Mad Men: The Five Stages of Loss

Mad Men S05E12: “Commissions and Fees”

It was really only a matter of time before someone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce discovered Lane’s forged check. A debate over Jaguar’s payment structure prompted Bert Cooper to look over the company’s financial statements, where he stumbled across the Christmas bonus check made out to Lane Pryce from Don Draper.


As we all know, Don’s signature was a forgery born out of desperation when Lane’s portfolio in England was taxed beyond his means, but like a string of dominoes that the writers spent the entirety of this season lining up, Bert confronted Don about the bonus check and set in motion the complete collapse of Lane’s carefully stacked lies.

All of the little clues dropped throughout the season, from the uneasy tone to the hints at death, contemplations on the true nature of individuals, both real—Charles Whitman, Richard Starkey—and fictional, like Don and Pete, finally came to a head with Lane’s suicide. Lane lost so much more than his job when Don fired him. He lost his sense of purpose and I’m certain that his decision was made before he even left the office. The subsequent weekend between the request for Lane's resignation on Friday and the discovery of his body on Monday was a whirlwind trip through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s well-known Five Stages of Grief (or Loss). Though the stages are often applied to any type of traumatic event, such as a divorce, a rejection, or the death of a loved one, they were originally created to guide and understand the thought processes of terminally ill patients. Lane Pryce has struggled with feelings of inadequacy and failure for his entire life, illustrated in the strained relationship we observed between Lane and his father, as well as his regret that during World War II, his poor eyesight forced him into a desk job far from any combat zone, a “soft” job that he never felt was as heroic, noble, or important, as those on the front lines. On the Friday that Don asked him to resign, Lane’s disappointment in himself went terminal.


When first confronted with the forged check, Lane’s first instinct was to deny it. He didn’t forge it. Don signed it and forgot about it. It happened all the time. They were busy, important men and sometimes they signed things without looking at them, thinking about them, or remembering them. Right, Don? Right?

Unfortunately, Don very clearly remembered never signing the check. He held firm to his decision to remove Lane from the company, but offered to let him resign, to make “an elegant exit,” in order to save face.


Still desperate to save his livelihood and honor, Lane pleaded with Don to spare him. He would never do it again. He was trustworthy. He promised.

Maybe he wouldn’t have done it again. Maybe the embezzlement really was a one-time thing, an unfortunate necessity for survival. But later, when Don told Megan about what had happened, they both shared disbelief that Lane was capable of such an action. Megan said, “He seemed so honest,” and truthfully, for much of his tenure on the series Lane Pryce had always been just a little higher on the morality scale than his fellow partners. His attempts at philandering always felt forced and awkward, like he was trying to fit some ideal that appealed to him, but ultimately wasn’t his to embody.

He SEEMED so honest was an important line to have spoken, because Don, more than anybody, knows the lengths to which people can go to hide their true identities. Once Don Draper’s trust is shaken, it’s very difficult to win back, if it’s even possible at all. Don is a lie personified and he’s not delusional enough to think that he is the sole human on the planet capable of such a feat. Despite all of Lane’s promises, Don was firm: Lane had to go. He simply couldn’t trust him anymore.


Sensing that he had lost, that there was no way to save himself, Lane lashed out with perhaps his first honest feeling in the entire exchange—anger. How DARE Don ask him to resign? He'd sacrificed more than anyone to start Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and time after time, felt disrespected, unwanted, and taken advantage of by his fellow partners. He'd liquidated his assets to keep the company floating after Lucky Strike pulled out and never fully recovered. He'd operated on a loss for the previous three years. In a way, his financial mess was due to his dedication to the company, so again, how DARE they ask him to leave?


But Don didn’t budge. Lane walked out of Don’s office devastated and slid into the depression stage of Kubler-Ross’s cycle. He began to accept his fate and retreated to his office, secluding himself from his colleagues. The shot of Lane drinking at his desk—he was dwarfed by the huge window, the endless city outside, and the patches of the cold, gray sky of a Northeast winter—was stunning. It silently illustrated just how far Lane had fallen in a matter of minutes. He was once a very “big” man, a partner, an important man, like he always wanted to be. One poor decision suddenly made him very very small. He was overwhelmed. He had always been overwhelmed. And he no longer had it in him to fight against that anymore.

His exchange with Joan just prior to retreating to his office was also indicative of his depressed state. At first I thought it was illustrative of his anger, in the face of everything that she had done to win her partnership, and even a call back to that lewd cartoon that Joey drew of the two of them in a compromising position, but it was a hurtful comment Lane made about imagining her in a bikini. Lane had always been nothing short of gentlemanly and respectful to Joan. His decision to forego the formalities in the wake of his disastrous meeting with Don betrayed his thought process. He just didn’t care anymore. He knew he would never have to interact with Joan again, so why bother being polite? He had always considered himself something of an honorable man, but honorable men weren’t asked to resign from their prestigious positions.

Lane’s depression encompassed the majority of his final days. He drank himself sick twice and could barely muster even a false sense of joy when his wife gave him a new Jaguar. Ignorant of his sudden unemployment, she wanted to congratulate him for helping SCDP land the new account and thank him for everything he did for their family. She said that he never bought anything for himself, always thought of others. Her efforts were too-little-too-late to change Lane’s mind and only served to increase his depression.


It became apparent that Lane accepted his death, having appropriately mourned his own loss, when he sobered up and settled down to “work” on “errands.” He put his affairs in order. He was ready. Perhaps attempting to show everyone the “elegant exit” that Don encouraged (though Don certainly didn't intend for Lane to take the actions that he did), Lane first tried to asphyxiate himself with carbon monoxide in the shiny new Jaguar that his wife bought him. He snapped his glasses in two as a final act of destruction against the undesirable parts of himself...but the infamously defective Jaguar wouldn’t start. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so heartbreaking. Fate or God or whomever couldn’t even see fit to let Lane die the way he planned. Instead, he was forced to make do with hanging himself in the office. There is nothing elegant about death by hanging, nothing dignified about a body decomposing in an office for possibly an entire day before being discovered. It was poignant that Pete Campbell was ultimately given the task of physically cutting Lane down after repeatedly cutting him down with words throughout this season.

However, despite being forced to improvise his own demise, Lane Pryce still managed to capture a modicum of elegance and grace in his grand exit. When Roger, Don, and Pete moved Lane’s body to the sofa in his office, an envelope fluttered out of his coat. Thinking it to be a sort of suicide note, Roger retrieved it and opened it in the hallway, looking for answers. Rather than offer a long explanation, personal message, or perhaps an absolution for those who he believed to have failed him, Lane left a simple, boilerplate letter of resignation. A boilerplate letter being a sort of template, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the letter opened with the phrase, “To whom it may concern.”

“To whom it may concern” has always been one of my least favorite phrases in the English language. I’ve personally always hated using it because to me, it implies that I don’t know who I’m writing to, that his or her name is unimportant. It’s very formal language and I’ve always thought stiff, formal language only serves to separate individuals from one another. It’s impersonal, intimidating, and often very cold. When I use “To whom it may concern,” I feel like I’m writing into a vacuum, shouting into a void, and all of that fun existential stuff.

Likewise, I’m not a big fan of receiving letters with that salutation, largely for the same reasons that I hate writing it. It makes me feel very small and unimportant. The writer of such a letter didn’t write the letter to me, he or she wrote it to a vague, nebulous idea of me. I, me, a person, is largely irrelevant in the equation.

By opening with “To whom it may concern” if Lane did, in fact, use it (and I’m leaning toward probably since it’s the standard boilerplate introduction) Lane effectively distanced himself from his peers not just in life, but in their thoughts. When I write “To whom it may concern,” I typically have very little faith that the person on the receiving end of such a letter will actually care what the letter says. Similarly, Lane knew, or rather, THOUGHT, that his co-workers held him in very low esteem, that they disrespected him and cared very little for his well-being. The use of a boilerplate resignation letter illustrated that Lane wanted the world to know that he quit—at both the firm, and at life—but he didn’t know who would find him or, more pressingly, who would even care.

Elsewhere, Sally’s storyline ran parallel to Lane’s and on a smaller scale, she also experienced the five stages. In her case, she lost her childhood. As Betty called it, “She became a woman,” by getting her first period and oh my god, Betty, could you pick a more awkward way to describe it? My OWN mother called it that and I just wanted to die. It was pretty traumatic. We were at a diner and she TOLD OUR FREAKING WAITRESS. I felt Sally’s pain. Anyway, knowing that something is coming doesn’t always make it easier to accept and Sally’s storyline this season has been largely concerned with her transition from Little Girl to Teenager. She has previously struggled with denial, by clinging to her spaghetti dinner in the beginning of “At the Codfish Ball,” and this week the "adult" boots she wasn't allowed to wear to Don's award dinner made a reappearance. There's been anger—a lot of anger—in Sally's rebellion against Betty and Henry and generally just being, well, an angry tween. She's taken after her father with the bargaining, exchanging good grades and behavior for TV time, where she tends, if you look closely, to watch some pretty adult subject matter, especially news reports about Vietnam. She has been depressed in the past, most notably illustrated by the end of “At the Codfish Ball” where she was disgusted by the more unsavory aspects of adulthood, but the onset of her monthly visitor, though initially frightening, seemed to push her closer to acceptance. I mean, it’s pure biology. There’s no point in fighting it.

Don was clearly devastated by Lane’s suicide and certainly blames himself on some level. We only saw the beginning of his own loss cycle, but he definitely aimed for denial by offering to drive Glen back to school after his not-date with Sally. He needed those few hours to process what he'd experienced before talking about it with Megan. However, Don didn’t completely ignore the guilt he felt over Lane’s death, though he definitely understood that there were more factors that contributed to it than just their meeting about the forged check. Perhaps seeing some of Lane’s disillusionment in Glen, a young man who we’ve watched grow from a confused child into a generally cynical young man, Don tried to give him at least one small piece of joy. He asked Glen what one thing would make him happy, which, apparently, was something as simple as driving. Glen looked so happy, and while Don didn’t exactly look HAPPY, he at least looked to be momentarily at peace.

What were your thoughts on Lane’s death? What do you think it means for the company? For the other partners?

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