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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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad