Mad Men: season 5, episode 12

Gaining a woman, losing a man.

“Think of an elegant exit,” is Don’s suggestion to Lane Pryce in what is their last true encounter. “I’ve started over a lot. This is the worst part.” It’s the best advice Don has to offer his colleague – from his experience he means it – and by allowing Lane to resign Don truly is doing the “most decent thing [he] can possibly do”.

And a resignation letter is indeed what Lane leaves behind. Addressed “to [his] fellow partners,” it’s discovered by them on his body, in place of a suicide note to his wife and son. Typed out in his office in the early hours it’s his last living move; a vindictive one, so out of character for Lane, so cruelly aimed at Don. The letter is “boilerplate,” as Roger puts it; unspecific and impersonal, it reinforces the point that this shock event is as much about our protagonist, Don Draper, as it is the suicide victim. The previous episode’s dramatic actions operated similarly: rather than being at the core of “The Other Woman”, Joan, Peggy and Megan each orbited around Don, figuring their futures in relation to the man.

Even as Don speaks his advice it sounds far too eloquent to be enacted on by a man as reserved, repressed and weak (all endearing characteristics in his clichéd English way!) as Lane Pryce. “You’ll tell [your family] that it didn’t work out, because it didn’t. You’ll tell them the next thing will be better, because it always is.” In Don’s measured words we recall the Season Two flashback scene where he visits Peggy in the hospital after she’s given birth: “It will shock you how much it never happened.” This ability to erase the past is, we feel, a rare thing. The fact it isn’t shared by many – least of all Lane – is essential to the connection between Peggy and Don.

We’re also reminded of his old fashionedness, the strange and touching chivalry of not wanted to “leave him like that,” that has Don kick down Lane’s door so he can be cut down from the rope and his body rested on the office couch. It’s the second suicide on Mad Men and of course there are similarities with the first: Don’s brother kills himself in Season One by hanging; at their last meeting Don offers Adam $5,000 (here he tells Lane he will cover the money Lane stole from the company), telling the younger Whitman to move on and make a new life for himself. Whether Don feels guilty at Lane’s death, whether he becomes warmer or colder towards his colleagues and family for it, will be of note in the season finale.

Lane Pryce’s death is obviously not only some vicarious function – in itself it’s sad and shocking, almost beautifully pathetic. At the beginning of the episode is the irony that he’s asked to be Head of the “Fiscal Control Committee” at the American Association of Advertising Agencies.  But we’ve known since he forged that cheque that there had to be a resolution brought to bear either by the inland revenue, his accountant or colleagues. Lane’s final hours are full of sad mockeries: his wife writes her own cheque to buy him a Jaguar; the car (infamously unreliable) won’t start when he attempts to asphyxiate himself in it; he prematurely snaps his glasses in two at the bridge. Even to Joan, a confidante who has previously forgiven his poor behaviour, Lane’s last remarks are lecherous and rejected. We witness the degradation of Lane with as much pain as the partners' feel his loss.

Something in the discovery of Lane’s embezzlement (or Burt Cooper’s comment that he “can’t keep being the good little boy while the adults run this business”) drives Don to storm into Roger’s office announcing he’s tired of all "this piddly shit". He’s had enough of playing the minor league and backhanded compliments about the company such as from the rival ad man in the barber shop that morning. In episode ten, Don finally rolled his sleeves up; here’s stage II of Draper's return. “You’re hungry even though you’ve just eaten . . . You’re on top and you don’t have enough.” If we were in any doubt he was speaking of himself as much as Dow Chemical, Don brings personal contentment into the equation: “What is happiness but the moment before you need more happiness?” It all screams: HE’S BACK, after two seasons off form, and Roger scoops the episode’s best line – “I’d buy you a drink if you wipe the blood off your mouth”.

Which brings us to Sally, discovering blood on her underwear, “[becoming] a woman” in this darkest of episodes (note the black comedy of Betty asking Don if he’s any problem with her “strangling” their daughter). Sally speaks dearly of her step-parents here - telling Glen she’s “at Megan’s” rather than “her dad’s” or “in the city”; she wants to spend time sipping sugary coffee with Don’s “child bride” as Betty puts it; Henry was picked on and now “runs the city” and she wishes for his own sake he’d leave her mother. Still, it’s her mother she wants to be with when her period starts, and we get the rare chance of seeing Betty tender and loving towards her daughter.

A final note on Pete, who, with death looming long over Season Five, seemed a far more likely candidate for suicide. Now there’s too much riding on him – Jaguar were very impressed by Pete Campbell, we learn; even Roger admits “he’s kind of turned things around here” – but doesn’t he seem, more than ever, set up for a hard fall? Pete is now even despised by good natured Kenny Cosgrove, who doesn’t want him in the room with Dow and “knows what [being a partner] involves”. Ken was present at the dinner where Jaguar’s Herb Rennet requested a night with Joan and Pete did not protest. Presumably, with the account won and Joan now a partner, Ken has deduced what happened and the behaviour by Pete that made it so. Isn't his fall from grace, in next week's final episode "The Phantom", more likely than Sterling Cooper Draper Campbell?

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"Commissions and Fees" with Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). Photo: AMC

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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In defence of the BBC Front Row presenters who don’t like theatre

Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi of the new BBC Two arts show are getting stick for not being playgoers.

When I heard last month that BBC Radio 4’s Front Row will be expanded to a TV slot on BBC Two, I was a bit unsure about its presenters. The restaurant grouch Giles Coren and the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan – both respected commentators but on completely different subjects – didn’t feel the same as the radio version’s current hosts (though The Arts Hour and Loose Ends radio journalist Nikki Bedi made more sense).

Now, all three presenters have given an interview to the Radio Times, picked up by the Telegraph, in which they lay into theatre as an art form.

Coren revealed he hadn’t been to the theatre much in the past seven years, due to parenting duties – and also his stress over the idea that the actors would forget their lines. He believes it “has to be such a good production” for modern audiences to suspend their disbelief, and also complained about the seats:

“In the theatre they’re all so uncomfortable and old, and it feels like they’re trying to throw you out. I’d also like easier access to the loo.”

His co-presenters also didn’t seem particularly enthused. Bedi admitted, “I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes. I want more intervals”, adding that she prefers film, and “tight, fast-paced, creative theatre that moves away from tradition”.

Rajan also mentioned that being a father makes it difficult to go (he has a young baby), but he saw the musical Dreamgirls last week and the School of Rock musical two years ago. He added that his favourite place is the Globe, which only seemed to rile the theatre world more.

The Telegraph’s theatre critic Dominic Cavendish seethed:

“What is the BBC doing, given the world-envied pre-eminence of our theatre culture, handing over the invaluable job of informing the TV-viewing public about what’s on stage, what's good, what's not and why, to a Come Dine With Me melange of lightweights who between them seem to have quite liked going to Shakespeare’s Globe and School of Rock IN NEW YORK!”

The playwright Dan Rebellato tweeted:

“Imagine if BBC’s art critics said novels were ‘too long’ or poetry ’too difficult’ or classical music ‘too boring’. Fucking OUTRAGEOUS.”

The editor of The Stage Alistair Smith added:

“It’s great the BBC is putting arts and theatre coverage front and centre, but I’m sure the industry will be hoping it will include some slightly more incisive criticism than ‘the seats are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough loos’.”

But many theatre fans (including this one) won’t feel outraged by the presenters’ comments. Even the theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage Mark Shenton admitted that, “yes, these matters sometimes vex professional theatregoers too – I routinely go to the theatre six or seven times a week – but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences and irritation.”

The first layer of outrage was at the presenters’ focus on practicality: Coren’s comments about the uncomfortable seats and sparse loos, and Bedi’s complaint about duration and lack of intervals. Yes, it might seem banal, but it’s true.

In those old Victorian theatres, try being above average height, below average height, having a disability, elderly, or with children. And for any production, try being someone who works early morning shifts or night shifts. Most mainstream theatre is pretty impractical – both timewise and seating-wise – and that makes it pretty inaccessible to lots of people. Maybe not to BBC presenters, but the programme is for the public, not just for their fellow journos who get press tickets and seats in the stalls.

Then the second, far worse, layer of outrage focused on Rajan’s comments. “The Globe!” The theatre world giggled. “Musicals!” It corpsed some more. This is nothing but snobbery. As if Shakespeare’s Globe is too obvious and musicals are too low-brow to be critiqued on, uh, an entertainment show. But then they can’t stomach Bedi’s enthusiasm for more avant-garde pieces. So which is it?

If the presenters’ comments give away a little too much about their attitude to the arts, the theatre world’s response says far worse about its own.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.