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Monday, June 4, 2012

Mad Men: "Commissions and Fees"

Can an episode of television be truly great if any part of it is terrible? That’s the question I find myself asking about “Commissions and Fees”, an episode of Mad Men which saw several cast members reach new heights of dramatic acting, but which also made the unfortunate choice to rely a little too heavily on creepy Glen Bishop.

Speaking of creepy, how downright weird is it that Matthew Weiner casts his own son to play the off-putting boy next door? It’d be weird even if the kid could act, which it seems pretty clear that he can’t. Marten Weiner can’t hold his own in a scene with Kiernan Shipka, how in the world can he be expected to share the screen with Jon Hamm?

Though the scenes with Glen had me largely rolling my eyes toward the ceiling, I did appreciate the plot line for what it gave us between Sally and Betty. Mrs. Francis’s reaction to her daughter becoming a woman is just about the best mothering we’ve seen from her in the entire series, but of course Betty can’t resist rubbing it in to Megan that Sally came to her when she really needed a mother.

Megan herself doesn’t seem sure how much of a mother she wants to be. She’s upset and offended that Don and Betty just assume she’s on call to watch their daughter, and when she takes Sally out to lunch she wavers on how much to be a protective mother (keeping her from her friend’s dirty jokes) or just a cool older girlfriend. She might have hit the right blend when she counseled Sally on what she should be looking for in a boyfriend. (Hint: better acting skills and a less creepy wisp of a mustache.)

Luckily the other two-thirds of “Commissions and Fees” were damn good television, right up there with anything else the show has given us this year. There was intrigue, drama, black humor, and outstanding acting all around.

The intrigue mostly surrounded Don’s desire to actually see the firm get bigger. Jaguar is nice, sure, but he’d rather have Chevrolet. A great scene between Don and Roger leads them to schedule a meeting with Ed Baxter at Dow Corning, who just happens to be Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law. Ken has always had an understanding that he won’t mix business with family, but some cajoling from Roger, and a promise to keep Pete off the account forever, and Ken is in.

The meeting with Dow Corning is rather absurdly brief, considering that Ed Baxter power plays them by making them wait almost two hours. But Don seemed to know what he was doing, tapping into the inherent desire of big corporations to keep pushing until they have everything. It’s a feeling he’s becoming familiar with himself, but if it seems unlikely that SCDP will actually land Dow on the strength of Don baring his teeth, it at least seems possible that this combined with Jaguar will get the firm past Don’s self-serving tobacco letter.

But of course, all of this drama pales in comparison to that surrounding Lane Pryce’s dark night of the soul. Don catches on to his embezzling, and despite Lane’s heartfelt explanations, justifications, and pleas for leniency, Don is insistent that Lane has to resign. After all, what if a client found out?
Lane’s pleas for mercy also serve to illuminate for the audience just how he came to be in this predicament. It seems he wasn’t really kidding when he told Joan that he had made the mistake of not asking for enough. Despite being primarily responsible for the very creation of SCDP, Lane had had to sell off his British portfolio to keep the company afloat, and he couldn’t pay when the taxman came calling. Don isn’t necessarily wrong to take the position that he does, but Hamm does a wonderful job showing just how close Don comes to forgiving, to agreeing to bend the rules to help his friend.

When Lane stumbles home to find his wife exuberant and insistent on going out to celebrate, only to reveal that she just wrote a check to buy him a Jaguar of his own, Lane’s problems come to a head. Lane has for too long been too proud and too stubborn to ask for help. Even Don wonders why he didn’t just ask him to loan him the money, and he’s too proud to tell his wife what their finances are really like.

Lane’s suicide has been long foreshadowed, and many superfans have been speculating that it would indeed happen this season, but in a way that almost makes it more surprising. Matthew Weiner has never before seemed to take the path everyone was anticipating. Of course, this show being what it is, they can’t just give us what we may have been expecting, they have to go to the incredibly dark and funny place of having Lane try to commit suicide by car, only to have his Jaguar stall out. (A moment made hilarious by Bert Cooper’s dismissal of Jaguars as lemons that never start several episodes ago.)

As much as I might have laughed at Lane using his broken glasses as a monocle to try and fix his engine, the episode still managed to make his actual suicide, by hanging in his office, a truly sad occasion. Poor Joanie, who has really had a tough season, had to be the one to first realize something was off with Lane’s door being locked. And it fell to Pete, Ken, and Harry to confirm her worst fears.

Don’s reaction was the most fraught, as of course he must blame himself for forcing Lane into this decision. He insists on their cutting Lane down from the hook, and his face goes paler than even Pete Campbell’s.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Don handles Lane’s death. Will it tamper his recent enthusiasm for pursuing new business? Will Don see Lane’s suicide as an effect of his cold, relentless pursuit of success, and retreat to the lax Don we saw at the beginning of the season? Will he tell anyone what he knows about the reasons for Lane doing what he did? Megan is sure to put the two together, but to the other partners this seems inexplicable. Don can offer them illumination, but at the cost of sullying their friend’s reputation. He may well have to carry the burden of what he knows alone.

Like Roger Sterling, I am afraid I don’t quite understand what Commissions and Fees means, but it seems to be about the price you pay for being what you want to be. Don wants to be a hard-charging success, but he’s just realized the very steep personal cost that can incur. Megan wants the freedom that Don’s success can provide her, but isn’t sure she can handle the mothering duties that are part of that package. What Lane wanted was to be a respectable member of the upper-class, and he worked so hard to maintain that façade that when it crumbled he was left without a vision of himself he could live with.

Other Thoughts:

-Joan is paying a price, too, for the way she became a partner. Don makes reference to it in her first partners’ meeting (Should I just leave so you can do whatever you want?) and though Lane’s comment about her in a bikini was probably just a product of too much to drink in a short time period, Joan clearly took it as a reference to what she’d done.

-Similarly, Ken Cosgrove is disillusioned by what’s going on at SCDP. Offered a partnership for steering Dow to the firm, Ken demurs. “I don’t want to be a partner. I’ve seen what’s involved.”

-I got a laugh out of Betty chiding Sally for being immature while behaving incredibly immature on the phone with Don.

-One week after supporting the push to get Joanie to sell her body, Roger is really sweet to Joanie, offering to take her home when she’s so distraught over Lane.

-Roger’s enlightenment may be wearing off, but his desire to foul things up for Campbell seems to be enough motivation.

-No Peggy this week, but that makes sense in such an office-centric episode. She has to back though, there’s no way the show would cast off two actors as good as Moss and Harris in back-to-back weeks.

-Seriously, Mr. Weiner, you might want to get your kid interested in writing, if you want him to have a future in television.

1 comment:

  1. I actually think that the poor acting works for young Glen. It adds a slight creepiness. It also underscores the fact that he is uncomfortable in his own skin. Real teenage boys often behave like poor actors.