(This recap contains SPOILERS for the episode 'Commissions and Fees.' If you have yet to see the episode, stop reading now)
In its focus on the topic of generational shift, Mad Men has concentrated the season's efforts largely on the optimism of youth, and the unflagging desire of the young to seek out and obtain their place in the world. Megan (Jessica Paré) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) have certainly been the poster children for this notion, as they've found a modicum of success relatively early in one form or another. But one question spans the generational gap, and that is: What of the many who put themselves out there and find only setback and disillusionment? At what point is it too soon to become jaded, and when does failure ever justify throwing in the towel?
Mad Men has always been a program about those success-driven people for whom the word "no" is not a viable option; failure doesn't come easy to them, and when it hits, it hits hard. We've seen it time and time again, as Don (Jon Hamm) has found himself faced with a situation of imminent rejection that he somehow manages to transform into triumph – one where he is not only the victor, but the object of worship, as well. This season has been a bit of a change, though. Don has drifted away from his pursuit of success, seemingly content with what he's achieved. He has drifted away from where he is most comfortable: The driver's seat. And after losing Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) to a rival agency, Don is beginning to once more see the light.
So as Don readies himself to truly start over – not the kind of hangdog pursuit of Jaguar that led his partners to pimp out Joan (Christina Hendricks), but the steely resolve of a man who knows how to get what he wants – his determination for renewal is met by the abject failure of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). And to think, after the events of 'Signal 30,' many voiced concern that the emotionally troubled party would be Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) – especially after he was met with a particularly humbling beating – it turns out Lane was the closest to the edge.
Having taken out a line of credit to cover his tax problems, and then masking it as a surplus to be used for Christmas bonuses, Lane's deception was ultimately short-lived. When confronted by Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) about a canceled check he'd apparently signed, Don plays it cool, despite being castigated again by Cooper. He affords Lane the opportunity to come clean, and when Lane does, is obligated to demand his resignation. Lane's response, a mixture of forced regret and righteous indignation, combined with his rather unfocused demeanor since the season premiere, sets the stage for what comes next.
Facing utter ruin, Lane's troubles seemingly compound after his wife, Rebecca (Embeth Davitdz), purchases a new Jaguar to congratulate him on his recent success. In a bit of pointed irony, his first attempt to end his life is stalled by the notoriously unreliable Jaguar's failure to start. Undeterred, Lane heads to the office, types up the letter of resignation Don requested and hangs himself. It is a tragic end to the man who arguably risked the most in the effort to bring Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to life. The shock of Lane's death is measured by its own inevitability, but that does nothing to dilute the situation's emotional impact. Things had been looking up; he'd believed himself out of a financial jam with none the wiser, SCDP had managed to land Jaguar after initially botching the first attempt to woo the car company and he had recently been given a rather prestigious appointment. But to paraphrase Glen (Martin Holden Weiner), "Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap."
For some, that realization means heading back to the place they are most comfortable. As mentioned above, for Don, that's taking the bull by the horns and going after a company he'd allowed himself to believe SCDP had no business pursuing.
Don and Roger (John Slattery) get a meeting with Ed Baxter (Ray Wise), in the hopes of landing Dow Chemical. Don's attempt to land Dow is the Draper of old – right down to the threat of firing Ken (Aaron Staton) if he continues to have a problem with going after his father-in-law for business. (Turns out Ken doesn't have a problem, he just won't accept Pete Campbell being anywhere near the deal.) For others, though, the realization is that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they may not be ready to accept the reality that comes with going for those things they most desired.
In regards to Sally (Kiernan Shipka), it's the shift from being a child, to that of an increasingly independent young woman. Having badmouthed her way out of a ski trip with Betty (January Jones) and Henry (Christopher Stanley), Sally utilized her time with Megan to act as the adult she felt she was becoming – ordering coffee and remaining unfazed by the increasingly adult conversation of Megan's friend. Faced with the tantalizing prospect of time alone in Manhattan, Sally cajoles Glen into traveling several hours to see her. The two head out to the museum and the conversation eventually turns to the possibility of sex. Right on cue, Sally "becomes a woman," as her mother would say, and the prospect of this sends her back to the woman she'd recently shunned; it sends Sally to find her way back "home," a place not many in the series can ever return.
Though Mad Men has dealt plenty with the notion of death, it hasn't been so directly related to the actions of a single person (Don) since the hanging suicide of his half-brother Adam Whitman (Jay Paulson) in season 1. So it's no surprise that in the wake of such an event, Don would take responsibility for Glen, telling the young man it's too soon for him to be so pessimistic, taking him home although it would mean driving several hours out of his way, and stepping out of the driver's seat to give Glen what he wanted – all the while being right there to make sure it didn't turn out crappy.
Mad Men ends season 5 next Sunday with 'The Phantom' @10pm on AMC. Take a peek at the episode below:
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