Mad Men: “Commissions And Fees”
B+

Mad Men: “Commissions And Fees”

B+

Mad Men

“Commissions And Fees”

Season 5, Episode 12

So there’s this guy, Abraham Maslow, and in 1943, he proposed the idea that human needs pile up in a rough pyramid. At the bottom, you have the stuff you really need if you’re going to keep living—food and water and sleep and so on. And then you go up through the pyramid—through the need for safety, and love, and esteem—and you get to the top, where you confront the last need, the one Maslow believed only the happiest one percent of all people achieved: self-actualization. The basic idea is that your well-being relies on you achieving all of these needs. Obviously, if you stop eating, you’re going to die. But what comes after that? If you don’t have safety, you’ll probably die, too, right? But what about if you don’t have someone to love you or somewhere to belong? Would that lead to death? And what if you can never find people to respect you and your work?

Every step up the pyramid is just a new way to delay death, make it less immediate. Not having access to drinking water is a kind of death we all intuitively understand, and if it happens, you’ll be gone within a week or so. But it’s a lot harder to quantify the kind of death you might feel when you’re a man in his 40s, and you fear nobody respects you, and you mostly just try not to raise a fuss, and you do something awful, and you get caught. This is not death, not yet. You’re still living and walking and breathing. You can still converse with your coworkers and your wife. But deep inside, somebody’s opened the trap door, and you’re falling. It’s only a matter of time before the external matches the internal.

That’s what Don doesn’t get when he tells Lane that the worst part of starting over is the part Lane is facing in that very moment, the relief that comes from coming clean and realizing you have nowhere to go but up. Don’s been able to restart his life time and again because he’s bullheaded enough to only need his own belief in himself to count toward his self-esteem. Don Draper is the greatest guy on Earth largely because he believed he could be and then made it so, all because a hobo told him to remake his life if he didn’t like it when he was a little kid (or so the story goes). Don invented a myth of himself, then made it a reality, and he had the stupidity—or the intelligence—to never stop believing in the myth. Lane Pryce, a go-along-to-get-along guy if ever there was one, doesn’t have that myth. All he has is the ability to give and give and give until there’s nothing more to take. He keeps expecting other people to hand him the love and respect he so craves, yet he’s never able to just accept it when it’s handed to him. Don Draper doesn’t need that. He’s off chasing the nebulous concept of “happiness.” He’s not worried about what anybody thinks of him, and if he ever is, he’ll just start a new business or marry his secretary or completely change his identity. Nothing’s ever so bad that you can’t rewrite it.

I’m not sure “Commissions And Fees” entirely works, thanks to some odd structural choices, but I liked it all the same, mostly for those last few scenes. Don, Pete, and Roger force their way into Lane’s office to cut down his body from where he’s hanged himself. They lay him out on the couch, and Roger finds a letter—a suicide note, perhaps—that will hopefully explain everything. Instead, it’s a simple letter of resignation, just like the one Don asked him to draft earlier in the episode. When Don gets home, he comes across Glen, who’s just finished up giving Sally a whirlwind tour of the Museum of Natural History, then found himself stranded in the city, thanks to various circumstances. Don’s got no time for this, but he also doesn’t want to think about what’s happened. Driving Glen several hours to school doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, in that case.

But then the kid starts to speak. He asks Don if everything is always so crappy, if everything you do just naturally has to turn to ruin because that’s part of the human condition or something. It’s not exactly subtle, what co-writers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton do here. Obviously, this is on all of our minds just as much as it’s on Don’s mind, thanks to what Lane did. The show couldn’t have done a more obvious job of underlining the theme of the episode—and maybe the season (or series)—if a naked Bert Cooper had raced across the bottom of the screen, trailing a banner that read, “PLEASE ENJOY OUR THEMATIC CONTEMPLATION OF THE EMPTINESS OF THE HUMAN CONDITION!” Yet it works, all the same, because Don asks what would make Glen happy, and we cut to Don’s car, and Glen driving along on the road back to school, smiling. This is all it takes when you’re a teenager. This is all it takes to shut out the voices that tell you you’re not good enough or that you’re a failure, at least for a little while.

Let me express something that might seem a little baffling to some of you: I’m not sure Mad Men is the kind of show that desperately needs character deaths. I’m not saying I didn’t think the show built unbelievably to Lane’s end, nor am I saying that I wish it had just trundled him off to England to hang over the final two seasons of the show. Once Lane reached the point of hopelessness he reached around the midpoint of “Commissions And Fees,” having him kill himself was one of only two or three options that would have made any story sense, and the show accomplished this task with its usual mordant sense of humor (as Lane’s car not starting made us all think he might be spared by a trick of fate). The stuff after the body was found was all well and good, particularly the way it really did feel like the hum of business in the office had just… stopped, to be replaced by Joan’s quiet sobs and the hundred-mile stare of Pete and Bert. The show ushered Lane out in the best possible way you can usher a TV character who meets an untimely end out of the story.

Yet at the same time, the show seemed to constantly be fighting against the whole cheap, desperate feel of any TV death that comes up at the end of the hour and is meant to both shock and move us all at once. Please understand: It mostly was able to overcome this. But the whole thing felt just a little sordid, as though the show were stooping beneath itself. In this way, I had the same problem a lot of you had with last week’s episode, never believing that Joan would do what she did and feeling the writers pulling the characters’ strings at all times. There, I felt like the conclusion of the episode—roughly the last 20 minutes—earned some of the weird character beats in the first half. (Or, more accurately, I feel like Jaime Weinman’s diagnosis that the main problem with the episode was its suddenness is accurate—though I still feel like it was a powerful piece of TV.) Here, the conclusion felt oddly muted, dragged down by that weird elevator scene with Glen and some of the weird missteps on the way there, like that car Lane’s wife oh-so-conveniently bought him so he would feel like there really was no way out.

Put another way, all drama on a show like this is, ultimately, created by the writers. The characters will hopefully behave mostly like they always do, but it’s the job of the writers to throw obstacles in their path. And all season, it’s felt like the writers were walking Lane down a preordained path toward something. Now that we know what it was, I’m not sure the power of his final moments (or their effect on the rest of the office) is enough to offset the suddenness of some of the things that have happened to him this season. Granted, there’s one more episode in which the series can deal with this storyline, and the images of the man’s office first being violated by his coworkers and then his dead body hanging from the back of the door were powerful. But at all times, I was aware of the show’s writers wanting me to feel a certain way, where so much of the power of this series can often come from the writers sticking directly emotional moments into the midst of all the detachment.

It also felt like the Sally storyline—in which she gets her period for the first time—was a fairly glaringly obvious spin on the old, “One life is over, and another begins!” trope that so many fictional works have used to make a character death feel more profound. On the one hand, I liked that Mad Men didn’t strain for anything too much on this. Sally goes through a change all girls around her age will go through, and she turns to her mother when it happens. (Betty is wonderfully sympathetic in these moments, in a way the show doesn’t allow her to be as much anymore.) There’s a very nice moment where Betty points out to her daughter that this change represents the future, both of Sally and of the human race as a whole. This is a good and beautiful thing. And the show doesn’t strain too hard to find meaning where it doesn’t exist in Lane’s death, either. (Indeed, it’s almost more of a character moment for Don, which is an odd choice, but one the show mostly pulls off.) Lane was a man pushed by circumstances into a desperate corner, and he reacted as many men would in such corners. Don Draper might paint a hole in the wall and try to go through it, but Lane simply lets the darkness consume him.

On the other hand, there’s the very fact that the show links these two stories via cross-cutting and other editorial tricks. There’s also the fact that the show attempts to put much of the thematic weight of both storylines into the mouth of Glen, who’s not exactly the kind of character we want to turn to for wisdom in times like this. (I get that that’s the point, but c’mon: He’s Glen.) Yes, life is mysterious and interconnected and all of that bullshit, but I’m not sure the show needed to come out and spell out all of the things it was saying as bluntly as it did. This is a series that can get by with a certain amount of just telling you whatever is on its mind at the moment, but everything here felt constantly driven to get us to a specific point—with Sally huddled up on the bed with her mother, as Lane slowly came to the decision to end his life—and everything in the season felt so intent on getting us to some sort of “major death” that everything felt cheaper and cheaper the more I thought about it.

This may just be a problem with the medium as a whole, though. Character deaths have increasingly become a cheap way to goose drama, and the really meaningful ones are the ones where the producers take the time to build up to the death believably, then spend time paying off the aftermath. So much of the sad death of Lane Pryce felt like the writers going through the motions of getting us to the point where he’d be desperate enough to take his own life that I could never sit back and just let it absorb me. I was aware at all times of the show pulling levers and pushing pieces around on the board. The hopelessness Lane lost himself in never settled down over me. This is a series that’s always been so good about evoking spiritual death, but it’s another step further to actually evoke physical death, and I’m not sure it got there.

Except for in one scene. Don and Roger have gone to Dow Chemical to talk with Ken’s father-in-law—Ed Baxter—about having the company retain Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as its agency, and Ed has obviously only seen them as a matter of courtesy. Yet the second Don’s in the room, he’s hungry. He’s pushing. He’s the Don Draper of old. He sees something he wants, and he sees people who want it just as much as he does. Dow only has about 50 percent of the market on most of the products it sells. Wouldn’t it rather have 100 percent? For another split second, Don Draper is the Don Draper we knew those first four seasons, the guy who entered tailspins but always pulled out just in time to make the heroic sales pitch. It’s so dazzling and full-throated that it’s easy to miss that what he’s saying is fundamentally a little terrifying.

Don proposes taking and taking and taking and taking, until there’s nothing more left to take. But there are people like Lane, who don’t know how to do anything but give. They’ll just keep giving up things, until they’re giving up pieces of themselves, until they don’t know how to stop and they’ve lost everything. No one should blame Don for Lane’s death—Lane got himself into that stupid situation—but it’s also important to understand that Don has enough money to buy himself the luxury of a clear conscience, of doing the right thing. Lane has no such thing. He’s always boxed in. Don spends so much of this season—this series, really—talking about happiness, as if it’s a thing you can buy, but what he never realizes is that if you climb the pyramid far enough to start thinking about that top step, to start thinking about actualizing yourself, to even get to a point where you think you can buy happiness, you’ve naturally left a lot of people behind you. Some people climb higher and higher, and it never occurs to them that the people they pass are stuck on level three or four, stuck trying to find the way to be so cocky as to worry about something as simple as merely being happy.

Stray observations:

  • Nice touch: The boots Sally wears for her date with Glen are the ones her dad wouldn’t let her wear to the awards dinner earlier in the season.
  • Despite giving his all—and being an all-around weasel—to keep the firm afloat this season, Pete is ultimately going to get frozen out of some of the company’s biggest business, should Dow go with SCDP, thanks to the surprisingly cutthroat tactics of Ken Cosgrove. (I also really enjoyed seeing Roger show why he’s still worth whatever the company’s paying him in this scene.)
  • Further ammo for those of you who thought Joan’s actions last week were empowering: She sure doesn’t seem all that broken up about them in the partners meeting, even sharing a joke with Pete. It almost seems like Don’s the one who’s got a heavier conscience about the whole thing.
  • How much do you suppose Bert will put together about why Lane killed himself? Or do you think he just won’t care?
  • I’m trying to imagine a scene where Megan, Megan’s friend, and Sally all go to see A Fistful Of Dollars together and enjoying that thought very much.
  • Even when I’m finding plot developments sort of convenient, I’m enjoying the tiny details the show pours into them, like Lane snapping his glasses in two as he gets into the front seat of the car he plans to kill himself in.
  • In a lot of ways, I feel similarly about this episode as I did about season three’s “The Grown-Ups,” which I found largely monotonous. This is, of course, an extreme minority opinion, so I’m sure I’ll be in the minority on this one, too. Convince me I’m wrong!
  • Next week on Mad Men: Pete opens a series of doors, and enters a series of rooms! What a season finale!
  • No, seriously. How do you think this is all going to shake out? I predict Megan is cast in something she has to travel to perform in, and that will lead to some sort of argument with Don, one that might end with her choosing acting over him (the exact opposite of what she said she would do last week). 

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