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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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear