SPOILER WARNING: This post contains details through the most recent episode of Mad Men, “Commissions and Fees.”
Two weeks, two bombshells. That’s perhaps the quickest way to sum up the most recent episodes of Mad Men. Following the latest developments, Season 5 has abruptly switched gears, exchanging Howard Johnson-sponsored vacations and glorious Roger Sterling acid trips for scenarios once unfathomable to even the most cynical viewers.
Peggy quit and Lane committed suicide. Just writing that sentence truly, devastatingly hurts.
Now that we’ve picked our jaws off the floor and finished our requisite mourning, however, the folks at PPC are finally ready to react. And there’s no shortage of questions. Namely: Entering Sunday’s finale, what does it all mean?
Peggy quits Sterling Cooper Draper
BG: Despite the buildup, despite her growing discontent and feelings of under appreciation, Peggy’s decision to leave SCDP was nothing short of stunning. It happened so fast. A meal with Freddy Rumsen led to an offer from Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, then to a gut-wrenching meeting with Don. The Mad Men faithful, collectively, watched in utter disbelief.
But what struck me most wasn’t the abruptness of the scenario. That’s been a staple of the show for years, from the outrageous John Deere incident to Don’s sudden proposal to Megan. What was most blindsiding about Peggy’s money-can’t-buy-me departure was how vulnerable it made Don seem — and not just as a result of his own self-destructive tendencies.
Sure, we’ve seen Don in bad places before. He struggled to conceal/reveal his true identity, overcome his adulterous ways and resurrect his career after a borderline bout with alcoholism (even more than usual) throughout most of Season 4. Even this year, he’s had issues reconciling his work with his increasingly complicated marriage with Megan. But as he clasped Peggy’s hand, kissing it and staring brokenly into her eyes, he seemed more defeated than ever. The world had won. It was like watching your father cry for the first time.
Don has had people leave him before, but Peggy — even more so than Betty and Megan — has always been his rock. And while I’m certainly happy for Peggy’s career advancement (her 2012 salary equivalent is more than $130,000!), her decision also leaves me wondering: Can Don ever turn things back around?
MR: Funny, I didn’t find Peggy’s departure remotely stunning. Heartbreaking, yes. But surprising? No. Peggy’s Season 5 arc had been building toward her exit from the moment she hired her own replacement in Michael Ginsberg. And don’t forget those not-so-cryptic chats with Ken about their “plan.”
But in that way, it was also a classic Mad Men moment: Though the seeds had been planted, it still felt like we’d had the rug pulled out from under us. To me, the Don-Peggy relationship has always been the heart of the show. And so foreshadowing or not, this was still a complete and total punch to the gut. It was also a complete and total success creatively, and arguably one of the most impactful moments in television history.
Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are always so good together, and they were at their best in this scene. Don’s “let’s pretend that I’m not responsible for every good thing that’s happened to you…” line delivered exactly the right mix of truth and cruelty, but when it came down to it, the venom subsided and we were left with respect, love and understanding in its purest form. Peggy extended her hand for a shake, Don took it and kissed it, holding on just a bit too long. There was so much, and yet nothing, left to say.
The episode was called “The Other Woman,” and while the name applied to multiple subplots, it spoke, at the most basic level, to Peggy’s role in Don’s life. No matter the wife or the mistress, Peggy was always the other woman for Don. The one he didn’t need to dote on. The one he didn’t need to impress. The one he couldn’t lose … until he did.
Lane Pryce commits suicide
MR: While Lane’s suicide was a foregone conclusion from the moment Don confronted him with the forged check at the beginning of the episode, this was a masterful bit of storytelling in other ways. It made Lane’s money troubles, which had been a fairly uncompelling B-storyline for many episodes, incredibly relevant. It gave us a death that was big enough to impact everything, yet tangential enough to leave the show’s core DNA intact. And it closed the loop on an impressive bit of misdirection: Many viewers felt this season was building toward a suicide; they just thought Pete would be the one tying the rope.
More than anything, though, this season has been about the state of Don’s psyche. Lane’s death was no exception.
For many , the beginning of this season felt … off. Maybe it was because our expectations were too high after such a long wait. Maybe it was a classic case of Mad Men slow burn. Or maybe it just felt weird to see Don happy. Of course, below that happiness there lurked a newfound self-doubt and a sense of existential despair. Don can’t really be happy. He’s not built to operate that way.
He told us as much when pitching Dow Chemical: “What is happiness?” Don asked. He knows the answer better than most. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
That speech immediately proceeded another very telling exchange: “What happened to your enlightenment?” Don asked Roger, who’d been a different man since an LSD trip helped him see the truth. “I don’t know,” Roger answered. “Wore off.”
Doesn’t it always?
BG: To preface this answer, let me start with this: We saw this coming. We did. Despite the post-traumatic stress induced from seeing Lane’s lifeless corpse, this suicide seemed preordained, a near-certainty from the moment Lane forged Don’s name and embezzled $50,000. Rumors circulated over whether he’d be the silhouetted figure falling in Mad Men’s intro sequence, but, one way or another, he was going to die. In retrospect, Lane’s suicide was one of the most predictable moments of the series so far.
But make no mistake: Foreshadowing didn’t make it any easier to swallow. And while all of the partners were unequivocally crushed by Lane’s hanging, Don suffered most. Just one week after parting ways with Peggy, Don now believes that he’s partially responsible for another man’s death.
To me, that’s the most remarkable thing about the suicide. Matthew Weiner offed Lane, a major character, just to deliver a Mack Truck-sized blow to Don’s psyche. There are certainly other implications, and most of the prominent characters will be impacted in the aftermath. But after learning the consequences of his “things will get better” speech, a mindset he genuinely believes (or believed), the Mad Men’s protagonist is now at his most unstable. Almost nothing he could do would be surprising at this point.
Don’s season-long search for happiness has been drastically derailed, and no matter what he does — from landing the Jaguar account to berating Dow Chemical — seems to stop the bleeding. Maybe Glen was right, after all. Everything turns out crappy.
What can we expect from the Season 5 finale?
BG: I truly have no idea — and I think that’s the point. By dealing Don two devastating blows in rapid succession, Weiner has created an environment in which his leading man could do anything, from leaving SCDP to cheating on Megan to (gulp) plummeting toward the pavement on Madison Avenue. (Well, probably not the last one. Jon Hamm’s contract seems to dictate otherwise.)
The Season 5 finale could change everything, or nothing. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s Don Draper’s world. We’re just watching it.
MR: Don has spent most of this season occupying the role of moral compass, from hiring a black secretary, to telling Joan (too late) not to prostitue herself, to forcing Lane to resign. Where has it gotten him? He lost Peggy. He played a part in Lane’s death. He’s in a marriage that’s far from perfect with a woman he can’t control. Will he continue to embrace that guiding True North, making good on his threat to shut down the Jaguar deal? Or will he shun this new Don, who’s lost his edge, and plenty else?
I’ve always believed Don and Megan can’t last. And while the show has been setting Megan up to be the one who runs, I think it has to be Don. He’s self-destructive by nature, incapable of letting that happiness ever be more than a moment before another moment.
This has been a great season for a few supporting players, namely Pete, Joan and Roger. I’d like to see at least one more moment between Joan and Roger, and I think the show owes us some resolution after investing so heavily in Pete’s depression and destructive tendencies this season. But as is so often the case, it’s really all about Don. At least, it should be.