5:23 pm Jun. 4, 20123
A lot of the emotions I felt watching last night’s episode didn’t exactly have to do with what was happening on the screen.
I started to suspect Lane was going to kill himself a little while ago, and so it was just a question of whether it was going to happen in this episode or in the finale. And so in place of shock were those knotty stabs of dread that well-crafted suspense sends reverberating through your body. When would he do it? How would he do it? Most importantly, why?
The tax storyline wasn’t an easy one. It felt clunky and plugged in, which was a real problem considering how far reaching the ramifications were. When Junior (SPOILER ALERT! Seriously, stop reading this paragraph if you haven’t watched “The Sopranos” yet) tries have Tony killed because he told Carmela that Junior liked to give head, it’s one of the most satisfying chain effects in television history.
Lane’s tax problems didn’t have nearly the same effect. Even when Don asks him the question many viewers have been wondering themselves—why he didn’t just ask for help?—his answer of “Why suffer the humiliation for a 13-day loan” felt more like Matthew Weiner addressing our concerns than an actual explanation.
"Mad Men" at its best has a real participatory quality to it. That scene in Don’s office was every bit as much about what we know about these men’s pasts and how they are accustomed to dealing with their inner demons as to what was being said. We know that Don’s been having an especially rough go at it as of late, that his abandonment issues have been flaring up like ulcers and that as a result he has had to shut down even more than usual.
It’s unclear whether Lane’s conversation would’ve gone differently had the events of the last episode not occurred, if he still felt moored to either Peggy or Joan. I lean toward yes but then again, his approach to mercy has always been different with the men in his life than the women, in a pretty traditional sense. Just think about what happened with Sal. When it comes to keeping your secrets—which Sal and Lane both had—Don is your man, but he also won’t hesitate to cut you loose if those secrets are jeopardizing his business.
Lane’s desperate drift from one excuse to another was hypnotic to watch. It was the reason people slow down to stare at car crashes. If only Megan could walk into one of her auditions and unleash that range, she’d get any part she wanted. But again, all the sadness for Lane it made me feel was separate from the words he spoke. He has always made us sad. He could’ve killed himself any number of episodes or seasons ago and we would’ve understood the reasons in his mind for doing so. Of all the characters, he wore his despair on his natty sleeve. It’s in the pallor of his skin, in the way his eyes seemed like the color was always draining away behind his glasses. When he broke the frames of those glasses while sitting in the new car he would never drive, the firm crack they made was the sound of relief Don talked about. No more having to be polite or play by the rules. No more having to pretend he’s not picturing Joanie naked whenever they speak, while knowing that not only could he never have her but she could do his job just as well as he could. No more being afraid.
Suicide is a melodramatic, supremely overwrought act and I thought the show’s depiction of Lane’s conveyed all of that. In a show about what it means to be a man, of course the sports car shouldn’t start. Going to the office was Lane’s final act of sheer willpower. He couldn’t close the Jaguar account but he was determined to finish this one final job. I won’t forget that first sight of his body after the men pushed their way through into his office.
I just wish there’d been a lighter touch applied to the rest of the episode. I needed less of Don and Roger talking directly about the problem with happiness and more moments that just let that idea calmly sit there for us to absorb. In episodes like this one where Matthew Weiner feels so control-freaky over our interpretations, it doesn’t help that Glenn is played by his son. I also needed some sort of carryover from the darkness I felt last week with Joan. That felt like such a game changer but this week we were back to the business at hand of killing off a character, just what we’d been waiting to see happen all season.
This is the second time that Don has indirectly caused another man to hang himself. The first time was his brother, which seems like such a long time ago. The show has changed a lot since then and so has Don, but in that shot where Roger reads Lane’s resignation letter, the way the camera did that pan forward so we move closer and closer to Don’s face, he goes back much farther than when we first met him. It’s the look of a scared little boy.
Roger says it’s all become too easy, that even the sex is disappointing now. Don tells the client that happiness is having all of it but that’s certainly not working for the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Don tried caring—for Peggy, for Joan—and he got burned; so now he’s putting all his energy into convincing men who turn acid into weapons that they’ll never be bored because of how diverse their products are. He’s selling them the equivalent of the story Roger tells himself every day when he wakes up next to a new young girl. He wrote the tobacco company letter, the one that brought the agency’s great hope, Ginsburg, to his knees, in a moment of inspiration; now Don’s just trying every dirty trick he can think of to win the war.
I recently saw a film called Margaret by Kenneth Lonergan. Anna Paquin plays a New York teenager who indirectly causes the death of a woman, played by Allison Janney. Anna is flirting with a bus driver played by Mark Ruffalo and he’s so distracted that he doesn’t stop for a red light and thus hits Janney as she crosses the street. Moments later, she dies in Anna’s arms, and Anna spends the rest of the movie trying to absolve herself of her guilt. At one point she says to Janney’s best friend (played by Elaine May’s real-life daughter) that she thinks she feels the weight of the accident more because she’s so young; something like that had never happened to her before. The friend answers, “No, it means you care more easily.”
If happiness is the moment before you need more happiness, then the principle applies to grief as well. The real indication of who you are as a person is about whether as an adult, you still manage to feel the pain after all you’ve been through.
Sally is just starting off. She has so much more pain yet to go. Already though, being the baby boomer generation representative that she is, her highs and lows are so tempered. She approaches her life with a muted curiosity, unsure of who she should be focusing on as a role model. She officially became a woman in this episode, in a move that felt too spot-on for me. I definitely felt like I could see Matthew Weiner’s hand reaching out to pay for her train ticket back home. He’s made such a strange extreme mess with Betty’s character this season that it felt too late to send her daughter back into her arms. I’d prefer we just call Betty a wash this round and start over with her next year (or whenever this show starts up again.)
In general, Sally has been a bit of a disappointment for me this season. She has the potential to be the greatest of them all. Whenever she’s in a scene, I just want to watch her forever. She could just sit there doing homework, her little mind hatching a little scheme about how she’s going to steal one of Megan’s lipsticks away, and I’d be happy. But there’s an unease that the show seems to feel around her, a lot like Don himself does actually. It seems unsure of exactly what to do with her.
Glenn originally told Sally he’d have his paper done in time but then there he is in the apartment—Sally refers to it as Megan’s—still finishing up the book. Even with all his young energy, he’s unable to get it all done. He didn’t even manage to fit in a shave. Sally, meanwhile, left her house that Friday a child and returns to home a woman and Megan breezes into the apartment, already having an audition under her belt by lunch. The women are making up for decades of lost time by becoming more efficient while the men are slowing down. Or, in the case of Lane, smashing the pocket watch altogether.
There was a nice little parallel between Glenn choosing Sally over his schoolwork and Don working through the weekend while his wife entertained his daughter. There was none of the escapism of his life with Betty, when he was actively choosing the office over his home life. Now it’s more that he’s under siege, overwhelmed by everything he has to do. He’s forgetting to call home. The idea of having only 48 hours to prepare a 10-minute meeting throws him into a panic. He’s trying to make decisions on his own, like the grown up Bert Cooper keeps implying he is not, but they keep backfiring. This latest one ended with a man hanging from the ceiling rafters.
Some may disagree with this (Peggy, I hope you’re not reading this) but to me, Don does seem to be maturing a little more with each episode. Take the full extent of his reaction to Lane’s death. At the office the guilt hits him hard but by the time he arrives home, he’s more tired than anything else. Even though he fired Lane, it was Lane’s pride that kept him from seeking help in the first place. Letting Glenn drive meant he was thinking beyond his own self-pity, something Lane had ultimately been unable to do. Don might not be able to feel the pain anymore but he can at least help a kid feel joy. Perhaps he’ll give himself permission to wake up the next morning and remember all that and not blame himself for Lane’s death, but probably not. That’s a pretty big thought and as we learned from Roger, the problem with enlightenment is that it fades, and then you’re right back to wanting to kick your fellow man in the balls.
Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes a weekly essay on "Mad Men," every Monday this season.