Mad Men Watch: Farewell, Lane

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Jordin Althaus/AMC

Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) in Mad Men - Season 5, Episode 12

There’s a haunting idea of suicide in literature: not the taking of one’s life, necessarily, but how one prepares to end his earthly existence. No one wrote about this better than William Faulkner. In the second section of The Sound and the Fury — famous as the most powerful but also the most confusing part of Faulkner’s magnum opus — the brilliant and disturbed Quentin Compson wanders near the Harvard campus, preparing to commit suicide. He spends the day as countless suicide victims (both real and fictitious) have, getting his affairs in order before jumping off a bridge. Quentin packs a travel bag, then remembers he hasn’t brushed his teeth, so he opens the bag to get out his toothbrush and use his roommate Shreve’s toothpaste. “Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat,” he says. “I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn’t have to open the bag any more.”

The first time Lane Pryce attempted suicide in last night’s episode of Mad Men, “Commissions and Fees,” he did it in the brand new Jaguar his wife bought him. Because Pryce kept his financial calamities such a secret, his wife had no way of knowing they couldn’t afford it. Unable to deal with the shame of having embezzled money from the company by forging Don’s signature on a check, Pryce runs a hose from the Jaguar’s twin exhaust pipes and seals off the windows. As he committed what he thought would be his final worldly act, the narration ran through my head as Faulkner might have written it: “After setting the hose near his face, Lane removed his glasses and snapped them in half at the bridge of the nose. He wouldn’t be needing them anymore.”

(READ: Mad Men Character Study: Cleopatra Joan)

In the end, Pryce did need his glasses for a little while longer. There’s been a running gag about the Jaguar that it’s “like a Dodge but less reliable,” and when Pryce needs the car to kill himself, it won’t start. So after composing a resignation letter, he hangs himself in his office. How did Pryce, the reliably self-disciplined, stiff British finance officer fall so far to kill himself? The act was one more deeply tragic event in a season that’s seen characters behaving wildly out of character. As James Poniewozik explained last week, Joan’s allowing herself to be pimped out so the firm could land a car company was way off base. It wasn’t believable that she would allow herself to go from where she was in the beginning to where she wound up in the end.

Perhaps show runner Matthew Weiner knew he overreached last week, because Pryce’s journey was a tragic downfall that’s been playing out for weeks. We knew his check-forging scheme would come to a head at some point, but it didn’t seem likely that Don would stand on such principle and insist that Pryce resign (this is, of course, the man who stole the identity of his dead commander in the Korean War, but that’s beside the point). What seems highly likely is that Don was so angry that Pryce forged his signature, he refused to back down. After that, Pryce’s suicide didn’t seem entirely out of the question, and the fact that the Jaguar didn’t start was a nice piece of irony.

Weiner said that last night’s episode was about “validating life,” that amid the tragedy of losing a colleague in such a horrific way, Don is reminded that sometimes life is about the little pleasures. When he comes home to discover Glen waiting for his train back to boarding school, he offers to drive him. As they’re riding down the elevator — a man in midlife with a five o’clock shadow and a teenager with stubble on his upper lip — it’s the boy who spells out life’s pessimism: “Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap,” Glen says. Then Don asks him what he would do if he could do anything. The episode ends with Glen driving Don’s car up the highway, Don helping him steer straight. It’s the final unexpected giftthe creepy kid who once asked Betty for a lock of her hair teaches Don that happiness in life can be as simple as trying something new, driving a car when you’re 14.

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Suicidal ideations: Much of the discussion of last night’s episode will probably center on Lane’s choice to end his life. (And on a day when he was ironically named the head of the fiscal-control commission.) In losing Lane we lost a great character, but sadly, he fits the profile of a typical suicide. According to a 2008 study published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health, the demographic at highest risk for suicide is older white men. While more women attempt suicide, more men succeed because they often choose more-violent ways to end their lives: jumping off bridges, self-inflicting gunshot wounds, hanging. One of the largest contributing factors is financial difficulties, which started Pryce’s downward spiral.

The neighborhood kid returns: For much of this season, we’ve been wondering when Sally is going to snap. After being fed sleeping pills, catching Roger in a salacious act and generally being disappointed with things, Sally ran the risk of becoming a severely disgruntled teenager. But her “date” with Glen — a trip to the Natural History Museum — saw her get her first period and turn the corner to becoming a woman, which drove her straight back to her mother’s arms. It was, all in all, a pretty innocent experience. And it’s nice to see Glen hanging around; he is one of the more creepily entertaining characters on the show.

Don vs. Dow: Part of Don’s rebirth is a newfound worry about the legacy he will leave behind. Sure, he’s won a slew of awards and made more money than he’ll ever need, but he’s clearly unhappy with both being in a middling firm and doing the kind of morally reprehensible things necessary to land big clients. So he goes for the old-school direct confrontation of Dow Chemical. It’ll be interesting to see if this tactic pays off, but the historical references to the antiwar protest against napalm use not only are great pieces of color, they help date the episode nicely.