"Mad Men" Deconstruction: Ep. 12: "Commissions and Fees"

A minor character departs and no tears are shed here, just thoughts on lost opportunities for others past and present.
Jared Harris as Lane in 'Mad Men'

This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That’s the point. If you haven’t seen the episode, please come back when you have.

This will, of course, go down as The Lane Suicide Episode, but it won’t go down as one of the better Mad Men episodes. I suppose if you think of Mad Men only as a sophisticated soap opera, then it delivered to you something of a shock and, at the very least, some action. Lane kills himself. Gasp. But if you watch Mad Men for something deeper, this is the What Took You So Long? episode or the Why Are We Even Doing This? episode. Here’s why: The Lane story this season has been both odd – or, more accurately, disjointed – and predictable. If you didn’t know that the embezzlement mixed with unhappiness would lead him to kill himself, well, not much is going to help you there. And while there was great humor in Lane’s failed suicide inside the Jaguar because it wouldn’t start, it wasn’t like anyone thought he’d given up on the notion. Thus, the office hanging completely lacked surprise.

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In “Commissions and Fees” – even the title gave it away – I much preferred the more subtle and far more important character changes in both Don and (shocker) Betty.

Don’s slow excavation this season from his existential crises took a few more baby steps when he got his mojo back at work, continued his newfound patience and understanding as a husband and took a moment to divert Glen from the all-compassing pointlessness of life that has enveloped Dick/Don for years as he gives the kid a chance to drive a car for the first time, to experience some joy in life. Sometimes, as Don knows all too well, it’s those little moments that keep you going because, hey, maybe there will be another moment like that right after you deal with a bunch of other soul-crushing crap in your life.

And to me, the drive in the car was worth the more heavy-handed dialogue Glen spoke in the elevator: “Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap.” That, in case you were diverted by the clothes and the booze, is really the central message of Mad Men, though it would have made for a clunky show title. I was willing to take that line -- one that is such a fog-cutting declarative sentence about what the show has been trying to get at -- despite it coming from Glen, who had no real reason to spout it. Never mind that he’s been creepy and his parents divorced or whatnot; those are separate issues. The actual line pertains to what happened to him that day, but it doesn’t make a connection because if he really loved Sally or really wanted to sleep with her, he defused both notions when they were in the museum (a segment I was hoping would be more than it amounted to), as did she. He wasn’t bluffing when he said he thought of her as a little sister. The trip into the city to see her seems more a chance to escape some oppression at school and see a friend than anything momentous. While I have no doubt that Glen and Sally bond over loneliness or displacement, just missing the connection of spending a day with her would not prompt Glen to drop such a depressing bomb in the elevator.

I bring that up because it’s just a minor writing device that worked but was placed in the wrong hands (or mouth, as it were). Extrapolate that a hundredfold, and you’ve got “the Lane situation.” While Jared Harris is a wonderful actor who had many fine turns in Mad Men, his character served no real purpose after the formation of SCDP (which might now be SCDH – for Joan). In fairness, what did work was his desire to escape England (and his father and, yes, his loving wife) to be remade in America. It’s a very Don-like notion. Also, his relentless and odd and sometimes funny pursuit of happiness also fit in, but the question is, at the cost of what (or whom)? Ultimately, the Lane storyline felt tacked on, an addition that sometimes went places but mostly did not (see the Season 5 opening two hours). Also, and for me most damning: I don’t think Lane would have gone the embezzlement route. I just never bought it. He could have asked for a loan; the notion of pride hindering that just doesn’t work. The moment he cooked the books, he was doomed -- and everybody should have seen that coming, even up to the suicide. It was a predictable end to an unpredictable character.

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Instead of following Lane all these years -- on a path that never really paid off emotionally -- wouldn’t you rather have had Mad Men follow Sal? Once they fire themselves and start a new firm, the Sal storyline could have been picked back up and, with Sal being gay, it seems like there would be more to say as the culture changed in the background. Beyond that, since Sal was an original, I believe he was a bigger fan favorite than Lane ever was.

So considering all of that, my reaction to Lane hanging himself was more good riddance than sorrow. That’s not callous, it’s a practical application to the Mad Men story. Here we are in Season 5, a season dominated by Megan storylines, and we have almost nothing at all to say about Betty and certainly more that could be said about Peggy. Hell, I would trade 90 percent of the Lane storylines to get more Ken Cosgrove storylines. That’s essentially my frustration with Lane and why this episode didn’t conjure up more sympathy. He always felt like an extraneous part in the story.

On the other hand, this was an episode where Roger was funny throughout. And relevant. Matt Weiner’s Season 5 theme of selfishness played out nicely in a number of characters, as well.

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What worked the best was Betty finally being allowed to have a positive emotion toward her children. Her early-episode pissing match with Sally kept up what we’ve seen from her basically since Sally was born: disdain, inflexibility that turns to anger or resentment because Betty, too, is a child. So wanting to “strangle” Sally and then dumping her on Don in the least helpful or loving or even safe way possible was pure Betty, who continues to be played as the evil ice queen (even though her “child bride” line to Don was funny). And then, out of nowhere, when Sally gets her period, she goes running to her mother. This is a difficult and complicated emotion to make believable on television (particularly when you’ve been directing the viewers to behave a certain way toward a character for so long), but that’s what made it so great. Despite it all, Sally returns to Betty. And in doing so, Betty’s veneer breaks. She’s there for her as a mother. She’s taken aback by the strength of Sally’s embrace (a mother being every child’s “home base” no matter what’s transpired between them). Both Betty and Sally each give a little here. It’s not Megan who Sally runs to (partly because I think Sally understands that while Megan treats her more like an adult, the reality is that she’s not treating her as a mother would, with boundaries put in place for a reason  -- not letting her drink coffee and listen to conversations about whether the carpet matches the drapes). She goes back to Betty because, in that moment, she needs a mother. It was essential, too, that the writers let Betty’s ice crack and show some humanity. It was nice to see and a long time coming.

As for Don, we might see in the season finale if he feels responsible for Lane’s suicide, but he shouldn’t. He was covering for Lane, giving him a chance to resign and not have a firing on his résumé. He gave him time to plan “an elegant exit.” Bigger still, he was going to cover the money and there wouldn’t be any legal issues. Lane committing suicide is just another example of selfishness, since that is ultimately what suicide is -- concern about oneself and not those who surround you.

But what Don did seem to take from Lane’s suicide is a reminder that reinvention -- and running -- is not for everybody. Lane didn’t feel relief upon being caught. He didn’t think this was the hardest part and it would get better. He thought it was the end. And he acted on it. If this were Don, he'd be in California by now.

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Lane's suicide is partly why Don doesn’t let young Glen get his mind working in that direction. Living in your head, examining what you want and don’t have, searching for happiness and not finding it even when you get it -- that’s what Mad Men is about. It’s another small gesture in Don’s evolution that he’s going to delay Glen’s own existential crises just a little bit longer by letting him find some happiness in the little things. Maybe Don is beginning to realize that’s where most of our happiness lies.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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