Monday, 4 June 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Commissions And Fees' analysis / review

Mad Men has never really known what to do with Lane Pryce. Where Don is the master of taking control of a losing situation and breaking through crises with sheer force of will, Pryce has always been the quiet man in the back office, working hard for little reward or satisfaction. His storylines since the foundation of SCDP have mostly been one-offs, single-episode vignettes rather than full season arcs, of a man who desperately wanted but rarely managed the strength of will to claim anything for himself. As he points out to Don when confronted over the cheque he embezzled from the company to cover his debts, he's the one who has invested most in the company, operating on a loss for three years, yet finds little mercy when it comes to his wrongdoing.

Don's right to demand his resignation, of course. Lane could have asked for help, but chose to go behind everybody's back and put the company's finances at risk. I'm not sure Don would have been any more willing to share such a problem, but his natural go-getting spirit would have found a way out without resorting to such a dangerous, short-term solution. He'd take a new identity, or start a new firm. Lane has Don's pride, but none of his hunger. Where Don sees life as a series of obstacles to be conquered, Lane sees books to be righted. Unfortunately, the numbers rarely add up in the way we hope.
Lane's peripheral role on the series, always an outsider looking in, meant his death wasn't as overwhelming as showrunner Matthew Weiner probably intended. His tax problems came out of the blue a few episodes ago, and while few are likely to have predicted an outcome so severe, the storyline has never particularly felt like more than a means to an end, whether to put the company in a perilous position (as was my expectation) or sign Lane's death warrant with a forged signature.

There was a contrivance to it which has been true of much of the character's time on the series: where situations like Roger taking LSD were in many ways no less writer-engineered, they felt more meaningful because the character is such an important part of the SCDP ecosystem, and served as a means of deepening our understanding of their personality. As a man defined by his reserve, Lane never had much of an impact on his surroundings and tended to be driven by them, rather than be the driver. Jared Harris is an engaging performer and will be missed, but the sad truth is that the agency will continue much as it had before, even without the fourth initial in its name being present anymore.

Nevertheless, the storyline was handled superbly within the confines of this single episode, with a number of powerful moments building to a conclusion that was hard to predict, yet tinged with inevitability. Cooper, who doesn't really do anything yet seems to have a keen eye for discrepancies (remember him calling out Don for getting lazy?), found Lane's forged cheque in the company books and hands the matter over to Don, who calls Lane into his office and gives him the honourable alternative of coming up with a respectable exit strategy over the weekend. He knows and respects Lane as a proud man, and that there is no need for the humiliation of getting the other partners involved - bringing about a parallel of him going behind their backs to sort out some dirty business, much as they did to him in last week's controversial Joan storyline - but cannot see that his words of encouragement about starting afresh are falling on deaf ears. Lane thought he'd found his new life after breaking away from the British firm, and the idea of having to start all over again is nothing short of catastrophic.

Acceptance is what Lane wants more than anything, but also that which was just out of his reach. When Don pitches to Ed Baxter, he offers the idea that happiness is only the step before more happiness. It's a cycle he subconsciously understands, so when faced with a challenge to the contentment he has constantly been searching for, his instinct is to fight to overcome it. To an accountant like Lane, the most important thing is stability, that the books be balanced and the numbers add up. He doesn't see the world as Don and Roger do, and does not see a disaster as something to beat, but a crease to iron out. Don or Roger would buy a new shirt; Lane keeps on ironing, even as the creases keep on reappearing. In this case, with his wife having bought a new car to deepen the wound of his financial struggles and forced resignation, the books could not be levelled any longer.

A couple of powerful touches as his fate became inevitable: his breaking his glasses before his first suicide attempt, a sad representation of how trapped he felt in his bookish ways, which in typical Lane fashion pulled him right back in when the car wouldn't start.(If Jaguar were willing to grin and bear their less-than-complimentary representation in last week's episode, they may not be so pleased at being shown to make cars so unreliable you can't even commit suicide in them). The reveal of his body hanging behind the door was a shocking reveal, cleverly disguised by not initially showing us what Pete and Ken saw through the office window after Joan raised her concerns. The methodical way Lane went about preparing his affairs for his departure from the physical world also provided plenty of tragic character moments, such as his sitting on the sofa, finalising his affairs as he swigged booze from a teacup (possibly a symbol for the corrosive effect he felt his English nationality had on his life), or typing out his resignation in 'boilerplate' terms rather than being able to be open and honest even in his final communication. God speed, Lane.

In the second storyline, Sally managed to not only get out of a skiing holiday with Betty and Henry, but arrange a secret rendezvous with Glen at a nearby museum. Her continued attempts to find her place in the adult world, and finding it an increasingly treacherous and unpleasant place, has been an interesting trend throughout the season, roughly aimed in the thematic direction of showing how the young are always affected by their elders, no matter how much they try and break free of their parents' habits and ways of life. Here, Sally's problem was a more natural one, driving her back into the arms of her slightly baffled mother at the moment of her greatest rebellion. The onset of her period was slightly too conveniently timed, but at least allowed Betty to show a little compassion for once, perhaps startled out of her narcissism by the reminder that her daughter isn't just a misbehaved brat, but a confused girl struggling to make the transition into adulthood. Sally idolises Megan, and their chat about boys in the café was charming, but theirs is a relationship closer to friends than that of a mother and daughter. Betty, for all her horrendousness, represents her home and childhood, somewhere she's both trapped and scared to leave for good.

Unfortunately, as difficult as life can seem as a child, the additional responsibilities of adulthood only makes everything a hundred times worse. Some can stay ahead of their problems through fighting, while others will bow to the pressure. Glen asks Don in the life why life is so crappy, and Don knows the boy's difficult situation well enough to be aware that he's far too young to be slipping into such a mentality. Accepting the difficulty of life, as Lane did, means giving into it, and Don pays off some of his own guilt by letting Glen drive himself home, a moment of happiness at a time in life when they are still able to disguise the challenges yet to come. Glen is still going to be bullied when he returns to school, but Don has given him something to aim for, a taste of happiness to make him fight for the next one. Lane never had anything but the illusion. Don was reminded through having to sack Lane of the importance of going for what you want, and his meeting with Baxter showed his old powers on the rise once again. He had a moment of glory, only to return to the office and be brought back down to earth. The cycle continues.

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