Midway through Season 4, as Don was swimming laps to clear his head - of the booze, the women, the death of his beloved faux-wife Anna, he addressed the audience in voice over, he wanted to "wake up" from the torpor he had been in. Deep into Season 5, long past the expiration date on the "love vacation" Bert Cooper tagged him as being on, Don started to wake up. Perhaps it was Peggy leaving, or discovering that Lane had embezzled money, but the penultimate episode of this season's Mad Men saw Don asserting himself in the office and at home in ways we have not seen since the season began.
The frame for Commissions and Fees will surely be Lane Pryce's suicide and, to a lesser extent, Sally's half-hearted attempt at transitioning to womanhood, only to have her plans foiled by experiencing her first period while on an awkward non-date with Glenn Bishop at a local museum, but it was Don's assertiveness in attempting to secure Dow Chemical as a client that stood out to me. This Don Draper was not kowtowing to executives, as he did early this season with Heinz, or engaging in sophomoric bait and switch pitching as he did with Sno-Cone, or campy dialogue for Cool-Whip, no, this Don Draper was a swinging dick walking into the lion's den of an executive who thought he was untrustworthy, well briefed on the product, unwilling to take no for an answer and totally in control. "You want me to wipe the blood off your face," asks Roger after they walk out of the meeting, and indeed, Don fed, and well, on the stunned Dow executives, who made him wait nearly two hours and then were prepared to cut him down to nothing.
Of course, Don's true awakening occurred when he discovered Lane had forged his name on a company check and then embezzled money to cover his tax burden. Don was firm, in a way that reminded me of his reprehensible behavior toward Sal in Season 3, but here, fully justified - Lane must go, no questions asked, no explanation allowed. That Lane would ultimately commit suicide seemed predictable from the unrelenting theme of death and mayhem that defined the earlier part of the season. That he was unable to accomplish the feat through carbon monoxide poisoning because of the unreliability of his Jaguar was flirting with gallows humor in a way some may have found objectionable, but the sick pallor of his hanging corpse was, for me at least, a far more offensive image.
Others will no doubt shed ink delving into the deeper root of Lane's choice, but to me, it does not require meaningful examination. Lane was shamed, saw no future in England and took what he thought was the honorable (or logical?) choice. Of course, it did not have to be that way. In the meeting where Don fires him, Don told Lane "I've started over plenty of times, this is the worst part"; something that could have applied to several low periods of Don's life - Anna's discovery of his chicanery, Betty's discovery of his secret past, his divorce, Anna's death, and others along the way, but Don is a survivor, and in his firing of Lane he was trying to express that it was not the end of the world. Perhaps it's his Depression-era upbringing or his gnawing fear of being exposed as someone he is not, but Don would never make the choice Lane made. Not only that, but Don's decency (yes there is some of that), was shown in his offer to "cover" Lane's crime. Unable or unwilling to contemplate a future back home, Lane decided there was no future at all.
The future was also on young Sally's mind. In the past few months, Sally's had a lot of information thrown her way - she's discovered daddy had a first wife, that grandma takes happy pills to go to sleep when serial killers are on the loose, that other men's wives bob their heads up and down in Uncle Roger's lap at parties and coffee tastes that much better with sugar in it. But tonight, she attempted to gain some ownership of her burgeoning womanhood but got a rude awakening instead. When she has a few hours alone in the city, she gets her long-distance crush Glenn to hop a train to come visit. Their "date" at the local museum is stilted and awkward, and Sally's upset stomach turns out not to be nerves but her first menstrual cycle. Embarrassed, or perhaps unsure what to do, she sneaks out of the museum and hops a cab back to Rye, where a surprised Betty is greeted with a hug and need for comfort (two things she clearly is unaccustomed to giving or receiving from her daughter).
Sally's incident allows Betty to twist the knife into Megan when she calls to let Megan know Sally has turned up at home. Betty was in high dungeon all episode, her weight loss has sharpened her tongue as she dinged Megan as Don's "child bride" and did not tolerate any of Sally's shenanigans when she whined about going on a ski vacation, dumping her, on short notice, at Don and Megan's door. It's unlikely that this random act of kindness will change Betty's relationship with her daughter, after all, if she ever finds out Sally had kept in touch with Glenn, much less met him, unchaperoned in New York City, Sally is likely to be grounded until Nixon is sworn into office. But for one day at least, Betty can feel self-satisfied in the little Judy Blume, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret moment of explaining the joys of menstruation to her daughter and how it means she is now a woman. Betty Francis, mother of the year.
And so, we stand on the edge of the end of another season. The show's writers have amped up the story telling in recent weeks and each scene feels dangerous and uncertain- when Roger and Don discuss going after Dow, Ken's unwillingness to help causes Don to muse that they should just fire him if it means the agency has a better shot at the business. Sally disappears from the museum and goes missing and a former copywriter has thrown it all away in search of religious meaning. Lane kills himself and Peggy quits, all in the span of a few short (show) weeks. Everything seems to be on the table and no one is safe. The "little agency" that 18 months ago lost its biggest client is now swinging for the fences. Joan Harris, even before Lane's demise, is eagerly casting ballots as a partner and her role will only increase, Roger and Don are in sync in ways that we have not seen since they were bringing twins back up to their offices for an after hours romp and even Bert Cooper is engaged in the agency's work. In a season that has leaned heavily on atmospherics and mood, the brass tacks of character movement and development are in full bloom as we anxiously await where they (and we) will go.