The interview below contains plot details from the most recent season of "Mad Men" — anyone who hasn't seen it and would prefer to avoid spoilers is advised to come back to it after getting a chance to catch up.
Season five of Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" was shadowed with omens of death and doom, from Betty's (January Jones) health scare to Don's (Jon Hamm) fever dream of killing a former lover. The Richard Speck murders and Charles Whitman shooting rampage lurking in the historical background. But when that darkness arrived at the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it was via a character whose downfall felt all the more tragic because of its terrible rapidity and seeming avoidability.
Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) had a busy season — the British senior partner got in a fistfight with Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and made a pass at Joan (Christina Hendricks). But tax troubles he took pains to keep hidden from his family and coworkers led him to make the ill-advised decision to embezzle from the company, and when found out and told to resign by Don, Lane instead hangs himself in his office. With "Mad Men" season five out on DVD and Blu-ray today, Indiewire caught up with Harris to talk about the character's arc and saying goodbye.
Knowing what was coming with your character, did it affect how you looked at those earlier episodes in any way? It’s already a pretty melancholic season, even without knowing what was going to happen toward the end.
I had an appreciation for how well Matt [Weiner] had layered certain things in the season, not just in my storyline, but in other people’s storylines. Once you’ve read the whole thing, which you have by the time you’ve shot it — and then you start seeing it — you notice things that you missed because you didn’t know what was coming up.
You see how he layered a lot of things in there or where he put red herrings to throw people off; you’re always trying to guess where the story is going, so he deliberately puts [things] in there to throw people off. I appreciated all of that. I shot my last episode in December, so by the time stuff is airing, it’s six months later, you know. I had that long to get used to the idea — at that point, I’m actively pursuing other work because I have to, in that sense you’ve sort of moved on from it. We all said our goodbyes and everything.
I know you'd mentioned in interviews that before shooting had started, there was talk of the possibility that a character might die.
You know what it is — the thing is that it was over the stuff that came out, there was all that posturing that goes on in those trade papers. I think there was an idea that it was a possibility — plus Matt, you know, he likes to shake things up, to knock his audience off balance so they don’t know what to expect. I think actors always feel that way — insecure, you know.
The season does seem to have a lot of foreshadowing of death, though — did it also seem that way from the production side?
I mean, for example, there is a line on the show where someone else on the train says, "They’re gonna be dead by Christmas" or something like that. And all of this talk of suicide; Don’s drawing a noose. Eventually you start to put stuff together like that, but I didn’t think Lane was going to die. I knew he was in trouble when he was forging that check, but when Matt told me that he was going to kill himself, I immediately knew it was going to be tremendously dramatic and have a big impact. So I could tell, from an actor’s point of view, "Wow, that’s a big statement. It’s going to be juicy for me to do." But it was a surprise. I didn’t expect that.
Weiner has said that one of the themes of this past season was "Every man for himself." I was wondering how you saw that reflected in Lane’s journey.
Lane found himself really isolated. If you think about it in terms of office politics, he really wasn’t able to forge any kind of a relationship with Don, but, you know — who does? Roger Sterling [John Slattery] and he can’t stand each other; he thinks that Roger is an idiot, that he’s a child. He tried to form a relationship with Pete, but that didn’t work. His biggest ally, then, is Joan — and you obviously know what they think of Joan. They pimped her out.
He’s isolated, he’s trying to find a way to fix it and he’s trying to find a way to make himself more relevant to the business. And that’s the reason he chases the Jaguar opportunity. If he had felt more secure about his role and his position in the company, he would’ve just handed that off to one of the boys as a business lead — he would’ve been happy to sit back.
But because he felt that he was becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the company and didn’t know how to promote himself, he did something that he had no business doing — that’s just not his world, he’s just not that guy, he doesn’t understand how to manage an account or anything like that.
As much as it is a very sad arc for Lane, he also got some of the funnier moments in the season. The scene with the attempted suicide in the Jaguar, which is very dark humor, but also the fight with Pete. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that and the choreography — which really reflects two people who are not necessarily experienced street brawlers.
Not at all. There were two levels of comedy going on in that scene; one is that it’s the two office dorks fighting each other, and then the clash of styles: you’ve got the old, bare-knuckled style of fighting coming from Lane, and then the American bob-and-weave style of fighting coming from Pete… And neither of them are very good at it, either.
Lane’s probably had a bit more experience than Pete, but it was obviously funny and, at that point, I had no idea where that whole thing was heading — although I have to say, the scene afterwards when he’s with Joan on the couch, and he says "What I do here, you can do it" — that was a red flag. That wasn’t a good sign. Anyone who was on set that day came and watched it because it’s quite rare you have a scene like that on this show and also, just the idea of these two dorks fighting each other — it was immediately very funny.
In terms of Lane’s relationship with Joan, I wanted to ask you about the scene in which Lane advises Joan to demand a partnership in exchange for being, as you said, pimped out. Was it surprising to you that he told her that as opposed to telling her not to do it?
I think one of the things he finds out in the scene is that she is thinking of it. It’s $50,000 — back then $50,000 was an enormous amount of money. I think it’s times seven, isn’t it? So that’s like $350,000 nowadays. So she’s thinking about it. And he finds that out early on in the scene — he’s obviously covering his own ass, and he realizes that is an enormous amount of money and that it might be enough to tempt her. He goes in there to see where her mind is at.
Quite possibly, if she had expressed outrage, that she would never in a million years think about it — that scene might’ve turned out differently. I think because there’s some daylight in her mind about it, he decides that, to save his own ass, he’s going to give her this advice: don’t take the money, take the partnership.
What he says is not untrue, and that’s the way in which this show is complex. What he says about his own experience is true — he made a bad deal, and he’s been underwater ever since he made that deal. And he’s been struggling ever since. And the predicament that he’s in at that point in time, which she doesn’t know about, is based on the fact that he’s made a bad deal at the end of season three. But he’s doing it to protect himself because he doesn’t want it to found that he didn’t have that money and he cooked the books.
On that note, in the scene in which Don confronts Lane — do you think that your character had any kind of hope that Don would somehow help him out or help him cover it up?
He didn’t think that Don was going to ask him to resign, absolutely not. He didn’t think that he was going to get fired. That comes as a shock. When he realizes that’s where it’s headed, he suddenly completely recalibrates everything and expresses penitence; before then, he’s making excuses for himself, he’s saying, "I haven’t really done anything that badly. You guys have just prostituted Joan out. And that’s criminal." He’s aware, even as he forges the check, that he’s at a moral crossroads, but I think he’s hoping he can spin it off in a different way. Once Don says "I’m going to need your resignation," he expresses remorse for what he’s done and hopes that he can prostrate himself before Don and find mercy.
There’s a very important moment in that scene where if Roger or Don had found themselves in that position, it wouldn’t have ended the same way, because they would’ve fought their corner. There are ways that Lane could’ve got himself out of that spot, but he doesn’t understand it and he doesn’t do it. There’s plenty of cards he has that he doesn’t realize he has, and he doesn’t play them. I think that he could have easily threatened them with blackmail, stuff like that, you know. But he doesn’t do it.
There’s a moment there where he gives an explanation for what he did; Don asks, “Why didn’t you just ask me for the money?” and Lane’s response is, “Why suffer the indignity for a 13-day loan?” And the answer is so mad, so crazy, that you can see — the way Jon plays the scene is that Don’s looking for a way out. He doesn’t want to do what he thinks he has to do, and he’s throwing Lane a life raft, hoping that Lane will find a way out of it. But when he says that, you can see the whole thing crash inside of Don’s mind; he realizes that he’s gonna have to do what he has to do, he’s going to have to let Lane go. It’s a really important moment and that was really Jon, and his understanding of the scene and his illustration of that idea that there was still an opportunity there that Lane doesn’t take — and you can see the idea, the hope, get snuffed out in that moment.
There was a sense throughout the season of Lane never quite understanding the rules of Sterling Cooper — like his getting angry about the client he brought in being taken out to the brothel.
He’s not one of the boys. He would like to be, but he was never invited into that executive lounge, if you like. I don’t think that Don or Roger associated or hung out with Lane unless absolutely required to. But what you’re referring to there is — he’s angry because he sees the Jaguar account as a personal success for him that would give him leverage within the company, that would make him relevant again.
And he knows that when you are no longer necessary to the company, not long after, you’re going to be given your hat and shown the door. He knows that unless he finds a way to make himself relevant, they’re not going to keep him. They’re losing respect for him and they aren’t going to keep him. If someone else can do the job that they don’t have to split the profits with, well then, that’s the way of business. Trim the excess, trim the fat, and he’s gone.