Mad Men: Commissions and Fees

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: It seems futile, to me, to attempt to eulogize Lane Pryce. For a man so utterly complex and so consistently facing feelings of inadequacy, lack of fulfillment, and conflicting performances of identity, it would not be far fetched to wonder whether he would take his own life. This episode, it can be argued, was incredibly predictable. But that is not a detriment to the episode as a whole, for the acting on the part of Jared Harris, in particular, but also of Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, and Christina Hendricks stuns the audience into yet another Mad Men-induced trance.

Hamm, Slattery, and Kartheiser did not rehearse the scene where they find Lane’s body hanging in his office. According to an interview with Jared Harris, he was put up in the harness, all made up, and when the men burst in and find him, it was the first time seeing their costar, their fellow actor, dead in a role addressing the pressures of a business that, we have seen, can push people over the edge. Acting and the pressures of fame bear resemblance to advertising to the degree that certain people will do anything to achieve success in their field, but as we have also seen the pressures can have extreme and tragic consequences. When Don, Roger, and Pete stare at Lane’s corpse, (fully made up with disturbing chafe marks suggesting the amount that Lane suffered in his last moments) they are staring into a distorted fun-house mirror of their own lives, of what happens when it all gets to be too much, and what they all have been pushing the boundary of for the past five years. Yet, as actors, the men see the last episode of someone that they have come to know and respect in their profession, in a final punctuation of his time with this job. Their faces show shock, terror, and a paralyzingly powerful amount of understanding. That moment, that scene, takes Mad Men to a whole new level of haunting.

It is so hard for me to encapsulate the brilliance of Jared Harris’s performance as we see his struggle throughout this episode. One can only watch, be in awe, cry a little bit, and breathe. We see a man past the point of no return, dead inside, still walking around and going through the motions of living and engaging for the final hours of his life, as if every step, every breath, was an unspeakable form of torture. It rattles an audience member who has seen the charming Lane, the pitiful Lane, the badass Lane (briefly, in that glorious fist fight with Pete), the sexually confused Lane, and the wanting Lane for three years now on this show. There is that feeling of so much being unfinished with his character: a brilliant move on Weiner’s part. We will always be left wondering, confused, and mystified by the Rex Harrison/Stewie Griffin/British rogue anti-hero hybrid of his character. A tragedy difficult to really put into words.

What is it that we can show on television? “Commissions and Fees” shows Sally Draper getting her first period with the immensely appropriate WTF reaction of every little girl, but also with a shot of the evidence. The red marks and green complexion of Lane’s strangled body being cut down and awkwardly placed on his couch drove home a horror for the audience that is far from gratuitous. However, these moments would be nothing without the emotional paratext: Sally’s fight with Betty, her coffee date with Megan, her “kinda-date” with Glen, the moment where she grabs Betty and hugs her needing the comfort of her mother at a time of change and confusion, Lane’s crushing meeting with Don, his harmless and bumbling flirtation with Joan, Lane’s wife buying him the Jaguar that is such a dud that he can’t even gas himself with it, and his final cryptic resignation “To His Fellow Partners.” A shocking image is called gratuitous and unnecessary when the rest of the diegesis is lackluster, hackneyed, and contrived. “Mad Men” pushed, yet another, boundary of what you can show on evening television on a major cable network without the plastic elegance of a mimeograph script, but with a grit and humanity that “Mad Men” has in unfathomable abundance.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Oh, sure. Kill off the Mets fan before 1969. Poor Lane never got what he wanted. There’s some alternate universe where he and Joan go celebrate on that island, Joan in the bikini he so vividly described, after Cleon Jones drops to one knee.

I can’t say the rest better than Sonia already has, so I’ll isolate a few moments that stuck out for me. The predictability of Lane’s death- and like Sonia, that reality didn’t bother me, but actually added to the suspense as he raced against time to get it done- didn’t mitigate the shock at it actually happening. That it happened in the office was both perfect for the show and utterly appropriate for the character. Oh, and that Jaguar isn’t even reliable enough to kill you was a deliciously morbid joke.

Was I crazy to begrudge Betty for getting the pleasure of Sally’s warm hug after she officially became a woman (or is that Bat Mitzvah? Official can be so confusing)? A woman so ill-equipped for motherhood that she actually jumped back at the first rush of affection from her daughter doesn’t deserve it. Interesting that in the lead up, though perhaps idle chatter, Sally wishes Henry would leave Betty. We can imagine a man as loving as Henry, for all his poor bets (John Lindsay’s political career cratered at roughly the rate Betty’s figure did), treated Sally well. Still, blood is blood, as this episode ably demonstrates.

One minor note: did Lane’s wife have a personality transplant? It’s really off-putting, when we remember the cold, angry woman he was married to when we last experienced her. Suddenly, she’s become Mary Poppins with money. What the hell was that?

Overall, I’m thrilled we get one more week to digest, and see the cast digest, the three epic moments that this season will be known for: Peggy leaving, Joan taking one for the Jaguar, and Lane’s demise. A lesser show would have, after Lane is discovered, left us hanging.

About Sonia Brand-Fisher

My name is Sonia Brand-Fisher and I am a film studies major at Smith College. Interests include vintage film and fashion, fake-swing dancing to early Standards, cooking lavish meals that stem far outside of my culinary comfort zone, and musing over the implications behind all things aesthetically intriguing.
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