Mad Men: Commissions and Fees

"Take the weekend. Think of an elegant exit."

It had been clear for a while that the other shoe was going to drop. There's been a sense of doom lingering all over the show this season, from Pete's depression to Lane's fraud to Don's new marriage to Joan's indecent proposal. Even if everybody is acting so content on the surface, beneath it all lies so much hurt and pain. So it was no surprise that somebody finally snapped. "Commissions and Fees" sign-posted its ending from the very start, but remained a traumatic and gut-wrenching experience. This was death that was raw and ugly. It was the final result of a spiral of desperation, a character surrounded by folks in denial, and one last act of almost passive-aggression that can't help but leave a bitter taste in your mouth. But lord was it affecting.

I liked Lane a lot, even if his actions with Joan cooled my feelings a little last week. He was always a man driven in the instant, not somebody who plans ahead and methodically calculates his existence. It's why he wound up in so much financial trouble, as well as why he took money from the company, and why he would end his life in the most public manner possible. This was a man who wanted to hurt others during his exit, or at least that's what I took from the episode. Like most stories on this show, the pain eventually trickled round to Don, and he's left with that lingering guilt over his own actions, actions that were entirely justified. This was the very worst type of suicide, in which you're driven to killing yourself not only to alleviate your own pain, but in order to spite somebody else.

Of course, this is another example of surface upset versus inner trauma. Lane wanted to hurt Don because of his actions during the previous day, but was completely in the dark about Don's personal identification with suicide itself. It instantly brings back memories of his brother's suicide back in season one, which is why I loved his compassion towards Lane's body. Just the thought of somebody still hanging there long after they'd been found is horrible enough, but Don's decision to cut him down and grant him some dignity in death was particularly moving. Gosh. Lane screamed at Don earlier in the episode that he had no idea how "the rest of us live", but God does Don know pain. He may have access to money and lives in a fantastical apartment, but nobody knows hurt quite like Don.

Away from the misery, I adored Sally's subplot this week. There's always been this creepy undercurrent to Glen, and I was relieved that the show has begun writing him as a sort-of clueless teenager who genuinely likes her. The story unfolded so well, with Sally getting all dressed up for him, only for the date itself to be a little underwhelming, followed by Sally's period, which spoiled the whole thing.

But it actually morphed into a real game-changer for Sally and her mother. It was the first time we've seen Betty be compassionate in a long time, and she showed genuine tenderness towards her daughter. I also loved the message that, even while she's constantly saying how terrible she is, Sally does need her mother, and there's nothing quite like a parent when you need unconditional support. Again, surface versus the underneath. Here are two people who outwardly can't seem to stand each other, but always have each other's backs in the end. I may be wrong, but it felt like this was the last time we'll seen them this year, and it was a strong way to close their season five story.

If there's one thing that prevented this episode from being another classic, it was that returning sense of transparency to some of the storytelling. Mad Men has always been a show in which symbolism and pretension are constantly fighting each other, and unfortunately "Commissions and Fees" sometimes fell too heavy on the latter. Like the lingering shot of the pouring sugar, or the clumsy metaphor of Lane potentially killing himself in the Jaguar. I also felt like that last elevator scene between Don and Glen featured dialogue that could have so easily been implied, not explicitly stated. Metaphor is a dangerous knife-edge at the best of times, and the on-the-nose quality of some of this week sort of dented my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

But, again, the show lingers in the memory long after the credits roll. Jared Harris was insanely powerful here, and in that initial scene with Don expressed so much resentment and desperation. He was effectively exploding from the inside out, and conveyed all that pent-up pain as well as the sorrow he felt. I wrote earlier this season that Lane was something of a stranger in a strange land, and the statement still rings true. He's exhibited those fish-out-of-water tendencies all the way through his tenure on the show, and it made sense that he'd be so quick to end it all. He was the classic archetype of stiff Britishness -- mask the pain, keep your head down. Only it all spiraled into inevitable tragedy.

Notables

- 'Hemisphere Club' is the sexiest bar name in the world.

- The blackest of comedy: The car won't start, and he has to use his just-broken glasses to try and repair it. He even drops his keys as he opens the door of the office that he hangs himself in. Poor Lane.

- I really loved how innocent Sally and Glen were. Right down to that great moment where she asked him what he thought of her dad's apartment, and instead of complimenting it Glen casually mentions that he has a friend who lives in an even bigger place. Aww. They're just kids, you know?

- She's still so awful, but I loved Betty's abject glee in getting one over on Megan. That phone-call at the end was full of passive-aggression and casual sniping. Don't ever change, Bets.

- Great shot of Lane leaving Don's office. It felt unusually specific at the time and, soon after, you click things together and realize that that would be the very last time Don would see him alive.

- Christina Hendricks is always spectacular, but her face after she realized what had happened to Lane was absolutely heartbreaking. She just completely broke. The whole scene was chilling, especially having to look over the top of the office to spy inside.

- I really hope Elisabeth Moss' absence didn't mean something. I don't think I could handle it if she's reduced to January Jones-level screentime. And I'm not sure if the show could survive through that, either.

- Joan herself seems perfectly happy in her new position, but there's still that atmosphere about it, like Ken's comment, or Don's look of concern. Denial? What will soon inspire a crushing fall?

- I haven't discussed the power play subplot, but I loved seeing Don on fire again, and found Ken's demands both ingratiating and pretty hilarious.

Quotage

Roger: She's a twenty-five year-old coat-check girl from Long Island. Or Rhode Island. She'd never had room service before. It's too easy.

Roger: What would it take for you to do nothing? Some kind of partnership? Assuming it works out?
Ken: No, I don't want to be a partner. I've seen what's involved.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

9 comments:

Mani said...

Just a couple of corrections. 2nd paragraph "manner" not manor. 4th paragraph 'has begun' instead of have begun. The storytelling being pretentious is what has made this season good as opposed to great. Complexity and subtlety story is so much better than blatantly showing the audience the point you want to make.

Anonymous said...

I don´t think that Lane wanted to hurt Don. If that was the case why should he have wanted to kill himself in the car at first? I got the impression that his choice of places where to kill himself represented the things he blamed his misery on. Initially he thought the car was literally his death blow. But after that failed he realized that his misery rooted in SCDP. His work meant so much to him but after even that went to hell, he went wanted to end things where they started. Unfortunately it was also the place that meant so much to him. If he wanted to hurt someone I think he wanted to hurt all the partners for taking him for granted. But both parties failed to establish a relationship beyond the workplace. Maybe he wouldn´t have chosen to end himself if the relationship with the partners would have been different. His outburst at Don´s office was a normal reaction and could also been directed at himself for letting his pride get him in that situation. Don pulled the rug out from under him but I think that Lane knew deep down that Don was right and had not much of a choice.

I loved Kenny´s plotting against Pete.

I have the feeling that Peggy´s screentime wasn´t much higher than Betty´s this season. They can´t reduce her presents if they want her to be on the show next season. I hope she will be (so much rumors going on).

Banastal said...

I just wanted to say that I don't think Don's actions were justified and I think he SHOULD feel guilty. He is the person that is living a lie every day - how dare he judge Lane like this. Don thinks he is paying his debts in his own way but working this out with Lane in a different way would probably be the ultimate pay for his sins. However he chooses to pretend he has a moral right to be so unforgiving. That's what the drama of this episode is. Makes you sick.
Also, I do disagree that it was that bad of Lane to suggest to Joan what to get for her service (I mean it was bad but!). As I said in my post on the other episode, I think Joan actually came out a winner from that situation thanks to Lane. Yes his suggestion was not decent, however that allowed Joan (if she were to succumb) to come out with a piece of those guys. After this - they can't just use her as a pawn - she'll demand more and they will be stuck with what they struggled to get. So I do think he proposed a clever way to get respect when you have to do something so repelling. (see my post on this in the previous episode)

Jess Lynde said...

Once again, Max, we are in sync on our responses. Even though it was obvious early on where things were headed, it did indeed remain "traumatic and gut-wrenching." And I continue to be haunted by the events of this episode days later (particularly, as you note, Joan's heartbreaking reaction to having her fears about something awful having happened confirmed).

I don't agree with Banastal that Don's actions were unjustified. Lane was their financial manager and he embezzled funds from the company by forging a partner's signature. That is a fire-able offense. Don was absolutely right that they could no longer trust Lane, and that if clients found out what he'd done, it could be disastrous. No matter what Don's done in his own life, the lie he lives is not a direct threat to the firm (and all the people it employs). Lane's, on the other hand ...

Don tried to let Lane down as gently as he could. He even did him a favor by allowing him to resign and agreeing to cover up the real reason for his departure, so that his future opportunities wouldn't be destroyed.

I'm sure he'll feel guilty for not recognizing that Lane wasn't as capable of starting over and building something new at this point as Don is. He certainly didn't intend for the man to take his life. But his firing of Lane was not unjustified.

Also, for me, it wasn't Lane suggesting that Joan get something of real value for prostituting herself that was most disturbing. It was that he did it with this veneer of "I'm looking out for you because I care about you" when what he was really doing was covering up his theft. Telling her to go for a partnership forestalled the discovery of the funds he had embezzled, whereas if he'd had to come up with $50,000 to give her, it would have led to his downfall that much sooner.

I also can't agree that Joan came out of the scenario a "winner." Sure she got a better financial situation for herself and can now afford a vacation, but I think she squandered the hard fought respect she had gained through her office management talents. Prostituting herself for a partnership didn't gain her any respect in their eyes. And it probably cost her some of her self respect.

Of course, I say that finding what she did morally repugnant. She's a strong, smart, capable woman, and I hate that she reduced herself to a piece of meat. Yes, she's gorgeous, but she's so much more. And she should succeed on her merits and talents, not what's between her legs. But the partners obviously don't share my views on morality, so perhaps they do respect her more for sinking to their level. Whereas I, on the other hand, respect Ken more for trying to protect his wife's father and for refusing to enter a partnership with that lot.

(Good discussion!)

Anonymous said...

I´m totally with Jess one the latest developements. Lane suggested the partnership to Joan only to cover his problems not to help her. And I don´t see Joan as a winner either. I fear the chapter is far from closed and will probably be used against her sometime.

Don had no other choice with Lane. Even if Don would have gone easy on Lane, Cooper knew something was wrong, so Don couldn´t do nothing. He offered Lane the best he could do. Don isn´t guilty, he didn´t bring that situation on Lane or forced him to steal money.

maxpower03 said...

Mani I swear it's fate that literally every time somebody brings up grammatical/spelling errors, they do the exact same thing within their own post. But, hey, I'm resisting the urge to scold. I'll pull a Lane later to punish myself.

And I don't think the show has ever been pretentious, just that it's always been on that knife edge where things could get a little pretentious if clumsiness isn't pulled back. And I thought some of the symbolism this week veered too close to that. Disagree that it's just been a "good" season rather than a "great" one, though -- but, like I said a while back, it's not an uncommon opinion to be having issues with season five.

Anonymous I definitely read it as a kind of statement, but I may be wrong that it was directly aimed at Don. Lane was always 'the other one', and I'm sure part of him knew that it wasn't entirely the fault of other people that he never really bonded with anybody.

And I read the rumors, too. But I'm hoping that it means exit from this season (meaning she won't be in the finale, either), and not necessarily exit from the whole show. The thought of writing her out, to me, is insane troll logic.

Banastal It's so interesting seeing opinions that are so contrasting to my own. I don't think Don's identity and Lane's fraud are at all connected, and Don's deceit only impacts on him as a person, not the business itself. I don't think he can go through life excusing the deceits of others purely because of his own. Lane screwed up badly, and it could have brought down the business if word got out -- if anything, Don made it a lot easier for Lane that it easily could have been. Imagine if Pete had discovered the forged check?

I also disagree with what you wrote about Joan. For me, it was the quintessential hollow victory. She got her money and a title, but no way has she got power of her own. There were already the tiny comments this week, and as hard as Joan can try and deny everything that happened, people are aware and will easily use it against her if circumstances call for it.

But, again, I love that everybody is so contrasting with that story. Some people really saw it as a huge victory, and then others not so much.

Jess I sort of replied to a bunch of your points in the above response, but I 100% agree with your analysis. If anything, Pete was at least up-front with his opinions last week and deserves respect for that. He didn't hide behind this veneer of compassion like Lane did, which I believe is far worse.

Anonymous We're a little threesome of agreement this week, I totally love everything you and Jess wrote and agree entirely.

Thanks, everybody.

Anonymous said...

What I didn´t like about this episode was that there was no reaction to Peggy leaving. Sure there was the Lane story going on but with regards to Peggy´s importance and all she has done for SCDP, it was a huge dissappointment that it was left out of this episode completly.

Billie Doux said...

Definitely an upsetting episode. Engrossing, too. I wonder if Lane did it at work so that his wife wouldn't find him. Although she might very well have found him if the car hadn't lived up to its reputation for unreliability.

Don has deceived a lot of people and has started over quite a bit himself, and it wasn't his fault that he didn't see that Lane wasn't strong enough to do that. Don did everything he could to help Lane -- covering the loss himself, letting Lane resign with his reputation intact. The way he reacted to Lane's body was touching.

I have a lot of confused and conflicting reactions to suicide. There have been suicides in my family. I don't think it's mostly a selfish act. I think most suicides do it because life has become unbearable and they don't see any other option. But maybe Lane did think of how the partners, and Don in particular, would react to finding his body. And maybe he did find a little satisfaction in the thought.

Terrific review, Max. You're doing such an exceptional job reviewing this series.

maxpower03 said...

Just keeping up with both of your comments before the finale!

Anonymous Yes, that was disappointing from a fan perspective, but I think the episode was far too distracted by other things that mentioning Peggy could have read as fan-service. But she absolutely should get some kind of follow-through tonight.

Billie I'm so sorry about your personal perspective, Billie, and hopefully I didn't come across as overtly negative about those who end their lives. Obviously there's unimaginable pain going through their heads, and I may have been reaching a little with the "vendetta against Don" thing. Suicide itself is something that I'm not sure I can have an opinion on because I've thankfully never experienced something like that, nor experienced true depression. But I have experienced moments where people in my family have just up and left, and all you're left wondering is why they would do that to their immediate family. In Lane's case, his wife and son.

But when it's somebody completely alone in the world, that's when it's an absolute tragedy where all you can do is think about how sad that person must have been. It's alternatively, I think, a natural reaction to almost be disgusted when somebody ends their life and leaves people behind to pick up the pieces, especially when children are involved. But, even then, I'm not sure if disgust or anger at them is a 'good' reaction.

Gah. It's a messy area that I'm not sure anybody can totally agree on. Hopefully that all made sense above. And thank you for the compliments, Billie.