What’s the value of doing the right thing when it doesn’t ensure you’ll be rewarded karmically for it — when, worse yet, you might even be punished for it? That’s the big question posed by Matthew Weiner over the final three episodes of the fifth season of Mad Men. It’s a classic philosophical query that goes back at least as far the Book of Job, but, all the same, remains among the human condition’s most compelling.
Whether you believe in God or the power of nature, there are no guarantees in life even for the monastically moral man or woman, there is no one balancing the cosmic ledger books for any of us. In the case of Job and the Judeo-Christian tradition there’s someone actively bringing about imbalance (which only makes me think of this spot-on Jim Jefferies bit, but let’s not turn this into a religious thing).
Weiner gave us an incomplete answer to that question at the end of Season 5. I certainly have my own lined up (I’ll get to that later), and I’m sure he’ll have something more authoritative for us when Mad Men returns to the air for Season 6.
To varying degrees, Don Draper, Joan Harris and Lane Pryce were faced with murky ethical quandaries during the second half of Season 5. Each, in their own way, tried to do the right thing, even believed they were doing the right thing at the time, though the path they ended up choosing may have been the morally wrong one.
In “The Other Woman”, Joan, through Pete Campbell, is propositioned by Herb Rennet, the head of the Jaguar Dealers’ Association. One night with Rennet, Pete relays, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will greatly enhance its chances of landing its biggest account yet. Joan initially rejects Pete out of hand, but with divorce from her absentee husband Greg and single parenthood looming, the offer from the other SCDP partners (save Don) — first of $50,000 then, at Lane’s suggestion, of a 5 percent partnership stake in the firm — becomes too good to ignore.
Lane, as we discover in “The Christmas Waltz”, is buried under a back tax bill and is overextended trying to, among other things, pay for his son Nigel’s schooling and also keep SCDP afloat. Desperate, he extends SCDP’s line of credit by $50,000 under the guise of handing out Christmas bonuses and then forges Don’s signature on a check when the partners don’t agree to handing out the bonuses. Just two episodes later, in “Commissions and Fees”, the penultimate installment of the season, Lane’s bill truly comes due. Bert Cooper discovers the accounting malfeasance (though he’s unaware Lane is to blame), and Don, who puts the pieces together quickly, has no choice but to demand Lane’s resignation. Lane, like Joan, was mostly motivated by his family situation, but things end very differently for Joan and him. While Joan winds up with a deserved place at the head of SCDP, Lane is cast out, and, after a wickedly humorous failed attempt to kill himself in his brand new Jaguar, he hangs himself in his office.
Don, meanwhile, is faced with ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma over the final three episodes of the season. He is the only partner who is truly reviled by Herb Rennet’s proposition, going so far as to visit Joan’s apartment and tell her she doesn’t have to go through with it when he discovers the other partners’ scheming behind his back. Sadly, as we find out at the end of “The Other Woman”, Don arrives only after Joan has taken the proverbial plunge. An episode later, he is left with no choice but to fire Lane, but motivated either by Lane’s sob story or some general sincere compassion that bubbles just below the surface, Don offers him dignity — the chance to resign instead of get dragged out of SCDP by the authorities. Finally, in “The Phantom”, Don gives in when Megan begs him for help with her stagnating acting career. Though Don initially rebuffs Megan’s pleas for help, telling her that she should “want to be someone’s discovery, not someone’s wife,” he’s eventually swayed by her general melancholy to help get her a part in a client’s commercial. Like Joan and Lane before him, Don bends his morals to help someone he holds near and dear, Megan being the rough equivalent of Lane’s Nigel or Joan’s baby Kevin in this case.
What’s interesting, to me at least, is how differently each of these roughly similar situations turns out.
Though Joan degrades herself in almost unfathomable fashion, things mostly work out for her. As I said above, she gets the place at the SCDP table she so richly deserves by this point. Meanwhile, Peggy Olson, in the very same episode, is driven out after months of being underappreciated by Don — a stark and purposeful contrast if ever there was one.
Lane, on the other hand, is caught by Don in a similarly compromised position after committing a similarly reprehensible one-off act to protect his family financially and yet his tale ends in disgrace and suicide.
With Don? Well, we just don’t know for sure, do we? “The Phantom” ended with, most notably, Roger Sterling alone, naked and tripping on acid and Don, sipping an Old Fashioned in a low-lit bar, being asked if he was there alone by some anonymous vixen he would have bedded in a heartbeat two seasons ago, the obvious implication being that he is set to return to his womanizing ways after spending all of Season 5 being totally faithful to Megan.
If I might hazard a guess, I think the obvious implication is the reality. Fans of Mad Men were sent off with a fuck-it, no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy look from their antihero that — again, in my opinion — was all the answer you really needed, especially when set to Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” (the James Bond juxtaposition is perfect, if you ask me).
To be sure, the twin revelations that Joan prostituted herself for a 5 percent stake in SCDP and that Lane killed himself when he was forced out of the firm were devastating. But it was Megan, in my view, that really pushed Don over the edge here. It’s not that she asked more than Don could give, it’s that she asked more than she should have, a disappointment that, in its own way, almost seems more traumatic for Don than finding Lane swinging from a rope in his office.
Don Draper isn’t Job; I don’t hold him, or any other human being, to that sort of standard, and so in that way I’m neither shaken that he may be about to waver from Megan nor soothed in some weird way to see him falling back into his old pattern. If Mad Men fans really need someone incorrigible, they’ve got Roger, anyway. More to the point, Don isn’t being tested by an omnipotent diety. Rather he’s had his faith shaken by four of the most stable human forces in his life (if you count Peggy’s departure from the firm along with the other three I’ve already mentioned).
It’s no wonder he’s looking elsewhere for answers at the end of Season 5. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until Season 6 to find out where he finds them.