Spoilers for Mad Men Season 5, Episode 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5
No, seriously, big spoilers. So big I’m keeping everything on the other side of the jump.
Mad Men took a page from the Joss Whedon playbook. In the Season 5 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, entitled ‘The Body’, Buffy’s mother is found dead at home from a sudden aneurysm. The episode is notable for a variety of reasons, including its beautiful portrayal of how death affects those closest to the deceased. Perhaps the most notable element, though, is the way writer/director Joss Whedon grounded the death in inexplicable randomness and star physicality. It’s an expression of Whedon’s atheistic, existential worldview; an examination of what separates personhood in a “spiritual” sense from the reality of the physical world. The person might be gone, but the body is left over.
So it was last night on Mad Men, when a beleaguered Lane Pryce decided to take his own life under unimaginable strain caused by his financial difficulties. It was quite clear when mention was made of Lane’s office being locked that he had, in fact, committed suicide. When Joan tried to open his door and then had the men in the neighbouring office look in to see what was wrong I was hit by emotion, but not the kind I expected. All season long there has been dark omens of a suicide at the office. The likeliest candidates were Lane Pryce and Pete Campbell. And so, when Lane fulfilled the prophesy, my feelings resembled something like relief. The deed had been done, and now I could breathe. Somewhat the opposite of the expected reaction when a favourite character on a show dies, particularly in such a terrible way.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the scene to come in which Don learns of the suicide-by-hanging and, so overcome, goes into Lane’s office to cut down the body and lay it on the sofa.
Mad Men has presented graphic images extremely rarely, but this scene called for it. Where other shows might have shied away from showing Lane’s body in such a state, Mad Men took the Buffy route. The images were cold and frank. Drained of life and completely stark. The matter-of-fact presentation is what got me. Where once was a human being, a wonderful character with a good heart and great spirit, now hung heavy, lifeless thing.
Don coming face to face with the body was important. The truth is, Don did the right thing in the way he let Lane go, giving him the chance to resign while keeping his embezzlement quiet to save face. Really, Don bears no responsibility for Lane’s death. Yet this isn’t the first time someone has hanged himself after a dismissal from Don. His own brother took his life back in Season 1 when Don refused to lend him a hand. The difference with Lane is that Don did lend a hand, but it’s possible he lent the wrong sort of hand.
Don took from his own experience of fraud and starting a new life to give Lane the same advice. Clean slate, begin again, everything will be fine. The mistake was in expecting Lane to cope the same way. Lane was not a strong man. Lane’s deceptions were far more desperate; a result of his inability to face his own troubles. Moreover, Don might have lived his life in a shadow of pain and desperation, but when Ann Draper discovered his secrets she helped him. Don had the chance to do the same for Lane, but didn’t. The result was Lane continuing to live in the shadow of his misdeeds and failures without any offered support.
The body was a physical confrontation for Don. A literal challenge; almost a punishment. Lane went away, but he left a burdensome reminder in the form of a corpse. In that moment, moving the body over to the couch, Don experiences the shock associated with that sort of loss. When Ann Draper died he wasn’t there to deal with the physical aftermath. With Lane that physical aftermath was front and centre. If Don couldn’t help Lane enough in his most dire straits, at least he would do the work of treating the body with a small level of dignity.
The episode also juxtaposed Lane’s tragic downward spiral with a story of physical maturation. Sally Draper had a bit of a dalliance with Creepy Glen, but it was cut short by the arrival of her first period. While Don was forced to confront the scary physicality of death, Sally met with the physicality of blossoming into womanhood. Earlier in the episode a waiter brings her coffee, which she naïvely sees as a sign of the onset of adulthood. The blood in her underwear brings home the truth of adulthood for a woman (or anybody, really) in a much more truthful and stark manner. It’s scary, but, as Betty tells her, it’s also normal. A good thing. It means everything is working.
Two stories with frank physical images and situations: one of bodily growth and one of bodily death. Real and difficult, beautiful and tragic.