“Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap.”
–Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner)
This whole season of “Mad Men” has been so shadowed with death that the fact that someone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finally embraced oblivion wasn’t quite a shock. But that is was Lane (Jared Harris), whose embezzling his way out of a precarious financial position was bound to catch up with him eventually, was unexpected — like some others out there, I would have put my money on Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). And Lane’s surreptitious stealing of a few thousand dollars to get himself out of a tax jam (his “13-day loan”) just didn’t seem all that serious, either to us or to him — confronted by Don, he tries to laugh it off and is shocked when instead his colleague lays down the law.
Lane has been the most restrained and rule-abiding of the SCDP population — his major office outburst, in which he punched out Pete to everyone’s satisfaction, came in part out of shock at a client and friend being taken out for a night at a brothel. Lane’s not perfect, but compared to Don (Jon Hamm), to Pete and certainly to Roger (John Slattery), he’s a paragon of forbearance.
He does, however, have terrible timing. SCDP is still a-tremble with the aftershocks from what happened last week, which sets off a domino chain of events that ends in Lane hanging himself in his office, paying the highest price in an episode titled “Commissions and Fees” that’s all about bills being due and debts needing to be paid.
Would Don have been so hard on him if weren’t fresh off the senior partners’ selling off of Joan (Christina Hendricks) in order to land the Jaguar account? “You know you can’t keep being the good little boy while the adults run this business,” Bert (Robert Morse) scolds when showing Don the check on which Lane forged his name, but Don’s never been the little boy — he’s the dad, and he plays the terribly disappointed authority figure here instead of one who chooses to be protective of his coworker.
Don notes that Lane never said anything about his situation, echoing what Roger later says to Don with regard to the comments Ed Baxter (Ray Wise) made about the tobacco letter and no one ever being willing to go into business with someone who stabbed their client in the back. Everyone’s too proud to admit that at home or inside, they’re shaking to pieces.
So Don offers Lane time to “think of an elegant exit,” and the one Lane settles on is a permanent one after his wife (Embeth Davidtz) buys him a Jaguar — he hasn’t deigned to share the truth about their economic insolvency with her, either, and throws up more from panic than from the alcohol he’s consumed when he sees the treat she’s bought. (Lane’s existence seems to have always been one of intense, self-selected loneliness.)
The blackly humorous first failed attempt in which he plans to commit suicide in the new sports car he can’t afford only to have it not start doesn’t just come across as the fulfillment of a joke long in the telling, it also set us up to expect Lane to live — but he goes through with the deed after all, alone at work, having allowed no one to know how dark things had gotten for him.
And Lane’s not the only one with dues to pay — Ken (Aaron Staton), who’s always insisted on keeping his work separate from his in-laws, is maneuvered into playing along as Don pitches his father-in-law, and in turn uses the power on his side to ask not for a partnership (“I don’t want to be a partner — I’ve seen what’s involved,” he offers icily) steps up to insist Pete be kept off the account (Ken’s always been the zen one about his rivalry with Pete, but the moment made his true underlying feelings about the guy evident). And Don, filled with disillusionment about everything in his life, charges into that meeting with Dow Corning with fire in his eyes, not because he feels a renewed passion for his work but because he can’t stand the thought of it staying as petty as it is, as small time.
Sally (Kiernan Shipka) also experiences a crushing bit of disappointment when she coaxes a visit out of Glen, who travels from boarding school to see her for what she hopes will be some romance. Sally’s old enough to order coffee at the restaurant with Megan (Jessica Paré) and her friend, she’s old enough to choose not to go with Henry (Christopher Stanley) and Betty (January Jones) on their ski vacation, she’s old enough to get her first period and old enough to get her heart broken by a boy who tells her she’s just like his little sister, but all that growing up together sends her fleeing back to her mother — who, for once, actually comforts her daughter, pleased to be wanted.
There’s one more episode of “Mad Men” left this season, and even if it ends with the company getting the giant Dow account, that doesn’t seem like enough for the price that’s been paid by its members in the last two episodes. “What is happiness?” Don barks. “It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” And any wisp of that emotion that Don grasped onto in the beginning of this season seem long gone now, a fact that, perversely, seems set to turn him back into the master ad man he used to be. Satisfaction and ambition may not be directly in opposition in the world of “Mad Men,” but it’s a show and an industry about longing, about the things we lack. Everyone has an emptiness inside he or she’d like to fill, until that hope becomes impossible, and, like Lane, you check out of the game entirely.