June 4, 2012 - 10:47pm
BY KAYLA UPADHYAYA
On the Scene is a weekly feature in which Senior Arts Editor Kayla Upadhyaya analyzes a single scene or moment from the latest episode of “Mad Men.” This week, she takes an upclose look at a selection from “Commissions and Fees.”
I’ve been making a lot of excuses for “Mad Men” this season. The writers seem intent on bashing us over the head with overt symbolism and themes, but even when it’s all too obvious, it still bears a beauty: a cohesive flow that’s mesmerizing to watch, no matter how much the threads are showing. See, here I go making excuses. But I really don’t think the season has been clumsy. In fact, it’s a season full of outstanding episodes that really probe at the deepest, darkest corners of “Mad Men” ’s psychology. Yes, I rolled my eyes when Megan informs Don of the smog warning, saying “the air is toxic” in “Dark Shadows.” But I let “Mad Men” get away with so much, because the writers are still really damn good at what they do and we have truly come to know these characters, inside and out.
But that’s why I wasn’t onboard with last week’s episode: So many of the characters didn’t act in a way that correlated with what we know about them. Surprise is one thing, but expedience is a different story. Altering the way a character might approach a situation for the sake of fulfilling a theme or creating a message is too convenient, too calculated. And “Commissions and Fees” is guilty of this offense.
Let’s talk about a scene that actually worked.
Lane Pryce, recently fired by Don after his forged check is discovered by Cooper, awakens in the middle of the night. He goes out to the garage where his brand new Jaguar, a gift from his unaware wife, awaits.
We know what’s happening before Lane goes through the motions of preparing the car to be his casket. He drinks from a bottle, snaps his glasses in two (a wonderful, small detail) and tries to start the car.
But the car won’t start. It’s a Jaguar afterall, unreliable and showboaty. Lane even attempts to repair the car, but it appears that he has been saved by a stroke of luck.
In the end, Lane really does kill himself. He hangs himself in his office. Don, Pete and Roger have to force themselves in to cut down his body, and Roger discovers what appears to be a suicide note but is really the letter of resignation Don asked Lane for a couple of days prior.
Just one week ago, my mom asked me not to spoil “Mad Men.” She had it saved on her DVR and couldn’t watch it until Tuesday, and she knew something major had happened because of all the buzz. “Did somebody die?” she asked me. I laughed and told her that no one died, because “Mad Men” isn’t a show on which characters die. And then, as fate would have it, the next episode had a character death. It was a death not necessarily surprising and also not unbelievable, but I stand by my what I said: “Mad Men” isn’t a show that needs to kill off characters.
Death is obviously a theme on “Mad Men,” as most of the characters actively fear it. But all of the buildup to Lane’s conclusion felt both believable and forced all at once. I was feeling exactly what the writers wanted me to feel, and I was very aware of their presence and their intent. I watch and love a lot of television shows that kill characters all the time: “The Vampire Diaries” and “Breaking Bad” thrive on a no-one-is-safe mindset, and Buffy Summers once noted that death is her gift. But while Lane’s first failed attempt at killing himself felt very true to the writing and style of “Mad Men,” his ultimate death just didn’t feel quite right. I don’t want to compare it to the Landry/Tyra murder plot that soiled an otherwise perfect season of “Friday Night Lights,” but this development similarly seems like overwrought drama, and “Mad Men” isn’t a show that needs to work too hard to make drama.
All of the overtness of the episode doesn’t help: Don and Glen’s discussion of happiness in the elevator pretty much sums up the series’ stance on humanity, and it’s hard to swallow when spelled out for us from the mouth of Glen. I’m more interested by smaller details, like Sally wearing the same boots for her date with Glen that her father said she couldn’t wear to his award ceremony, Ken Cosgrove stepping up and playing hardball in a meeting with Roger, Betty’s simultaneous sympathy for her daughter (a side of Betty we don’t get to see a whole lot) and smugness over knowing that this time, she beats Megan. It’s the little things that “Mad Men” does so well, and maybe that’s why I’m often OK with the big things being, well, big. Few shows can tackle hazy concepts like happiness with the poignancy and penetration of “Mad Men,” so the structure and writing doesn’t need to be graceful about it 100-percent of the time.