The Orange Couch, Episode 12 of Mad Men: “Fees and Commissions”
I suspect the trend among recaps today is going to be to contrast Don and Lane’s approach, because Don is (like Joan) a survivor, and obviously, someone who commits suicide by definition can’t be.* But as you’ll see in the video, Marc and I saw Don and Lane as the characters paralleled to each other, with Sally’s journey being the counter-narrative. Don is in love with the drastic solution, destroying everything before to create a blank slate. Well, nothing destroys everything before quite like a suicide. Lane’s suicide was the ultimate expression of wiping the slate completely clean, which is why his resignation letter was boilerplate. Don falls in love with the idea of killing yourself symbolically for rebirth—he’s killed off Dick Whitman, killed off Don the creative guy who works for someone else, Don the married suburbanite—but as he cuts Lane down from the wall, the possibility that running out of options for surviving a killing off of one’s self looms.
One of the most common gripes I see about Mad Men is that it’s not critical enough of capitalism. Personally, I’ve never cared; the ambivalence the show embraces on the subject has always been a strength as far as I’m concerned. It echoes how people actually feel about things like advertising, which is a mix of concern, indifference, and fascination, depending on the moment. But this episode was practically a diatribe about the unsustainability of the grow-at-any-cost mentality that drives capitalism. Capitalism discourages the “rich enough” mentality. That’s why Don is outraged at Dow’s people saying that 50% of market share was enough. Why not go for 100%? What Don fails to realize as soon as he says this is that once you hit 100%, there’s no where else to go. But if your whole model is based on continued growth, hitting 100% might as well be hitting 0%. Don thinks that’s sustainable; wipe the slate clean and start over. Lane’s death, however, shocks him into thinking perhap he was overconfident about that.
As the episode makes clear, one problem with the always-growing mentality is that it encourages borrowing endlessly against the future. People convince themselves that they don’t have to limit the credit extensions, because since all those investments will pay off in the long run, you’re just spending money that might as well already be yours. But eventually the whole scam reaches a breaking point. On the individual level, it’s like Lane’s; he’s discovered, and it’s all over. On a macro level, you have market bubbles that burst. The latest economic crash is the most blunt demonstration of this. Just as Lane created the illusion of prosperity for the firm by borrowing $50K, banks created the illusion of national prosperity completely on borrowed money that created a real estate bubble. Just like the banks, Lane got a bailout to cover the inevitable hole that’s created. I don’t think we’re meant to see the plugging of that hole as a bad thing in and of itself. The bank bailout kept our economy from a complete crash, and we’re meant to assume—with Don’s remarks to Megan—that his willingness to write a check to cover up for Lane’s discrepancy is helping keep the whole thing afloat as well.
But just because you can create stopgap measures to minimize the fiscal damage of capitalist overreach doesn’t mean that everything is hunky-dory. The firm has to deal with Lane’s dead body in his office. We have to deal with the high unemployment and teeming numbers of people who’ve lost their homes in the crisis. Just like a dead body in an office, there’s nothing you can do that’s going to make that go away. Fresh starts are an illusion.
Menstruation seems like a weird thing to introduce in the midst of all this, but as we say in the video, it’s a counterpoint. The cyclical nature of a woman’s body is seen as the exact opposite of the voracious capitalist model. We go into it in more detail in the video.
I do have to wonder how much Jaguar is paying for the product placement, since their cars are clearly becoming the symbol of the disposable economics of exponential growth capitalism. They’re lemons—we’re reminded of this again by Lane’s inability to kill himself in one—and they exist to be all flash. The American cars that Don loves so much were still the representation of stability. If you bought a car from an American manufacturer back then, you had reason to believe it would last you decades if you took care of it. (Even when I was in college, there were a lot of people who still had, as their everyday cars, vehicles that were three decades old.)Is it any wonder, then, that Don and Glen’s existential anxieties are actually soothed for a moment in an American car? For a moment, the possibility is raised that trying to build something that will last—gasp, a legacy!—might have more value than always looking for the next big payday.
Thoughts? Feelings? I think it was obvious from a couple episodes ago that Lane was going to be the suicide, but do you feel it played out? I thought the strategy of seeing everyone’s reactions before we saw the body helped fix some of the anti-climax issues that come with such a heavily foreshadowed death, but YMMV.
*At least when suicide is a literary device. In real life, a suicide attempt can be just a very weak moment for an otherwise survival-oriented purpose, but if they get unlucky, it’s the same result as someone who attempts a lot before finally succeeding.