TV Talk: MAD MEN 5.12 - “Fees and Commissions”

The delayed review of this weekend's incredible, bleak episode.

The death of Layne Price hit me in a way that no other TV - maybe fictional - death has done since Joyce Summers died on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The two deaths have something in common: they’re both almost brutally real, and neither feels like a ratings ploy or a shocker moment. They’re just painfully true and real.

I’ve always read that suicides can get very happy once they’ve made their final decision, and here we saw Layne almost sunny on the couch at home, working out his final details. The show delved into some black, black comedy as the Jaguar wouldn’t start, but that also deflated a bit of the tension. It was easy to think that this setback would have popped the easily-discouraged Layne’s suicide balloon. But it soon became clear that his mind could not be changed.

The show could have never shown Layne’s body; the reactions of Pete, Ken and Harry as they peered through the window would have been enough for most programs. But this isn’t most programs, and the final shots of Layne’s corpse - grey, bloated, mottled - hammers home the ugly permanence and reality of his choice. A choice that was anything but shocking.

Layne’s been on the way down for a while. When Don fires him he gives Layne a speech about starting over but Don, in his usual self-centered manner, doesn’t understand that SCDP was Layne trying to start over. He’s got an office full of New York tchotchkes that reflect his attempt to reinvent himself away from the shadow of his cruel father. Layne’s starting over has failed.

This whole episode was about desire, about chasing after what you don’t have. From Don’s fiery speech to Dow to Sally and Glenn’s awkward relationship to Ken stepping up his accounts game, the episode is filled with people chasing things. But Layne can’t, he doesn’t know how to. He makes one last pathetic stab at flirting with Joan. Otherwise he’s just been trying to keep afloat, totally unable to go after life in the way that comes so naturally to Don.

Don’s firing of Layne may divide audiences; I don’t think he could have known that Layne would kill himself, and I liked seeing Don take a no-nonsense approach to the situation. He was kind to Layne in that he allowed the man the dignity of a resignation, but there was no way to let him keep working at SCDP after embezzling.

I’ve read some who complain that Layne’s suicide was no surprise, but I don’t know how that’s a complaint. It’s been a slow descent, and Mad Men has made us feel every bit of it. By the end we fully, totally understand why Layne has killed himself. This episode reminded us quickly and simply - he feels like a phony in his work, so the Four As chairman position tastes like ashes, and the sight of the Jaguar in the garage - the account he couldn’t bring in until he convinced Joan to whore herself out - is the final straw. Layne has been living in private humiliation for months, and the idea of that humiliation becoming public was too much to bear. It wasn’t about losing his job, it was about the crumbling of his identity, which had been barely propped up all along.

What a trip for Layne’s character; when he was introduced he was one of the goofy Brits taking over Sterling Cooper in a story that I wasn’t totally on board with at the time. Over the years he’s become a sadly likable character, one of the nicest guys in an office filled with occasional sleaziness. His fight with Pete Campbell was great, and I hoped it would mark some sort of turning point for him, but just as in real life highs are followed by devastating lows.

Jared Harris was remarkable this episode, by the way. Is an Emmy out of the question? I hope not - the way that he went through a typhoon of emotions during his firing was breathtaking and all too real. Denial, anger, bargaining, all within seconds of each other. He’s extraordinary in every scene.

Other stuff happened too, obviously, but Layne’s death knocked the wind out of my soul. I was physically shaking as Don and the guys cut him down from behind the door - it’s such a sad, lonely ending to Layne’s sad, lonely story. That he hung there all day, no one knowing... nobody ever really knew what was happening behind that door, right up to the end.