One year ago today, Mad Men killed off everybody’s favorite character, Lane Pryce, in the episode “Commissions and Fees.” (The third of June – same day as Billie Joe McAllister. Damn.) But somehow, a year later, Lane still remains the central character on Mad Men, as this very dark, very strange season heads into the home stretch. Nobody at Sterling Cooper seems to remember their English financial wizard, despite the scandalous circumstances of his death. (In last night’s excellent episode, he came up briefly as one of the deceased partners; otherwise, he’s barely been mentioned.) But if there’s a theme to this season, it’s how screwed everybody is without him.
Mad Men used to be a story about smart people who were morally or emotionally stunted. This season, it’s a story about dumb people. It’s been fascinating to see how dippy everyone gets without Lane around to do the thinking for them, as Sterling Cooper’s collective IQ seems to drop ten points every week. Don forgets to show up for work, attend partner meetings or bang Megan. Bert forgets how to count money. Pete forgets how to lie. Ted makes the rookie mistake of getting into an office chug-off with Don. Roger starts listening to his idiot daughter. Peggy kills a guy with a trident. How the hell is this firm still in business? It’s gotten to the point where Duck Phillips can return as the voice of reason.
During Lane’s three-season run, he became Sterling Cooper’s most interesting figure – the imaginary American, the outsider who was so glad to escape the London fog he would try anything to fit into the new world. As The Fall’s Mark E. Smith would say, Lane was made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail. Everything about him was charged with comic poignance, from Jared Harris’ anxiously twitching eyebrows to the Mets pennant on his office wall. He had last season’s meatiest emotional moments, whether he was cheering up Joan with a burlesque dance or finally taking a swing at Pete.
But the longer Lane stayed in America, the more he yearned to become a full-fledged human being, while the people around him needed him to remain a thinking machine. He was the guy who counted the pencils, calculated the billings, argued with Don about office supplies. The Americans depended on his pragmatic number-crunching brain, as he sweated out the day-to-day solvency of the firm. (Don: “Do you know how to do what he does?” Bert: “I don’t.”) Without him, Sterling Cooper is a totally different place, where everyone is just kinda winging it. Now a major merger is something that gets slapped together overnight on a barstool. Nobody is minding the store, under a cloud of impending disaster.
Mad Men took two huge narrative risks in Season Five, demoting two of the richest characters. Poor Megan quit the firm and instantly stopped having anything to do. At least when she was unemployed, she got to hang with her slutty struggling-actress friends, who are much missed these days. (Oh, Vicky – come back and give us that jaguar growl.) But Lane was an even bigger loss. After his showcase episode, “Signal 30,” he got abruptly written off the show – he disappeared for a month, only to return as a bumbling clod with out-of-nowhere legal problems and “three-episode death arc” written all over him. His death was handled clumsily – it gave Don a toothache – while Bert Cooper had a wildly out-of-character brain wheeze. It seems Bert conveniently forgot all about that suspicious eight-thousand-dollar check made out to Lane from Don – you know, the one he confronted Don about, just a couple days before Lane killed himself in the office. Sure, Bert is a devious operator who knows how to sit on a memory until the right strategic moment (“Would you say I know something about you, Don?” – scariest Bert scene ever) but this is just plain weird.
It just adds to the sense of imminent doom that hovers around every episode. As Season Six heads into its final three episodes, the Sterling Cooper crew still seem to be suffering a grief-induced momentary lapse of reason – it’s their year of magical thinking. Don keeps staggering around in a morbid daze, tortured by guilt after hounding Lane to his death for forging the same name Dick Whitman’s been forging all these years. But the main suspense is wondering how he – and the others – have made it this far. And even though Lane might be as dead as the original Don Draper, some of us won’t be entirely shocked if the season finale climaxes with Bob Benson peeling off his face mask, a la Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, putting on those familiar Lane glasses and proclaiming “Huzzah!”