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“Mad Men” 5x12: An inelegant exit
June 4, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode
Episode title: “Commissions and Fees”
Significance: This week’s title was culled from the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce partners discussion of a Jaguar proposal to pay the agency by fee rather than the standard 15 percent agency commission. We’re thinking the confused discussion that led Bert to “move to study the matter – and then study it” will have implications for the firm down the road.
Time passages: Based on the snowfall and the reference to “A Fistful of Dollars,” the episode takes place late in late January or early February of 1967.
Happy?: Drama, by nature, is about exploring man’s capacity (or lack thereof) for happiness. So technically EVERY episode of “Mad Men” has been about the joys, jealousies, foibles and fears involved in chasing what is perceived as (and why it’s perceived as) “happiness” in the 1960s in America. But rarely has an episode hit us over the head with the point (with mixed results) the way “Commissions and Fees” did, highlighted by what almost certainly will become one of TV drama’s iconic quotes: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” As is standard with a Don Draper ad pitch, the context of that quote (trying to convince Dow Chemical to switch agencies) was only a small part of how it applied to the whole episode. There were harbingers of happiness, perceived happiness and failed happiness everywhere, from Sally’s go-go boots to Roger’s cocktail waitress. “Mad Men” is so well written and so well acted and so gorgeous to look at that at times we all overanalyze it, looking for meaning and nuance that aren’t really there (and don’t need to be). When all is said and done, we think “Commissions and Fees” was about exactly what it seemed to be about: A desperate man taking his own life, a driven man dealing with the guilt involved in always serving his own interest first, a young girl discovering she’s not as eager to be a woman as she thought, and a tormented young man learning that happiness is only found in the present and sometimes in the simplest of ways. Is that cliché? Almost certainly. Does that mean it couldn’t or shouldn’t have happened that way in the “Mad Men” universe. Almost certainly not.
Suicide watch: The death that’s been foreshadowed all season on “Mad Men” came to pass this week as poor Lane Pryce – a man who had very little capacity for happiness, as his wife reminded him just hours before his death – was driven by foolish pride and circumstance to hang himself by his necktie in his office. Although we secretly (or not so secretly) wished it would be Pete and feared it might be Don, Lane was the right “candidate” for the death, facing financial embarrassment and ruin, the way so many suicide victims do. The meticulous setup for Lane’s death paid off in so many ways, from the unreliability of his new Jaguar (bought with money he and his wife didn’t really have) to the horrified reaction of Don when he learned the other partners had not cut Lane down (likely imagining the hanging death of his half brother, Adam, and reliving all the guilt) to the letter Lane typed out beforehand that turned out not to be a suicide note (as we assumed) but rather the letter of resignation Don had requested after discovering Lane’s embezzlement. In a nice touch, though, the lyrics to The Lovin’ Spoonfuls “Butchie’s Tune,” which played over the closing credits, could easily have stood for the note Lane never wrote:
Please don't you cry when the time to part has come
Line of the night: “Everything you think’s gonna make you happy turns to crap.”
Don was fatally mistaken when he told Lane he'd already been through the hardest part of rebuilding his life.