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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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition