Just last week, while in the office discussing last week’s phenomenal episode of Mad Men, one question caught me off-guard: “So who do you think the Falling Man is? Who do you think’s gonna jump?”
I admit, it wasn’t something I had seriously considered up until that point. There was, of course, a bit of controversy when the promotional posters for season five were first released. The image of a man plummeting headfirst bore a resemblance to the iconic “Falling Man” photo from the 9/11 attacks. It was presumably, however, a reference to the show’s opening credits, where a silhouetted businessman sinks slowly through the air, past Madison Avenue and flashes of ads. In other words, I didn’t think the poster was implying that there’d actually be a suicide this season. The “Falling Man” of the Mad Men universe wasn’t anyone specific—just a repeated image to represent the plight of many of its characters.
I was wrong—sort of. Don finds out Lane’s been embezzling funds from the company and fires him. He doesn’t tell the other partners and offers Lane the opportunity to resign. Lane’s distraught, and Don offers him a nugget of parting advice that absolutely reeks of the “it’ll shock you how much it didn’t happen” Don of seasons past. “You’ll tell them that it didn’t work out because it didn’t,” he says. “And you’ll tell them the next thing will be better because it always is.”
Lane then stops into Joan’s office and makes an inappropriate comment about imagining her in a bikini before returning to his office and gazing out of his window at the snow and the cold, unforgiving skyscrapers on Madison Avenue. “Is he…is he actually gonna jump?” I found myself asking my TV.
He didn’t jump. It’s not because he wasn’t desperate and broken—no, we’ll get to that. But Lane Pryce didn’t jump because he’s not the Falling Man, and Matthew Weiner and company made sure we knew that with two of the show’s most arresting scenes. After his wife surprises him with a Jaguar (not knowing they can’t afford it), Lane hops inside that symbol of both his company’s greatest successes and some of his own greatest failures, plugs the exhaust pipe, has a drink and breaks his glasses. It’s dramatic and absolutely poetic, but it’s not to be. The car won’t start, because after all, as Bert Cooper (and nearly everyone else) has reminded us all season, Jaguars are lemons. No, poor Lane Pryce can’t even get the suicide he’s dreamed of.
Instead, he heads back to the office and—after penning a letter of resignation that he leaves for the partners to find—hangs himself. It’s not exactly the opposite of falling (that’d be climbing), but it’s not too far off, either. In one of Jon Hamm’s more subtly brilliant performances, Don rolls into the office laughing with Roger after a few too many as we’ve seen them do a thousand times. But the office is empty, save for Bert, Joan and Pete. They break the news, and guilt immediately washes over Don’s face (after all, this is the second person to hang himself as a result of something he’s said). When he finds out Lane’s still dangling in his office, he becomes frantic and insists that they cut him down. We see Lane bloated and discolored after hanging for days, and it’s easy to see why Don doesn’t want to leave him like that. It’s undignified, but, perhaps even moreso, it’s scary. He’s frozen, suspended in air and time, and it’s jarring. After all, it’s not the falling that’s terrifying—it’s those moments right beforehand, when you’re peering off the ledge, watching your toes slip out from under you and anticipating the monumental collapse that’s looming just seconds away.
This week’s episode left us with that feeling, that awful fear of what’s to come. There’s a fall coming, and it’s not Lane. Don’s getting antsy, and we saw bits of his old personality peeking out again this week. When he tries to woo Ed Baker, he admonishes him for being content with a 50 percent market share. “What is happiness?” he asks. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Sure, it’s a pitch to a client, but it’s also a sign that Don’s getting restless—he craves new business (he tells Roger earlier that he’s “sick of piddly shit” and wants to chase bigger clients). Does this also mean that that happiness Don finally seemed to achieve this season with Megan is only fleeting?
It sure seems that way. The episode’s kicker hammers that point home when Glen Bishop asks Don, “Why does everything turn out crappy?” “You’re too young to talk that way,” Don replies, but Glen doesn’t let up. Instead he delivers the one line that could very well sum up this entire season: “Everything you think’s gonna make you happy turns to crap.”
Don asks him what the one thing he wants to do is, and we cut to Glen driving himself home with Don in the passenger seat guiding him. It’s a striking image, Don surrendering control to someone else, but he’s tired. He’s no longer in the driver’s seat, and, for the time being at least, his fate is in the hands of someone else. He seems resigned to the fact, perhaps even strangely OK with it—almost like the awful anticipation’s over, and now that his descent’s begun, there’s no use fighting it. Almost like The Falling Man.
-Who would’ve guessed that Sally’s storyline this week would wind up with a heartwarming moment between her and Betty? She can talk to Megan about boys like she would with a sister, but when it comes time for major stuff like her first period, she needs a mom, not a friend. And the look of satisfaction on Betty’s face when she calls Megan to tell her where Sally wound up is priceless.
-The Glen/Don moment also felt a bit parental. After all, Glen’s dad’s been out of the picture for years now—he doesn’t have a father to teach him how to drive, so Don’s the next best thing I guess?
-Interesting that Ken doesn’t want to be partner. All he wants is for Pete to not be on his father-in-law’s account.
-No Peggy in this episode. While it makes sense (there was a LOT of plot to squeeze into this week), I’m still dying to see how she’s settling into her new job.
-It’s fitting that Joan found Lane, as she seemed to be his only friend. How will she fare as a partner without one of her strongest allies?
-”What happened to your enlightenment?” “I dunno. Wore off.” Was this whole season just some bizarre acid trip? No, of course not, but it kind of feels that way. Don and Roger seemed to make great personal strides, only to throw them out the window. Don seems to be back on his “ruthless ad man” path, and Roger’s dating a 25-year-old coat-check girl. Their enlightenment wore off.