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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage