeps his Stiff Upper Lip and moves on to plan B. If he can’t make a Jaguar his coffin, than the next most appropriate symbolic place to off himself would have to be in his office. It was suffocating him near to death even as he lived, so it’s somewhat appropriate, in a fictional sense, that he should die there, by his own hand. One might even say that as suicides go, Lane’s was a bit aggressive. He’d have known that Joan would be the first to try his office door, and must’ve liked the idea of being found that way, a final chance to show her how different he is from the other partners. Of course his complicity in Joan’s bad acts of last week was a contributing factor. Notice this week, after Don fires him, his first stop is Joan’s office, where he reveals his anger at her continual rebuffs of him:
Joan: Can you imagine me locked in a hotel room with a baby and my mother?
Lane: (angry,) I suppose you’d rather I imagine you bouncing in the sand in some obscene bikini.
This episode opened with Lane accepting the treasurership of a professional organization called the “4A’s,” which in my head stands for the Association of American Advertising Assholes, but in reality indicates something more like the Association of Advertising Agency Accountants. This organization was going to put Lane, whom we know to be an embezzler in a deepening financial hole, in charge of its funds. My first thought was that it was a way out for Lane, if an immoral one that’d make his overall problem worse, and I think that was Lane’s first thought too; but later he seems to realize that he can’t keep stacking lies and crimes and ever hope to come out on top. (Will Don Draper ever realize this, or has the world treated him too kindly for him to ever see it?) Perhaps if Don hadn’t found him out and fired him, he would’ve proceeded to embezzle from the AAAA and made good eventually, but those questions are moot now. The question of import is how will Lane’s death change SCDP, and what will happen to those left alive moving forward.
Lane’s death provided one more opportunity to draw a line between the generations in the office. Recall the mid season story where Pete couldn’t fix his own kitchen sink, and Don could? How like that is the moment where Pete preferred to leave Lane hanging from his office door, while Don and Roger preferred to cut him down and show some respect? Don (or Dick,) came of age during the depression; things that might shock or appall us are commonplace to him. He’s loath to call a repairman for a problem he can handle himself. Or perhaps he’s merely afraid to accept help?
Sally has come a long way this season, with a long way still to go. Given her parentage, I think she’s maturing into an impressive young lady. It’s no surprise that she’s willful and determined, but she has a humanity that both Betty and Don often lack. Her friendship with Glen is perhaps the only friendship on the show where neither party desires anything from the other beyond true friendship. They seem to understand each other well, they’re willing to reveal embarrassing secrets to each other, and they care about each other in an age appropriate way. After Sally took a runner from the museum, Glen came looking for her back at the Draper’s out of concern, where many other teenage boys would’ve just split. (Did anyone else think their scene at the museum looked more like a Wes Anderson scene than a MadMen scene?)
Sally “became a woman,” this week, which caused her to run back to Betty. It’s more than natural that a girl should want to be with her mother at this important time. Megan, though deeply worried about the missing Sally, understood this easily when Betty called her to let her know what had happened; and Betty, whose default setting is to lambaste Sally for any minor transgression, finally got to give Sally some love and valuable motherly advice. In fact I’d wager that the things Betty told Sally about her womanhood were some of the most sensitive, soft and loving words she’s ever said. It was a tender and touching scene that may reset the dynamic between Sally and Betty (and Megan,) in season 6.
The week’s Sally story had an impact on the lovely closing scene of this episode, as Don granted depressed Glen’s wish to drive a car, and the two men both reflected silently on their lot in life, and how much their dispositions, which after all they can’t help or alter, determine their satisfaction in life rather than do their accomplishments or possessions.
Don reacted to Lane’s embezzlement strongly, forcing himself into work with renewed vigor. Speaking to Roger about the direction of the firm, he tries to set the sights a bit higher than Pete has been doing until now, “He still thinks small. Dunlop’s another Topaz, another Mohawk, it’s another Coat-Check girl. I don’t want Jaguar, I want Chevy, I don’t want Mohawk, I want American. I don’t want Dunlop, I want Firestone.” Note that, with his remark about the coat check girl, Don finally makes explicit the connection between seduction of ladies and the pursuit of new business, something that’s been thematically pointed to all year, especially with the Heinz Beans account.
Don’s renewal seems pretty genuine, he put the fear of God in Ed Baxter and the other execs from Dow Chemical. His pitch there, which wasn’t really a pitch for Dow, but rather one for SCDP and for Draper himself, seemed to highlight the fact that this Don Draper, the one who makes clients feel things, has been missing all season, lost in Megan and management and malaise. One hopes that Baxter and Dow and the revivified Don will be a focus of season 6.
So What the Heck’s Gonna Happen?!:
Firstly, may I just complain here that the absence of Peggy hung over this episode like a dark cloud. The show is shallower and less whole without her, and I don’t know how the producers plan to counteract that next season.
Beyond that the road is wide open for the finale and for season 6, which we’d expect to take place mostly in 1967. Will Don be working for Dow, makers of Napalm, as the summer of love sweeps the nation? Will Joan move into Lane’s role as financial manager? Will Megan make it as an actor? Will Sally be able to continue living with Betty?
The preview for next week’s finale, though they’re always cryptic, seems to indicate that we’ll deal with the emotional fallout of Lane’s suicide, that Megan will receive some disappointing news, probably related to her new career, and that Pete and Trudy will have some sort of meeting of the minds. There were other hints dropped, but they’re too vague to be of much use. Last season’s finale brought closure to some storylines, but left just as many things open to explore this season, and I expect a similar feel for the upcoming finale. One thing’s for certain: this time a week from now, we’ll be left with a great deal to think about until MadMen returns next spring.